The Purpose of the Wilderness Tabernacle: The Copper Altar of Sacrifice
On Mount Sinai, Moses received more than just the Ten Commandments. Also included were the detailed instructions for building a meeting place for God and His people. The Tabernacle was a temple of worship that involved specific protocols and procedures. These protocols purposely provided a possible means for God's people to dwell with Him per God's request.
Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.
— Exodus 25:8
From the fall in Genesis up until the Tabernacle construction, the Bible records people occasionally walking and talking with God but not dwelling with Him. As we shall see, it is within the framework of this Old Testament sanctuary that God draws His people closer to Himself through an intricate sacrificial system. This arrangement can speak volumes to us today about the specifics of such a great salvation and indescribable gift.
. . . how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation . . . ?
— Hebrews 2:3
Every detail that Christ accomplished to restore our relationship with God finds its discovery in the particulars of the wilderness tabernacle.
The Position of the Copper Altar of Sacrifice
For this particular furnishing, we move to the third mentioned, but first visited on the human side, space of Tent of Meeting as a whole, called the outer Courtyard in the diagram above.
A quick reminder that we are studying the furnishings as it refers to the spaces they resided in, beginning with the Holiest place and working back to the Courtyard. They are ordered this way in their first descriptions in Scripture.
- Holy of Holies
- Holy Place
The order of visitation by the priesthood was the opposite beginning at the Courtyard and progressed through the next two space with increasing degrees of holiness as they went.
- Holy Place
- Holy of Holies
This study, and the order of presentation, begins from God's perspective. We will later review how man drew near to a Holy God farthest from the Holiest place when we have completed all the furnishings.
A review of the spaces and their furnishings, seven in total, thus far, are as follows:
The Holy of Holies
- Ark of the Covenant
- Atonement Cover including Cherubim
The Holy Place
- Table of Bread
- Golden Altar of Incense
The final space known as the Outer court contained two furnishings.
- The Copper Altar of Sacrifice
- The Copper Laver
The Purpose of This Altar
There was only one way into the tent of meeting. It was through the gate that typified the only way to enter the sacred spaces that led to the Father's presence in the Holy of Holies. It was here that the sinner brought his sacrifice. John connects us with the only way.
Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep . . . I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture . . . and I lay down My life for the sheep . . . Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.No one comes to the Father except through Me.
— John 10:7-15, 14:6
Inside, the Copper Altar of Sacrifice was the very first piece of furniture that confronted the sinner who brought His sacrifice to the door of the Tent of Meeting. It was the largest of all the furnishings and intentionally unavoidable. There was simply no way to ignore it or bypass it. There would be no meeting with God without addressing the issue confronted at this station.
The Copper Altar was the place where the judgment of sin would take place, makes it clear that this is, in fact, the first order of business. Nothing impure can stand in His presence.
"according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission."
— Hebrews 9:22
Without the remission of sins, there is no holiness. And without holiness, no one will see the Lord.
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness without which no one will see the Lord
— Hebrews 12:14
God's first order of business in drawing us near to Himself was to reconcile our sin through His Son on the cross.
Wood and the Altar of the Cross
The very first instruction for building this altar was to make it out of acacia/shittim wood.
You shall make an altar of acacia/shittim wood . . .
— Exodus 27:1
Wood was the core material for the following Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle furnishings. All of these had something to say about Christ's human suffering and death on our behalf.
- The Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies (The blood that was shed was sprinkled on the mercy seat)
- The Table of the Bread of Presence (The bread and wine are symbols and reminders of His body that was broken and His blood that was shed)
- The Golden Altar of Incense (each of the prescribed spices depicted the details of His suffering on our behalf)
- The Copper Altar of Sacrifice (Christ on the cross)
Acacia/Shittim wood is resistant to decay and insect infestations, which also speaks of the incorruptible Christ who became a man. Yet, when He died, His body did not see corruption and was resurrected. In the book of Acts, Paul combines the Old Testament revelation of this with the New Testament fulfillment as it applied to Christ.
For You will not leave my soul in Hades,
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
You will make me full of joy in Your presence.’ (quoted from Psalm 16 written by David)
“Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.
