During Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, God commanded the people to build a moveable structure—the wilderness tabernacle—as a place of worship where He would come and dwell among them. The brazen altar, or “brass” altar, was a bronze structure upon which the burnt offerings of animal sacrifices were presented to the Lord.
The brazen altar was a portable construct and the largest of the tabernacle’s seven pieces of furniture. Placed in the outer court of the wilderness tabernacle (Exodus 40:6), the brazen altar was the most prominent and imposing object in the court, and no worshiper could avoid seeing it upon entering.
The brazen altar was also called “the altar of burnt offerings” (Exodus 30:28), “the altar of God” (Psalm 43:4), and “the altar of the Lord” (Malachi 2:13). Built from acacia wood and overlaid with bronze, it measured 7.5 feet square by 4.5 feet high. At each of the altar’s four corners was a horn-like projection, made of one piece with the altar. All of the utensils of the altar were made of bronze as well. The instructions God gave for the brazen altar also included a grating or network of bronze probably placed within the hollow center of the altar to hold the wood and sacrifice as it was being burnt. Two poles used for carrying the altar were overlaid with bronze and inserted into bronze rings at the altar’s corners (Exodus 27:1–8).
Once the brazen altar was consecrated, whatever touched it became holy (Exodus 29:37). The Israelites made daily sacrifices to God on the brazen altar (Exodus 29:38). As the first priests began their service at the tabernacle, fire from the presence of the Lord consumed the sacrifice (Leviticus 9:24). According to Leviticus 6:13, the fire of the altar was to be kept burning at all times. The horns of the altar were to be covered with blood at the consecration of the priests (Exodus 29:1, 10–12; Leviticus 8:14–15; 9:9) and on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:18).
All of the elements of the wilderness tabernacle pointed to God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, the coming Messiah. By instituting each ritual of worship, God was teaching His people the fundamental principles of salvation. The brazen altar—where Israel’s priests offered substitutionary animal sacrifices for the sins of the people—vividly illustrated the basics of atonement for sin.
Only by blood sacrifice was sin atoned. The brazen altar, ever ablaze and covered in blood, always stood open to accept the guilt of any Hebrew person who wished to come near to God. There the guilty sinner would offer another life, an innocent one, in his stead.
The brazen altar was situated prominently in the courtyard of the tabernacle. It was, in fact, the first thing one encountered upon entering the courtyard. The picture is clear: we cannot approach the holy presence of the Lord unless we first come to the place of sacrifice where atonement is made for our sin. The altar’s placement revealed that coming to God or receiving the benefits of His presence requires dealing with the problem of our sin first. Later, Jesus would say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; cf. 10:9). This ancient altar spoke unmistakably of Calvary, underscoring the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, which was the ultimate substitutionary sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:1–18). Access to God is ours only when we come to Him through the perfect, atoning sacrifice of the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Bronze is often associated with judgment in the Bible (see Numbers 21:9; Isaiah 60:17; Revelation 1:15). Bronze is harder than gold and silver and better able to resist heat and fire. In Deuteronomy 33:25 and Jeremiah 1:18, bronze is a symbol of the ability to endure. The bronze altar was a shadow of the reality found in Jesus Christ, who took our judgment and who alone possessed the power to endure the fire of God’s holiness. Only Christ could withstand the cross and not be consumed by the flames of God’s wrath and divine judgment.
The altar, as the place of atonement, reminded worshipers of their sin and need of cleansing from sin’s guilt. It signaled forward to the coming of Christ, in whom the entire ritual of sacrifice would reach its consummation.
The holiness and righteousness of God were displayed on the brazen altar. It was the place where sin was judged and its penalty paid. The brazen altar opened the way to approach God and find His mercy. Everything that touched the brazen altar was made holy. Jesus Christ is our brazen altar: “He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right” (1 Peter 2:24, NLT).