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THE CHRISTIAN ALTAR.
HEB. XIII. 10.—“We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle."
It is a fact as honourable to Christianity, as disgraceful to human nature, that the difficulty with which that religion has hitherto made its way in our world, has been owing, not to faults, but excellences in it; and that those qualities which chiefly recommend it to the higher and uncorrupted orders of intelligent beings, are the very qualities which have excited the contempt and loathing, the neglect and opposition, of mankind, and led the great majority of those, in every age, to whom its claims have been addressed, to consider it as absolute foolishness. Purity, simplicity, and spirituality are the leading features of Christianity; and it is just because it is pure, simple, and spiritual that it is so much admired in heaven and despised on earth, that holy angels “ desire to look into it," and that depraved men“ make light of it.”
The fondness of man for what is material in religion, and his dislike of what is spiritual, is strikingly illustrated in the extreme difficulty which was experienced by the primitive teachers of Christianity in weaning the Jews—even such of them as had in profession embraced the Gospel—from their excessive attachment to an order of things which had so much in it to strike the senses as Judaism. The manner in which these inspired men seek to attain this end, discovers “ the wisdom from above” by which they were guided. They showed the Jew, whether converted or unconverted, that everything that was excellent in the economy which was vanishing away had its counterpart in the order of things which was in the process of introduction in something still more excellent; that the spiritual reality was far better than the material shadow; and that that which was glorious had no glory by reason of the glory that excelleth. They showed them, that if Christians have no visible, material representation of the divine glory on earth, towards which they draw near in bodily worship, they have the spiritual Divinity in heaven, to whom in spirit they approach, in exercises which employ their highest faculties, and interest their best affections; that if they had no splendid temple like that of Jerusalem, within whose sacred precincts, at appointed seasons, acceptable worship can be presented to Jehovah, they have access to the omnipresent God at all times, in all circumstances; that if they have no order of priests, like that of Aaron, to transact for them their business with God, they have, in the person of the incarnate Son of God, a great High Priest, who has by the sacrifice of Himself expiated all their sins, and, ever living to make intercession for them, is able to save them to the uttermost, coming to God through Him.
In the passage that lies before us now for explication, we find the Apostle applying this principle to the subject of sacred meats, on which the Jews seem to have valued themselves. Of many of the offerings which were laid on the altar of Jehovah, part only was consumed by fire, the rest being reserved for food, either for the priests, or for the offerer and his friends. This food was accounted peculiarly sacred, and the eating of it viewed as an important religious privilege. In the verse which immediately precedes our text, the Apostle had said in effect, in reference to these meats,—The grace of God-His free favour to sinners manifested in the Gospel —if understood and believed
, will do the heart more good than the use of any kind of food, however sacred. And in the words we mean to fix your attention on, he goes on to say, that Christians had a species of spiritual sacred food far more holy than any which the Israelitish people, or even the Aaronical priesthood, were permitted to taste.“ We have an altar, of which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle.”
The train of thought in the paragraph these words introduce is natural and beautiful. It is as if the Apostle had said, “ If ye will hold to meats, know that as Christians you have & holier food than you, or even your priests, ever had You have the flesh of Him who gave Himself as a sacrifice for
you to feed on--that is meat indeed ; His blood--that is drink indeed. The thought of His sufferings for them naturally introduces that of the fitness of their readily submitting to suffering for Him, under the beautiful image of going without the camp to Him, where He was crucified, bearing His reproach. And then comes the concluding thought, that as Christ is the true sacrifice, all our sacrifices are of a figurative and spiritual kind,--no longer sin-offerings and expiatory sacrifices, but simply offerings of thanksgiving, sacrifices of praise-praise to be expressed in the life as well as in the lips.
The language of the text is elliptical. Something must be supplied to make out the sense. But there is no difficulty in filling up the ellipsis. . “We”-i.e., we Christians, in opposition to "ye Jews”-“have an altar of which we have a right to eat, but of which they who serve, who minister, in the tabernaclethe Mosaic sanctuary, the temple—the Jewish worshippers, and even the Levitical priests—have no right to eat.” By“ the altar,” we are either to understand sacrifices laid on the altar, or, what comes to the same thing, to “ eat of,” or from, “ the altar," is to be understood as equivalent to-to eat of sacred food which had been laid on the altar.' Those who serve the tabernacle," or rather, “ they who minister in the tabernacle," are, I apprehend, the Levitical priesthood.
