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FIRE ON THE ALTAR NOT TO GO OUT
Leviticus 13:0. 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: Leviticus 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: Hebrews 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: Hebrews 10:1-4; Hebrews 10:11; Hebrews 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: Genesis 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: Genesis 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: Genesis 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: Isaiah 53:6; Isaiah 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: John 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: Revelation 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: Leviticus 4:4; Leviticus 4:15; Leviticus 4:24; Leviticus 4:29; Leviticus 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: Hebrews 12:29.] ;” and that they who shall be visited with his righteous indignation, must be “cast into a lake of fire [Note: Revelation 20:15.],” where “their worm dieth not, and the fire never shall be quenched [Note: Mark 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: Isaiah 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: Hebrews 13:10-12.] ; and the heart of man, from whence offerings of every kind go up with acceptance before God [Note: Hebrews 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: Leviticus 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: Matthew 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: Isaiah 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: Philippians 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: 2 Peter 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: 2 Timothy 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: Revelation 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: 2 John 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: Leviticus 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: Leviticus 9:8; Leviticus 9:13; Leviticus 9:15; Leviticus 9:17; Leviticus 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: Romans 12:1.]. This must precede every other offering [Note: 2 Corinthians 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.”]
THE LAWS RELATING TO LEPROSY
Leviticus 13:45-46. And the leper, in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, Unclean. All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.
AMONG the various disorders with which the Jews were afflicted, the leprosy was marked as the most odious and disgraceful; and the rules for distinguishing it from all similar disorders were laid down by God himself with very extraordinary accuracy and precision. As existing in garments and in houses, it seems to have been peculiar to the Jews; and to have entirely vanished with their dispensation. But there doubtless was some important end for which God visited them with this disorder: and what that was, may be gathered from the various ordinances relating to it. In all the differences which God commanded to be put between things clean and unclean, he designed to teach us the evil and bitterness of sin: but from the leprosy more particularly may these things be learned. We may learn, I say,
The evil of sin—
Whatever resemblance the leprosy might bear to some other disorders, it differed materially from all others. It was,
[This disorder was not, as some have thought, acquired by contagion; for it was not at all infectious: but it proceeded immediately from the hand of God; and was always considered as a punishment for sin. Miriam was smitten with it for her rebellion against Moses [Note: Numbers 12:10-15.]: and Gehazi, for his covetous and dishonest conduct towards Naaman the Syrian [Note: 2 Kings 5:27.].
In this light also should sin be viewed. True, it first entered through the device of Satan: but from that time has it been, more or less, judicially inflicted by God, on those who have disregarded the divine commands. Frequently is God said to “blind the eyes,” and “harden the hearts” of men. We must not indeed suppose, that he ever does this by a positive infusion of sin into the soul: this would not consist with his own glorious perfections: but he abandons men to the evil of their own hearts, and withholds from them that grace whereby alone they can overcome their corruptions. Multitudes are “given up by him to a reprobate mind, because they like not to retain him in their knowledge [Note: Romans 1:28.].” And he tells us plainly, that this punishment shall be inflicted on us, if we do not guard against sin in its first beginnings: “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways; he shall eat of the fruit of his own ways, and be filled with his own devices [Note: Proverbs 1:30-31; Pro 14:14].” Who indeed has not found the truth of these declarations? Who does not see, that, if we harbour pride, covetousness, impurity, sloth, or any other evil principle in our hearts, it will gain such an ascendant over us, as at once to chastise us for our folly, and to augment our guilt? The truth is, that the very heaviest judgment which God can inflict upon us in this world, is, to give us over to the evil of our own hearts, and to say, “He is joined to idols; let him alone [Note: Hosea 4:17.].”]
[If there were but the smallest appearance of the leprosy on any one, he must instantly have it examined with all possible care. He must not trust to his own judgment, but must apply to those whom God had authorized to determine the point, according to the rules prescribed for them. If the disorder existed, though in ever so low a degree, the person was instantly visited with all its painful consequences: and if only a doubt of its existence was entertained, he must be shut up, and re-examined, week after week, till the point could be determined. Surely nothing could more strongly declare its odiousness in the sight of God.
In this respect it most emphatically marks the hatefulness of sin. “Sin is that abominable thing which God hateth [Note: Jeremiah 44:4.].” He charges us to abhor it [Note: Romans 12:9.], and to abstain from all appearance of it [Note: 1 These. 5:22.]. He solemnly assures us, that, if we harbour it in our hearts, it shall not go unpunished [Note: Exo 34:7 and Proverbs 11:21.]. He requires us to “search and try our ways;” and to bring every thing to the touchstone of his word [Note: Isaiah 8:20.]: nor would he have us satisfied with our own judgment, lest our self-love should deceive us: we must come to our great High-Priest, “whose eyes are a flame of fire;” and beg of him to “search and try us, and to see if there be any wicked way in us [Note: Psalms 139:23-24.].” However clear we may be in our own eyes, we must say with St. Paul, “I judge not mine own self: for I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me is the Lord [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:3-4.].”]
