God Reigns: Build An Altar

Sermon by David Strain on August 7, 2016

Exodus 20:22-26


We return this morning to our ongoing explanation and examination of the teaching of the book of Exodus. You will remember, as the summer began, we worked our way through the teaching of the Ten Commandments and now we’ve come back to resume the next section of the book. So let me invite you if you would please, to take a copy of the holy Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to Exodus chapter 20. We’ll be reading verses 22 through 26. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find that on page 61.


Before we pray and then read the text together, let me remind you very briefly of the context. By the mighty work of God, the children of Israel have escaped Egyptian slavery and the Lord has led them through the wilderness by the pillar of cloud and fire, through the desert, until at last they have arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai and God descended, you will remember, in lightning and earthquake and with a mighty trumpet blast on top of the mountain. And He summoned Moses up into the terrifying vortex there to deliver to Moses His Law. And as we come to the next major section of the book of Exodus dealing with an array of civil and ceremonial laws, it will help us to keep in mind as we work through the material before us over the next several weeks, that this is really simply an application in various ways of the principles we saw being taught in the Ten Commandments themselves to the demands of Israel’s national life as they make their way through the wilderness and enter the Promised Land.


And just as we saw when we examined the Ten Commandments themselves, so also in the various regulations of the Mosaic Law, what we will see is that its fulfillment, its final climactic fulfillment is found in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. These strange laws, unfamiliar ceremonies, we will see are actually filled with rich Gospel truth. They feel a bit like we’ve entered into a strange land as you read this material, so unfamiliar to us. But as we examine it more carefully, I hope you’ll begin to see God enabling us that though it may be a more unfamiliar path, it is a path nevertheless through the same land of rich, clear, Gospel truth with which we are already very familiar. That’s certainly the case in the passage before us here at the end of Exodus chapter 20, dealing with altars and with worship. So let me invite you to turn your attention there. Before we read the passage together, however, let’s bow our heads as we pray. Let’s pray!


Lord Jesus, would You come to us again this morning by Your Spirit? Say to us what we saw You and heard You saying to the deaf man. Say, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened,” to our ears that we may hear Your voice and receive life through Your Word. For we ask it in Your precious name, amen.


Exodus chapter 20 at the twenty-second verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the people of Israel:  ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’”


Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.


The story is told, you probably know it, of the old minister whose sermons could always be reliably predicted by the congregation. No matter the text of Scripture from which he was working or the occasion upon which he was preaching, the regular members of the church could always tell what he would say, for the simple reason that the good man had only one or two themes. He would always find a way to make every sermon center on his hobby horse until one day a member of the congregation took his courage in both hands and resolved to ask his pastor how this could possibly be so. “Surely, minister, the Bible’s a big book. There is more than one theme to preach here. Why do you always preach the same sermon week in and week out no matter your text?” And pausing for a moment and fixing this young upstart with a withering stare, the old brother growled his reply, “Well, you’re quite right young man. I preach the same message every week and I will go on preaching it” – what’s the punchline? “I will go on preaching it until you believe it!”


Sometimes we get impatient with repetition, truth be told. We want the next thing. We don’t want to hear the same message. We’d rather have something new, understandable perhaps, but there are times, aren’t there, when repetition is good for us when repetition is what we need. Sometimes we’re slow to grasp the point. Sometimes slow to believe the promise to embrace the principle, so we need to hear it again, and again after that, and again after that. Someone asked George Whitefield why he preached so often on the theme, “You must be born again,” to which he replied, “Because you must be born again!” Sometimes the truth is so vital and so crucial that it must be driven home like a nail by repeated hammer blows, over and over and over until the truth has been firmly fixed in place.


Our passage this morning is a bit like that. You remember that the first two of the Ten Commandments required the people of Israel to have no other gods before the Lord and to refrain from making idols of any kind. And the burden of those commandments, actually the burden as we saw of the first four commandments, is that God is to be worshiped and honored in God’s way, according to God’s Word, and on God’s day. And now as we move into the next major division of the book of Exodus, here it is again! That same theme and concern being repeated. Do you see that? This concern for worship according to God’s terms. Look, for example, at verse 23. “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” God is driving the nail home with a repeat hammer blow. He wants us to see the importance of being rightly related to Him and responding to Him in a way that will honor Him.


