Life-Study of Exodusby Witness Lee
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
The record concerning the altar in Exodus is very difficult to understand. As far as the tabernacle itself is concerned, the most difficult matter is the corner boards. No one has been able to solve the problem of these corner boards. The record concerning the altar is even more difficult to understand. However, we have a way to escape this problem: it is to follow the spiritual and experiential way. Literally, according to the record in black and white, certain points are extremely difficult for anyone to understand. But if we come into the realm of spiritual understanding and experience, we can be saved from this trouble. Therefore, I would remind you once again that our approach to the book of Exodus in this life-study is not doctrinal; on the contrary, it is experiential. This means that we want to consider every matter from the standpoint of our spiritual experience. If a particular matter does not apply to our Christian experience, I would prefer not to talk about it. What is the profit of speaking about something that has nothing to do with our experience of Christ? We do not want to speak in a vain way. Instead, we want to utter what is real and understandable according to our experience.
Let us first consider the position of the altar. There were two altars, one inside the tabernacle, and the other outside the tabernacle, in the outer court. The altar inside the tabernacle was called the incense altar and was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. It was much smaller than the altar of the burnt offering in the outer court. The incense altar was more vertical than horizontal; that is, it was taller than it was wide. At this altar those who came into God’s dwelling place could have a very close relationship with God, for there the incense was burned to Him. At this altar there was no shedding of blood. Instead, there was the burning of incense to offer a sweet-smelling savor to God. At the altar of the burnt offering, however, sacrifices were offered with the shedding of blood. Furthermore, the offerings were burned there. The burning of the sacrifices at the altar in the outer court was for redemption, but the burning of the incense at the incense altar was for God’s acceptance. It was necessary for fire to be brought in from the outer altar to burn the incense on the inner altar. Hence, these two burnings are by one kind of fire. The fire on the altar of the burnt offering burns the sacrifices; the fire at the incense altar burns the incense. One kind of fire, therefore, burns two kinds of substances. Since there were two altars related to the tabernacle, we need to understand what altar is referred to whenever we read about the altar in the Old Testament.
In the Holy of Holies there was just one item of furniture—the ark. In the Holy Place there were the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar. In the outer court the altar of the burnt offering and the laver were located. According to the interpretation given in the New Testament, the outer court signifies the earth, and the entire tabernacle, including both the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, signifies the heavens. Thus, to be in the outer court is to be on earth, but to be in the tabernacle is to be in the heavens. Do you know how you can be in the heavens? Do not listen to the superficial teaching that you can be in the heavens only after you die. Actually, the tabernacle is Christ. As long as you are in Christ, you are in the heavens. But whenever you are outside of Christ, you are on earth. Based on this principle, we may say that daily we may go to the heavens a number of times. Perhaps before coming to a church meeting you are, experientially speaking, on earth. But when you are in the meeting, you get into the heavens.
If we consider a diagram of the tabernacle and the outer court, we see that the ark and the altar of the burnt offering are at two ends. In the universe there are actually just two parties: God and man. (Satan, who may be considered the third party, will ultimately be cast into the lake of fire.) The two ends are related to these two parties, to God and man. God’s end is at the ark, and man’s end is at the altar of the burnt offering.
Does the record of the tabernacle in Exodus begin from God’s end or from man’s end? The record begins from God’s end, for it begins with the ark. The description of the ark begins the divine record concerning the tabernacle. This indicates that the record begins from God and proceeds toward man. However, when man comes to the tabernacle, he does not begin from God’s end. He begins at the altar, that is, he begins from man’s end. Whenever a person comes to the tabernacle, the first thing he meets is the altar.
God does not dwell at the altar, but He dwells at the ark, where the throne of grace is. Anyone who wanted to meet God would have to travel through all the items of the tabernacle until he comes to the ark. However, God has already come to us. He came from the heavens to the earth, and the altar was the destination of His coming. Christ came from the heavens to the earth, and during His last hours on earth He went to the cross. On the cross He terminated the old creation and redeemed His chosen people. As we have pointed out, redemption implies termination, replacement, and being brought back to God. As the book of Hebrews indicates, Christ’s coming to the earth in this way was once for all. But man’s going to God is not once for all. Rather, it is a continual matter, a daily matter.
