Our text for this lesson provides an excellent example of one of the many offerings ordained by God to be made upon one of the most significant pieces of furniture in the Tabernacle - the Brazen Altar. Daily this altar was the scene of some of the greatest transactions concerning salvation and fellowship with God. At this altar, one could see the guiltiness of man, the wages of sin, and the price of reconciliation. It stood in the way from the door of the Outer Court to the Tabernacle because no sinful man could possibly enter the dwelling place of the Most Holy God without first making a stop there. The reason many lost people never get saved is because they have never come to the Brazen Altar, and the reason many Christians never grow to become what God intended is because they have never been back or have made too frequent a visit. Thus, one of the most important lessons lies before us at the Brazen Altar.
Upon entering the Outer Court of the Tabernacle, one could not help noticing this large structure made mostly of shittim would overlaid with brass as described in Exodus 27:1 - 8. Though also called "the altar of burnt offering", it is often called the "brasen altar" due to the fact that its overall appearance was totally brass. It was square in shape being 5 cubits on each side and 3 cubits high (approximately 7½ wide, 7½ deep, and 4½ high). Projecting at each of the four corners of the altar were horns overlaid with brass.
There is some disagreement about the "network of brass" found in the description. Some believe this to be a grate inside the altar, but there are three problems with this. First, the Bible says that the altar was to be hollow meaning that there was nothing inside. Second, God had already specified that an altar could either be made of earth or stone, but not out of hewn stone "for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it" (Exodus 20:25). It seems that if this grate were placed inside as a platform on which to burn the offerings, it would have polluted the altar. Finally, there were rings attached to this grate through which staves would be inserted for carrying the altar. This would be quite impossible if the grate were inside the altar. The better interpretation of this grate or lattice is that it formed a vertical support for the projecting ledge (translated "compass") that surrounded the altar halfway from the ground. The priest would stand upon this ledge or shelf when performing his duties about the altar.
It would be impossible to fully study and discuss in one lesson all of the activities that took place at the Brazen Altar, but at least we should look at a brief summary in order to better relate to the understanding of the Israelites. The primary activities surrounding the altar consisted of the following five kinds of offering. Atonement for sin was at the heart of these offerings - that is reconciliation with God in which satisfaction is made for offenses.
The burnt offering received its name because of this distinction from the others - the whole offering was burned upon the altar. Every morning an every evening of every day, a lamb of the first year without blemish was to be burned upon the altar as a burnt offering for the entire nation of Israel. The burnt offering was also employed with circumstances such as the consecration of priests, the purification of women, and the cleansing of a leper. In addition, a burnt offering could be given by an individual at any time perhaps to make atonement for general imperfections in their service to God. The victim in such cases could be a male ox, a male lamb, a male goat, a turtle dove, or a young pigeon.
The meat offering is kind of a misnomer because it did not contain any meat and in fact it was the only bloodless sacrifice given. For the latter reason, it was never offered independently but was always given with one of the others for without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22). The meat offering was made from grain in various forms but always included oil, frankincense, and salt. Only a portion was burnt on the altar and the rest was given to the priests.
There were actually three different kinds of peace offerings. The praise or thanksgiving offering was given in response to some blessing from God, the vow offering was vowed to God in return for some goodness sought from Him, and the freewill offering was presented simply as an expression of love toward God. The victim could be an ox, a lamb, or a goat. The most peculiar part of the peace offering was what the priest did with the shoulder and breast. The breast was waved back and forth in a horizontal direction, the right shoulder was heaved up and down in a vertical motion, and both were then set apart for the priest. The fat was burned upon the altar but the remainder was given back to the offerer who ate it with family and friends.
The sin offering was given to make an atonement for sins committed in ignorance or in other words without premeditation. There was no way to make an atonement for presumptions sins - death or excommunication was the result (Number 15:30, Deuteronomy 17:12). There were sin offerings prescribed for when the whole congregation sinned, when the high priest sinned, when a ruler sinned, and when a common person sinned. Each of these offerings had different types of victims to be sacrificed which increased in value from the sin of a common person up to the sin by the whole congregation. This clearly showed that the amount of guilt increased with the number of transgressors and their position. One of the major distinctions with the sin offering was what the priest did with the blood. In the case of the sin of a common person or ruler, the blood was not just poured at the base of the altar but was also applied to the horns on the altar. When the high priest or congregation sinned, the priest took the blood into the Holy Place and sprinkled it seven times before the veil.
