Let’s explore the significance and symbolism of altars in a person’s life.
Genesis 12:1-9 1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. 6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 9 Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.
We see here in the story of Abraham, that An altar is a place where we bow to the will of God.
Verses 1-6 about Abraham detail a journey into the will of God. Wouldn’t that be a good book title? “Journey Into the Will of God.” Think about the intensity of these opening verses. Think about the life-altering asks that God made of Abraham. Think about the “blind faith” it took to hear what God was saying and the faith it took at the age of 75, as the Patriarch of the family to say to your wife and kids and extended family that you were leaving the land in which you had been settled. You were taking all of your possessions and you were leaving, but you didn’t know where you would be headed.
Most people, at the age of 75, have a lot of stuff! I’m 52, and Thom is much older, and we have a lot of stuff! I can’t imagine how much stuff we will have at the age of 75! Thom said when we bought our home nine years ago we would never move again because it was just too much stuff to pack and move.
So, in obedience to the Word of God, Abraham takes all of his people and all of his stuff, and he just starts walking as God directs him to. Can you picture all of the questions his wife was asking? Can you fathom how frustrating it was to hear his kids and extended family say, “Are we there yet?” only to say, “I don’t know because God hasn’t told me where IT is!”
I want you to notice something about verse 6. It says Abraham and his people and possessions stopped in Canaan where the Canaanites lived! These were people who were enemies to the people of God.
I don’t know about you, but when I am traveling if a certain area doesn’t seem safe or like a good place to stay, I don’t hang out there. Abraham didn’t hang out there either, but he DID build an altar. You see, Canaan would one day be given to the Israelites. That is what God told Abraham. Abraham built an altar there almost to stake his people’s claim on that promise and property. I guess you could say this morning: An altar is a place where we can CLAIM the promises of God. Not to make too much out of it, but it reminded me of Psalm 23 when the Psalmist said, “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” God met Abraham in the middle of hostile territory for the Canaanites were a group of people Israel would one day have to fight. Listen, before anything can be conquered it must be claimed! Come on, Somebody. Before you can conquer anything, you have to claim that with God’s help, according to His promises and power at work within you, that you will have what He desires for you to possess.
This place in Canaan was more specifically called “Shechem.” Do you see that in verse 6? Shechem in the original language means “Shoulder.” Did you know in the human body the shoulder is the place with the most strength? The shoulder can lift what the hand cannot pick up. So Shechem also can mean “strength.” Where Abraham built an altar, where he claimed the promises of God, in Shechem, I believe he also gained strength for his journey as he built an altar of worship. When we bow to the will of God, even in enemy territory, God strengthens us. What a great altar experience Abraham had!
Abraham didn’t stay there in the land of the Canaanites. It wasn’t time for conquering yet. God moved them along in a hurry. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD
Did you notice the first altar that Abraham built was an altar of response? God had given Abraham a piece of the puzzle. He had told him about how his offspring would inherit that place, but that was only part of the walking tour God had Abraham on. He moved him on and when He moved him to pitch his tent between Bethel and Ai, there Abraham built an altar to the LORD and called on His name.
These biblical names are very important. Bethel means “House of God.” Ai means “ruins.” We have all been caught in situations which could lead to our destruction. We have all dealt with conflict in our souls at one time or another. Will we go God’s way, or will we choose the path of destruction? Abraham was smack dab between the House of God and The Place of Ruins.
Maybe this altar in Abraham’s life could represent what many have called the “Valley of Decision.” What will we do when we are being torn? Will we go God’s way or the world’s way? Abraham knew he needed to call on the name of the Lord. He needed to hit the altar when he had a decision to make.
When we build an altar, when we visit an altar, we may simply be doing it in order to seek the Lord in the midst of some situation. Verse 9 tells us Abraham didn’t stay in this area between Bethel and Ai. He moved on toward the Negev. Perhaps as he sought the Lord, God revealed to him that it was time to pull up stakes and move on to a new location. However, when he got to the area called the Negev, we don’t read about him building an altar. I don’t know that we can read too much into that except to take note that Scripture didn’t record him doing so which was something now out of his established routine.
Well, what happened was that there was a famine in the land and the famine was so severe that Abraham headed to Egypt. Verses 10-20 chronicle that time in his life. There is no record of altar building there either, and he didn’t make the best of decisions while there and basically the Pharaoh kicked him out of Egypt.
Abraham had looked to the food in Egypt to supply his need. You know, sometimes we go through lean times, hard times in our walk with the Lord, and it is easy to want to just get away from where we are, to try something new, to meet our own needs. In the OT, Egypt represents the ways of the world. Abraham essentially left his altar-lifestyle where he would call on the name of the LORD to help guide his life and he tried to supply for himself.
Chapter 13 tells us that after being kicked out of Egypt Abraham resumed his altar-building lifestyle. Look at verses 1-4: Genesis 13:1-4 1 So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. 2 Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. 3 From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier 4 and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD.
When things don’t go so well in our lives, when we realize we haven’t made the best of choices, could it be it is time to build an altar and call on the name of the Lord again? There are so many reasons to become an “altar-builder.” We see here that Abraham went back to the very same altar he had built before between Bethel and Ai. You know for some people, once they have messed up, once they have blown it, it is difficult for them to go back to God and reclaim the relationship that was once close. The beautiful thing about God is that He will always give us a fresh start when we approach Him with humble and repentant hearts. Perhaps this altar in Abraham’s life could represent a do-over, a brand-new start. Maybe we could say that when Abraham built this altar it was a rededication to doing things God’s way. I like the idea that altars can be a place of restoration and recommitment.
