Building God an Altar
Genesis 35:1-7 - And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother. 2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: 3 And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. 4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem. 5 And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. 6 So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel, he and all the people that were with him. 7 And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.
Most Christians would be familiar with the concept of altars. It’s not uncommon to hear references to altars made in the context of spiritual warfare, where someone commands satanic or demonic altars to be destroyed. This is great but it seems to me as I study the Word of God that there are other references to altars that are worth reflecting on. As the above (and many other) scriptural reference shows, an altar (translated from the Hebrew word “mizbêach”) is a place of sacrifice. Altars were erected by patriarchs of our faith in response to divine visitation and deliverance. In Genesis 8:20, Noah built an altar and sacrificed after exiting the ark; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses all built altars to God and sacrificed to God on them. Our reference scripture gives us wonderful insight into altars, what they are, why God wants us to build Him altars and how to keep them in place after they’re built.
The first thing to realise about an altar is that it is God’s idea, not man’s or Satan’s. God calls us to build Him altars. Notice He asked Jacob in verse 1 to build Him an altar as He had appeared to him during a time of distress and shown him salvation. So we build God altars in response to something He has done in our lives. Perhaps it was a time when you desperately needed deliverance from sickness and God healed you miraculously. Perhaps it was supernatural financial provision, answered prayer, a job you wouldn’t ordinarily have got if it were not for His mighty hand. The patriarchs’ response to God’s visitation was to build Him an altar. But they built physical altars because they were men of the senses and it was the right thing to do in their dispensation. Today, our dispensation is one where we worship God in spirit (John 4:24) and our altars are therefore spiritual altars.
The second thing we see about altars is that Jacob, in readiness for building God an altar asks his household to ‘put away strange gods, be clean and change your garments’. Strange gods represent dependence on other powers than God. Sometimes we see people who depend on their own human ability, who ‘bow their knees’ to other men in submission in order to secure man’s help or who just explicitly go seeking help from the devil in desperation. To build God an altar, we must cast away completely every dependence on self, man or satan in order to secure God’s purest intervention in worship. Let’s remember that Jesus only rides the colt that no man has ridden. He also asks them to be clean and change their garments. This refers to coming to God with a consciousness of His righteousness – that He is the one who justifies and makes us acceptable in His presence. It refers to God expecting that, according to Titus 2:11-12, we deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.
The third thing we see about altars is that when they built God an altar and continued on their journey, the terror of God went before them and confounded their enemies. A believer who builds God altars cannot be intimidated in life. God’s glory and presence goes ahead of such a person to give him/her victory in all their endeavours in life. This is what favour is - indeed when the ways of a man please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. Jacob and his people had enemies but because the favour that flowed from the altar he built God had gone ahead of them, their enemies could in no wise trouble them.
Finally, we see that building God altars is a continuous process. After he built God an altar in Padanaram for deliverance from his brother Esau (Genesis 33:18), he experienced God’s further salvation from enemies around them and further built God an altar in Luz. This became a pattern in their lives and something God calls us to emulate. God’s pattern for our lives is that He gives us victory, we appreciate and celebrate him for that victory by building an altar of remembrance in our hearts. He then gives us further victory on account of the altar and this becomes a pattern for a victorious life.
So we see that God calls us to build him altars in response to divine visitation or help. He cares about how we build the altars – with complete focus and dependence on him. Divine rest and favour flow from the altars we build God and finally, God wants the altars we build Him to increase in our lives.
So let’s look now at the questions of how to build God an altar and what to do on the altars. As I mentioned earlier, altars in our dispensation are not physical. They are in our hearts or spirits. We build God an altar by remembering what He did for us on a specific occasion. Note however that it is one thing to build an altar and another to utilise that altar. The altars built by the patriarchs were not just structures that existed in isolation. Instead they were used for sacrificing. In other words, an altar meant nothing without the sacrifice offered on it. Accordingly, Hebrews 13:15 says ‘By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the