What Does an Altar Symbolize in a Christian Church?

Open Bible kept at the altar.
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Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” – Genesis 8:20.

An altar represents a place of offering and sacrifice for religious purposes. It is a raised platform with a flat surface used as a place of consecration to God. The word “altar” was first used in Genesis 8:20 when Noah left the ark and built an altar. Before God gave the Law to Moses, men used different materials to make altars. The purpose of an altar was mainly to commemorate an encounter with God and signify the events between Him and mankind. Some of these examples include:

  • The Lord appeared to Abraham and said, “To your offspring, I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” – Genesis 12:7.
  • David built an altar to the Lord there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. He called on the Lord, and the Lord answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering.” – 1 Chronicles 21:26.
  • So Gideon built an altar to the Lord there and called it The Lord Is Peace. To this day, it stands in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.” – Judges 6:24.

The altar is amongst the most significant church aspects. However, not many people contemplate what the altar symbolizes or how it became an integral part of church services. The altar is often viewed as a furniture piece in the church when in reality it’s an important religious component.

Purpose of the Altar

Also known as ‘God’s table,’ an altar is a sacred place in the church. It’s a holy spot meant for people who wish to offer gifts and sacrifices to the Lord. It’s also the place where the Christian ceremony commemorating the Last Supper is celebrated. The word “altar” comes from the Latin words adolere and altārium, meaning “ritually burn or sacrifice,” or “high.” This reflects the altar’s early purpose as depicted in the Bible.

Biblical Beginnings

That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”  Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.” – Genesis 26:24-25

The first altar is described in the Bible. When Abraham arrived in Moreh, God reappeared to him and he built an altar. According to the Bible, one must first build an altar to live a life of faith. While we don’t have altars at home, every church has an altar at the building’s front. The altar belongs to all the members of the church who’re in the congregation. The act of building an altar means to offer everything we have to the Lord. Everything we love and value can be offered to God on the altar!

When Abraham built the altar, he put his prized possessions on it and burned them. That event was a reminder that Christians shouldn’t keep anything for themselves. It reminds us how our lives are meant for God alone. It tells us that our purpose is in service and not in collecting possessions. We put everything on the altar because we are here for God. The altar reminds us that physical items have no meaning in life and that leading a faithful life is our real purpose. Therefore, the next time you visit the church, look at the altar, and think about offering your valued belongings to God!

Modern Use

Today, the altar is more symbolic than functional. Christians reverenced it as a place to celebrate Eucharist. It is situated at a prominent location in the church, i.e., opposite the main entrance and on the east side. Priests in some churches acknowledge or kiss the altar before beginning their service. While celebrating Eucharist, the altar holds communion items like wafers and sacramental wine.

Altar Shape and Material

The materials and shape of the altar are also symbolic. The altar is shaped like a table to represent the Last Supper. This event models the Eucharist celebration, making the connection between the celebration and the church altar much stronger. The first altars were made from wood because it was easy to use and readily available. Even though wooden altars are still used in many churches, stone altars are more popular in modern times while metal altars are prohibitively expensive and less common. The overall shape, height, and size of altars haven’t changed with time.

Our Final Thoughts

Build the altar of the Lord your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. Sacrifice fellowship offerings there, eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 27:6-7

God commanded us to build altars every time he delivered someone. The significance of those altars helped future generations to remember the Lord. People sacrificed to the Lord as an atonement of their sins. In the broadest sense, an altar is designed for people to consecrate themselves for something or someone. Churches use altars for weddings, communion, prayers, and other things. Some Christians use altars for personal worship. The following scripture reflects what an altar symbolizes in a Christian church,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship.” – Romans 12:1.