There were, as I have already had occasion to observe, certain sacrifices of which the offerer and his friends were allowed to make a feast ; and of by far the greater number of sacrifices a considerable portion was assigned as the food of the priests. You may consult Lev. vi. 26, vii. 15, 34, xix. 6; Num. vi. 19, xviii. 9, 10. But there was a class of offerings of which neither the offerer nor the priest was allowed to appropriate even the smallest part. The victim was considered as entirely devoted to God, and was wholly burnt with fire, either on the altar, or in a clean place without the camp while Israel was in the wilderness, and without the city after the erection of the temple in Jerusalem. For information respecting this class of sacrifices, you may consult Lev. iv. 3–12, xiv. 16, 27. Now it appears to me that the Apostle refers to this peculiarly sacred species of offering, of which even the priests were not allowed to participate as food; and that his assertion is, We Christians, as to sacred food, have higher privileges than the Jews_higher than even their priests. We are permitted to feast-spiritually, of course—on that sacrifice of which that class of sacrifices, of which not only no ordinary Israelite, but no priest, not even the high priest, was allowed to taste, was a typical representation.
The sacrifice referred to as being the food of Christians, is, without doubt, the sacrifice which our great High Priest, Jesus the Son of God, offered up once for all the sacrifice of Himself. Of the class of Jewish sacrifices to which the Apostle alludes, which was not a large one, the sacrifice for the sins of the people offered up on the great day of atonement was the most remarkable; and it is probable that this sacrifice was in the view of his mind when he made the declaration we are now considering. No part of that sacrifice was to be used as food either by the people or the priests. The blood was to be brought into the holy place, that is, the holy of holies; and, after certain portions of the carcase had been burnt on the altar, all the remainder was to be taken without the camp, or beyond the walls of the city, and there consumed to ashes. Instead of any part of it being allowed to be eaten, it was considered as entirely a devoted thing; and he that even touched it was not permitted to mingle with the congregation of Israel till he had submitted to certain instituted lustratory rites. Now the sacrifice of our Lord was emblematized by this peculiarly sacred kind of offering. When He suffered, it was that He might, by the shedding and sprinkling of His own blood, sanctify the people, i.e., expiate the sins of all the Israel of God, and fit them for acceptable intercourse with their covenant God. To mark the correspondence more closely, He suffered death beyond the gates of Jerusalem, as the bodies of the victims offered for the sins of Israel on the great day of atonement were consumed without the camp or the city. And this sacrifice, of the emblems of which no Israelite, no Israelitish priest, was permitted to taste, is the great staple article of spiritual food to Christians, who are all a holy priesthood, as well as a peculiar people. He" His flesh for the life of the world” _He shed His blood " for remission of sins to many;" and they who believe in Him are permitted to eat this flesh, which is meat indeed; to drink of this blood, which is drink indeed. It is their privilege to be allowed habitually to feast on the sacrifice which has been an effectual propitiation for their sins, and for the sins of the whole Israel of God.
The sentiment of the Apostle is not-We are allowed to eat the Lord's Supper, which no Jew, nor Jewish priest, continuing such, can have a right to do. It refers not to the Lord's Supper, but to that of which the Lord's Supper is an emblematical expression. Nor is it merely-We have a sacrifice, on which we spiritually feed, of which no Jew, no Jewish priest, continuing to be so, can participate. But, we are allowed—really, though spiritually—to feast on the propitiatory sacrifice for our own sins, and for the sins of all the people of God, which, even emblematically, the Jewish people and priests were not permitted to do.
It thus appears that these words contain a statement, and a proof of that statement. The statement is—We Christians have higher privileges with regard to sacred food than the Jewish people, or even the Jewish priesthood, possessed. We are permitted to feast on a sacrifice of the highest and holiest kind, which they were not. The proof is—The highest and holiest kind of sacrifice was that offered on the great day of atonement for the expiation of the sins of the whole congregation of Israel. Of that sacrifice even the priests were not permitted to eat. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was a sacrifice of this highest and holiest kind. It was the sacrifice, of which all the sacrifices offered on the recurring great days of atonement, for ages, were but the shadow. On this sacrifice Christians are permitted freely to feed. They eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God, offered as a sacrifice for the sins of men-for their own sins. The conclusion is direct and inevitable. The Christians have higher privileges with respect to sacred food, not merely than the Jewish people, but than the Jewish priests.
“We have an altar, of which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle.” Fully to bring out the meaning and force of this statement, so satisfactorily proved, it will be necessary to inquire into the nature and value of the privilege possessed by the Israelitish people and priesthood in feeding on sacrifices ; and then inquire into the nature and value of the privilege of Christians in feeding spiritually on the sacrifice of Christ; and then, by a comparison of these, to evince the superiority of the latter to the former.