The Treasure of the Altar

Pastor Kyle McIver


The Treasure of the Altar
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Some of my favorite moments growing up were watching sports together with my family. I have many memories of watching games with my dad and brothers. We were huge Chicago Bulls fans in the ’90s, along with cheering for the Vikings, Timberwolves, and Twins. And I not only remember watching these games together, I also remember how much I needed to learn in order to understand what I was seeing. I often thought myself much more intelligent than the athletes and coaches I was seeing on the screen. Every time a running back ran toward a hole created by the offensive line, I would tell my Dad that if only he had run around all of those guys to the outside, he would score a touchdown every time! Or when our team was behind at the end of a basketball game and needed to foul the other team to keep them from running out the clock. I couldn’t understand the strategy and became so upset that we were giving them free points by sending them to the free-throw line over and over.

But as I grew older, through a great deal of my dad’s patient instruction, I learned how these games worked. And as I did, I came to enjoy them more. As I learned the strategy and knew more of what was happening on-screen, I was able to feel the rhythm of a game and understand where the big moments are that decide whether you win or lose.

And as we get into Ezra 3 tonight, I think there is a great deal of similarity in how we approach this chapter. We’re going to talk a lot about the altar, sacrifices, and feasts. Each is incredibly important to the biblical storyline, but are often areas we don’t understand as well as other topics or doctrines, such as those covered in more detail in the New Testament. But in the same way that coming to understand a game heightens your enjoyment in watching it, investing time to understand the critical role of the altar, sacrifices, and feasts in the life of God’s people has great potential to heighten our joy as Christians.

So here’s our outline for tonight. We’re going to spend most of our time in the first six verses of Ezra chapter 3, which focus on the altar, sacrifices, and the feasts God set out for his people after bringing them out of Egypt. Now as you can tell, the description of these events in Ezra 3 is brief - just six verses. But if we are to understand the significance of what is happening, we need to go back and lean into God’s instruction to Israel through Moses regarding the altar, sacrifices, and the feasts. So that’s what we’re going to do - we’re going to examine each of those three key components in the life of God’s Old Covenant people, understand their significance for what is happening in the book of Ezra, and then look ahead to see how each category paved the way for us to better understand what God has done in Christ.

Let’s begin with the altar. Remember that God has put it into the heart of Cyrus, King of Persia, that God’s house in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. He makes a proclamation that God’s people may return to do this work, and as chapter 3 opens, we read that the people have now settled in the towns and cities again, and that it is the seventh month of the year. Now the seventh month is actually the high point of the Jewish year, which we will see a little later in the major feasts appointed for God’s people during this month. And in reading that it is the seventh month, we’re meant to feel a sense of anticipation and excitement. God’s people have returned to the land God gave them. They are settled and ready to begin rebuilding. It’s the high point of their year, and the first thing they set out to do is build the altar and set it in its place.

Remember that their express purpose set out in Ezra 1 and reinforced a little later in Ezra 3 is to rebuild the house of the Lord, the temple. But the first building project the people undertake is the altar. And I think this naturally raises the question of “why?” Why start with the alter? Why not jump in and rebuild the temple, since that’s what they came back to do? There are at least a couple of factors here in the opening of Erza 3. Listen to verses 2-3 again:

Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening.

Here we see a clear emphasis on burnt offerings in connection to the altar, as they are referenced several times within just a couple of verses. Now as I mentioned earlier, we’re going to do a lot of looking back tonight. Our text is short, but there is a great deal of meaning, history, and significance packed into these verses. It’s as if you’re walking back into your childhood home for the first time in years, decades perhaps. You can take it in so quickly, with just a glance… but the stories, the memories, and the history are deep, complex, and meaningful.

And so it is with the altar here in Ezra 3. The altar in many ways was at the center of Israel’s worship and identity as the people of God. Altars appear at key moments in the history of God’s people, and all throughout the first five books of the Bible (which we commonly refer to as the Pentateuch) God is giving instruction for sacrifice. The people then, in turn, worship God through the sacrifices he has instituted.

