Stepping Into The Promise

Notes below based on sermon preached at One Church Home on July 24, 2022

As we step into the promises of God in our lives, if we are going to, as Pastor Ian taught, build altars of remembrance for the amazing things God has done, we need to understand what an altar is and its importance in our relationship with God—both in the time of Joshua and now.

When we see the word altar in the Bible, we usually think of a place where sacrifices are offered to a god for religious purposes. And while that’s true, there is much more we need to understand, especially as followers of Jesus.

The first time the Bible tells us of an altar being built is in Genesis 8:20, after the waters of the great flood had subsided, the Ark had finally come to rest, and Noah and his family went out onto the dry ground.

Noah’s first act was to worship God by building an altar and sacrificing a burnt offering of some of every clean animal and every clean bird on the altar he had built. And it was after smelling the “pleasing aroma” of Noah’s sacrifice that God said to Noah:

Genesis 9:9-11
9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the Ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Just a few chapters later in Genesis 12, we see Abram building an altar to God when, after obeying the Lord’s command to leave Ur and arriving in the land of Canaan near Bethel, the Lord appeared and said to him, “To your offspring I will give this land (Genesis 12:7).”

This is the first time Bethel—which in Hebrew means “House of God“—appears in Scripture. Let this settle in your heart for a moment…
God had called Abram out of a pagan land.
God had led Abram to the House of God (Bethel).
And Abram pitched his tent to the east of the House of God, where he built an altar to “call upon the name of the LORD.

Abram was dwelling near the House of God. He was coming to know God by following Him—(remember from week 4 in our Suffering series), hearing and obeying God’s call to “Go.”

In calling on the LORD’s name, Abram drew near with his heart, thanking God, praising Him, and seeking His continued help and guidance. He was seeking a relationship with God…to know Him. It’s so important that we do not just know about God but that we know Him.

John 17:3
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Since before the beginning of time, it has always been God’s plan to call a people to Himself—that we would be His people, that He would be our God, and He would dwell with us forever.

But there is a problem. A holy God cannot dwell among an unholy people.

So, in the time of Moses, God instituted animal sacrifice to atone for man’s sins, providing a way for Him to dwell with them.

It was immediately after entering into a covenant with the Israelites in the desert that God gave Moses detailed instructions for constructing the Tabernacle in Exodus chapters 25-31.

The Hebrew word for Tabernacle, mishkān, means “residence” or “dwelling place.” It is often referred to as the “Tent of Meeting” because it was the portable earthly dwelling place of God Himself (Yahweh), the place where God would meet with His people, Israel, as the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years and as they entered the Promised Land.

The Tabernacle was divided into three main sections.

The first section of the Tabernacle was called the “outer court.” It was constructed of fine linens and supported by 60 pillars with bronze and silver that formed the outer walls of the entire structure. Think of it as a rectangular privacy fence (roughly 150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 7 feet tall). It was here in the outer court that the brazen altar was located.

The brazen altar is where the Israelites would bring animal sacrifices to present as burnt offerings to the Lord. The brazen altar was quite large (even imposing), measuring 7.5 feet square by 4.5 feet high. An Israelite walking into the outer court could not help but see it. Likewise, we should not miss that sacrifice is required to enter our holy God’s presence.

The Hebrew word for Biblical sacrifice is korbanot. It comes from the Hebrew word korban meaning “something which draws close.” Korbanot means “to sacrifice, to draw closer to God, to give an offering or to return to God, or to turn away from evil through sacrifice.

Before the perfect once and for all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, there was simply no other way for us to draw close to God.

Hebrews 9:22
In fact, the Law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

In the instructions provided for burnt offerings in Leviticus Chapter 1, the person offering the sacrifice was required to bring the animal to the brazen altar, lay his hands on the animal’s head to symbolize that it was dying for his sins, and he was also required to kill the animal—typically by cutting its throat with a very sharp knife. The priests would then bring the blood from the sacrificed animal and throw it against the sides of the altar at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and burn the offering on the altar.

The BibleProject Team writes, “For the Israelites, cutting an animal’s throat and watching its blood (that is, its life) drain from its body was a visceral symbol of the devastating results of their sin and selfishness…

However, the animal’s death was not just a reminder of sin’s tragic consequences. The animal’s life was also offered as a symbolic substitute. If sin vandalizes God’s world with death and pain, then God has every right to make people face the just consequences. But God loves his creation and does not want to kill them, so the animal’s life is symbolically offered as a ransom payment that would cover them.

The word “cover” is the literal meaning of the Hebrew words kipper/kopher, and was later translated into Old English as “atonement.” The Israelites saw the blood of an animal as a symbol of the animal’s life itself (see Leviticus 17:11). Since blood represents life or the opposite of death, its sprinkling around the Temple would act like a detergent. It symbolically washed the Temple of death and defilement (the natural result of sin). The end result is that God’s presence stays with the people of Israel.

These atoning sacrifices were the means by which God would deal with the Israelites’ sin and provide a reliable system to maintain a proper relationship between God and sinful humans…

Ultimately, these sacrifices showed the Israelites how much God wanted to stay in his covenant relationship with them.”

