AN ALTAR AND A SACRIFICE ACCEPTABLE TO GOD
by Daniel Yahav
Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, you yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. You shall not make other gods besides Me, gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves. You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to My altar, so that your nakedness will not be exposed on it’ (Ex.20:22-26).
The Law speaks to us in pictures and shadows, but the fulfilment of them is in the New covenant through Yeshua (Col.2:16-7, Heb.10:1). These pictures are of great value, teaching us deep spiritual truths if we correctly understand them, and they can make it easier for us to remember these truths.
In light of this, what does the picture of thealtar of earth or the altar of uncut stones, teach us? What is their significance to us today and why does God tell us not to go up onto the altar?
Let us begin by examining what is the offering under the New covenant. In Hebrews 13:11-12, the writer is making a comparison between Yeshua and the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Yeshua offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross, and so the cross was His altar. In the same way, we as His followers, are called to offer our lives to God.
In the gospel of John, Yeshua expresses that He came to fulfill that which His Father gave Him to do. (John 17:4). In another place He said that He doesn't do anything except that which the Father reveals to Him. All the deeds that He did were what the Father had sent Him to do - leading to the final sacrifice on the cross. Yeshua poured out His life on this altar of service which the Father had given to Him. Sometimes He didn't sleep at night. We read that when He was in Jerusalem He was hungry in the morning, so He had not eaten breakfast. In another place He says 'the foxes have dens and the birds have nests but I don't have anywhere to lay My head.' He sacrificed Himself all the way, not just on the cross, in order to fulfil all that the Father had given Him.
Paul also speaks in the same way in his letter to the Philippians (Phil.2:17). He described himself as being poured out on the altar as a drink offering. He knew that he would be shedding his blood, but for what purpose? All of Paul's life, his calling to bring the good news of the gospel to the Gentiles and also to the Jews, was his sacrifice for God’s purposes (Acts 9:15). This was his calling and this was his ministry, it was for this that he poured out his life. It was for this that they lashed him with whips on several occasions and for this they stoned him, and for this he was thrown in jail. He was shipwrecked a number of times, he suffered hunger and nakedness, because this was his God given calling, and this was the altar on which he was continually sacrificing his life, even to the point that death itself was required of him. And the fruit of his sacrifice was the salvation of the Colossians, the Philippians, the Ephesians, and so many more, in all the congregations that were established. He would always go to the synagogue first and then to the Gentiles, and he poured himself out through blood, sweat and prayers on this altar of service.
In this light, it is time to apply this to our own lives: ‘Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good, and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:1). First of all we see that our lives are a sacrifice, not just our death. We are focusing here on the sacrifice of our daily lives, and not on the drama of death itself. Paul tells us not to be like the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we know what God's will is. It is important to realize that only God knows the altar which He has prepared for us because only He knows the deeds that He has prepared for us to do. ‘ For we are His workmanship, created in the Messiah Yeshua, for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Eph.2:10).
If you are launching into the army, into a career, into a certain ministry or anything else, and you want to do the maximum possible, this is good, but test your motives before the Lord. Have you sincerely asked God: 'What do You want me to do?' Did you say to Him: 'Put me where You want me to be...' If not, and if you are thinking like the world, you will be following your own ambitions, but if your mind has truly been transformed, you will be asking God: 'What is your plan for my life? If you think like the world, you will have your life mapped out already, from one step to the next. But if you are walking in the Spirit, you will be asking God: 'Lead me to fulfill your purposes for my life'.
This kind of walk before God, is an altar. In fact, only what God has prepared for us, is the altar on which we can sacrifice our lives to Him. Anything else is a distraction and a waste of time. It is possible to go through life, doing many things, being involved in different projects and even ‘ministries’, making all the decisions, and finally reach the end, only to discover that we have completely missed God's plan for us. Let us be sure that this does not happen, by giving our whole lives over to God, to seek and to do His will, with the understanding that He will take us wherever He chooses, and He will use us according to His good will, so that we will be sacrificing our lives on the altar He has prepared for us.
Let’s remember what Yeshua said: ‘ If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me’ (Luke 9:23). That cross is the altar on which we sacrifice our lives daily. It is not an easy place, it would require denying our flesh and sacrificing our comfort.
What then, is the altar of earth?
We have established that our lives are the offering, and the service which God has prepared for us is the altar. God then says to His people not to make gods out of silver or gold, but to make Him an altar of earth. 'You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you' (Ex.20:24). The God of heaven and earth, who's name is blessed from the rising of the sun to its setting, has not asked for an altar of gold encrusted with diamonds, He asks for an altar made of earth. It does not cost money, it is simply the act of piling up the dirt and sacrificing the offering. But this must be in the place that He chooses, not the place that we choose. Note this: It is humble and simple, not expensive or impressive, and at the place He will choose!