Take Abram for example. He builds an altar after the Lord meets with him in Genesis 12 and promises him both offspring and land. Then again in Genesis 13, when he walks the length and breadth of the land the Lord is going to give him, he builds an altar. And then of course there is the famous account of Abraham and Isaac, walking up the hill and constructing an altar upon which Isaac is bound, but then delivered when God stops Abraham and provides a ram as the substitute.

Fast forward to Moses and the people of Israel upon their exodus from Egypt. Near the end of Exodus 17 Moses constructs an altar after the Lord delivers Israel from the people of Amalek. And as the book of Exodus progresses, the altar becomes increasingly central and significant to the life of God’s people. Exodus 29 contains many laws and conditions around the altar and the tent in which it was placed. Listen to Exodus 29:43, where God says this about the altar: there I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. The altar is where God will meet with his people.

And again, remember the context and history behind a statement like this one. God delivered his people from Egypt and called them to be holy, set apart, a people for his own possession. He intends to dwell with them and be among them, and so instructs Moses to have the people build the tabernacle. And at the center of the tabernacle is the tent of meeting, which holds the altar, where God will meet with his people. How does God meet with his people, then? Could any Israelite build an altar? Could any Israelite come to the altar in the tent of meeting and hear God’s voice? Enter his presence directly? If you know this part of your Bible well, you know that they could not simply come however they wanted to. The presence of God, and his meeting with his people Israel through the altar, was a mediated meeting - a mediated presence.

And here we’re confronted with the driving storyline of the Bible - God sets apart a people to dwell with. These people however are sinful, and cannot by nature of their sin and rebellion enjoy God’s presence because they’ve alienated themselves from him. And so, God’s solution for the people of Israel is that he will dwell with them and meet with them by means of the altar and the sacrificial system. He gives them this means by which sin may be dealt with and that he might be among them. God made a way! God set out the terms by which he could dwell with his people Israel and deal with their sins.

So now we understand why these returned exiles made haste to construct the altar and set it in its place. Coming home to the place where God had promised to dwell with his people was no small thing. And they wanted to re-establish the worship of God at the altar and receive the blessing of protection from God for the work ahead of them.

Now let’s briefly consider the sacrifices mentioned in our text. Here’s what we read in Ezra 3: ...they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening.

So the altar is constructed, and then they begin to offer burnt offerings. And there is a particular way that they go about these offerings. They offer them, as Ezra 3:2 says: as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. This is another moment to look backward, to recall and understand the depth and breadth of what is happening when God’s people offer burnt offerings on the altar.

These sacrifices served two fundamental purposes for God’s people in the Old Testament: atonement and worship. We just looked at God’s purpose in setting apart for himself a people to dwell with. And along with that comes the reality that God has to deal with the sinfulness of his people if his presence is going to dwell among them. One of the functions of these sacrifices, then, was to deal with the sins of the people. God prescribed certain sacrifices for situations when sin had been committed. A person would confess their sins and bring their offering to the priest according to the sacrifice so that they would be forgiven of their sin.

Looking more broadly at these sacrifices, they weren’t only for the atonement of sins, they were actually fundamental to Israel’s worship. God had set them apart to be a people for his own possession, a priesthood offering acceptable sacrifices to their God. This was their basic calling and vocation as God’s people! Now with that said, there is yet another reason presented in our text that God’s people immediately rebuilt the altar and began offering sacrifices.

Listen to Ezra 3:3 again: They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening. They had returned to Jerusalem, to their homeland, but it had been around 70 years since they were taken into exile - it wasn’t the same city they’d left behind a lifetime ago! God was not being worshipped as he had instructed, and there were competing ethnic and religious groups within the city and its surrounding towns.

