The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Afterward he brought me to the gate, even the gate that looketh toward the east:The Altar Measurable and Immeasurable
There is nothing held to be insignificant in the Book of God that pertains to the divine altar or the holy house. Everything is of consequence; perhaps it would be more than paradoxical to say that everything is of supreme consequence.
"The cubit is a cubit and an hand breadth; even the bottom shall be a cubit and the breadth a cubit, and the border thereof by the edge thereof round about shall be a span: and this shall be the higher place of the altar. And from the bottom upon the ground even to the lower settle shall be two cubits, and the breadth one cubit; and from the lesser settle even to the greater settle shall be four cubits, and the breadth one cubit. So the altar shall be four cubits; and from the altar and upward shall be four horns. And the altar shall be twelve cubits long, twelve broad, square in the four squares thereof" (Ezekiel 43:13-16).
And so the specification runs. "These are the measures of the altar after the cubits." That is to say, if you look upon the thing geometrically, here it is, so long, so broad, so high, thus, and thus, and no other way. Such is the divine specification; the altar is measurable, it is a question of cubits; make the cubits right, and you make the geometric altar right. Beyond that, the measuring man can do nothing. He can only talk in cubits; he has no other measure but cubits and the varieties thereof. He measures up his work and returns it in arithmetical forms, and so far as he is concerned there is an end of the matter. But when you have given the cubits you have given nothing. Yet we cannot drive this out of people's minds. They are learned in cubits; they know the length of the temple and the height thereof, and they can quote the specification for the woodwork and the goldwork and all the furnishing; and the worst of it is that, having done so, they think they have been in the temple, and that what they have told you is the temple: whereas they may know all about the cubits and the goldwork, and the cherubim and the seraphim, and the altar and all the order of the ceremonies, and never have been in the temple at all. The altar, as a mechanical structure, is measurable; as a spiritual symbol, it is without measure. There are persons who imagine that if they have read the book called the Bible through, they have read God's revelation completely. It is the same sophism. There are ingenious men who have written at the very beginning of the English Bible how many chapters there are in Genesis, and how many in Exodus, and how many in the Apocalypse. In the front of most of your Bibles you will find an analysis of chapters; some other Bibles give you an analysis of the number of verses in each book. All this is interesting; it has its ingenious, and, indeed, its useful side: but, coming to realities, it is nothing. All this frivolous information may be familiar to you, and yet you may never have seen God in the book which bears his name. There are men who think if they have told you how far it is from Dan to Beersheba they have been preaching. They have not begun to preach in the name and spirit of Christ. All this is mere secular instruction. We sometimes boast that in the Sunday school there is now no need of secular education. What do we find in Sunday-schools and in Bible-classes that is more than secular instruction? We do not want a map of Palestine except as a momentary convenience; we do not want your waxen and wooden models of the temple except for a moment's glance: what we want, to be at now is what the Apostle describes in the Hebrews as the altar not made with hands, of which all other altars are dim symbols, poor, wasting, yet in their limits useful, types.
There are what are called ecclesiastical antiquarians. They occupy a respectable position in society. They are often pensive-looking men; they are men of most studious habits. If you wanted to know the meaning of any ecclesiastical term, they would find it for you; they can go back century after century, and tell you the measure of every part, and the colour of every robe, and the significance of every line; and they can press matters down to the centuries of corruption, when all these original meanings were lost or perverted; then they can proceed to the centuries of restoration, and tell you all concerning the reconstruction of matters that had been overthrown, perverted, or neglected. All this they can do without ever praying. A man may build a cathedral and never pray. The workmen that built St. Paul's or St. Peter's may have mingled their cement with their blasphemy. Because you build a church you are not therefore pious; because you endow a church you are not therefore a saint; because you go to church you are not therefore good: this is the altar by cubits; this is the geometric story of the altar: and the mischief is that people hearing about all these cubits and colours, all these forms and relationships, call it instructive preaching. Whilst the pulpit is thus dragged down, it cannot live its own royal, spontaneous, divinest life. We want to hear about the Altar of which geometric altars are types. We ought to be above the temple in which we assemble. In itself, it should be little or nothing to us; beyond a momentary convenience, it should be a rough, palpable, almost wearisome incarnation of that Temple that has no form, that Sanctuary of which God is the eternal flame. It is so difficult to bring men out of the elementary and alphabetic.