The trespass offering was similar to the sin offering in that it was prescribed for the atonement of sin. However, the sin in this case was of a nature where restitution could be made for damages done unto another. For example, if a man borrowed something from his neighbor and then falsely told him that he lost it. With this offering, not only was a blood sacrifice presented, usually a ram, but the offender had to make full restitution plus and additional fifth of the value (20%).
Now that we have a rough idea of the appearance of the Brazen Altar and the typical activities that took place around it, let us consider the profound affect that it must have had on the Israelites as well as for the Christian.
In our text it was the offerer who personally killed the victim and this was done at the very door of God's dwelling place. Just prior to slaying the animal, the offerer placed his hand upon the head of the victim. This imposition of the hand signified the transfer of guilt from the offender to the sacrifice. The animal then became a substitute for the offerer being sacrificed for their sin. Clearly, the guilt of the offerer was both personally and publicly recognized. The sinner could not pay someone else to privately make an atonement for their sin. No, they had to go to the door of God's house, lay their hand on their animal, and personally kill it. There could be no doubt in their mind of personal guiltiness before God.
In this present day we have a great need for recognition of guilt. Today, people want to sin without taking any responsibility and they want everyone else to help them feel as if they have done nothing wrong. There can never be an atonement without recognition of guilt! The world would like to get rid of the Brazen Altar though they do not realize how desperately they need it. It would do us all good to become as conscious as these Israelites of our guilt before the Holy God. We have a fallen nature that is so filthy and vile, and we are all guilty of sin.
The Book of Leviticus is perhaps not very pleasant for those who are not fond of the gory details of animal sacrifice. All of the activities surrounding the Brazen Altar involved blood and death. In fact the word altar itself is derived from a word meaning "to slay" or "to slaughter". Every year over 700 lambs were put to death just for the daily sacrifice. Yet all this was surely by design to teach man about the wages of sin. Almost 1500 years before the Apostle Paul had the words we know as Romans 3:23 penned, the Israelites must have surely understood that the wages of sin is death.
Satan has very successfully lessened the significance of the wages of sin through the spread of violence in our society and many have become insensitive to death. If we could go back to our first childhood experiences with death perhaps we could recapture the significance felt by Adam in his first experiences with death (Genesis 3:21). The better we are able to see death as it really is, the more we will come to see how hideous and loathsome sin is. Perhaps many a Christian would take a stronger stand against sin if they could only see through the Brazen Altar the awful consequences of sin.
Finally let us consider the victim that was chosen to be burned upon the altar. It could never be another human but was always some kind of tame domesticated animal. Typically it was a young animal and without any blemish. All of this was intended to capture the innocence of the victim. This would have certainly taught the Israelites that in order to be reconciled to God and have fellowship restored, the wages of sin had to be paid by one who had no wages of their own to pay. Every time an Israelite committed a sin, it cost the life of an innocent animal which became their substitute to receive their wages in order for God to be satisfied.
Through the various offerings burned on the Brazen Altar, the Israelites could receive atonement for sin, however there was something very imperfect about this. These offerings could not make them sinless or perfect. Neither could they take them to heaven. No doubt this was due to the fact that the victim did not willingly or even knowingly die for the sinner, nor was the value of an animal great enough. Hebrews 10:4 explains that "it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins". These offerings were only a type used to teach Israel about Christ.
Thus through the Brazen Altar, the Israelites were able to catch a glimpse of the cross where the just would willingly die for the unjust. The cost of our full reconciliation to God was that He Himself would have to pay our wages of sin. Just as the Israelites laid their hand on the victim, It is good for us to often see that all of our guilt and sins were transferred to Jesus and to realize what it cost God to provide salvation. Perhaps it might keep us out of sin to daily consider what God has done for us. We have been redeemed "with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19)!