The very first thing the Jews did when they returned to Jerusalem in the 6th century BC was to rebuild the altar (Ezra 3). They had many things to do, such as build their houses, build the temple, restore the city and its walls. Yet we are told they completed the altar first. Upon completion of the altar, they then begin to lay the foundation of the temple, and years later build the actual temple.
The fact that they focused on the altar first is key to my reflection in this writing. Think about it, of all they could have chosen to do, the first thing is rebuild the altar. Why is that?
This is really because they gave God first priority.
See the altar was symbolic of several things all culminating in worship of the living God.
Firstly it represented sacrifice. In fact that Hebrew word for altar means The place of sacrifice. In the O.T. We see God prescribing the kind of sacrifice that he desired. One that was spotless and pure, which would have been costly. So as the Jews would worship him at their newly rebuilt altar via the burnt offerings, it indicated they were ready to give up something for him. As you and I come to God we must be prepared to give up something in our worship of the Lord. It could be our time that we would devote to spending with him, or doing things for him. Or it could be that he is asking you to step out and be more visible in your representation of him. As well, It may be with finances that he is continually tugging on your heart to part with, or something entirely. Whatever it is, be sure that it will cost you something to come to the altar of God, the place of sacrifice.
As you seek to meet with Him and follow through with setting time aside, you will—in a sense—be at the altar, for He will encounter you.
Secondly it represented an encounter with God. Have you ever noticed the patriarchs would encounter Christ at the altar. Whether it was Bethel (Luz), or Shechem or elsewhere, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would meet the Lord God powerfully and would raise an altar at that place. Today as New Testament believers, encountering God is not limited to a physical place, but a place of the heart. What I mean is that you don’t have to necessarily be at the front of the church (typically called an altar) or even in corporate prayer to meet with him. You can cultivate a personal altar, by simply setting time aside in your home, or wherever. As you seek to meet with him, and follow through with setting time aside, you will in a sense be at the altar, for he will encounter you. Indeed he promises in scripture, draw near to me and I will draw near to you.
A final thought is that the altar is a place of exchange. As the Jews brought prescribed offerings to God, they trusted that he will provide blessings, protection, guidance and so forth. Whether immediate, or deferred, or simply an undergirding foundation of his goodness, they knew they received something from him. The same way at our altar when we come to God, he exchanges our sacrifice of time, devotion, and heartfelt commitment for more of his presence. Scripture reminders us that “in His presence their is fullness of joy, and in His hand pleasures forever more”. This tells me that I can receive joy at the altar, and that even further he actually has pleasures of his choosing, whether material or immaterial, for me. Simply because that’s the kind of God he is. A good God.
As I conclude, what priority are you giving God? Are you cultivate a heart like attitude that represents true worship. Indeed are you building an altar like the Jews of old did, so you can meet God, hear from him and receive from him. Can I encourage you to start today? Not just yourself but also with a partner. If you have kids incorporate your family. As we devote more time to meeting him at the altar, we will see Gods purposes unfold in our lives.
– Pastor Olu Jegede