But there is a particular emphasis in our text that nuances that theme in an important way. It is the repeated insistence here on the initiative of grace. The initiative of grace. The great temptation in those days, and frankly I’m persuaded it remains the great temptation even today, the great temptation was to think of worship as simply a mechanism for obtaining the favor of God. It was an exercise in God-manipulation. If the crops were failing, if there had been no rain, if you found yourself in some financial difficulty from which you wanted the gods to rescue you, or you’re hoping for some future blessing or benefit that the gods might bestow upon you, well then you would offer them a sacrifice. You would worship; you would seek to placate them and please them and induce them to act on your behalf. That was the basic strategy, you know, of the pagan nations that surrounded Israel. And it is a strategy, let’s be honest now, it is a strategy that persists even among us. We worship, don’t we? We pray, read our Bibles – praise God that we do – but sometimes we do it in the secret belief that if only we uphold our side of the bargain well then God must surely be bound to uphold His. We easily slip into the subtle error of thinking that if we are devout and consistent in our religious performance, well then God will be on our side, won’t He? Our kids will turn out okay in the end. Our joy prospects will brighten up and something better will be just around the next bend in the road.


But you know, that is not the religion of the Bible; it’s actually the religion of Canaan. It is not Christianity; it is paganism. No, the life of a child of God, Exodus 20:22-26 is going to teach us, is a life lived in the wake of grace – in response to the divine initiative, in answer to the unmerited favor of God lavished on us freely. That is the big idea of our passage. It is a text dripping with grace; dripping with good news that cuts right across the inner drive we, all of us have, toward God-manipulation. And it shows us that not only is it impossible to manipulate favors from God, it is altogether unnecessary, unnecessary because He lavishes His favor on sinners who cling to Christ freely.


  1. The Initiative of Grace.


Now this theme of the initiative of grace, if you’ll look at the text, comes out in a number of different ways. For example, look at verses 22 to 24, for a moment. “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the people of Israel:  ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen.’” They are not to make false idols, but they are to build an altar and offer sacrifices of worship. And they are to do it, notice carefully, not to make God respond to them, but because, verse 22, “You’ve already seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven.” God has already come to them and spoken to them. They saw it; they heard it! And so their worship is not an attempt somehow to bring God down but rather it is a response to the fact that He has come down and met with them and addressed them by His grace.


Or look at the second half of verse 24. Bracketed between these two sets of instructions about altars – the altar of earth in verse 24 and the altar of stone in verse 25 – we read this. “In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.” God, as the people of Israel make their way through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, God will cause His name to be remembered among them. He will work mightily on their behalf, rescuing them, feeding them, sustaining them, delivering them, restoring them. Over and over He will intervene. And when the people respond to that gracious initiative and remember His name, that is, when the people give him praise and the glory He’s due for His mercy, you see what He promises to do? He will come to them, He says, and shower blessing upon them still further so it will be blessing upon blessing and grace upon grace.


The Construction of the Altar

But where this theme of the initiative of grace comes out, I think most clearly of all, is in the curious instructions Moses delivers to Israel concerning the construction, the building of these two altars in verses 24 to 26. Would you look there with me, please? Notice while they’re forbidden to fashion gold or silver idols they are positively commanded to build altars to enable their worship as they make their way through the wilderness but they’re only told to build two types of altars. They’re to make an altar of earth or an altar of stones. If they use stones, these are not to be dressed stone. No tools are to be used on this stone to shape it or to decorate it in any way. For, God says to them, if you wield your tool on it you profane it. Isn’t that fascinating? They’re not to climb steps to get up to their altars.


Distinct Altars

What is going on in these strange and particularly specific instructions about the construction of an altar? I think at least four things are happening. First of all, these are distinct altars. God wants Israel, He wants His people not to be like the world. And He wants us, likewise, to be distinct from the world around us. And He wants the worship of His people to be distinct from the paganism around them. Where elaborate altars were constructed, here are these simple, rude, plain mounds of earth or stone. Not like the altars of the Canaanites, but marked by a certain lowly humility, unostentatious. These are the altars of the worship of the people of God and even if you scan through the teaching of the New Testament scriptures regarding worship you will see a similar concern for simplicity and humility and an aversion to ostentation. God wants us to worship Him in His way, in humility, in the simplicity of this Scriptural pattern. These are distinctive altars for a distinctive people. And the people of God, even today, Christians by grace through faith in Christ, are to worship God distinctly in humility and in obedience to His Word. So distinct altars.


