Leviticus 13. The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar: it shall never go out.
IT is a matter of deep regret that religious persons do not enter more fully into the Jewish Ritual, and explore with more accuracy the mysteries contained in it. And I am not sure that Ministers, whose office properly leads them to unfold the sacred volume to their people, are not chargeable with a great measure of this remissness, in that they are not more careful. to bring forth to their view the treasures of wisdom that are hid in that invaluable mine.
Of course, it will not be expected that on this occasion I should attempt any thing more than to illustrate the subject that is immediately before me. But I greatly mistake, if that alone will not amply suffice to justify my introductory observation; and to shew, that an investigation of the Law in all its parts would well repay the labours of the most diligent research.
The point for our present consideration is, the particular appointment, that the fire on the altar should never be suffered to go out. I will endeavour to set forth,
Its typical import, as relating to the Gospel—
Every part of the Ceremonial Law was “a shadow of good things to come.” This particular ordinance clearly shews,
That we all need an atonement—
[This fire, which was to be kept in, was given from heaven [Note: Lev_9:24.]: and it was given for the use of all; of all Israel without exception. There was not one for whom an atonement was not to be offered. Aaron himself must offer an atonement for himself, before he can offer one for the people [Note: Heb_7:27.]. Who then amongst us can hope to come with acceptance into the divine presence in any other way? Our blessed Lord has told us, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” And St. Paul assures us, that “without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” We must all, therefore, bring our offering to the altar; and lay our hands upon the head of our offering; and look for pardon solely through the atoning blood of Jesus. The fire, too, was for the daily use of all. And daily, yea, and hourly, have all of us occasion to come to God in the same way. There is not an offering that we present to God, but it must be placed on his altar: and then only can it ascend with a sweet smell before God, when it has undergone its appointed process in that fire.]
That the sacrifices under the Law are insufficient for us—
[Thousands and myriads of beasts were consumed on God’s altar: and yet the fire continued to burn, as unsatisfied, and demanding fresh victims. Had the offerings already presented effected a complete satisfaction for sin, the fire might have been extinguished. But the repetition of the sacrifices clearly shewed, that a full atonement had not yet been offered. In fact, as the Apostle tells us. they were no more than “remembrances of sins made from year to year;” and “could never take away sin,” either from God’s register of crimes, or from the conscience of the offender himself [Note: Heb_10:1-4; Heb_10:11; Heb_9:9.]. Thus, under the very Law itself, the insufficiency of the Law was loudly proclaimed; and the people were taught to look forward to a better dispensation, as the end of that which was, after a time, to be abolished.]
That God would in due time provide himself a sacrifice, with which he himself would be satisfied—
[From the beginning, God had taught men to look forward to a sacrifice which should in due time be offered. It is probable that the beasts, with whose skins our first parents were clothed, were by God’s command first offered in sacrifice to him. We are sure that Abel offered in sacrifice the firstling of his flock: and it is probable that fire was sent from heaven, as it certainly was on different occasions afterwards, to consume it: and that it was this visible token of God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice, that inflamed the envy and the rage of Cain [Note: Gen_4:4-5.]. From Noah’s offerings, also, “God smelled a sweet savour,” as shadowing forth that great sacrifice which should in due time be offered [Note: Gen_8:20-21.]. To Abraham the purpose of God was marked in a still more peculiar manner. He was commanded to “take his son, his only son, Isaac,” and to offer him up upon an altar, on that very mountain where the Temple afterwards was built, and where the Lord Jesus Christ himself was crucified. The fire, therefore, that was burning upon the altar, and the wood with which it was kept alive, did, in effect, say, as Isaac so many hundred years before had done, “Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?” Yea, it gave also the very answer which Abraham had done, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt-offering [Note: Gen_22:7-8.].” Thus, by keeping up the expectation of the Great Sacrifice which all the offerings of the Law prefigured, it declared, in fact, to every successive generation, that in the fulness of time God would send forth his own Son, to “make his soul an offering for sin,” and, by bearing in his own person the iniquities of us all, “to take them away from us [Note: Isa_53:6; Isa_53:10.].” In short, this fire, and every offering that was consumed by it, directed the attention of every true Israelite to that adorable “Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world [Note: Joh_1:29.],” and who in actual efficiency, as well as in the divine purpose, has been “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world [Note: Rev_13:8.].”]
