The other day when I was reading a Bible story with my kids, a phrase caught my attention. The author had written, “But Abram continued to build his altars and follow God by faith.” (Bible Stories that Live, The Southwestern Company, Nashville, TN, copyright 1966)
This phrase made me think about building altars. An altar is, quite simply, an elevated place, a location to make sacrifices or offerings to a god, an ancestor, or some other honored being.
Altars are places where men can offer sacrifices (Gen. 8:20) or burn incense (Ex. 30:1, 7, 8). An altar is a place for unity, drawing groups together in a common cause (Deut. 12:5-6). An altar might be built as a memorial, a place to remember a vow made, Exodus 17:15-16. We also see in the Mosaic Law that the altar was a place of protection for those seeking safety, Exodus 21:13-14.
Altars could be made of earth, bronze or stones, either natural or hewn. In some cases God was very specific about what materials He wanted used (Exodus 20:24, 25, Ex. 27:1-8), and other times we do not see God specifying which building materials He required.
In the Old Testament we see men of God building altars. Some of the most notable would be Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7-8) Jacob (Gen 33:18-20) and David (2 Sam. 24:18-25). Most of you reading this probably know well the story of the altar built by Elijah on Mount Carmel, 1 Kings 18:31-32. Some others would be Isaac, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and Samuel.
Today we no longer offer burnt offerings or incense to God upon an altar. We know that mankind’s relationship with God now is much different than during the time of the Old Testament. In John 4:21-24, in His discussion with the woman of Samaria, Jesus said, “The hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.” In verse 23 He says, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
Today the altars upon which we sacrifice to God are our hearts. In Hebrews we see that God would put His laws upon our hearts, Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16. Just as the physical altars built during Old Testament times were to be sanctified to God, so our hearts must also be pure and set apart for the purpose of honoring God. Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Our sacrifices today are not beasts of the field, but rather spiritual sacrifices that come from our hearts. In 1 Peter 2:5 we read, “you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” These sacrifices bear fruit in service to God. “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Hebrews 13:15-16
In the Old Testament we often saw men building an altar when a significant event occurred. Noah built an altar upon disembarking from the ark. Jacob built an altar after his vision of a ladder up to heaven.
I would like to suggest that we also need to build altars at important turning points in our lives. Consider this, when you became a Christian, did you build an altar in your heart? You made a commitment to God on that day, and if we were still building physical altars I cannot think of a better time than that to build one. How about when you were married? That would be a time when you might have built an altar, commemorating this significant event in your life and committing your marriage to God. Or when your children were born? I know when my first child was born I dedicated her to God from the moment I held her in my arms. I knew she was not mine, but His, and He had given her to me to raise and teach. At that moment, I built an altar to God in my heart.
These are major events in our lives, but there are many other times when we might build a spiritual altar in our hearts. You might begin a new job, and by building an altar in your heart you have committed yourself to serving God in your new position. You might be pursuing a degree; build an altar to God in your heart, vowing to always keep Him first and foremost through this grueling time of study and sacrifice. I’m sure you can think of other opportunities to build a spiritual altar. I know when we bought our larger house a few years ago, I built a spiritual altar in my heart, promising God that I would use my home to bring glory to Him by hosting events and sharing hospitality with others.
By building spiritual altars in our hearts, we are honoring God with each important decision we make, with each life-changing event we experience. By doing so we are dedicating each part of our lives to God, presenting ourselves to Him as the sacrifice He desires. Romans 12:1 tells us, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”
By this we live what we read in Mark 12:33; “And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
May God bless you as you build your altars.
By Fern Boyle
Fern Boyle is a homeschooling mom of six kids who lives in Enid, Oklahoma. Her husband, Doug, is an elder in the church of Christ at Garriott Road, and a pilot in the military, having served in both the Marine Corps and Air Force. Their time traveling from coast to coast has blessed them with friends in the church all across the country as well as many opportunities to grow as Christians. Fern enjoys running, hiking, reading and teaching ladies Bible class. She used to have other hobbies but then she had more kids. Her children are what she loves most, however, watching them grow and develop into wonderful young men and women.