When we look at the life of Yeshua, or Paul we see that they were men of humility and simplicity (Matt. 11:28-29). God calls us as well, to sacrifice our lives on an altar that is simple and humble, which He has chosen for us. No matter what is our occupation, simple or honorable in the eyes of this world, if we are in a management position or spend our time at home caring for the family God has given us- this is our altar, and we can do it with a humble heart unto the Lord, with thanksgiving. This will please our Heavenly Father, as Paul says '...whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.' (1 Cor. 10:31). So, whatever our work, we can do it to the best of our ability and so bring glory to God. And if we are faithful in a little, the time may come to move on, and He will give us more. But this will still be an altar, simple and humble. It may be that the Lord will ask us to give up something that is valuable in the world's eyes in order to do something that is more valuable in His eyes. As long as we are in the place of His choice, doing what He has called us to do, that is worth treasure in heaven. This humble earthen altar on which we sacrifice our lives, will produce gold, silver and precious stones that will stand the test of fire. When Yeshua's eyes of fire will look at our lives, they will test everything we have done. Whatever was not from Him or according to His will, will be burned up and lost, but whatever was from Him and done for His glory by faith, love and sacrifice, will remain.
Now, let us look more closely at verse 25:
’If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it.
Hebrews 10:1 and Col.2:16-17, tells us that the Old Testament holds the shadows of the good things which are in the Messiah. In other words, the commandments of the Old Testament have a spiritual meaning and a message for us today. In our last letter we learned about the meaning of the altar of earth. Altars were used to sacrifice on them the life of an animal. So also the humble altar of earth is the place and the calling God has for each one of us on which we are called to humbly sacrifice our lives as is written in Romans 12:1. But the word of God goes on in this passage, and gives also the possibility of building an altar of stones. An altar of stones is talking about something bigger and more substantial than the very low and humble earthen altar. Some of us have been called by God to a higher profile service just like an altar of stones would be higher than an earthen altar. However, God says that if we build an altar of stones, we must use only natural stones from the field and not wield our tool on them to shape them. One should take the stones as they are, sometimes rough and do not fit so smoothly, and put them one on the other, in order to build the altar. Why then use only natural stones?
Natural stones have been created by God himself while shaped stones are the result of man’s initiative. God is saying that if you want to serve him, you need to spend your life on the deeds He has prepared for you to do, (Eph.2:10), and not on your own man made ministry. For example, may be the Lord has called you and gifted you to be an evangelist. He may have intended you to share the good news with the poor people in the slums of your town, or maybe even go to the jungles of South America, and share the gospel with the natives. But rather than go there, you decide to become a TV evangelist in North America. Instead of spending your life where God has called you, which would be symbolized by the natural stones which God made, you choose to spend your life on a man made ministry, on an altar of stones shaped by yourself.
God is saying 'I want you to use only the stones that I have prepared for you. Do not cut stones for yourself, do not invent or build a ministry for yourself, for your own name. Walk only in the service which I (God) have prepared for you to do. If you build an altar of service for your own name, according to your own ideas - a ministry which is all centered around you, creating a big name for yourself - it is worthless. if you build an altar of cut stones, according to your own ideas and not according to God's will, the scripture says " you will profane it".
This brings up the next question: how do I know what is the altar on which I’m to lay my life? Where do I find these stones? Paul tells us that we can find these stones (our service to God) through the Holy Spirit who comes from the Father and reveals His plan for us.
'For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.' (1Cor 2:10-11)
The Holy Spirit knows what the Father has prepared for each one of us. When we give Him our lives, and we say: 'Let Your will be done in my life, not mine', then we experience what Paul describes in Phil.2:13 'For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure'.
If you surrender your life to God, He will work in your life. It is not hard or complicated - it is simple, because you do not have to wonder or search, He will lead you on that path and He will bring them to you. If you are walking in the Spirit and not in your flesh, He will show you where the stones are. You can then lift them up, that is, do the deeds and the service which the lord has prepared for you. This may be sharing the gospel with your neighbor, helping someone you see in need, praying for someone, offering hospitality or anything that God brings your way. In this way you are serving God, fulfilling the good works He has prepared for you.