That all who should not be interested in that great sacrifice must expect His sorest judgments—
[The victims consumed by that fire were considered as standing in the place of men who deserved punishment. This was clearly marked, not only by their being set apart by all Israel, and offered with that express view, but by the offenders themselves putting their hands on the heads of their victims, and transferring their sins to the creatures that were to be offered in sacrifice to God [Note: Lev_4:4; Lev_4:15; Lev_4:24; Lev_4:29; Lev_4:33.]. The fire that consumed them was expressive of God’s indignation against sin, and declared the doom which the sinner himself merited at God’s hands; yea, and the doom, too, which he himself must experience, if sin should ever be visited on him. It declared, what the New Testament also abundantly confirms, that “God is a consuming fire [Note: Heb_12:29.] ;” and that they who shall be visited with his righteous indignation, must be “cast into a lake of fire [Note: Rev_20:15.],” where “their worm dieth not, and the fire never shall be quenched [Note: Mar_9:43-46; Mar_9:48 five times.].” Methinks, then, the fire burning on the altar gave to every person that beheld it this awful admonition; “Who can dwell with the devouring fire? Who can dwell with everlasting burnings [Note: Isa_33:14.] ?”]
In considering this ordinance, it will be proper yet further to declare,
Its mystical import, as relating to the Church—
The different ordinances of the Jewish Law had at least a two-fold meaning, and, in many instances, a still more comprehensive import. The tabernacle, for instance, prefigured the body of Christ, “in which all the fulness of the Godhead dwelt;” and the Church, where God displays his glory; and heaven, where he vouchsafes his more immediate presence, and is seen face to face. So the altar not unfitly represents the cross on which the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified [Note: Heb_13:10-12.] ; and the heart of man, from whence offerings of every kind go up with acceptance before God [Note: Heb_13:15-16.]. In the former sense we have its typical, and in the latter its mystical import.
Now in this mystical, and, as I may call it, emblematical sense, the ordinance before us teaches us,
That no offering can be accepted of God, unless it be inflamed with heavenly fire—
[When Nadab and Abihu offered incense before God “with strange,” that is, with common, “fire,” they were struck dead, as monuments of God’s heavy displeasure: “There went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them; and they died before the Lord [Note: Lev_10:1-2.].” And shall we hope for acceptance with God, if we present our offerings with the unhallowed fire of mere natural affections? Our blessed Lord has told us, that he would “baptize us with the Holy Ghost and with fire [Note: Mat_3:11.]:” and every sacrifice which we offer to him should be inflamed with that divine power, even the sacred energy of his Holy Spirit, and of his heavenly grace. Let us not imagine that formal and self-righteous services can be pleasing to him; or that we can be accepted of him whilst seeking our own glory. Hear the declaration of God himself on this subject: “Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks! walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled: but this shall ye have of mine hand, ye shall lie down in sorrow [Note: Isa_50:11.].”]
That if God have kindled in our hearts a fire, we must keep it alive by our own vigilance—
[I well know that this mode of expression is objected to by many: but it is the language of the whole Scriptures; and therefore is to be used by us. We are “not to be wise above what is written,” and to abstain from speaking as the voice of inspiration speaks, merely from a jealous regard to human systems. True it is, we are not to attempt any thing in our own strength: (if we do, we shall surely fail:) but we must exert ourselves notwithstanding: and the very circumstance of its being “God alone who can work in us either to will or do,” is our incentive and encouragement to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling [Note: Php_2:12-13.].” If we cannot work without God, neither will God work without us. We must “give all diligence to make our calling and election sure [Note: 2Pe_1:10.].” We must “keep ourselves in the love of God [Note: Judges , 1.]:” we must “stir up (like the stirring of a fire) the gift of God that is in us [Note: 2Ti_1:6. See the Greek.]:” we must from time to time “be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain in us, that are ready to die [Note: Rev_3:2.].” In a word, we must be “keeping up the fire on the altar, and never suffer it to go out.”