Let’s move on in Genesis 13. We read about how Abraham and his nephew, Lot, had acquired lots of flocks and herds and tents, and staying together was getting really difficult because they each needed their own land for their people to settle on and for their animals to be able to feed off of. So, they decided to separate. Abraham gave Lot his first pick of the land. Verse 10 tells us that Lot chose what looked in the natural to be a great piece of property. It was well-watered. He saw it as fertile soil. So, he set out toward the east, and verse 12 says that Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.
Sodom was the “Sin City” of its time. If there was a place you wouldn’t want to raise a family, it would be Sodom, and Lot settled his family toward that area.
Notice verse 14. After Lot had left and was out of earshot, God told Abraham, “Look up and from where you are to the north, the south, the east, and the west, I am going to give this land to you and your offspring forever. Your family is going to grow so large that your descendants are going to be as numerous as the dust of the earth. No one will even be able to count your offspring.” That was a big deal. That was a huge promise.
God told Abraham to walk the length and breadth of the land, to start picture how big this blessing was. He told him to walk it by faith. He told him to claim it by faith.
So verse 18 says: Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD. I have to believe this was an altar of response for Abraham. He was thanking God by faith for all of the land, all of the inheritance, and all of the descendants God was going to give him before any of it came to be.
So maybe we could say that the altar could be a place to claim things by faith, to get God’s perspective on the dimensions of God’s love or the length and breadth of His plans for our lives and to thank Him for all He will do. Maybe it is at an altar where your faith is grown which enables you to believe God. Like, maybe on your way to the altar or on the way to building an altar you have great doubts, but maybe as you worship, kneel and pray, you actually receive the faith you need to believe God.
Notice that this altar that Abraham built was built AFTER he separated from Lot. Lot went one way, towards the world. Abraham went in another direction. You know sometimes we have to separate ourselves from things that will pull us away from our God-given destiny, from our Promised Land. Maybe you could say that an altar represents a place where we are able to separate ourselves from the things of this world, the things that are competing for our hearts and obedience.
There was another altar in Abraham’s life. Its purpose was quite different. God’s promise to Abraham to make his and his wife’s descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore meant that Abraham and Sarah would have to have a child in their very elderly age. Sarah had been barren, and now both of them were so old the thought of having a child was ridiculous. But that was what God had promised, and even in their old age, Isaac was born to them.
Though Abraham had been used to hearing God speak and following Him in faith, nothing could have prepared him for God’s ask in Genesis 22. For there, God told him to take this Son of Promise, his only son with Sarah and sacrifice him on an altar as a burnt offering. A burnt offering was a sacrifice for atonement for sin. Can you imagine the anguish Abraham must have felt? Our children are our hearts. They are the only love we don’t choose. It is just instant when they are born. The thought of having to slay one of them in order to obey God is beyond anything I could imagine myself doing.
And yet, Abraham set out to obey. He woke Isaac up and told him to get ready to make a trip with him to offer a burnt sacrifice, probably something they had done before together. Abraham cut enough wood for the burnt offering. He started walking with Isaac on a three-day journey. I can’t even fathom what they must have talked about. How did Abraham keep his voice steady? How did he keep from crying? How did he mask his emotion? Was it strangely quiet on that trip? Three days is a long time to anticipate having to rip your heart out of your chest, to think about having to kill your child.
Isaac knew enough to know that something wasn’t right. He started asking questions. Verse 7: 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Good question, right? Isaac knew a burnt offering required a blood sacrifice, and from his perspective they didn’t have one.
Abraham’s next words revealed his deep and unshakeable faith. 8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” How did Abraham KNOW God would provide a lamb? Abraham had been called to provide his son as the sacrifice. How did he really know God would do something that would somehow spare his son?
He knew it because he had already settled some things at the previous altars in his life. He had already bowed to the will of God at previous altars. He had already claimed God’s promises at an altar. God had promised Abraham that He would extend his covenant with Abraham to his son, Isaac. At previous altars Abraham had learned to trust the promises of God. He had already been in the “Valley of Decision” at a previous altar and had chosen God’s way instead of the way of the world. He knew all about brand new starts at altars, and He knew that somehow God would do something that would redeem what He had asked of Abraham. But now, Abraham was going to learn about another concept of altar-building and altar-worship. It was the concept of sacrifice.
Verse 9ff: When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. God asked for the thing Abraham loved most on earth. This is probably one of the most moving stories in all of Scripture because you can feel the intense emotion as the story unfolds.
10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
I’ll bet Abraham started dancing and screaming and praising God!
What I want to say to you this morning is that I think every other altar prepared Abraham for this incredibly difficult altar to build. Because he had surrendered his will at the altar, because he had trusted God at an altar in the “Valley of Decision,” because he had separated himself from the world at an altar of worship, he was ready to lay it all down if God asked Him to. And in that moment, God knew, and Abraham knew that God didn’t just have his attention, or some of his affection, but God had Abraham’s heart. And Abraham had been willing to lay his entire heart on that altar in a sacrifice to God. WOW!
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
And here is the big “aha,” friends. The altar of sacrifice was also the altar of provision. They became one in the same. Isn’t that awesome? The altar of sacrifice became the altar of provision as God provided what Abraham needed in order to fully obey God.
As we lay our entire lives on the altar of sacrifice, God gives us what we need to serve Him with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Do you know what it takes to build an altar? Broken things. Broken, jagged rocks, broken jagged lives, broken jagged people. These are what we bring to build an altar. The altar is truly a “Just as I Am” kind of place. I want to challenge you to let today be an altar-building day in your life. Whether you need to bow to the will of God, or separate yourself from the world, whether you need to exercise faith or claim the promises of God, whether you need to make a tough decision or rededicate your life or whether you need to sacrifice something you have loved more than you have loved God, He is here waiting to receive your worship and will provide more than you could ask or imagine in return.