When God came from His dwelling place to the earth and went to the cross, what was His main intention, His main goal? His main goal was to bring man to Himself. This means that God came out of the tabernacle to bring man into the tabernacle. However, most believers still linger around the cross; few have been brought into the tabernacle. Every week a great many sermons are given to Christians, yet few of these sermons are a means to bring saved sinners into the tabernacle. At best, such sermons may bring people to God at the altar. Some may argue that God is omnipresent and that as long as a person repents and believes in the Lord Jesus, he turns to God. In a sense, this is correct. But the New Testament indicates that if we are still around the altar, we are not in the tabernacle with God. We need to go to the showbread table, the lampstand, the incense altar, and eventually reach the ark. There on the ark we have the propitiation-cover, the throne of grace spoken of in Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore come forward with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace for timely help.”
When we reach the throne of grace, we are not only in the presence of God—we are even in God Himself. There we and God are one. In the words of Colossians 3:3, our life is hidden with Christ in God. The God who hides us is not at the altar; He is at the ark. Furthermore, we are hidden in God not at the altar, but at the ark. God has come out of the tabernacle in order to bring us into the tabernacle, to bring us to the very place where He dwells.
The Lord Jesus came from heaven to earth and visited the earth for thirty-three and a half years. Although He visited the earth, He dwells in the Holy of Holies, and He wants to bring us there. He went to the altar, to the cross, with the intention that we, fallen sinners, might be brought back to Himself in the place where He dwells. To have this understanding is a great help to us in our experience.
In Exodus the record concerning the incense altar is given last. The reason for this is that only after we have experienced all the other items can we have a full acceptance from God. This acceptance by God is the result of all the other items. Moreover, in the Bible it is not easy to tell definitely the position of the incense altar. It may be positioned outside the veil, in the Holy Place, or inside the veil, in the Holy of Holies. This indicates that our acceptance by God depends on our condition. How much we are accepted by Him depends on how close we are to Him. Perhaps at one time during the day the incense altar in your experience is very close to God. But at another time, it may be somewhat removed from Him. Then when you come to the meeting and exercise your spirit, spontaneously the incense altar in your experience comes close to God.
The position of the altar of burnt offering is settled; it cannot be changed. But the location of the incense altar may change, based on our condition. Again I say, in our experience the incense altar appears only after we have passed through the altar of burnt offering, the laver, the showbread table, and the lampstand. Sometimes we may go to the ark and then go to the incense altar. The record in the Old Testament regarding the tabernacle with its furniture and utensils is very meaningful. It corresponds to the sequence of our experience.
It is impossible for anyone to enter the tabernacle from the rear. There is no back door. But there is an entrance at the front of the tabernacle. We need to experience the items of the outer court and the tabernacle until we come to the Holy of Holies. To repeat, it is difficult to determine whether the incense altar is inside the veil or outside the veil, whether it is in the Holy of Holies or the Holy Place. (See note on Hebrews 9:4 in the Recovery Version of Hebrews.)
If we have such a view of the tabernacle and the outer court, we are qualified to understand the altar of the burnt offering. This altar is the largest item of the tabernacle. All the furniture and utensils of the tabernacle—the ark, the incense altar, the table, the lampstand, and the laver—could fit inside the altar of burnt offering. This altar is five cubits in length and width and three cubits in height. The fact that the altar can contain all the items of the tabernacle indicates that the cross of Christ contains all the spiritual experiences. This means that the experience of the cross is the basis for all spiritual experiences. Our spiritual experience begins from the cross, from the altar. Furthermore, the principles related to all other spiritual experiences are implied in the experience of the cross. For example, even though you may not have received adequate instruction at the time, when you first believed in the Lord Jesus, you had some experience of the showbread, the lampstand, the incense altar, and even the ark. All these experiences are implied in the basic experience of the cross. Resurrection, anointing, and enlightening are all implied there.
I often like to recall my experience when I was saved. I was fresh and new, and all the spiritual experiences were fresh and tasteful. Like many others, I surely had a sweet time with the Lord Jesus when I was saved. The reason for this is that all spiritual experiences are initiated by the experience of the cross and implied in that experience. Apart from the cross, we cannot have any experience in the Spirit. The cross is the base, the ground, the initial factor, of all spiritual experience. Thus, the cross is vitally important.
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