Temporary Altars.

Secondly, these are temporary altars. Temporary altars. The people, remember, were on the move. A pilgrim flock. And so for a time at least their altars were simple, temporary structures. Of course, very soon we will be seeing how God provides instructions for a more permanent altar to be built. It would eventually be placed in the tabernacle and then in the temple in Jerusalem. And it would be an altar covered in gold and marked by the artistry and the skill of the finest craftsmen. But at this point in the story, that altar still lay in the future. These are altars for the interim, altars for the meantime, altars along the way. But you know even the greater, more permanent altar to come that would be placed in the temple, even that in a sense would always remain a temporary, fleeting, interim altar along the way.


At the beginning of Israel’s national life there at the foot of Mount Sinai, by calling for these rude, simple, earthen or stone altars, God is actually training His people not to set store by altars made by human hands as though they would be the focus of God’s redeeming work. No, the final altar, the ultimate altar, would still lie ahead of them upon which a perfect sacrifice would be made to which all the altars and all the blood spilt upon them pointed, the altar to which all of us must look. The temporary structures graphically, visually reminded God’s people they need a better altar. This mount of dirt – they need a better altar; one that would last. The altar of the cross and Christ, the better sacrifice. We’re being taught here to look to that perfect altar and that perfect sacrifice and nowhere else for our acceptance with God.


Why No Altars in the Christian Church?

Which, by the way, as an aside, is why we do not have an altar in the church building. We have a communion table but it is emphatically not an altar because there are no more altars for the people of God because there is no more atonement for sin required than that which has now been provided once and for all in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He offered Himself the just for the unjust to bring us to God. No, with the shedding of His blood, the work was done, finished, paid in full. Redemption perfectly accomplished; the salvation of sinners like me and like you secured forever. We need only look back there to the cross of Christ and rest our faith there and we receive acceptance with God and pardon of our sin through His final sacrifice. So these are distinctive altars, they are temporary altars.


Inadequate Altars

Thirdly, notice these are inadequate altars. They are inadequate altars. The emphasis on our text, in our text, on the unformed, unadorned earth, in the plain, undressed stones of these simple altars really is designed to remind God’s people we have no contribution to make in securing atonement before God. A mason’s chisel was not even so much as to touch the stone. These are altars built with materials involving as little human manipulation as is necessary to construct them. “Hands off.” That’s the message. “Atonement is made here, but not by you,” God was telling them. “This is My work alone.” It’s really just Titus 3:5 in graphic form, isn’t it? Titus 3:5, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” That’s a description of our problem. We are sinners! We need redemption, forgiveness! We need atonement! We need to be made right with God! But Paul says, “But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us not by works of righteousness that we had done but according to His own mercy.” He saved us not because of the righteous works we have done but according to His own mercy.


Salvation Belongs to the Lord

That’s the point of our passage. Salvation belongs to the Lord! During those days in the wilderness, no one could point to the altar. Could you imagine the scene? The assembled multitudes of Israel gathered for worship on the Sabbath and there’s the altar and the sacrifice at the heart of the worship service and no one could point to it and say, perhaps murmuring in the ear of their neighbor, “See what I did? See what I made? See the skill and the artistry? Atonement is being made here because of the craftsmanship that I have attributed.” Instead, we take it in at a glance, the rude mound of sod piled up before us. And then we witness the great I AM, sovereign God, the almighty Lord of heaven and earth, stooped down there, there. And forgive sin, forgiven an infinite debt by the shedding of blood. And what do we conclude? That the beauty of the altar compelled God to act, required Him to forgive. Not at all! No, we are compelled to see that just like us, base and unlovely, this altar without worth or merit of any kind, it’s a lump of dirt, a pile of rocks, lowly altar, despite all of that but according to His great mercy He forgave and saved not by righteous things we have done but by sheer grace we are pardoned and accepted in the beloved.


We see that it’s because of Him that we are in Christ Jesus who has become to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” taking no credit for oneself. We see that “Jesus paid it all and all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain and He washed it white as snow.” These were distinct altars. We are to worship God only on His terms according to His Word. These are temporary altars – altars that remind us we need a final altar, a better altar, a perfect altar where a perfect sacrifice was made. We need Jesus crucified for us. These are inadequate altars – plain, unlovely, like me and you in our sin. Not meriting the mercy provided. Salvation is a gift of grace!


