The Sanctuary of God
by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 7 - The Great Altar

From a Series of Meditations in the Book of Exodus


Reading: Exodus 27:1-8; Hebrews 10:3-10; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Timothy 2:5-6.

We come now to the next thing in the order as set forth in this part of the book; that is, the great altar, and we notice that we move now from the door of the sanctuary right to the gateway of the court, the first place of any contact with God, and that is at the altar.

That movement is a complete movement. There is that which, as we saw in our last meditation, stands between, a thing of very great importance, but it is not mentioned here. We are taken right from the door to the altar, and that carries its own great spiritual significance.

The Goal is First Brought into View

God has from His side commenced with the sanctuary, because God always begins with His end. That is to say, He brings His final object into view, and then works toward that. And so He has brought the sanctuary first into view, set it forth and dealt with it, and then He moves out to deal with that which leads to it.

The Church - Christ and His members in perfect union and glory - is God's supreme object. That is God's end, and with that God begins. You will notice that whenever you are contemplating things from God's side that is His method. When things are contemplated from our side the method is reversed. You take the letter to the Ephesians, for instance, and there you have everything contemplated from God's side, that is, from the heavenly standpoint. This, indeed, is the difference between the writings of Peter and Paul. Peter's writings contemplate us as pilgrims and strangers on the earth: Paul's writings contemplate us as already seated together in the heavenlies in Christ. One is the earthly aspect of things, and the other is the heavenly. The one presents things as viewed from our position; the other presents things as viewed from God's position. So that when you take up the letter to the Ephesians you are viewing things entirely from the Divine standpoint, and what you find right at the commencement of that letter is the Church as represented in completeness before the foundation of the world. You must remember that all that is in the letter to the Ephesians bears a corporate character. It is a corporate law that governs the whole letter, and while it is of individual application, all that is said there is said in a corporate and related sense. Thus when it says at the outset we were "chosen in him before the foundation of the world", it is a reference to the Church. It is the Church that was chosen in Him before the foundation of the world; from the Divine standpoint you have the end at the beginning. Before anything else in the way of process is dealt with you have the end presented, and God always starts with His end. He always introduces what He is finally after and then begins to work toward that. So in this order in the book of Exodus, the first order as unfolded here (for you will have the order changed later) it is God speaking, not man making. You have the sanctuary mentioned, and then you move to that which points to the sanctuary, the way into the sanctuary.

The Cross (Altar) the Way of Realization

The point is that the Church is God's supreme object. That is God's end. But now the Church is only possible by the Cross. The Church demands the Cross both for its existence and for its character. It is the Cross which makes the Church possible as an entity, and it is the Cross which gives the Church its essential character. In other words, the Church is based upon what the Cross means.

Now that is our great point at this time; to that we have to come back; with that everything is related. The Cross issues in the Church; otherwise it has missed its meaning. It is intended to lead on to the Church. The Church is based upon the Cross; otherwise it is not God's Church, not the Church according to God's thought. We see, then, why there is this direct movement from the door of the sanctuary right through the court to the very gate, where we find the great altar.

The altar is said to be the place where God comes out to speak with sinful man. It is not the same speaking as in the Most Holy Place, where it is a matter of fellowship, communion, and the revelation of His heart to man for man's government, for the direction of his life, for the bringing of man into all the thought of God. That is the speaking in the Most Holy Place. But here it is another kind of speaking, shall we say, a more elementary speaking, a speaking that has to do with foundations. You will see this if you turn to Exodus 29:42-44. This is what is said: "I will meet with the children of Israel there". It is God coming out. In the case of the Most Holy Place it is man coming in, but this is God coming out, and the altar is the place at which God comes out in grace to sinful man. The very dimensions and constitution of the altar speak of that truth. He speaks in grace to sinful man.