[There was nothing prescribed, nor indeed any thing to be attempted, for the cure of this disorder. Nothing but the hand that inflicted it, could remove it. Hence the removal of it is most generally expressed by the term cleansing; and those who were relieved from it are said to have been cleansed [Note: Luke 17:14; Luke 17:17.].
And certain it is that none but God can deliver us from sin. No superstitious devices have ever been able to root it out, no human efforts to subdue it. The blood of Christ alone can wash away its guilt; and the grace of Christ alone can suppress its operation.]
Clearly as the evil of sin is seen in this disorder, we behold yet more strongly marked,
The bitterness of it—
The person afflicted with the leprosy was put out of the camp or city in which he had dwelt, and was forced to live alone, being cut off from all intercourse with his dearest relatives [Note: 2 Kings 7:3; 2 Kings 15:5.]. How inexpressibly painful must this have been! — — —
Here then we see shadowed forth the miserable state of men by reason of sin. When it shews itself only in unallowed infirmities, it will consist with the divine favour; just as the leprosy, when it was turned to a kind of scurf that covered the whole body from head to foot, was considered as no longer rendering the person ceremonially unclean [Note: 2, 13.]: but, as long as it continues “deeper than the skin,” with “quick raw flesh rising,” and “white or yellow hair;” in other words, while it reigns within, and produces its accustomed fruits, it incapacitates us for,
Fellowship with God’s Church on earth—
[Social intercourse indeed with the Lord’s people is not prohibited: but that fellowship which the saints enjoy with each other in spiritual exercises is altogether beyond the reach of those who live in wilful sin. The Apostle justly asks, “What communion hath light with darkness, or righteousness with unrighteousness, or he that believeth with an unbeliever [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:14-15.] ?” The views, desires, and pursuits of the ungodly are altogether different from those which characterize the children of God; and they make for themselves that separation, which under the law was the subject of an express command. Strictly speaking perhaps, the separation begins on the side of the Lord’s people, because they are commanded to “come out from the world, and be separate, and not to touch the unclean thing [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:17.]:” but the effect is the same: in the one case, the unclean were but few, and therefore were separated from the mass: but in the other case, the mass are the unclean; and the clean are separated from them.]
Admission into his Church in heaven—
[St. Paul appeals to us respecting this as a thing plain, obvious, and undeniable [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:9.]: and our blessed Lord repeatedly affirms it with the strongest asseverations that it was possible for him to utter [Note: John 3:3; John 3:5.]. When king Uzziah was smitten with the leprosy in the temple, all the priests with one accord rose upon him, and thrust him out of the temple; yea, and he himself also hasted to go out [Note: 2 Chronicles 26:20.]. And thus it would be in heaven, if by any means an unrenewed sinner were admitted there: he would be thrust out [Note: Luke 13:28.], as unworthy of a place among that blessed society; and he would haste to flee out, from a consciousness that nothing but redoubled misery could await him there [Note: Psalms 1:5.] — — —]
Let us entertain a godly jealousy over ourselves—
[Men are very apt to “think themselves something, when they are nothing.” But we should diligently “prove our own work, that we may have rejoicing in ourselves alone, and not in another [Note: Galatians 6:3-5.].” As in the leprosy, so in the dispositions of the heart, it is often difficult to distinguish with certainty: the lines of distinction between unbelief and fear, presumption and faith, worldliness and prudence, and between a variety of other principles existing in the mind, are more easily defined on paper, than discerned in the heart: truth and error often so nearly resemble each other, that none but our great High-Priest can enable us to discern them apart. Yet if an evil principle be admitted into the mind, it will produce a thousand evils in the life. Hence a peculiar stigma was put upon the leprosy, when detected in the head: then the person was declared “utterly unclean [Note: 4. This expression does not occur anywhere else.].” Be on your guard therefore, beloved Brethren; and beg of God, that you may never be permitted to deceive your own souls. When doubts arose about the leprosy, the person was shut up for seven days; and this was repeated, till the point could be ascertained. And if you would occasionally retire from the world, and spend a day in fasting and self-examination, you would detect many evils of which at present you have very little conception, and acquire a perfection of character not to be attained in any other way.]
Let us humble ourselves for our remaining imperfections—
[However we may have been cleansed from our leprosy, there is, as was before observed, the leprous scurf still over us from head to foot [Note: 2, 13.]. We still therefore have occasion to cry with the prophet, “Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips [Note: Isaiah 6:5.].” “Our very righteousnesses are, in fact, but filthy rags [Note: Isaiah 64:6.]:” so that we still have reason, like holy Job, to “lothe and abhor ourselves in dust and ashes [Note: Job 42:6.].” The external signs of sorrow which were prescribed to the leper, we should commute for those which indicate true contrition: “Rend your heart,” says the prophet, “and not your garments [Note: Joel 2:13.].” We should “walk humbly with God,” and so much the more when we find that “he is pacified towards us [Note: Ezekiel 16:63.].” And, as they who had only been suspected of the leprosy were required to wash their garments [Note: 4.], so let us, who yet retain such awful memorials of it, “wash ourselves from day to day in the fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness” — — —]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Leviticus 13". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13