Lowly Altars

And now finally and very briefly, notice these were also lowly altars, quite literally physically, low altars. Verse 26, “You shall not go up by steps to my altar that your nakedness be not exposed on it.” The pagans, you know, built their altars on high places to which you must ascend by steps and there at their high places they engaged in sexual immorality and debauchery and obscene rites. Their nakedness was exposed. And God wants His people to be pure and holy in their worship and in their lives. Nakedness, you know in the Scriptures, is a particularly prominent symbol of human sin exposed before the gaze of God. You remember what happened when Adam ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden, don’t you? He made fig leaves to cover His nakedness. He ate the forbidden fruit and saw that he was naked. He made a covering for himself and he hid from the presence of God. Isn’t it striking that when God called to him in the Garden Adam replied, “That I saw that I was naked and I hid. I was afraid because I was naked and I hid.” He had covered himself and he had hidden himself and yet still the reality and the shame of his nakedness could not be hidden.


That is actually, you know, the condition of every one of us! Hebrews 4:13, “No creature is hidden from God’s sight but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.” Your sin is seen and known. We are naked and exposed to the gaze of God and there is no place to hide. The altars on high places to which you would ascend by steps really were attempts to get up to God and to get ahold of Him by our best religious efforts. To ascend to heaven, perhaps a bit like the tower of Babel, by our best performance and to be, as the serpent told Eve she would be when she ate the forbidden fruit, “like God.” But when we try to get to Him our way, our nakedness the Scriptures say is exposed. That is to say, our sin is displayed. So God told Israel not to build altars on high places where they would need to climb steps to reach Him. The good news is not that we must do what we can to get up to God; the good news is that He will come down, and He has come down to us. All the way down into our humanity, into our frailty, into our guilt in the sight of God. Bearing our curse in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ so that Jesus, Jesus has done everything you need. There is nothing for you to do. There is nothing for you to do but to cling and to trust in Him.




God’s Grace is Free

I wonder if you’ve been trying your hand at a spot of God-manipulation lately. You’ve been trying to climb steps of your own making to get to God perhaps. You’ve been here in church, you’ve been kind and servant-hearted. You’ve suffered for Jesus. You’ve worked and sacrificed and poured yourself out in the performance of a thousand duties. As you try to prize some sliver of blessing from this stingy, reluctant hands of a distant, miserly deity, “Surely it will be enough, surely I deserve better, surely He’ll see what I have done for Him.” But the harder you try to climb to Him, the deeper you sink in sin and failure and the more you do to make God love you, the more the filth and shame of your nakedness is exposed. Friends, Exodus 20:22-26 is a call to quit. It’s a call to give up what is a fool’s errand after all. You don’t climb to Him. He comes down to you. You don’t persuade Him or manipulate Him or place Him under obligation to be good and kind and favorable toward you. But He pours our His favor, His kindness, His goodness, His grace on you for free. For free!


I wonder if you would stop trying to manipulate God into loving you and begin to let it penetrate that God loves you already in Jesus Christ and has acted in His Son to be a perfect Savior for you. Jesus is all you need! All the initiative was His. What you need to do is to humble yourself, to confess the shame and nakedness of your sin and guilt in His sight, and to trust the only perfect sacrifice of the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross for sinners. Would you do that this morning that your worship might begin to be the response of a heart that is the captive, the happy captive of grace, no longer attempting to leverage from a God that we imagine as somehow reluctant to bless, some small favor by our best religious efforts? No, no! See the cross! See what Jesus has done. Turn and rest on Him. Receive the grace He offers to you for free. And as you do, you will begin to praise Him with glad and joyful hearts as you ought. Let’s pray together!


God our Father, how we confess. We confess that we often take sacred things – the praising of Your name, calling upon You in prayer, the reading of Your Word, and we debase and distort them, we pervert and twist them, into mechanisms that we seek to use to leverage blessing from You, thinking of You as someone who is reluctant to love. When the truth is, Abba Father, You delight to give gifts to Your children. And so we bow before You acknowledging our wandering hearts but we would come back to Christ and to Him crucified to rest all our hope in Him alone that when we pray and read and hear Your Word and sing Your praises it might not be in some vain attempt to make You love us, but it might instead be the thrilled and joyous overflow of our hearts, captivated by the knowledge that You have loved us freely even when we were utterly unlovely in our sin. For we ask it in Jesus’ holy name, amen.


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