An altar is usually a structure in or on which a person offers prayers or sacrifices to someone or something for religious purposes or to commemorate an important event.
Many churches feature an altar before which ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, prayer, communion, and other sacred rites are carried out. Individuals sometimes create personal altars at home for their private worship or as a symbolic reminder of Romans 12:1 which calls us to "present your bodies as a living sacrifice."
On a spiritual level, each person can be said to have an altar within them where the flesh and spirit battle. When we surrender aspects of ourselves to God, we present that on our inner altar for God to control.
Most altars are similar to tables, with a flat top on which the sacrifice is offered. In the Bible, there are more than 400 references to altars. Some are piles of rock or stone, some are table-like, and others take other forms. The first use of altar occurs when Noah offered burnt offerings to the Lord after the flood (Genesis 8:20). Earlier, Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord; while an altar is not specifically mentioned, they may have presented their gifts on one (Genesis 4:3–4). Before God gave the Law to Moses, men built altars wherever they went, out of whatever was available. Altars were often made in response to a significant encounter with God in order to commemorate it (see Genesis 12:7; 26:24–25; 35:3; 1 Chronicles 21:26; Judges 6:24).
One of the most dramatic uses of an altar in the Bible involves God's prophet Elijah who challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest to see whose God was alive and active. First, the Baal worshippers implored Baal to light their sacrifice on fire, beseeching with shouts and even mutilating themselves in worship. Nothing happened. Elijah then doused his altar with water and prayed that God would honor his sacrifice. God sent fire to consume the sacrifice, evaporate the water, and even destroy the altar (1 Kings 18:20–40).
When the Israelites were instructed to build the tabernacle, God gave specific instructions for the altar in the courtyard (Exodus 27:1–8) for worshippers to use to offer their sacrifices. When Solomon built a temple, the altar was made of gold (1 Kings 7:48).
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