But we have escaped all these geometrical limitations. Have we? Take care! We must be very careful how we throw stones at ecclesiastical antiquarians—the most wan-looking and harmless of men. We also may have our measures and cubits and colours and forms. Beware lest we be deceived, and think ourselves freemen whilst we are in the veriest bondage. There are things in our church which, if they were missing, we should think the whole religious service had been wanting or had been polluted or corrupted. There are some of us who do not know a religious service except we begin at point A and go to point F by a certain stereotyped way. Kept on the highway, we think the service good. We are main-road travellers; we have no wings. We should not know Jesus Christ if he had not the same robe on every time we meet him. We do not know him when we see him in the beggar; we do not recognise the veiled Son of God when we see him and hear him in the crying of a little child. Nay, more, there are some who cannot hear the gospel out of their own surroundings. Whatever happens within their own four walls is right, pleasant, profitable, wholly commendable; but if the selfsame thing were to occur within any other four walls they would not know it These are the victims of the masonic altar, the geometric sanctuary, the brick and stone that should be transformed into poetry and music. We must not therefore ruthlessly condemn other men, even ecclesiastical antiquarians. It is so easy to smile at them. You do not know the exact use of the chasuble, refer to the ecclesiastical antiquarian; you are not sure what the stole meant in the fifteenth century, go to Oxford and consult the ecclesiastical antiquarians. You make light of these instructions. You are just as bad. If you want to know the creed of your own church you have to go to the iron safe and take out the trust-deed and turn it over to see really what is it that you do believe. You are not the men to smile at the ecclesiologist, or the antiquary. You would hardly know a hymn if you found it out of your own hymn-book; you would not know a sermon if it were not preached by your own favourite preacher. To get you out of this is my purpose; to lead you to see that all forms, shapes, colours, arrangements, relations, are significant of something impalpable, unseen, everlasting,—that is my sublime, my tremendous theme! If we could retain all these outward forms and cubit measures, and yet rise into their highest meanings, we should develop along the right lines and come to consummations that would be rich in spiritual profitableness. If we could enter into the mystic meaning, the upper, ever-shining meaning of things, what charity there would be amongst men. We should then see restored an ancient order of officers in the Church, namely, the seers, the men of eyesight, the brethren who are up earliest and climb highest, and who telephone us from the mountains that the sun is coming. Let us escape from the letter into the spirit.
Remember in dealing with the altar we are not dealing with a merely geometrical figure. The altar has its finite side, yet it has also its infinite aspect. What does the altar do? Poor, man-built symbol, what dost thou do in the training of God's Church? The altar looks towards the Unknown. If we might personify the altar, we should think of it as having eyes that wander through eternity. The altar would be saying in its silence, There is another home; this is but a stepping-stone to something higher, this is but the dawn of the coming day, this is but the seedtime—the golden harvest is not yet: I look beyond all these white sapphires that make the midnight rich with their jewellery, and I see beyond, and still beyond, God's unmeasured sanctuary. It ought to be a grand thing to have amongst us an altar that talks thus. We want some sublimating influences. We easily drop into commonplace and vulgarity; we need to have in the air evermore sounds like a great, mighty, rushing wind from heaven, telling us that there is a heaven and there is an eternity. That is what the altar ought to be and ought to do. The altar should speak of things supreme, the altar should give us the right relation and contrast and value of all things round about us. We should test our conduct at the altar; we should assay our gold at the altar; we should try everything by the spirit of the sanctuary. To know the measure of the altar by cubits and not to know the measure of the altar by spiritual influence is learned ignorance, is elevated and exaggerated impertinence. The tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth. Our houses are sanctified by the presence of the holy place. The walls of the sanctuary give security to the city; not its banks and festive chambers, but its sanctuaries are the glory of the town. We do not know what the sanctuary is doing in any city. It may be the humblest place viewed architecturally and geometrically, but seen in its spiritual significance and relationship it may be the poor little despised church or conventicle that is keeping the city out of hell. Do not, therefore, despise anything that has spiritual significance in it. There are no weak churches; there are no poor churches. Do not imagine that any church is standing at your door as a mendicant who cannot do without your support. It should be the proudest honour of your life that you are invited to sustain the outward and visible kingdom of God. Despise, I repeat, nothing that has spiritual significance in it. We cannot tell how far its influence reaches. Little noise it makes; the kingdom of heaven cometh not with observation: when the morning dawns there is no crash of wheels upon the hills; the dawn is glorified silence. What is true of the public sanctuary is true of the home sanctuary; it is your family altar which keeps your house together. It may not be a formal altar, but the spirit of prayer that is in your house makes your bread sweet, and keeps all the windows towards the south, though geometrically they may stand square north. It is the Spirit of God, the altar, the divine genius that makes the house warm in January and glorious in June. Spiritually minded men should seize upon these thoughts, and magnify them, and take heart when they are in moments of depression because only the spiritual worker touches the root. Every other worker brings his waxen apple and ties it to the tree. Summer finds the apple in the root, and brings it to its elevation, its beauty, and its usefulness.