So as the returned exiles looked at the city around them, there were many reasons to be worried. Their physical safety and the success of their mission to rebuild the temple, when assessed by merely physical, material standards, seemed already to be on shaky ground. They had only hope in their God, the God who had worked wonders to bring them back to the promised land - just like he worked wonders when he brought them up out of slavery and into this land the first time. And so the people worship. They obey God’s commands to worship him at the altar and offer sacrifices because they had no greater means of security and hope than God himself. This land was once their home, but it looked far different after 70 years of God’s people in exile.

So we have the altar and the sacrifices, the burnt offerings morning and evening. Now let’s examine the last element of their worship, the feasts. There are two references to feasts in our passage, one specific and one general. Specifically, verse 4 tells us that God’s people kept the Feast of Booths, and then later in verse 5 we read that they kept the feasts of the Lord, plural.

Now what are these feasts? What do they look like and what is their function in the life and worship of God’s people? Again, we need to look back. Leviticus 23 outlines the feasts of the Lord, those which he commanded his people to keep regularly. There we see seven feasts:

  • The Sabbath
  • The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread
  • The Feast of Firstfruits
  • The Feast of Weeks
  • The Feast of Trumpets
  • The Day of Atonement
  • The Feast of Booths

Let’s start with the Feast of Booths since it is the one feast directly referenced in our text. Leviticus 23 not only outlines these feasts but also provides commentary along the way. Here’s what we read pertaining the Feast of Booths, in Leviticus 23:42: you shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. The purpose of this feast is pretty clear: it is a means by which the people of Israel remember that God delivered them from Egypt and that he alone is God. And isn’t that fitting in this moment of Israel’s history? Just as God had delivered them from Egypt and brought them to the promised land, so now he has delivered them from exile and brought them back home. The Feast of Booths, which always took place in the seventh month of the year, commemorated God’s original deliverance from Egypt, and was a perfect celebration of God’s deliverance in the present.

The other feasts also function in similar ways. Each feast is intended to commemorate or celebrate a particular element of God’s redemptive work and provision for his people. In this way, the feasts Israel kept served as a sort of catechism. A catechism teaches truth by means of question and answer. For example, a popular catechism today is the New City Catechism.

The first question is: what is our only hope in life and death?

Answer: that we are not our own but belong to God.

These feasts, which were to be held every year, served the purpose of teaching through regular repetition. Whenever a child or a foreigner would ask, why live in booths one week every year? The answer was simple: we are remembering the provision and redemptive work of God when he brought us up out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land. God instituted these feasts as a regular reminder of his work and as an opportunity for his people to give thanks and rejoice over his provision.

So now they’ve built the altar, begun offering sacrifices, and are keeping the feasts. And in all of this we might think: “They’ve done it! They’ve reestablished worship of God according to his Word!” But our text provides a very clear reminder that the work is not yet finished. After listing these successes in the first five and a half verses of chapter three, we read this in the second half of verse six: But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid. Remember that at the outset of Ezra, the charge was to build God’s house in Jerusalem. That is the mission. God’s people have returned and reinstituted the foundations of worship once again. But the temple has not been built, so the work is not complete.

The rest of Ezra 3 walks through that work and how the foundation of the temple is laid. And that’s where we’re headed next week - we’ll be working through the rest of Ezra 3 together. For the remainder of our time tonight, I want to work back through the high points we covered regarding the altar, sacrifices, and feasts, and show the enduring relevance of this passage for us as God’s people today.

We’re going to do this in reverse, so we’ll start with application from the feasts, then move to sacrifices, and then get back to the altar. Remember that the feasts were powerful, tangible reminders of God’s faithfulness, provision, and redemptive work. God is not shy about telling his people to remember. He knows the weakness of our frame, our forgetfulness, and the way that sin draws us to anything and everything that distracts us from him.