Now the altar is five cubits by five cubits, and three cubits high, and it is made of brass. Five is the number that typifies grace, as we have seen, three is Divine perfection or Divine fulness, while brass stands for judgment unto righteousness. There are all the terms of grace. God (that is three); grace (that is five); brass (that is judgment unto righteousness). God speaks, but He speaks, as that passage in Timothy shows, in connection with one who has mediated between God and man by the offering of Himself a sacrifice, one who has given Himself for sin, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God. So that what God says at the altar, as He comes out to sinful man, is concerning righteousness provided on the ground of sin atoned for. Pardon, peace, reconciliation, are the words of grace in which He speaks to sinful man in the great altar. This is the foundation of the sanctuary, the first thing in relation to the Church. The Church is built on that; the Church takes its character from that; the Church has its existence because of that; that leads to the Church, makes the Church possible.

But that is not all. We have to get inside all that and see really what it means, and note how comprehensive and inclusive the altar is.

The Supreme Meaning of the Altar (Cross)

In the first place it is the altar of whole burnt-offering. Other kinds of offerings will also be offered upon it, as, for example, the sin-offering and the trespass offering, each having its own significance, but it is primarily the altar of whole burnt-offering. The whole burnt-offering was one which all went up to God. Nothing was reserved from this offering, but all was consumed. The one and only issue of every such offering was that God smelled a sweet savour, that a cloud of smoke went up to God, and that is all there is of it. After that only ashes remained; it was a whole burnt-offering. We are speaking of the comprehensiveness and inclusiveness of this altar.

Then the size of it is also significant. It is not a small thing. To convey some idea of the size of this altar, let me remind you that all the vessels of the Holy Place could be placed inside this altar; the table of shewbread, the candlestick, the golden altar, all could be fitted inside this brazen altar. It was large enough to comprehend them all. That is not merely a technical fact, but there is a relatedness in this; for all those things are spiritually found to be bound up with this altar. They have their place in this altar, and in a spiritual sense they are the outcome of this altar. All that the table, and the lampstand, and the golden altar stand for comes out of this great altar, has its virtue there. This is a comprehensive thing, and an all-inclusive thing.

What, then, is the meaning of it? What is the comprehensiveness? Hebrews 10 explains what the comprehensiveness of this altar is. Verse 8 presents a summary of our Lord's judgment of the order He found on His coming into the world. "Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifice for sin thou wouldest not... which are offered according to the law". That is a reference to this repeated offering of sacrifices under the law. "Then said he..." When? When He recognised that this sort of thing was not getting to God's end, was not effecting God's purpose. All these offerings, and the blood of bulls and of goats, were not taking away sin, nor producing a conscience void of offence toward God. All this was only typical, and without real inward virtue, power, dynamic. There was no deliverance, and really it was not bringing man to God. Then, when He recognised that, when He knew that, "Then said he (now He is coming to put something in the place of all that, to do something which gets to the end appointed by God, indicated by all that, but never reached by it) Lo I come to do thy will, O God". What is the great altar? What is the inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of the great altar? It stands to speak of God's will wholly and perfectly done.

Now that is comprehensive. It says this: The will of God involves, implies, carries with it, utterness for God. All goes up to God; there is nothing left but ashes; all is utterly for God. That is the altar, and that is the will of God. The will of God is a comprehensive thing. It bounds the universe. God projected His will concerning His Son, and there was another will which rose up in this universe against that will of God and said, "I will exalt my throne above the stars of God"; "I will be like the Most High". That was the expression of a will that is against the will of God concerning His Son. The asserting of that other will against the will of God meant the rending and rifting of a heavenly order, and Satan in whom that other will was found was hurled down with his hosts. Now the next appearance is of Satan coming to God's creation, to man, and by way of the mind and the heart, the reason and the desire, reaching the will of Adam. He besieged the will. Adam surrendered his will to Satan, and so the whole race in Adam had introduced into it a will that is contrary to the will of God, and it is manifested and expressed in this way, that man is not controlled by God: he is for himself; and that means that he is for the Devil. There is another will, and we cannot get away from the fact.