Yeshua said: 'Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.' (Matt 6:33) . The key is, Seek HIM first, not the service in itself nor a place on the stage. Trust Him in every area of your life, because He knows what you need and he knows all your gifts and abilities. He can provide everything that is necessary. Build an altar for God, not for yourself. Ask God to show you where and how you can serve Him, instead of making up your own "ministry" and wasting your life in something God never called you to do. This altar may be of earth for now, but one day it may grow and be of stones, and only there , in the place where God chooses for you, is where you can offer up your life to Him in an acceptable and meaningful way. Not according to your own thoughts and plans, nor according to the thinking of the world, but be renewed in your mind and let God put His thoughts in your heart and mind, so that one day, when you reach the end of the road, you will know that you have not wasted your life.
Yeshua warned us: 'Not everyone that calls me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out demons? and in your name done miracles? And then I will answer them: I never knew you, depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt 7:21-23) . Let us look around and be ready to serve Him with a humble heart in the place and the calling He has given us, walking in the service He has prepared for us beforehand. It may not be that which we have dreamed about, but if we are faithful where He has placed us and serve him with the right heart, picking up the natural stones as they come our way, and sacrificing our lives for HIS purposes - this will be the most worthy sacrifice in God's eyes.
God's word goes on to say: 'And you shall not go up by steps to My altar, so that your nakedness will not be exposed on it’ (Ex.20:26).
What does that mean?
We now understand that our service or ministry is the altar which God has prepared for us, upon which we sacrifice our lives for God.
We then, are told not to go and stand upon that altar, that is, not to use that service or ministry in order to exalt ourselves, or to seek glory and fame for ourselves. For instance, if you have a spiritual gift, do not use it to hold vast conferences making lots of money for yourself and then build a huge mansion on your name. Whatever your gift or service, do not make a big show out of it, but learn from Yeshua who did not sound the trumpet every time He performed a miracle or healed people. In fact, many times He even instructed people not to tell anyone. It is good to give testimony about what God has done, but it is important to discern what are our motives behind it?
Is it to exalt ourselves, or to be in competition as to who is the greatest, as the disciples were? Yeshua corrected them on this issue time and time again. Be careful not to exalt yourself by the service or ministry which God has given you.
God is the one who initiates any meaningful ministry and also gives the ability to serve Him, and it is all done by His grace. Therefore, we have nothing to be proud of. But, if we are proud and exalt ourselves upon that God given altar, then we expose our nakedness, to our shame. In the Garden of Eden, the moment Adam and Eve sinned, they felt the need to cover their nakedness. We see that nakedness is representing our sin, our shame.
God says that if you raise yourself upon the altar, you are exposing your sin - your pride and arrogance. We do not want to use the ministry and service which God has given us, in a sinful way, to glorify ourselves.
In Matthew 23 Yeshua further clarified for us the relationship between the altar and the sacrifice, when he reproved the Scribes and Pharisees on that matter. They were teaching that if anyone swore by the altar, it was of no significance and they were not obligated to abide by it; but if they swore by the offering, then it was to be taken seriously. Yeshua addressed this by asking: 'Ye fools and blind: which is grater, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering?' (Matt 23:19)
He states clearly that the altar sanctifies the offering.
We are also reminded that we are to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as we read in Rom.12:1 - 'Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.'
Our lives are the sacrifice, and we are called to pursue holiness, without which, no one will see God: 'Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord' (Hebrews 12:14).
How then, can we pursue holiness? Yeshua said that the altar sanctifies the offering. So if we want to pursue holiness, we must sacrifice our lives to God. When we do so, on the altar of the service which God has prepared for us - not on an altar of service that we have made up for ourselves - and in the place that God has chosen, then we - the offering - will be sanctified to God. To be holy means that our life is dedicated to God, so that I say: 'Lord, what do You want for my life? Not my will but Yours be done. Give me ears to hear You. Give me a whole heart that follows after You. I want to fulfil your calling for my life, You are my God, You are my Father, I love You, I believe in You, take my life, I give it wholly to You.' When we give our lives to God in this way and walk in those deeds which He has prepared for us each day, then our lives are being sanctified. Yeshua paid the price, purified us and justified us, but now we are to walk in it, to apply it and to live it. In this way we pursue holiness in our lives.
Furthermore, the altar of sacrifice was connected to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. It is written about the altar, when it was consecrated at the dedication of the Tabernacle on the first day of the first month of the second year after the sons of Israel left Egypt: 'Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it… You shall anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, and the altar shall be most holy.' (Ex. 40:9-10). In Hebrew it says: 'the altar shall be Holy of Holies'. This altar was very close to God's heart. In the same way, the altar which God has prepared for our lives, the deeds which He has prepared for us beforehand to walk in, (Eph. 2:10) are very close to God's heart - they are most holy, the Holy of Holies.
Scripture goes on to say: 'For seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it; then the altar shall be most holy and whatever touches the altar shall be holy.' (Ex 29:37)
Not just that the altar was holy of holies, but whatever touched the altar became holy. So when they put the animal for a burnt offering onto the altar, it became holy - dedicated to God.