See what other words occur in connection with the term altar. You never find that word alone. Some men could not read this description of the altar. They are too sensitive; there are men so super-refined that they could not read this description of God's altar. Thou shalt "sprinkle blood thereon.... Thou shalt take of the bullock's blood, and put it on the four horns of the altar, and on the four corners of the settle, and upon the border round about: thus shalt thou cleanse and purge it." They would not like to read about blood. Are they refined men? They are the vulgarest men. They do not know what blood means. They judge it by its commonest signification, and by its most revolting suggestion. Blood is life, love, God. We are not going to be driven away from our Calvary by men who think that the word blood has only one, and that the very lowest and meanest, signification. Wherever there is love there is giving of blood; wherever there is a withholding of blood there is no love. There is calculation, there is prudence, there is a selfish regard to limited interests, but if it come not to laying down the life, love has not begun to show its beauty or exert its influence. Nay, more still: according to the Revised Version, this altar is not to be cleansed and purged only; instead of these words we now have words which signify that for the altar itself atoning blood shall be shed. The altar which man has looked at needs to be atoned for because that sinful glance has fallen upon it. The Bible that man has touched with his worldly fingers would seem to require to be atoned for with blood before it can be really approached as to its innermost and tenderest meaning. God is a God of holiness Without holiness no man can see the Lord. Yet we are tempted away from all these holy innermost truths by people who say that they revolt from the word blood, they are shocked by the term blood; they cannot bear it, they hate it, they detest it. So they may, because they do not understand its significance. Without it the Bible would be an empty book; without it the Bible would be a forsaken sanctuary: with it, in all its sublimest meanings, the Bible is unlike all other books, unique in its individuality, unapproachable in its sublimity. If the altar needed cleansing or atoning for by blood, so do the priests; so does every minister of Christ. O poor soul, minister of the Saviour, thou dost need washing; the chrism of blood must be thine own deepest experience; unless thou hast been cleansed with blood thy lips cannot pronounce the message of the gospel, God is love. No man is love who withholds his blood. God is not love if he has not emptied his heart on the Cross. This is our faith. It presents to us an aspect of depth, grandeur, moral influence that nothing else has ever presented to our judgment, or our conscience, or our imagination. Beware of that insensate sensitiveness which cannot pronounce the word "blood" in its religious and spiritual signification. Do not imagine yourselves refined and sensitive because you can talk about the example of Christ but not about the blood of Christ. You can debase any word; you can pronounce the word "music" so as to take all melody and all harmony and rhythm out of it; you can pronounce the word "gospel" so that it shall be but a common word of two syllables; you can shrink from anything: but you can so pronounce music and blood and Cross and Christ as to give those who hear you to feel that you have caught some inner and upper meaning which had hitherto escaped your own attention.
