About Jesus     Steve Sweetman

Home Page

The New Testament Altar


Merriam-Webster’s dictionary states that the word altar comes from the Latin word “altare” that is related to another Latin word “adolere”, meaning “to burn up”.


The Greek word “thusiasterion” is the word commonly translated as altar in the New Testament and also in the Greek Old Testament which is called the Septuagint.  This word simply means “a place to sacrifice”. 


From the above definitions we learn that an altar is a physical structure where sacrifices are burned.  In Old Testament times the altar took on varying forms and was used by many religions.  In Jewish tradition altars were used to sacrifice animals in obedience to God and burn incense on. The use of an altar predated the Law of Moses yet was encoded into the Law.  


The most important altar of all that supercedes all other altars and makes all other altars meaningless is the cross on which Jesus was sacrificed.  The  cross was God’s personal altar since He was the one who sacrificed Jesus.  Now that’s interesting - God making a sacrifice to Himself. 


The Greek word for altar is seldom used in the New Testament and when it is, it’s used in reference to the Old Testament Law and Temple worship and also an altar that can be found in Heaven.  In Matt. 5:23 - 24, 23:18, 20, 35 and Luke 11:51 Jesus uses this word in reference to the Old Testament.  In 1 Cor. 9:13 and 1 Cor. 10:18 Paul uses it in reference to the altar in the Temple and to the Law.  The books of Hebrews and Revelation speak of an altar as well but that altar is in Heaven, not on earth.  (Heb. 7:13, 13:10 and Rev. 6:9, 8:3-5, 11:1)  


It’s obvious to me that the word altar as a physical structure on earth is more of an Old Testament word than a New Testament word.   Why is this so?


We don’t see a New Testament altar on earth because Jesus’ death destroyed the meaning to both the Temple with its altar and the Law of Moses that demanded sacrifices on the altar.  All such things, including an altar are long gone.  Also, after Jesus ascended into Heaven true believers became the temple of God , making any man made building or altar unnecessary.  This is why we don’t see any mention of a New Testament altar.   


In many respects we as Christians are much like the Jews of old.  One way in which we are like them is that they needed to build a temple with its altar, and we feel the need to do the same.  And we’re certainly like Peter, James and John at the transfiguration (Mark 9:1-13). They saw Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus before their very eyes and they were so overwhelmed that they didn’t know what to think, do, or say.  In the midst of this uncertainty Peter suggested that they build a monument as an altar of worship. That’s pretty much what we Christians have done as we’ve built countless temples and altars over the centuries. 


New Testament thinking concerning altars can be found in Romans 12:1 where Paul tells us to “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice … for this is our spiritual worship”.  Now Paul doesn’t use the word altar here but it’s inferred since one offers a sacrifice on an altar, and he’s talking about offering ourselves as a living sacrifice.  So what altar could Paul be talking about if there isn’t any such thing as a New Testament altar?


The altar is spiritual and invisible, and we are the sacrifice placed on this altar.  Salvation is not just about believing in an historical Jesus.  It’s about giving yourself sacrificially to Him.  I’d suggest that if you don’t have some kind of  struggle or conflict as you make your sacrifice, then you might not actually be sacrificing yourself.   The very nature of a sacrifice  suggests some kind of conflict and pain.  In this case the main conflict is between your will and God’s will.  Giving up your will can be mentally and emotionally painful at times.  


The real altar for us New Testament Christians today is that invisible altar that we can access at any time and in any place.  It’s that spiritual place where we give our wills to Jesus to be burned up in the fire of His Spirit.  Each day we have many opportunities to come to this altar and choose Jesus’ ways  over ours in whatever situation that faces us. When we choose His way over ours, we are in fact offering our lives again on God’s invisible altar as an act of New Testament worship. 


Home Page