Not everyone is called to lead a ministry or preach in the jungles of Africa, but we can all dedicate our lives to God's service wherever we are. And let us not forget that our first service and ministry is to the members of our own household and the people around us. In addition, we can come alongside someone who has a special calling, and be partakers with him in fulfilling that calling. Paul had his altar of stones which God had prepared for him, but he could not fulfill his calling alone without the people who came along side and helped him. Timothy was one of them. He helped Paul writing his letters and serving him and in this way he had a part in sacrificing his life on the altar God had prepared.
The question is, where should we invest our time, our energy, our money or any other resources? With whom are we to connect? On which altar should we sacrifice our lives? Be sure to connect with people or ministries or congregations whose sole interest is to serve the purposes of God's kingdom and give God the glory, and not to man. Often this may look like an earthen altar or an altar of uncut stones: simple and unassuming, but remember that God did not want the fancy and glamorous man made altars of cut stones.
We will now examine yet another instruction God gave His people, concerning the altar.
'…. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat and put it on the horns of the altar on all sides. With his finger he shall sprinkle of the blood on it seven times, and cleanse it, and consecrate it from the impurities of the sons of Israel .....'(Lev 16:18-19)
God instructed the high priest, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to purify the altar - which was itself considered most holy - from the uncleanness of the people of Israel. The Altar may have been defiled for example, by offerings that had not been brought with the right heart or the right motive. We remember that when Yeshua was in the Temple (Luke 21:1-4) He was watching as rich people were giving large donations, maybe even competing who gives the most, therefore appearing more righteous. But then came a poor widow and gave her two small coins, and Yeshua explained that she had given more than all the others. This teaches us that God looks at the heart and that is what matters to Him the most. Nowadays, you may see in many places including churches or synagogues plaques on various pieces of furniture, stating the name of the donor who gave the money for them, because so many are keen to see their name on something. But Yeshua said, when you give, don't let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. In other words, what you do, do it unto God who sees your heart and not unto men to be seen.
Another time in Luke 18:9-14 Yeshua spoke about a Pharisee who was standing in the Temple praying and giving thanks to the Lord that he was not like other people who are sinners, but that he fasted twice a week etc. God does not receive such attitude. If we come to the altar of God with our self-righteousness, it is not an offering that comes from a pure and humble heart that truly loves God, and such a sacrifice is not accepted by God.
In the book of Malachi, (Mal.2:13-17) we read that God told His people upon their return from Babylon, that although they come to Him with offerings and they weep and cry at His altar, He will not receive any of it because they have dealt treacherously with their wives. God saw their hearts and knew how they live, and because their hearts and therefore their lives, were not right before God, These offerings would defile the altar. And there are many more examples. God says that He has had enough and cannot tolerate any more offerings like this, coming from an impure heart.
For all these reasons the altar needed to be purified once a year, with the blood of the sacrifice.
For us this means that we ask the Lord to test our service, and test the motives of our hearts, and reveal to us if there is any harmful way in us. For the people in the time of Malachi, their behavior of divorcing their wives and remarrying was acceptable in their society, many were doing that, and they did not see anything wrong with it. Today in the western world, it is much the same. It is normal to divorce and remarry, listen to rock music and have tattoos etc. Most people don't think there is anything wrong with these practices, because even pastors do the same – so people think it must be ok!
We need to stop once in a while and ask the Lord to examine our heart as King David prayed:
"Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting". (Ps.139:23-24)
It could be that there has sneaked in uncleanness on our altar and we need to purify it with the blood of Yeshua and ask for forgiveness and cleansing, that we may be changed to be more like Yeshua.
'Whatever you do, do it heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men ; knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord, the Messiah whom you serve.' (Col. 3:23-24). 'For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me. What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge , that I abuse not my power in the gospel.' (1 Cor. 9:16-18)
Paul wanted to fulfil his calling willingly - with joy, willingly, with all his heart, not grudgingly - complaining and dreading what he may have to suffer for the sake of the gospel.
Yeshua said: 'Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me , to render to every man according to what he has done.' (Rev 22:12)
Yeshua is coming soon, and He will give His reward to each one of His servants. He is faithful. He said that whoever gives a cup of water in His name will receive a reward. But let us do more than just give a cup of water, and we will receive a greater reward. Our life is short, let us make the best use of our lives, of our time and resources. Let's use every opportunity to give, to serve, to shine the light of our Lord to all who are around us, with a pure heart, willingly, without self righteousness or pride, and so fulfil our calling with joy , unto God.