— Acts 2:27-32
The Copper Altar of Sacrifice most clearly typified the cross. J. Vernon McGee, in his book The Tabernacle: God's Portrait of Christ, makes this same observation.
"The cross of Christ was more than a Roman gibbet. It was more than a public place of execution for criminals. It was an altar where a priest was offering a sacrifice to God. Nay, it was more than that; it was the place where God Himself became both offering and the offerer at the eternal brazen (copper) altar"
Adam sold himself to sin at a tree. Christ would repurchase humankind on a tree.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
— Romans 6:23
The dimensions of the Copper Altar were:
. . . five cubits long and five cubits wide.
— Exodus 27
Five in Scripture is the number of God's grace. It was God's grace that sent His one and only Son to die for us that we would not perish but have eternal life.
. . . to the praise of the glory of His grace, He made us accepted in the Beloved. In Him, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.
— Ephesians 1:6-7
The next instructive dimension.
. . . the altar shall be four square . . . You shall make its horns on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it.
— Exodus 27
The number Four in the Bible is the number that categorizes things in the natural physical world and speaks of the universal sin dilemma of all humankind from all four corners of the earth.
“There is none righteous, no, not one . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
— Romans 3:10, 23
The cross offered the opportunity for whoever would come to be saved.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
— John 3:16
It was square, having all equal sides. In comparison, Christ was equal to the requirement.
Horns in Scripture are symbols of power and therefore illustrate for us the power of Christ who laid down His life for us on the altar of the cross.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
— I Corinthians 1:18
The sacrifice was tied to the horns of the altar, typifying that there was no way of escape from judgment. Henry W. Soltau, in his book The Holy Vessels and Furniture of the Tabernacle, explains.
". . . there was no escape from the judgment which He (Christ) came to bear because no other plan or way of salvation could be devised. The unsearchable wisdom of God could provide no other remedy—could discover no other way of redemption: His only-begotten Son must be delivered up to death, even the death on the cross. The blessed Lord Himself realized this truth in His own soul; for after praying, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me—if thou be willing, remove this cup from me," He adds, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done." "the Son of Man must be lifted up;" refuge failed Him, and He was a victim appointed to the slaughter, for whom there was no escape.
- The determinate counsel of God,
- the ruin of man, for which there was no other remedy,
- the devotedness of His own heart's obedience to the Father, and
- His deep and boundless love for the Church acted as so many constraining powers to bind Him to the work"
The Altar of Incense was noted to be the tallest measured furnishing in the Tabernacle proper (Holy Place and Holy of Holies) measuring two cubits high. The Altar of Sacrifice is the tallest of all the furniture measuring three cubits high.
. . . and its height shall be three cubits.
— Exodus 27
The number three in Scripture categorizes things that have to do with heaven and things that are "lifted up." It speaks of Christ being "lifted up" on the altar of the cross.
No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so, must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life . . .
. . . And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.
— John 3:14-15, 12:32 ("heaven" three mentions, "lifted up" three mentions)
The verse above also spoke of His resurrection.
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
— Mark 8:31
The Hebrew word for "burnt offering" is "olah-עֹלָה." At its root, it means to ascend.
Copper, Fire, and Judgment
Both copper and fire are symbols of judgment in the Bible. Beginning with the copper—it is used several times in the instructions for this altar.
Cover it with copper. Make pails for removing its ashes and its shovels, bowls, meat forks, and trays. Make all its equipment out of copper. Make for the altar a grate made of copper mesh. Make four copper rings for each of the four corners of the mesh. Slide the mesh underneath the bottom edge of the altar and then extend the mesh halfway up to the middle of the altar. Make acacia-wood poles for the altar and cover them with copper. Put the poles through the rings so that the poles will be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. Make the altar with planks but hollow inside. All these should be made just as you were shown on the mountain.
— Exodus 27:2-8
In terms of the topic of judgment, this theme is best illustrated in Jeremiah chapter twenty-two when the children of Israel were taken captive to Babylon as God's judgment for their continuing sins of idolatry.
