When the children of Israel had just come out of Egypt God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle. This tent was supposed to be a place where God’s presence could come and live among his people. God told Moses, “let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). This tabernacle was called “the tent of the congregation” because here God would live among and meet with the congregation of Israel; God called the tabernacle the place “where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee” (29:42).
In front of the door of this tabernacle, this sanctuary tent, was an altar made of brass. The Lord ordered Moses, “thou shalt set the altar of the burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation” (Exodus 40:6). When a person wanted to sacrifice something to God, they were supposed to bring that offering to this brasen altar at the tabernacle’s door (Leviticus 17:5). When a person had sinned, they would bring a lamb, bull, or goat to this altar to take away their sins (4:1-4, 5:6, 9). The altar speaks of death; when a man brought an animal to offer it, the animal died and was offered on the altar.
The altar is a symbol for the death of Jesus on the cross. In the Old Testament men would bring an animal to take away their sins; but Jesus is “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Scripture says that the blood of bulls and goats purified the flesh, but the blood of Jesus purifies our conscience from sin so that we can serve God (Hebrews 9:13-14)! All of the blood spilled at the tabernacle’s brasen altar was a foreshadow of the blood that Jesus, our perfect sacrifice, would shed at Calvary. The brasen altar is a symbol of Jesus’ atoning death.
This brasen altar (as I said before) was in front of the tabernacle, the tent that the children of Israel worshiped at while they were traveling from Egypt to Canaan. The Bible calls this sanctuary “the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness” (Acts 7:44). As Jews would travel through the wilderness, they would set up the tabernacle tent when they set up camp and they would take the tent down and pack it up when they would travel to the next place.
In Numbers 4 God gave the Israelites very specific instructions on how to disassemble and carry the tabernacle; and these included instructions about how to carry the brasen altar. When the Hebrews were packing up the brasen altar they were commanded to empty the altar of all its ashes; then they would spread a purple cloth over the altar and cover the purple cloth with badger skins (Numbers 4:13-14) so that the altar could be transported.
It is interesting that the brasen altar was covered with a purple cloth. When the tabernacle was moved, five pieces of furniture were supposed to be covered with colored cloth. The brasen altar is the only piece of furniture that was not covered in blue; and it was the only piece of furniture that was covered in purple. This break in the pattern should catch our attention.
Remember, the altar is a symbol of Jesus’ sufferings to take away our sins. The Bible says that when Jesus was about to be crucified, that Pilate delivered him over to the soldiers to beat him. When the soldiers were beating Jesus, they “plated a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe” (John 19:2).
Just like the altar where so many sacrifices had died before, our sacrifice–Jesus–was covered with a purple cloth! Jesus’ suffering fulfilled the purpose of the brasen altar. Under the new testament we have Jesus’ blood to take away our sins; we do not have to come to the brasen altar with sacrifices any more. By God’s grace I no longer have to come to an altar draped in purple; now I can come to a Savior draped in purple, and to the cross where he died for me!