Does Matthew 5:23-24 imply that Christian churches should have an altar?

by Luke Wayne
1/7/2020

No, neither Jesus nor the New Testament authors implied that Christian worship requires an altar. Jesus' life and ministry obviously occurred before His death and resurrection. He was a Jew living among Jews who worshiped God at the temple through animal sacrifices, and Jesus sometimes illustrated His points to His immediate hearers by drawing on these experiences. Such illustrations do not imply that Christians today need animal sacrifices, temples, or altars. Indeed, to make Matthew 5:23-24 about the importance of altars would actually be to reverse Jesus' point!

The Argument

During the famous "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus said:

"Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering," (Matthew 5:23-24).

Some self-appointed Roman Catholic apologists on social media occasionally point to this verse and say that it "proves" that the church should have an altar (and, by extension, should offer the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice). They claim that, for Jesus' teaching here to have any meaning to us at all, it must be true that we also worship at a physical altar in our church buildings. On its face, this is simply not true! Jesus often used situations from the time and culture where He was to point to more universal truths.

Historical Moments and Universal Truths

Let's look at a couple of other examples to demonstrate the point. Just a few verses later, Jesus says:

"Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two," (Matthew 5:41).

We don't live in a time and place where Roman soldiers might compel us to carry a burden for them a mile down the road. This specific circumstance of having someone "force you to go one mile" is not going to happen to us today. Yet, the principle Jesus was teaching here is every bit as much for us today as it was for Jews living under Roman rule. We are to go above and beyond to show voluntary love even to a coercive enemy. As we keep reading the sermon, we also see Jesus say things like:

"But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you," (Matthew 6:17-18).

Jesus is clearly saying that our fasting should be kept secret as an act of faith and private devotion. We are to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. But He also says to "anoint your head" or "put oil on your head," (NIV, CSB, NRSV, etc.). Do we have to pour oil over ourselves when we fast as Jesus says here? And how would that keep people from noticing that we are fasting? Wouldn't it draw attention to us? Well, in Jesus' day, anointing one's head with oil was a common mealtime practice. Thus, if you anointed your head with oil, people would assume you had been eating and thus would never guess you were fasting. The oil was not Jesus' point. Indeed, today the oil would have the opposite effect! The principle still applies. We should not make a show out of fasting to gain the approval of others. So, even though Jesus' illustration is tied to the historical moment that He spoke the words, His larger point remains the same. Today we should no longer use oil when we fast, but we should still avoid drawing attention to ourselves.

The Verse in Context

In the same way, though we no longer bring offerings to a temple to be sacrificed on an altar, Jesus' teaching here is still wholly applicable to us. Note the fuller context:

"You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering," (Matthew 5:21-24).

The scene at the altar is merely an illustration of the larger point. We should not harbor anger and bitterness against our brothers. We should not slander. We should forgive, repent of our own wrongs, and seek reconciliation. Ironically, far from emphasizing the great importance of the altar, Jesus was telling these Jews that forgiveness and reconciliation were actually more important than what happened at the altar. It was more urgent to pursue reconciliation than it was to offer a sacrifice. Thus, to twist this passage into a command for Christians living after the cross to return to worship at an altar is not only to miss the point but to turn it around entirely!

Jewish Piety and Christian Worship

Not everything Jesus said to the Jews of His day was meant to carry over directly to future Christian worshipers. For example, Matthew also records: 

"Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: 'The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them,'" (Matthew 23:1-3).

Jesus clearly did not mean that every Christian in every place for all future generations should study what the first-century Pharisees taught and then obey them. Instead, Jesus was acknowledging that the Jews of His day should obey the Pharisees in so much as the Pharisees were the ones teaching the law of Moses to the people even though the Pharisees themselves were often hypocrites. After the cross, however, Gentiles were welcomed into the kingdom by faith in Christ without needing to come under the law of Moses. The Pharisee's exposition of the Mosaic regulations would not be relevant to such believers, and Jesus was not implying that they (or we) should come under such teaching. Context matters. When it comes to altars, the New Testament saw such worship as something that Old Covenant Israel did, not as something that Christians needed to continue doing. This is why, even when Paul uses the altar as an example, he writes: 

"Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?" (1 Corinthians 10:18).

Jesus' illustration regarding religious Jews bringing offerings for the altar does not in any way imply that Christians require an altar in our churches today.