By Horatius Bonar
"The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out." -- Leviticus 6:13
THIS was one of God's special commandments to Israel, and no doubt has a special meaning both to them and to us. For he speaks no random words; his trumpet utters no uncertain sound. He says only what he means, and he means all he says. His words are profoundly real; more so than those of the deepest thinker of any age; and far more enduring; for they are eternal words, embodying eternal truths. The fire, the altar, the sacrifice, the tabernacle, have all passed away; but the truth embodied in these remains forever. It is for our instruction as truly as for Israel's.
I. The fire. Fire in general is the symbol of wrath. It is sometimes the figure of purifying; but more commonly of anger, divine anger,--anger on account of sin; for in no other connection do we ever read of divine anger. Not personal affront, or caprice, or pique, or partiality, or ill-humour; none of these are ever connected with God's wrath. Only SIN! The history of fire in Scripture is very instructive. It begins in Paradise, and ends in the last chapter of Revelation. There is the flaming sword; the fire of the sacrifice; the fire of Sodom; the fire of Egypt's plagues; the fire of the pillar; the fire of Sinai; the fire of Korah; the fire enfolding itself of Ezekiel; the "unquenchable fire"; the fire that accompanies Christ's second coming; the fire of Apocalyptic judgment; the lake of fire; the fire that comes down from heaven, that is to consume the ungodly; these are some of the memorable allusions to fire in Scripture. Most of these are connected with the Shekinah or visible symbol of the divine presence, intimating that it is from that presence that the fire proceeds; even from God Himself. Thus God intimates most solemnly that there is such a thing as wrath. Yes, there is wrath; now hidden, one day to be revealed; wrath which the wicked treasure up against the day of wrath. God is not too benevolent, too merciful, to be angry. If there be no anger in God, the Bible utterly deceives us. A large, very large portion of it, is quite unmeaning, or rather false. The expulsion from paradise, the deluge, Sodom, sacrifice, pain, death, sorrow, the law, the cross, the unquenchable fire, these are very plain intimations of wrath,-- wrath against sin; wrath for the punishment, not merely for the deliverance or warning of the sinner. All the ills that flesh is heir to, are originally and in their proper interpretation (however over-ruled) expressions of divine anger. How terrible for a sinner to be confronted with an angry God!
How hateful a thing must sin be to excite that anger; to be the one thing that provokes His wrath.
II. The altar. The word means the place of sacrifice. It was elevated; implying that what was placed on it was lifted up to be presented to God. There was but one altar of sacrifice,-- one spot for the sinner to meet God. It was the most essential part of tabernacle and temple; without it there could be no place of worship for a sinner. A sinner can only worship at an altar; can only meet; God there. Why? Let us see. There are two things: very prominent and visible about the altar, the fire and the blood: the fire the symbol of wrath; the blood the symbol of the effects of that wrath, in the infliction of punishment. Thus while the altar proclaimed wrath, it also proclaimed wrath appeased in consequence of the deserved punishment having been inflicted. Condemnation and pardon were thus fully expressed; hatred of sin, yet love to the sinner: inexorable justice, inexhaustible grace. No sin pardoned without first being punished (either in person or by substitute); no debt cancelled without being fully paid. A just God, and a Saviour; not only a Saviour though a just God, but a Saviour because a just God. Thus the altar was,
(1.) The place of condemnation. There God condemned the sinner and his sin. Condemnation was the first thing the altar exhibited and proclaimed.
(2.) The place of confession. The sinner comes, not to hide, nor to extenuate, nor to excuse, nor to deny, but to confess his sin.
(3.) The place of pardon. The pardon is the result of the condemnation,--the condemnation of the substitute or surety. First condemnation, then confession, then pardon ; free, and large, and irrevocable.
(4.) The place of meeting with God. The one spot on which God and the sinner can meet. Only over blood, over death, can the great business of salvation be transacted, and the great question of pardon settled between the sinner and God. There only is it lawful or honourable for God to meet with the sinner; there only is it safe or comfortable for the sinner to meet with God. There the great reconciliation takes place.
The cross is the altar. At the cross we meet with God, and God with us. There we learn our condemnation and our deliverance, our death and our life. There we confess, and there we are freely forgiven. There we know what sin is, and what grace is! Our God is a consuming fire; yet God is love.
The fire upon this altar was peculiar in many respects.
(1.) It was kindled by God. At first it was lighted directly from heaven,--from the shekinah-glory. It was God's own fire.
(2.) It was fed with the fat of the sacrifices. The peace offering is specially mentioned in connection with this. As if that which ratified the peace was that which satiated the fire.
(3.) It was never to go out. Once kindled, it was to burn always. It needed no rekindling. It was kindled by God, but fed and kept up by man. In the case of the lost the fire of God is eternal and unquenchable; and in the case of the saved it is only quenched, because exhausted in and by Him who, as the eternal one, endured the wrath of eternity during his brief life on earth. Good news to sinners! THE FIRE is QUENCHED. There is one who has borne wrath for sin. He who accepts that one wrath-bearing is personally delivered from it all. But he who rejects it and tries to bear the wrath himself must reap what he sows, and bear it forever.
There is but one tabernacle; one altar; one fire; one sacrifice; one Priest! Not two ways of approaching God, or two ways of pardon; only one! He who accepts and uses that one is safe; he who tries another must perish forever. Yes, there is but one cross, one Christ; one Saviour. But He is sufficient. "Christ is all and in all."