The Babylonians broke apart the bronze (copper) columns, the stands, and the bronze (copper) Sea in the Lord’s temple. They carried the bronze (copper) to Babylon.They took the pots, the shovels, the wick trimmers, the sprinkling bowls, the incense dishes, and all the bronze (copper) equipment used for the temple services. The commander of the guard took whatever gold or silver he could find as well: the small bowls, the fire pans, the sprinkling bowls, the pots, the lampstands, the basins, and the offering bowls. There was too much bronze (copper) to be weighed: two columns, the bronze (copper) Sea and the twelve bronze (copper) bulls that held it up, and the stands, all of which Solomon had made for the Lord’s temple. Each column was about twenty-seven feet high and eighteen feet around. They were hollow, but the bronze (copper) was about three inches thick. Each had a capital of bronze (copper) above it that towered seven and a half feet high, and each had an ornate design of bronze (copper) pomegranates around it. The second column was the same, also with pomegranates...And Judah went away from its land into exile.
— Jeremiah 52:27
Although gold and silver receive brief mentions in the above narrative, the author is connecting copper to the concept of judgment.
"Fire" also is the main feature of this altar. Its association with judgment connects it with the eternal consequence of sin with its continual burning.
The altar fire must be kept burning; it must not go out. Each morning the priest will burn wood on it, will lay out the entirely burned offering on it, and will completely burn the fat of the well-being offering on it. A continuous fire must be kept burning on the altar; it must not go out.
— Leviticus 6:13
The grate was halfway down inside the square altar, forming a pit or furnace for the flames. The book of Jude speaks of an eternal fire that is the judgment of the immoral.
And the angels who did not keep their but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day; as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire
— Jude 1:6-8
The Altar of Sacrifice illustrated quite vividly an innocent victim receiving the judgment for our sin.
. . . he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering, and kill it as a sin offering at the place where they kill the burnt offering . . . Then the priest shall burn it on the altar, according to the offerings made by fire to the Lord. So the priest shall make atonement for his sin that he has committed, and it shall be forgiven him.
— Leviticus 4:32-35
The Leviticus verse vividly demonstrates for us Jesus taking our place over the fiery flames of judgment in substitute for us.
He made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
— II Corinthians 5:21
In conclusion, this Old Testament model could not cleanse man from his sin. It could only point to the one who would come and take upon Himself the judgment of our sin so we might draw near to a holy God.
. . . every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
— Hebrews 10:11-14
J. Vernon McGee writes once again the application.
"Christ died that the Holy Spirit might take a rebellious sinner, deserving the wrath of God, and make him an obedient son, a recipient of the favor of God...He took our place, that He might offer us His place. He took our Hell that we might have His Heaven."
In the beginning, God freely gave us everything. Instead, we chose the one forbidden thing that came with a price we could not pay. It cost us our lives.
God, once again, in Christ, freely gives us His life through His one and only Son. Christ died for our justification that we may once again stand before a holy God and freely partake of His eternal life. Forgiveness certainly was not free, but it was freely given at the altar of the cross.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God . . . in due time Christ died for the ungodly . . . God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him . . . But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification . . . as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
— Romans 5
Credits and Sources
"The Holy Vessels and Furniture of the Tabernacle" by Henry Soltau Published by Kregel Publications in 1971. Originally published in 1851 by Yapp and Hawkins, London, England.
"The Tabernacle: God's Portrait of Christ by J. Vernon McGee. Published by Van Kampen Press in Wheaton Illinois.
"The Tabernacle of Moses" by Kevin J. Connor. Published by City Christian Publishing in Portland Oregon. Copyright 1976
"The Tabernacle" by M.R. Dehaan, M.D. Published by Zondervan Publishing House. Copyright 1995
"Portraits of Christ in the Tabernacle" by Theodore H. Epp. Published by The Good News Broadcasting Association. Copyright 1976
"Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle by Ervin N. Hershberger. Published by Vision Publishers. Copyright 2007
"Spiritual Application of the Tabernacle" by Witness Lee. Published by Living Streams Ministries. Copyright 1987
"Temple Treasures" by Steven Fuson. Published by Bridge-Logos. Copyright 2010
"The Tabernacle: Shadows of the Messiah by David Levy. Published by The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry Inc. Copyright 1993
The Tabernacle: Its Priests and Its Services by Willia Brown. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright 1996. Originally published in 1899 by Oliphant, Anderson, & Ferrier, Edinburgh, and London.
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