The First Wednesday in Advent
December 1, 2010
Text: Exodus 30:1-10
Dear Friends in Christ,
One of the keys to unlocking the whole of Scripture is to focus upon that which seems unimportant. This is particularly true of things that are in the Pentateuch - that is the five books of Moses. Why is there so much detail about the tabernacle and the sacrifices and the incense and the show bread and on and on and on? You might just get the impression that God considers this stuff important. God wants things done in just a certain way. That actually applies to the New Testament Church and things like Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. These things are to be handled in just a certain way.
One of the things that we often miss in the Old Testament is that when God speaks to man, it is always the pre-incarnate Christ. In other words it was Jesus speaking the Ten Commandment from Mount Sinai. And it is Jesus who gives the instructions in our text to Moses.
Christ commanded the Israelites to build an altar for the burning of incense. It was to be placed in the Holy Place, in front of the curtain that divided the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was to be placed. The Ark of the Covenant was God’s throne of grace in the midst of His people. It is likely that the Altar of Incense where Zachariah burned incense in the temple was the third one which was constructed. We don’t know if Solomon had a new one built in his day when they went from the tabernacle to the first temple. However, it seems likely that a new altar of incense was constructed at that time. That altar would have been destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 586 B.C. A third altar would have then been constructed at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the temple was rebuilt. So the altar at the time of Zachariah was not the one built by Moses, but it was probably five hundred years old. It would have been built to the exact specifications laid out in Exodus.
There is a strange instruction at the end of our text. The altar of incensed had to be atoned. To atone for it is pay for it, in the sense of paying for sins. But an altar is an inanimate object. It does not sin. Yet, Jesus told Moses that the altar was to be atoned each year on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement. The high priest was to take some of the blood from the goat slaughtered for the sins of the people and put that blood on the horns of the altar. Each corner had a piece that projected up above the body of that altar. These would be the horns. They were covered in gold, as was the whole altar. The blood was brushed on the horns to the altar to pay for the sins of the altar. This is driving at something very profound. The altar itself through the worship of the people, became the bearer of the people’s sins. It had to be cleansed so that the people could again lay their sins before God.
We know that sin can only be atoned by the shedding of blood. Scripture is clear on this point. In fact the first shedding of blood came in the Garden of Eden when God killed animals to provide clothing for Adam and Eve. The clothing symbolized God covering our sins by the shedding of blood. But the blood of animals cannot cover our sins. Nor could the blood of animals purify the altar. All of this was pointing forward to another kind of blood that can genuinely cover sins. It was pointing to another kind of blood that truly could purify the altar. As we sang “Not all the blood beast on Jewish altars slain could give the guilty conscience peace of or wash away the stain.” In just the same way wine cannot take away our sins. But something else was happening here. In that blood of beasts, another blood was present. This was a blood that would be shed in the future. It is the blood of Jesus Christ, which was present in, with, and under the blood of the goat. It was the blood of Christ which made that altar pure - which made it an altar where sins would be removed and God would receive our prayers. Because of the blood of Christ who was yet to come, Zechariah burned incense on behalf of the people and God received their prayers favorably.
That particular day, something more would happen. The wheels began to turn. The time had come for the promises to be fulfilled. An angel appeared and told Zachariah that the hopes and prayers of centuries were now to be fulfilled and he would have a part in it. His son would be the forerunner - the forerunner of the one who redeemed the temple by the shedding of His Holy and innocent blood - the true lamb of God. And so also for us. Our altar is cleansed by the blood of Christ, present here in the Supper. We too are made holy by the blood of Christ. Just as the sacrifices and animals communicated the blood of Christ, so also the Supper delivers to us that very same blood.
In about fourteen hundred B.C. Moses was commanded to build an altar for the burning of incense. It was an altar made holy by blood. But only the blood of Christ would truly make that altar holy. Thus the altar of incense is a prophetic object. It existed to point us to Jesus Christ who was yet to come. It is no accident, that it was before the altar of incense, the altar redeemed by the blood of Christ, that His coming is first announced. For Christ was coming to shed His blood - blood that would cleanse not only the temple, but the entire world.