The altar is the place where all the offerings are offered. Its essential meanings are judgment, redemption, and consecration. When the Israelites offered anything to the Lord, it must be brought to the altar. Everything they offered had to pass through the altar; it had to be killed and burned upon the altar. This signifies judgment. As a Christian you may feel that you have offered yourself quite properly to the Lord. Yes, God needs your offering, but His first demand is that you put everything on the altar. He must judge you by death and by burning. This may seem a frightening prospect, but we must realize that all that is natural about us must be judged. God can never accept the natural man or his living as material for His building. All we are, all we have, and all we can do must be judged by the altar. The altar typifies the cross. We must be checked and judged by the cross.
This is the proper Christian experience: as we spend time in the Lord’s presence in fellowship, we will have the sense that the Lord asks us to offer all that we are, all that we have, and all that we can do. Thus, we offer all to Him. But then we will sense that we are sinful, fallen, evil, and corrupted; that we are fleshly, soulish, and natural. We will sense that we are certainly not good for God’s building. We must be put on the cross! Praise the Lord, we have already been put on the cross!
We must realize the reality of the death of Christ—this is the real judgment. Such a realization means on one hand that God demands our life and all we have to be offered to Him. But on the other hand it means we realize that we are good for nothing but death and that we have already been put on the cross. Through consecration we realize that we have been completely ended, that we have been put on the cross. This is the experience of passing through the altar, the real experience of the cross.
A brother came to me once and said, “Last night I had a dream, and this morning I went before the Lord. I have seen that the Lord wants me. Now, I’m a little clever in certain things which could be a real help to the building of the church. So this morning I am burdened to come and tell you that I have offered myself to the Lord for the building of the church.” I replied, “Brother, on one hand this is wonderful, but on the other hand it is awful. When you offer yourself in such a way to the Lord for the building of His church, it is dreadful!” He was greatly disappointed and exclaimed, “Am I not good enough?” I answered, “Brother, you are good for nothing but death! Forget your cleverness—you must throw that in the ocean. The Lord does not need your cleverness. That must be put to death; that must be judged. Your clever mind must be put upon the altar. In fact, you must put everything on the altar.”
No Israelite could possibly enter into the tabernacle without first passing through the altar. Should he attempt to do so, he would immediately perish. All of us, in fact, must die, either on the altar or within the tabernacle. It is better to die on the altar, on the cross, rather than in the tabernacle. Only the Lord can testify how many times I have said to myself, “You must die; you must be put on the cross; you must realize that you are already put on the cross.” Do not think that you are smart. God’s building does not need smart or stupid people, but only those who have been put on the cross, those who have been killed and burned on the altar, those who have been checked, judged and disposed of.
The second meaning of the altar is redemption. Praise the Lord! Whatever God judges, God redeems. Redemption comes through judgment and issues in resurrection. Whatever you put to death, God will raise up in His redemption. You just put yourself in the position of death. Don’t worry about the next step. The Holy Spirit will bring you into life. You put yourself on the altar, and the Holy Spirit will bring you into the tabernacle. God redeems what He judges. Redemption realized through judgment must be experienced by us; it is not a matter of theology.
The third meaning of the altar is consecration. After redemption, the Lord immediately demands another consecration. We need to experience consecration continually, from the first step to the last. Step by step, before judgment and after redemption, we need to be consecrated. In every situation, we should be constantly aware that we are a consecrated people. This is the real meaning of the altar. All things brought to God must be put on the altar, judged, redeemed, and consecrated. It is only after passing through the altar that everything will be truly consecrated to God. Nothing can belong to God or really be of God until it passes through the altar. You may have offered yourself to the Lord, but have you passed through the cross? Have you experienced the resurrection and the reality of consecration? Do you have such an altar in your daily life? From the picture of the tabernacle we see that the reality of God’s building is not possible without the altar being first experienced by us. The experience of the altar must precede everything. All the rest is based upon this.
Now notice the measurement of the altar. It is foursquare, five cubits wide by five cubits long, and it is three cubits high. The number five signifies the creature (four) plus the Creator (one) to bear responsibility for the fulfilling of God’s requirements. The ten commandments and the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) are divided into two groups of five. All these signify responsibility to fulfill God’s requirement. The foursquare measurement of five by five gives the sense of the complete fulfillment of God’s requirements in full responsibility. The number three signifies the Triune God. It signifies the responsibility and the fulfillment of the altar. The cross of Christ comes up to the standard of the Triune God. The cross of Christ has fulfilled God’s requirements. And by our experience of the cross, we fulfill the requirements of God.
Thus, we must realize that at the altar and by the altar our being dealt with by God must come up to God’s standard in the full responsibility and fulfillment of God’s requirements. This was so with the Lord Jesus on the cross, and it must be so with us in our subjective experience of the cross. If we would enter the building of God, we must first fulfill all the righteous requirements of God. Anyone or anything brought into the building of God must pass through the altar in this way.
(The Vision of God's Building, Chapter 5, by Witness Lee)