So over and over again, God calls us to remember. And one of the most potent ways that God does this in the life of his people today is the Sunday gathering - the very act we are participating in together right now. In the same way that the feasts were regular, annual reminders for the people of God, so gathering weekly with the body of Christ is a regular, visible, tangible reminder of God’s faithfulness, provision, and redemptive work. Think about it with me - every Sunday we come together, the gathered people of God in our little space within Roseville, Minnesota, and we are:

  • Called to worship
  • We confess our sins together
  • We sing and receive the Word together
  • We celebrate at Jesus’s table together
  • And then we are commissioned back into the world together to make disciples

Nothing about the Sunday gathering is accidental or insignificant. Corporate worship is the foundation of your Christian life. It is the weekly, visible, catechizing reminder of God’s character and God’s work. Whenever somebody asks: why do you go to church every Sunday? The answer is: because we are remembering the redemptive work of the risen and reigning king, Jesus Christ! Our services are designed in such a way that they are teaching us how to worship Jesus. How to relate to him and grow in grace.

And each Sunday, in addition to the way our services are ordered, you are given another powerful reminder of God’s redemptive work, although you may well often overlook it. Take a second, right now, and look around you. Seriously. Look around the room. Look at the people. Every single member of this church, every single Christian in this room, is a living, breathing, testimony to the redemptive work of God. Look at your brothers and sisters who have been brought from death to life… who have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the beloved Son. Every single week, Jesus keeps you! Jesus keeps those in your life group, and your community group, and in this church! We keep coming back! We’re here every week!

Redeemer, this is our feast. This is our God-given reminder built into the weekly rhythm of our lives that we too may learn to worship God and walk in his ways. This is precisely why the author of Hebrews commands that we not give up meeting together - meeting together every week for corporate worship is essential to the Christian life.

Second, let’s consider what we can learn from the way that the returned people of God prioritized worship in the midst of their return to Jerusalem. Remember that they’d been gone for 70 years. The city and landscape had changed. The population and practices of the people had changed. They did not walk into a city prepared to stand up and worship God in accordance with his Word. They were afraid of the people around them, and as we will see over the next few months together, they were about to face tremendous opposition in their quest to rebuild the temple and reestablish the city of Jerusalem.

And what did they do? They worshipped. They worshipped God by the book - his Book. As Christians, we too find ourselves staring down a growing opposition. The pressure is on to abandon inconvenient doctrines and unpopular truths. Affirming basic truths about men and women, or sexuality, or human dignity, or individual accountability is becoming increasingly costly. So what will we do? What must we do? We must worship God, and worship him by the Book. We have been called to lay down everything before Jesus and offer up our lives as a living sacrifice. Romans 12:1-2 says: I appeal to you therefore brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind… Christian, your entire life is a sacrifice, offered on the altar to Jesus Christ, the King over all creation. And we offer this sacrifice not by conformity to the world, but by leading lives of holiness, by being distinct as God’s people, being transformed by the renewing of our minds.

The safest place we can be in the face of opposition is obedience, walking in worship with the people of God.

And finally, let’s look once more at the altar, which will also bring us to the table. Under the Old Covenant God met with his people by means of the altar, the sacrificial system, and the priesthood. The priests, by way of the altar and the sacrificial system, were mediators for the people before God. They acted as the bridge between God and his people. And while Israel did indeed have access to God in this way, it was limited. There were physical barriers in place around the altar. A select few could approach the altar and offer sacrifices on it. Until one day, many years later, when Jesus tore down the barrier.

Jesus went to the cross to die in your place, to bear the punishment for your sins. And when he breathed his last upon that bloody cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two. Jesus is the Mediator between God and his people - and there is no longer a barrier! Access to God’s presence is not limited to a physical altar in one location. Jesus ushered in a new age in which the Spirit of God dwells with his people all over the world, and we, the people of God, have fellowship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

So when we come to this table together tonight, let’s remember the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross. Let’s rejoice in Jesus, our Mediator, who tore down the curtain, and gave his Spirit as his own unfailing presence to be with everyone who trusts in Him.