This, indeed, was the office of the priests under the Law; and so it is under the Gospel: and this is, indeed, the very end at which we aim in all our ministrations. We never kindled a fire in any of your hearts; nor ever could: that was God’s work alone. But we would bring the word, and lay it on the altar of your hearts; and endeavour to fan the flame; that so the fire may burn more pure and ardent, and every offering which you present before God may go up with acceptance before him. But let me say, that, under the Christian dispensation, ye all are “a royal priesthood:” there is now no difference between Jew and Greek, or between male and female: ye therefore must from morning to evening, and from evening to morning, be bringing fresh fuel to the fire; by reading, by meditation, by prayer, by conversation, by an attendance on social and public ordinances, by visiting the sick, and by whatever may have a tendency to quicken and augment the life of God in your souls. The sacred fire must either languish or increase: it never can continue long in the same state. See to it, then, that you “grow in grace,” and “look to yourselves that ye lose not the things that ye have wrought, but that ye receive a full reward [Note: 2Jn_1:8.].”]
That every sacrifice which we offer in God’s appointed way shall surely be accepted of him—
[There is the fire: see it blazing on the altar. Wherefore is it thus kept up? kept up, too, by God’s express command? Wherefore? that ye may know assuredly that God is there, ready to accept your every offering. You think, perhaps, that you have no offering worthy of his acceptance. But do you not know, that he who was not able to bring a kid, or a lamb, or even two young pigeons, might bring a small measure of fine flour; and that that should be burnt upon the altar for him, and be accepted as an atonement instead of a slaughtered animal [Note: Lev_5:5-13.] ? Be assured, that the sigh, the tear, the groan shall come up with acceptance before him, as much as the most fluent prayer that ever was offered; and that the widow’s mite will be found no less valuable in his sight, than the richest offerings of the great and wealthy. Only do ye “draw near to God;” and be assured, “He will draw near to you:” and, as he gave to his people formerly some visible tokens of his acceptance, so will he give to you the invisible, but not less real, manifestations of his love and favour, “shedding abroad his love in your hearts,” giving you “the witness of his Spirit” in your souls, and “sealing you with the Holy Spirit of promise as the earnest of your inheritance, until the time of your complete redemption.”]
In concluding this subject, I would yet further say,
Look to the great atonement as your only hope—
[I wish you very particularly to notice when it was that God sent down this fire upon the altar. It was when Aaron had offered a sacrifice for his own sins, and a sacrifice also for the sins of the people. It was. then, whilst a part of the latter sacrifice was yet unconsumed upon the altar, that God sent down fire from heaven and consumed it instantly [Note: Lev_9:8; Lev_9:13; Lev_9:15; Lev_9:17; Lev_9:24.]. When this universal acknowledgment had been made of their affiance in the great atonement, then God honoured them with this signal token of his acceptance. And it is only when you come to him in the name of Christ, pleading the merit of his blood, and “desiring to be found in him, not having your own righteousness but his,” it is then I say, and then only, that you can expect from God an answer of peace. It is of great importance that you notice this: for many persons are looking first to receive some token of his love, that they may afterwards be emboldened to come to him through Christ. But you must first come to him through Christ: and then “he will send the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, whereby you shall cry, Abba, Father.”]
Surrender up yourselves as living sacrifices unto God—
[On the Jewish altar slain beasts were offered: under the Christian dispensation you must offer yourselves, your whole selves, body, soul, and spirit, a living sacrifice unto the Lord. This is the sacrifice which God looks for; and this alone he will accept. This too, I may add, is your reasonable service [Note: Rom_12:1.]. This must precede every other offering [Note: 2Co_8:5.]. A divided heart God will never accept. Let the whole soul be his; and there shall not be any offering which you can present, which shall not receive a testimony of his approbation here, and an abundant recompence hereafter: for, “if there be only a willing mind, it shall be accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not.”]