The Law of the Altar
In Exodus 20 God gave Israel the Ten Commandments. The people ran away in fear and refused to draw near to God to hear the rest of the law--that is, the specific statutes that were based upon the summary given in the Ten Commandments--as well as the judgments of the law, which showed the penalty for violating the law.
The people wanted Moses to go up the mount, hear the law, and then come back and tell them what God had told him. In other words, they demanded an intermediary priest. This established the pattern under the Old Covenant of an indirect relationship with God. The people became dependent upon their leadership to hear from God.
This, in turn, laid the foundation for a priestly hierarchy standing between God and men, which is the essence of denominationalism today. The hierarchy might claim a direct relationship with God, but the people themselves had to be in good standing with their priests in order to have at least an indirect relationship with God. It was better than nothing, but it was not the original divine order.
This arrangement was only as good as the priest's direct relationship with God. If the priest really knew God, then the people could receive everything that God spoke to the priest. The problem with this arrangement is that it created a dependency that was not healthy whenever the priests became corrupted or deaf to the voice of God. A good priest would have attempted to teach the people to hear from God themselves and move from an indirect to a direct relationship with God.
But governments, whether civil or religious, tend to gather power to themselves, rather than to disperse power to the people. It is human nature for men in power to want more power and to persuade the people that it is in their best interest to give up their rights--in this case, the right to hear God for themselves. The overall effect is that power continues to accumulate in the civil and religious hierarchy, while the people move farther and farther from God.
There have always been notable exceptions to this, of course, especially with certain individuals in power. There are good leaders in denominations today who truly have a heart for God. I have met many of them. Their biggest problem in life is dealing with the men who are above them in authority, for they are often restricted from teaching the truth by their own denominational leadership. Thus, the tendency is for the good ones to resign, leaving the people at the mercy of someone else who is more willing to abide by the denominational restrictions.
When Israel demanded a king, God told them what kind of king he would be. Saul was their desire, but Saul was also their judgment for refusing direct divine rulership. The description in 1 Samuel 8:10-22 tells us that he would be a "taker," not a giver. He would demand the best of everything and give little in return. Verse 18 says,
"And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day."
It is interesting that Saul was given 40 years to reign over Israel for refusing a direct relationship with God. Earlier, Israel was sentenced to 40 years in the wilderness for the same reason. Perhaps it is a spiritual application of the 40 stripes in Deut. 25:3.
Let us move on.
Israel under Moses refused to hear more than the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. I find it interesting that even today the Church teaches the Ten Commandments, but if we ask, "What is the next law?" they are entirely stumped.
When Moses returned from hearing the rest of the law, he began by reminding the people of the First Commandment about having no other gods before Him. Then Moses immediately told them the first law beyond the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:24-26 says,
" (24) An altar of earth thou shalt make unto Me, and shall sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen; in all places where I record My name, I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. (25) And if thou wilt make Me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. (26) Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto Mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon."
The altar was the place of sacrifice. If the sacrifice were made in some other place, the people were still required to bring it to the sanctuary so that the blood could be sprinkled upon the altar (Lev. 17:6). If they failed to do this, they would be "cut off from among their people." That is, they would lose their citizenship in the tribe or kingdom.
The altar represents one's heart, for we read in Hebrews 10:22,
"Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water."
Jesus Christ was the Lamb of God and the Sacrifice for the sin of the world. He had to be sacrificed by the priests in order to fulfill the law, for they were the only ones eligible to do that work in an acceptable manner. Thus, it was not the Romans who crucified Jesus, but the priests themselves. This was necessary, but what they did with His blood would determine whether they remained citizens (of Judah) or were cut off.
Most of the people did not bring the sacrifice of Jesus to their temple, nor did they want to have His blood sprinkled upon their hearts. Such people were no longer Jews (i.e., of Judah) in the eyes of God. Only those who fulfilled this law remained Jews, as Paul tells us in Rom. 2:28, 29.
Altars had to be shaped by God Himself. If man used a tool to shape the stones of the altar, he only polluted the altar and made it unacceptable to God. We cannot change our hearts by our own skill or self-discipline. This is the job of the Holy Spirit alone. We can change our behavior to some extent by self-discipline, but not our human nature.
It was unlawful also to "go up by steps" to God's altar. Steps were shaped by tools. Though they were not part of the altar itself, even so, they represent man's works in trying to prepare himself to be acceptable at God's altar. So if anyone tells you how to be acceptable to God in three easy "steps," you should be suspicious. Oh, how often we have tried to walk those steps and have only succeeded in exposing our "nakedness."
To be lawful one must let God shape one's heart. We are called to be led by the Spirit. God shapes our hearts imperceptibly, much like the natural rain shapes the rocks on earth. It takes time, but any other way only pollutes the heart. I receive letters often from people who are troubled by the condition of their hearts. They think that human nature should be changed, now that they are believers. When they discover otherwise, they set about to shape their hearts with a good-sized chisel and hammer. When that fails, they become discouraged and begin to question their salvation.
Attempting to change one's heart by man's effort is legalism, not lawfulness. Legalism is man's lawless attempt to be lawful. It is best illustrated by man's attempt to shape his own heart by his own chisel. It is unlawful, because the law forbids this. The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' day were legalists, having chiseled seemingly beautiful altars by their own strength. No doubt they wondered why Jesus was not impressed.
Learn the difference between legalism and lawfulness. Learn also the difference between the law and the traditions of the elders. It is the difference between truth and men's carnal understanding of the truth. This distinction is at the center of the law of altars, the first law after the Ten Commandments.