It does not matter how far we go on with God, even though it be to the point of our becoming the most saintly, we never reach the point where, in some further revelation of God, making increased demands upon us, it is not necessary for us to surrender our will anew, to have a new dealing with God in the realm of our will. To put that in the reverse way is to say that right to the end it is possible for us to have a reservation from God, and to choose another way. There is that other will in this universe.

Now the Lord Jesus came into the world deliberately in relation to the will of God as against that other will, and His whole life is marked by this principle, this law, "Not my will, but thine" - "I delight to do thy will, O my God": "I am come to do thy will". It is not just a question of seeking to know the will of God in daily affairs; it is an attitude of heart which says comprehensively, embracing all details in its sweep, 'I am here in relation to the will of God, and I am utterly abandoned to that great will of God; and that means that God must have everything'. That is the whole burnt offering. God must have everything; not a place but the whole place, not things but all.

That is the meaning of the Cross. That is the meaning of the altar. It is upon that the Church stands, and from that it takes its character, and it is in relation to that the Holy Spirit assumes control. The Holy Spirit assumes control of the believer on the ground of the Cross, and He assumes that the believer is consecrated wholly to God and proceeds accordingly. If ever He comes up against any hitch in us He says, in effect, "Well, I was simply going on with what I have come for. If you do not want Me to do that, then our relationship in a practical way must be suspended until you come to the altar, until you accept the real meaning of the Cross which you profess to have accepted". The whole will of God is fundamental. It is not something that we come to later in life, and which we term the higher life, or the life of holiness, or the deeper spiritual life, or something like that. It is fundamental. From God's standpoint the Cross means utterness for God, and it is this the Holy Spirit assumes when we accept the Cross, and He deals with us accordingly.

This word in Romans 12:1-2 comes right to the point: "I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God (the mercies of God are because of His having found a propitiation for sins, a mediator between God and man: upon that ground, because of the mercies of God I beseech you) to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service (spiritual worship); and be not fashioned according to this age: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God".

The Whole Burnt-offering and the Believer

Now you notice that there is a difference here. The Apostle is not saying, 'You must do what Christ did, and on the same basis'. Christ presented His body a living sacrifice as an atonement, a propitiation. The Apostle does not say that we are to do that, but He marks the difference in this way. He says that when the Lord Jesus did that He did it to perfect the will of God concerning man, to make the will of God perfect in a Man. Now to us he says, 'You present yourselves upon that basis, not as a propitiation, an atonement, but as a freewill offering, as a praise offering, your spiritual worship, something that is presented to God upon the basis of Christ's full offering'. Then what will happen is that you will come to know that the will of God is not something irksome, difficult, hard, painful, but good, perfect, acceptable. You come into the blessing of the will of God on the ground of Christ having perfectly accomplished that will through suffering. But the point that the Apostle brings out is this: You have to come alongside the Lord Jesus, and be as it were the complement of His sacrifice, His offering of Himself. He offered in relation to the will of God a propitiation, an atonement: you enter into that perfected will of God in Christ, and you find that the will of God which before was so hard, so costly, and against you all the time because the will of God was not in you, has now become a life, a blessing. The will of God has been done by one Man, and you come into the good of a perfect will of God.

I wonder if that is clear. I think we can leave the detail, at any rate in the outworking, and note this, that we are called upon here by the Lord to stand right into the good of what the Lord Jesus has done in relation to God's will. "Present your bodies a living sacrifice..." That is to say, come alongside the Lord Jesus and enter into all that He has done in presenting Himself by presenting yourself. In so doing you come to inherit the good of a perfectly satisfied will of God, and you find that the will of God is now a thing for you and not against you, a thing working in you and not in opposition to you. You are in the will of God. We are called upon to stand in exactly the same position as the Lord Jesus stands in today; that is, of a whole, and utter, and entire abandonment to God.

