Look around when you enter the sanctuary of your church. What catches your eye? If you were to walk with one of the saints from the Old Testament and go to the divine service in the tabernacle with them, you may have more in common with them than you think.
As you enter the tabernacle one element stands apart. The bronze altar lit up daily with consuming fire. The glory of the Lord came to the people through this altar. On this altar their iniquities went up in smoke. Their sins were burned up. On this altar, the priest made atonement for the transgressions of Israel.
In Leviticus, the Lord instructs the priests through Moses to bring several offerings to this altar.
“Moses said: ‘ This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you. Then Moses said to Aaron: “Approach the altar and perform the ritual for your sin offering and your burnt ofering: make atonement for yourself and for the people. Then perform the ritual for the offering of the people; make atonement for them — just as the Lord has commanded” (Leviticus 9: 6–7)
The Lord commanded these offerings be brought by the people and He commanded the priest to offer these up on the altar, not for the sake of Himself, but for the forgiveness and reconciliation of His people to Himself. The Lord promised that the sins His people committed against Him would be wiped away, destroyed, forgiven.
The sins of Israel would be atoned for and the glory of the Lord would appear to them. This was the center and focus of the Old Testament divine service—and the center and focus of the divine service today.
The Apostle Paul writes, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17). As we come into the sanctuary of our churches, we may not see an altar lit with flames to which we bring beast and grain offerings. But, the divine service remains the same. It is through the sacrifice, the offering of atonement in which we are saved from the penalty of our sins, granted peace, and through which the glory of the Lord appears to us.
On the altar of the cross atonement has been made for our sins, just as the Lord first promised (Genesis 3:15). In Jesus’ death our sins are also dead in their power over us. The glory of God is hidden and revealed to us in Christ. He is the fulfillment of the Law and prophets, including Leviticus!
The holy Lamb undaunted came
To God’s own altar lit with flame;
While weeping angels hid their eyes,
This Priest became a sacrifice. (LSB 624)
The center of Leviticus is Christ, our Priest, crucified for us on the altar of the cross. John Kleinig writes about the divine service, “God had instituted the divine service in ancient Israel so that he could manifest his glory to his people on earth and bless them…In the new covenant, God’s glory is hidden in the humanity of Jesus and revealed to the saints through God’s Word.”
In the divine service we praise God in the Gloria in Excelsis for revealing His glory, His saving work for us in Christ, to us. In the absolution, in baptism, in the Lord’s Supper the atoning work of our Great High Priest is revealed to us. The glory of God dwells among us. Our Lord meets to forgive, sanctify, and bless us. Glory to God in the highest!