(Animal Sacrifice? Really? Bibleproject.com)

Although “common” Israelites (meaning those not from the priestly tribe of Levi) were permitted and indeed expected to bring their own burnt offerings, only the priests were allowed to enter the second section of the Tabernacle—”the Holy Place” or sanctuary.

This is important: under the Law, a person could only draw so near to God even after making atonement for his sins.

In the Holy Place, there were several items, including another altar—this one an altar of incense. It was positioned in front of the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, the 3rd part of the Tabernacle where the presence of God dwelt.

In the Holy Place, only the priests could burn incense, and it was done daily—in the morning and at twilight as the priests prayed for the people. The smoke from the incense rose to the ceiling, went through the opening above the veil, and filled the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the covenant was placed. It represented the prayers of the people continually offered up to God as the priests interceded for them.

In Exodus 40:34, when Moses had finished constructing the Tabernacle as God had commanded, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” This was the same pillar of cloud by day that had guided them from the time they left Egypt, that would continue to guide them to the Promised Land.

As the Israelites traveled through the desert, even as Moses died and Joshua became their leader, they carried the Tabernacle with them. The most sacred items—the Ark and the altars were carried by priests on their shoulders, with the rest carried in six ox-drawn carts.

As Pastor Ian shared, it was the priests carrying the Ark—the very presence of God—that led the Israelites as they stepped into the Jordan River to cross over into Canaan—literally stepping into the promise that had been made to Abraham 470 years earlier.

And each time they stopped, they would erect the Tabernacle (the Tent of Meeting), and the Levitical priests would burn offerings on the brazen altar to cover the people’s sins. It was a covering, but it was temporary.

Even after another 440 years, when Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem replaced the Tabernacle as the dwelling place of God among His people, and the glory of the Lord filled the Temple, the sacrificial system continued. Another sacrifice was always needed to cover the new sin so that a holy God could dwell with His people…until Jesus came.

Hebrews 7:11-28
11 If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the Law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, the Law must be changed also. 13 He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is declared:
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
18 The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the Law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
20 And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21 but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:
“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.'”
22 Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.
23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the Law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the Law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

As the perfect Son of God made flesh—one of us, Jesus paid the price and was the once and for all spotless substitute for our sins. He fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17). As John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). There is no longer a need to seek atonement or forgiveness through another method.

So does that mean altars are a thing of the past? No. Most churches have a physical place they call an altar.

But wait a minute…if Jesus laid down His life as the once and for all sacrifice, why do we have to sacrifice anything, and what is required?

Romans 12:1
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Our proper response to God’s great mercy in sacrificing His son for our eternal salvation is to offer Him our lives for His glory. Obviously, we don’t physically die. Instead, we die to self—our will, our plans, our desires; we live for Him.

When we accept Jesus as our Savior, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell inside of us. We become the “Tent of Meeting,” the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

I Corinthians 6:19
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own

1 Corinthians 3:16
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s Temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?

Our heart is the Holy of Holies, where the very presence of God dwells.

Galatians 4:6
Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

Salvation is not just about believing in Jesus, although it is an essential part. It is about giving ourselves sacrificially to Him, entering into a personal relationship that transforms us to become more like Him.

It’s also about communing with Him. We should continually offer our prayers up to Him (I Thessalonians 5:17)—the sweet smelling incense of prayer.

Psalm 141:2
May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

And it’s about thanking Him, building altars of remembrance in our hearts that will cause us to never forget His faithfulness, and to keep courageously listening to His voice, and being led by His presence.

At the end of Joshua’s life, long after crossing over into Canaan, he recounted to the Israelites their entire journey, reminding them in Joshua 23:14, “You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.

Yes, he had built an altar of stones after crossing the Jordan, but he had also built an altar of God’s faithfulness in his own heart.

God is not only closer than a breath, He is our breath. He is near to us. But for us to be near to Him and to grow spiritually…nearer and nearer to Him, we must be willing to give ourselves to Him. It is on the altar of our own hearts that we lay down those things that may be keeping us from knowing Him more fully, walking with Him daily, dwelling with Him in the House of God.

For further study, read Hebrews Chapter 9 which compares and contrasts the Old Covenant—the old system of temple sacrifice—with the New Covenant, the finished work of Christ on the cross.

Note: all scripture references are from the New International Version. (2011) BibleGateway.com

Questions for reflection or discussion: 

As you think about stepping into God’s promises for your life, are there areas where you need to listen with greater courage or be more open to being led by His presence? 

What does it mean to you that God has always provided a way to dwell with His people, to dwell with you? 

Have you ever thought about sacrifice as the way to draw near to God? How does that change your perspective?

Imagine laying your hands on the head of Jesus (as the Israelites were required to do) to symbolize that He would die for your sins. Imagine driving the nails into His hands and feet or piercing His side. How does that impact your understanding of all He sacrificed for you or your commitment to sacrifice yourself to Him?

What are some of the things you need to lay on the altar of your heart in order to draw near to Him?

What are some of the altars of remembrance to God’s faithfulness in your life? Who can you share those with to encourage them?

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