The Will of God Absolute

Note this verse in Hebrews: "The offering of the body of Christ once for all". Then mark the similar expression in the letter to the Romans: "the offering up of the Gentiles". The altar is in view. On the one Christ is offered to God for God's pleasure, for God's satisfaction, in relation to the will of God, which must not be regarded partially but as God's complete right in the universe. On the other it is man coming into that offering of Christ and being offered to God. The offering up of the Gentiles in Christ, to be wholly for God, is being wholly in the will of God. Now that offering up on the part of Christ makes it possible for us to know how good, perfect and acceptable the will of God is. God's will is all-governing, and from the Divine standpoint there are no degrees of the will of God, it is absolute. The matter of spiritual progress is another thing, but let us remember that God always starts from His end, and that sanctuary represents God's end reached. Now He comes to work, as it were, to His end, but His end is fixed. God will never leave anyone at the altar, if He has His way. God will never leave anyone midway in the court. There are no degrees in the will of God.

God starts from the absolute and works in relation to the absolute, and one of the tragedies of the Lord's people is that they have not really seen that, when they have but accepted parts, fragments; when they have come to the Cross and accepted the atonement for their sins, pardon, remission, the privilege of reconciliation and peace with God, and have stopped short there. That has become the measure of their life; they have no more than that; they have not gone on. That means that the Holy Spirit has not been able to go on with His essential work toward God's end. Do remember this, that God's end is the sanctuary, not the Cross. God's beginning is the Cross, His end is the sanctuary, and He begins from His end. When we speak of the sanctuary we mean that in which God has fully expressed His mind, His purpose. And God by His Spirit would call us on, ever on. The trouble with the Hebrews was not that they had failed to lay the foundation, but that they had progressed no further. "Let us... press on unto perfection (full growth), not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God", and so on, was the exhortation that was addressed to them. The way of God is that we should go on to His end, the end with which He started.

Do not let us be content, however glorious and great may be what we call the evangel of sins forgiven, of acceptance with God, the atonement and assurance of heaven. That is only the beginning. There is an infinite fulness beyond that to which God is calling His people. The Cross is essential to that, but the Cross is meant to take us to it, not to hold us to itself. Although all the way along in the progressive experience the Cross will be applied to bring us to God's fulness, nevertheless the end which governs is God's full end, as set forth in the sanctuary.

The challenge of the altar at this time is, Who is going to have us? And how much of us is God to have? That is the question at the altar. Whose are we, and how much of us is going to be possessed by the one to whom we give ourselves? That is the challenge of the Cross, the challenge of Calvary, and there we have to decide in a conclusive and inclusive way: God is going to have us, and God is going to have us utterly, and we are never accepted on any other ground. It is a denial of the Cross to be what is called a worldly Christian. It is a denial of the Cross to be a selfish Christian. Christ is the example of what the Cross means in life here: "utterly for God".

Now what we are saying is that we have to accept that fundamentally, and that is what we profess to have done in our baptism. In being baptised we have declared that we are now utterly for God. We have stood on those words of the Holy Spirit through the Apostle: "We thus judge, that one died for all (in the stead of all), therefore all died (in him); and he died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him..." Now our baptism has been our public declaration of that: 'not unto ourselves'; 'henceforth unto Him'. We mean that in an utter way. Well now, the process and the progressive thing is that God is going to work that out. Our thought must not be of accepting that in the future; our acceptance of it is made already, and we have to stand by it, and at every new crisis we have to say, 'Yes, but this was included in the initial act. Lord, I meant this when I first took my stand, so there is no room for any reservation. I meant it; You work it out, Lord'. And the Lord will simply be working progressively now in relation to the inclusive thing which He meant and which He took us to mean. He will work it out until the point is reached where our wills are utterly one with His will. That is the altar.

May the Lord have less difficulty with us in bringing us to the place which we have accepted in our acceptance of the Cross; but may He bring us right through by that way to His fulness, and His working of the Cross in us be unto His working of the fuller and ever fuller life of His glorified Son in us.

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