The Altar (part 1)

Still in Lev. 19, but I’m also going to backtrack to meditate on a detail that’s been on my todo list for a while: the bread of the presence.

The ceremonial law involved a lot of eating. Often, we imagine an entire animal burnt on the altar. Actually, the fat was dedicated to God, but most of the meat was eaten by the priest and the people offering the sacrifice (depending on the type of sacrifice). In addition, when people brought offerings of bread, they burned some, and some was eaten by the priest.

On the table in the holy place, they daily placed bread which only the priests could eat. You’ll recall that David also had some when he was on the run from Saul, and Jesus used that story about David as an argument against the Pharisees on one of those, shall we say, “Sabbath incidents.”

Yes, that bread. God called it the “Bread of the Presence.” Like the rest of the ceremonial law, its relevance lies in what it signifies. In the New Covenant, Jesus’ body is the bread, broken for the forgiveness of our sins. The manna in the desertalso aludes to His body: Jesus even calls Himself the bread that came down from Heaven (John 6:32-33).

In a few places in Leviticus (21:6, 22:25, and more), the sacrifices priests offer are called God’s bread. “Bread” there is used as a general term for “food.” Indeed, in some translations (like the silly NIV which I love and hate so much), they substitute “food” for “bread.” Effectively, He’s saying, “The priest brings Me breakfast in the morning and dinner at night when he burns the fat of a goat or lamb.”

Because the priest brought God His bread, a propitiated God dwelled in the temple, and thus the temple’s bread was called the bread of the Presence. That’s my best guess at the meaning of the phrase “the bread of the Presence.”

The priests and the priests alone ate this bread. As God’s priesthood, we also are to eat His bread: that is, His flesh. Instead of the bread of the Presence, we now have the bread of life. His Presence is now always with us through the Holy Spirit. His life flows into us through the body and blood.

And that brings us back to Lev. 19:5-8: “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, and everyone who eats it shall bear his initquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.”

If the sin offering and the bread of the Presence is Jesus, then we see echoes of these Old Covenant ceremonial laws in communion. Communion is coming to the table of the Lord, but it’s also coming to the altar of the Lord. When Jesus served as our perfect sacrifice on the cross, He became the reality foreshadowed by the Old Testament sacrifices, sacrificed on the altar of the cross. When we partake in communion, we remember, proclaim, and partake in that sacrifice. In that sense, the communion table is also an altar.

We’ve sadly lost much of this as Protestants. During the reformation and the religious wars of the following century, the battles became so intense that the reformers and their successors cast away some good along with the bad of medieval Catholicism. One of those battles was that of transubstantiation, that in communion or the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus. The Catholic Eucharist was served over an altar, often a stone altar, and those altars were sometimes built on top of the tomb or relic of a saint. When Protestants came, they saw that all as idolatry and tore down those altars. The Mass was a big deal: Protestants sometimes would die instead of take the Catholic mass, so severe were the battles of those years. And so, the so-called “pagan” altar was with a simple table in Protestant churches.

Well, five centuries have passed. I think we can put the bitterness and bloodshed of that time behind us and examine the Scriptures. I don’t see transubstantiation taught in the Bible, but we would do well to recall the table of communion as the altar of the sacrifice. I see it through this lens based on examining the New Testament communion in light of how it is foreshadowed in the Law. Hebrews also has an interesting verse about this:

Hev. 13:10 – “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.”

“Those who serve in the tent” here refers to the priests. And Hebrews is saying that we as Christians have an altar from which we can eat which they cannot. This is the food of the New Covenant, and I believe it refers to the body and blood of the Lord. The reality behind this symbol covers our sins through faith, but whenever we eat and drink communion, in some mystery that I don’t fully understand, it affects us supernaturally.