"Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat." – Hebrews 13:9-10
Many Protestants today think that the Catholic/Orthodox practice of having altars in their worship services is an aberration, a deviation from Biblical Christianity. They see it as one of the many ways that, to them, Christianity has become “Judaized.” But is this practice really an unlawful, man-made “addition” to the Faith, or is it actually part of the original, pure and orthodox Christianity preached by Christ and His Apostles?
In consideration of this question, we have both the teachings of Scripture and of the early Church, with the latter being quite clear on the subject. However, since most Protestants are unwilling to use the views of the early Church to assist them in forming opinions about Scripture, I shall answer their objections with Scripture alone, with only logic assisting me.
From the outset, let me say that no orthodox Christian sacrifices animals, or in fact has any “new” sacrifice at all on their altars. Catholics and Orthodox teach that what is on their altars is the one sacrifice of Jesus – re-presented, not re-performed or “redone.” Jesus is NOT sacrificed again in the Eucharist, and to teach or even imply this would be a grave heresy. Jesus’ sacrifice was done once and for all, as is taught elsewhere in Hebrews (10:12). But that one sacrifice is made present for us in Holy Communion, as if we are taken out of time itself and stand before Jesus on Calvary.
As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians, “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” [emphasis mine] Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians also speaks of the Eucharist as being a sacrifice on an altar… he deplored the practice by some early Christians of taking Communion while in church, and later eating foods sacrificed to demons, saying that, “[T]he sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table [i.e., altar] and the table of demons.” [emphasis mine]
Now we consider our main verse, Hebrews 13:9-10. Many Protestants actually cite this verse to support their symbolic-only view of the Eucharist, which holds that Communion is not necessary or important, and is certainly not a sacrifice on an altar. The usual way the argument goes is like this: Catholics and Orthodox have a “ceremonial food” (i.e., the Eucharist), and Paul obviously condemns this and says it is of no value. When Paul then speaks of the “altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat”, he means by the word “eat” not a literal eating of Communion, but of believing in Jesus.
Numerous problems occur within this argument, however, though they may not be apparent at first glance. First is the “no value” line… if Paul includes the Eucharist in his definition of ceremonial foods, then he undermines Jesus Himself. After all, it was Jesus Who instituted Communion, and so it obviously has value for Christians, as the Lord doesn’t do anything that’s meaningless. Paul himself reports that Jesus said, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Surely Communion is of at least some value, then.
What do Catholics/Orthodox teach that Paul meant by “ceremonial foods?” It refers to the Jewish practice of partaking of animals sacrificed in the temple services. Since these animals’ sacrifice is only a foreshadowing of Christ’s one sacrifice, they hold no value in and of themselves, especially since Christ has come. Indeed, the partaking of the animal sacrifices was itself a foreshadowing (or a “type”) of the partaking of Holy Communion (the real sacrifice) by Christians. This view that “ceremonial foods” refers to Jewish sacrifices is supported by verse 10, when Paul mentions “ministers of the tabernacle,” and in the next verse, “The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering…” These two verses put the context of the preceding passages into that of Jewish temple services as compared to Christian worship.
The second problem occurs with the argument in verse 10 about “eating” being the equivalent of mere belief or just “being a Christian.” This position is quite shaky (and I would say untenable) based on the fact that Paul says Jewish ministers have “no right” to eat from this altar. If this altar represents the Eucharistic sacrifice, then I would affirm with Paul that non-Christians have no right to partake of it – they must become Christians and be baptized first. Doing otherwise would be a grave sin against the Lord. But if (as this Protestant argument holds) the altar represents merely being a Christian (and thus “eating” of Jesus symbolically), then I would strongly disagree, as becoming a Christian is everyone’s right. Eating the Eucharist is a right only after first becoming a Christian, but “eating” Jesus by simply becoming His follower is everyone’s immediate right, with no requirements in between (technically, becoming a Christian is a privilege, not a right, because it’s only by God’s undeserved grace that we receive His Spirit – but that is getting very technical and is beside the point).
We see then that the most probable conclusion, based solely on Scripture, is that early Christianity does indeed have a sacrifice and an altar. The early Christians, and the Apostles with them, considered Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to be the fulfillment of all the Jewish sacrifices, and the Eucharist to be the fulfillment of how we partake of it, as foreshadowed by the Jewish practice of partaking of animal sacrifices.
Of course, even though Protestants usually don’t accept probabilities based on the early Christians, the early Church testimony to this view of a Christian sacrifice and altar is quite clear. St. Ignatius, writing in 107-110 AD while on his way to martyrdom, refers to the Eucharist as a “gift of God,” the “medicine of immortality,” and “the antidote that we should not die but live forever in Jesus Christ.” St. Justin Martyr, in about 150 AD, says that:
“…this food is called among us Eukaristia, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh."
He also adds that, “those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.” Why would deacons risk their lives to take the Eucharist to Christians who couldn’t participate in Sunday worship? Deacons did die performing this practice. And why would Ignatius go so far as to call Communion the “medicine of immortality?” It’s just a symbol, right? Not so to Apostolic Christianity.