This cleansing, this atoning for the altar, these burnt-offerings, these sin-offerings, these peace-offerings—what will come out of it all? In the twenty-seventh verse we have the answer: Do all this, "and I will accept you, saith the Lord God." Acceptance comes out of it all. We are accepted in the Beloved. Consider the meaning of the word "accepted"—so rich in spiritual suggestiveness, so tender in spiritual pathos. "I will accept you"; I will take you into my heart, my home, my hope, my love—I will accept you: the past as a simple record shall be forgotten, your transgressions I will take and cast them behind me—who can find out the place that is behind the Infinite? As far as the east is from the west—that always unmeasured line—so far will I remove your transgressions from me.
Then how do we stand in this matter? You are Bible readers, are you students of revelation? You can quote all the dimensions of the altar, have you ever entered into its spirit? You know the meaning of every ecclesiastical garb and every ecclesiastical attitude, have you ever prayed the publican's prayer and brought cleansing heaven down into your heart? If not, you are still in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity, whatever church you attend, whatever orthodoxy you deprave by your patronage. Then we must not rest in instruction; we must go from the altar to the spirit, from the altar of cubits to the altar of infinity; we must go from the altar itself to the thing that is signified by the altar. Have you been baptised by water? Did your mother bring you to the font, and did some loving father-pastor drop the dew upon your face and call you by your name in association with the Trinity? Unless you are baptised with fire, that baptism will stand you in no good stead. Were you baptised in the river, immersed, and did some holy man of God raise you from the water and proclaim you a member of the Church? Unless you are baptised with fire, with the Holy Ghost, that immersion will be an argument against your going into heaven at all. Were you taught to read the Bible, taught by your father, mother, teacher, pastor? and have you read all the sweet syllables of the Bible? If you can answer Yes, I will follow your admission with another inquiry—Has the Spirit of revelation entered into your hearts? does it rule your lives? does it give vitality to your conscience? does it enlarge the sphere of your authority? If you say No, then the Lord will say, Thou wicked and slothful servant, out of thine own mouth will I condemn thee! thou hast read the letter, but not the word; the book, but not the revelation; thou hast heard all the syllables, but thou hast not transfused and elevated them into the music of a beautiful life. How stands this matter? Let every man answer for himself. I am afraid of the pedant. He has no business in the Church. I am ashamed of the antiquarian that he should know the merely and temporarily old, and not the eternity that preceded all time. I am afraid of the man who measures the prayer in words and in lines and in printer's ink, and does not measure it by its yearning, its love, its passion. We are called to spirituality, not to carnality; to profoundest wisdom, not mere literal information; to an altar not made with hands, and not merely and exclusively to the altar built even upon the terms of a divine specification. Holy Spirit, baptise us as with fire! Spirit of the altar, teach us how to suffer, how to pray! And, O thou Spirit of the Cross, atone for us every morning, every night! Amen.
Father in heaven, we come to thee in a spirit of triumph. Our victory is assured in Christ Jesus the Lord. Thou art against all evil, thou art for all good. If God be for us, who can be against us? If we are in Christ Jesus our Saviour, our dying, atoning, risen, triumphant Lord, who shall lay anything to our charge or overturn the foundations of our hope? God is for all that is good and beautiful and true; may we also follow things that are lovely and honest and of good report—then shall we be found on the side of the majority, for God is with us. Take away all our love from things that are unworthy, and fix it upon things that are honourable and deserving; may we set not our affections on things below, but on things above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God; may our life find its centre and its home, its rest and its hope, in heaven. We gather at the Cross; the world shall gather there, all nations shall rest under the shadow of the Tree of Life. Thou knowest our lives, our sorrows and doubts, our depressions and exultations; thou knowest the pain for which there is no word, thou knowest the joy that is unspeakable. We pray thee at the Cross to come to us according to our varied need; answer our hunger and thirst in thine own way; help us to be industrious, noting that in the day of work there are but twelve hours; may we consecrate every one of them to the service of the Cross. Make us strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; make us wise unto salvation, and especially wise to win souls. Take our poor little labour as we are able to do it day by day, purify it at the Cross, accept it, own it, and cover it with glory. The Lord be with the lonely and the sad; the Lord be the Helper of the helpless, and lead the blind by a way that they know not; and in the time of winter find flowers for those in whose hearts there is no hope. The Lord hear us in these things; mercifully condescend to visit us day by day: when all earth's little days are passed and for ever closed, may our eyes behold the light that fills the city of the blest. Amen.