12 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not go out. The priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and he shall arrange the burnt offering on it and shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. 13 Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Leviticus 6:12-13)
Through the Bible: Leviticus 5-7
I’ll never forget a family vacation to Washington DC when I was nine years old. It felt like we saw everything on that trip! The Smithsonian, the National Archives, the White House, Mount Vernon, Monticello… looking back, I have no idea how we got everything in to those few days, but somehow Mom and Dad made it happen!
For some reason, one of the the things that made the biggest impression on me as a nine year old was John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington. I thought it was cool that there was a lit torch coming out of the headstone. My Mom told me that was the Eternal Flame.
“You mean…it NEVER goes out?” I asked, awed.
“That’s right. It NEVER goes out.”
I was floored. A few years later, I came across this article about the repairs being done on the Eternal Flame. I was amazed all over again at the care the US Army Corps of Engineers took to make sure the flame never went out, even while they were replacing the tubing, the burner, and other parts.
For all the work it takes for modern engineers to ensure a flame is always burning, think of how much more work it took for the Levites to keep the altar fire burning as described in Leviticus 6. This was not like switching out propane tanks. Wood had to be gathered and cut. It had to be a roaring fire so the sacrifice would burn completely. The ashes had to be disposed of some distance outside the camp. No wonder it took an entire tribe to maintain the offerings and feasts!
We aren’t given an explanation in Scripture for why the altar fire had to be kept burning continually, so as Tara-Leigh often says, we have to hold any of these interpretations with an open hand. But I think there are some beautiful truths throughout Scripture about the permanence of God, and all of them can be symbolized in the altar fire’s eternal flame.
Continual Access. There’s not a window of time set aside on God’s schedule for confession and repentance. The fire is always burning. God says, through the apostle Paul, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthains 6:2)
Continual Dependance. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 commands us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing.”
Continual Worship: The writer of Hebrews says, “ Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Hebrews 13:15).
Continual Thanksgiving: We are to “give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” according to Ephesians 5:20
Continual Readiness: Paul told Timothy to be ready in season and out of season to preach the word (2 Timothy 4:1-2). And the apostle Peter reminds all of us to “Always have an answer for the hope that is within you (1 Peter 3:15).
So, yes, a lot of work. But now, let’s look at it from Christ’s perspective. Christ, according to Hebrews 7:25, “always lives to make intercession for us.” The work of the sacrifice has been completed once and for all (John 19:30). We couldn’t make a perpetual sacrifice today even if we wanted to, because the Temple has been destroyed. But the miraculous good news of the gospel is that, through Christ, the perfect sacrifice has been made, once and for all. Jesus Himself is the eternal flame on the altar!