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The Altar and the City

"We have an altar . . we have no continuing city.'—Hebrews iii. Io, 14.

"We have " and "we have not." These two sayings, united by the intervening context, are to be taken in connection and contrast. They suggest two aspects of the Christian life—its gr^at possession and its incompleteness. "We have an altar "; and in that altar there is provided, as the subsequent clause goes on to say, not only the sacrifice for sin, but the food of the spirit, " whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle." But great and satisfying as that possession is, it is not absolutely satisfying, and there is something beyond: "We have no continuing city, but we seek one which is to come." So the Christian life has its two plain duties, and obvious characteristics, of a firm holding by the magnificence of its present possessions, and a yearning after their completion which lies beyond the veils of sense and time. "We have an altar" ..." we have no continuing city ... we seek one to come."

"We have an altar." The writer seeks to convince his Hebrew audience that, though all the ancient system in which they had been trained were to go, as go it would, nothing had really gone, since in Christ the shadows had become substances. He instances Moses, the Sabbath, the Priesthood, Sacrifices, the Law, the Covenant, and of all these he says : " You Christian people—without a priest, without an altar, without a sacrifice, with no external symbolism of any sort in your worship—still have them all far more really than the people that thought they had them, because they had the pictures of them in these outward things." "We have an altar," says he, "and though you Jewish Christians who have been trained up in the beggarly elements of an external ritualism may feel that when you come into a system where there are no priests, and no sacrifices, you are passing into a very bald and empty building, you have all that you need." The centre-point of Christianity is an altar; the deepest conception of the work of Christ is a sacrifice.

That truth firmly grasped will give a clue that will guide safely through the mazes of two opposite and related errors which have deep roots in human nature. The one is the tendency, strong in this generation, to set up the antiquated fabric of Judaism with a Christian varnish over it, in order to satisfy the cravings of sense for symbolical worship. The antidote to that tendency lies in the expansion of that brief assertion, "We have an altar." Christ's sacrifice has swept away for ever all that fleshly, sacramentarian religion. To seek to import sensuous aids and elaborate symbolism into Christian worship is essentially a retrograde step and an anachronism. Picture-books used to be confined to children, but nowadays they seem to be required in order to tempt adult men to read, and in like manner grown-up "babes in Christ" are harking back to childish things of spectacular ritual. The senses are dangerous allies of the spirit in matters of worship, and to use them as a ladder to help the spirit to ascend is as likely to end in the spirit's going down the ladder as up it. It is fashionable at present to call the simpler forms of Christian worship "bare" and "bald," but the craving for more ornate ones does not spring from the highest aspirations or experiences of the Christian life. "We have an altar," and therefore need no priests, nor sacrifices, nor elaborate ceremonial.

Extremes generate each other, and so that tendency of present opinion has done something to intensify its own opposite and complementary tendency. Potent voices tell us to-day that pure Christianity knows nothing of an altar and a sacrifice, or, at all events, that pure religion does not. But if there is no altar there will soon be no worshippers. It is the vital centre-point of our worship and life. In proportion as we obscure, or lose the firmness of our grasp of, the sacrificial aspect of Christ's death, we fling away the power that calms hearts, enlightens understandings, bends wills, and satisfies souls.

The writer goes on to declare that a certain class "have no right to eat of" the altar. The sacrifice, then, becomes food. We have to live on Jesus. The propitiation for our sins is the sustenance of our being. It is not enough to say, " I trust to Him for pardon and acceptance." That is the beginning of the Gospel, but by no means the whole of it. We must go on to say, " 1 live by the faith of the Son of God, who gave Himself for me." The heart is to feed on Him by love, the mind by intelligent occupation with His truth, the will by submitting to His commands. When our whole nature is nourished because, by communication with Him through faith, He enters and fills it, we shall be strong indeed. The Sacrifice is to be eaten in the courts of the Lord's house.

The altar which we have should impel us to seek the city which we have not. "We have no continuing city," not so much because all created things are transient, as because a Christian soul must feel that it does not belong to the present order of things. It is always, of course, true for all men that they "continue not in one stay," but it is also true that a great many of us have our continuing city amidst the trivialities and the transiency of this poor, mortal life. And so, connecting the two statements of these texts, we come to the thought that the direct effect of a true possession of Jesus Christ as the sacrifice for our sins and the food of our souls, will be to burn in upon our minds the consciousness that we do not belong to the world in the midst of which we are set, but that our true affinities lie far away, and far above all these visible and transient things. An Englishman carries with him the love of home when he goes into foreign parts, and in India or China he feels that he has nothing to do with the type of civilisation that is round him, but that he, for his part, belongs to the community over the sea. A Roman colonist in the old days, or even one of these Hebrews to whom this writer is addressing himself, living in some Gentile city, was familiar with the feeling that he did not belong to the organisation and society in the midst of which he found himself. And, says this writer in effect, "when the old restrictions and limitations of your Judaism have vanished, the sense of detachment is to remain; but you are now to feel that you are strangers in Philippi, or Colossae, or Thessalonica, or Athens, or Rome, not because you belong to Jerusalem, but because you belong to the city that is above." Many professing Christians feel themselves very much at home in English cities, just because they do not feed on the great Sacrifice, nor in any deep sense possess the great Altar. Our sense of detachment from the present is an infallible test of our Christianity. Because "we have an altar," therefore "we have no continuing city." And if we feel that we have not, our hopes and longings will be ever reaching out towards "the city which hath the foundations," because there the communion with Christ will be perfect; because there our feeding on the Sacrifice will be full and entire; because there we shall find the order of things to which we do belong, and realise that we are at home.

The possession of that Altar impels and fits to offer sacrifices, as the writer goes on to say, "By Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually." The sacrifice on the altar of propitiation has been once offered " for sins for ever," and in the strength of it all Christian people are priests, and can pass into the Holy Place, and there lay on the altar of incense, which is accessible to us through that Sacrifice, the sweetly odorous tribute of our praise and love.