We have seen Abraham the altar builder, raising altars to the glory of God and as a testimony of his obedience to Him and of his own stranger-ship in the world.
The second altar: The Altar of the Pilgrim Walk
This altar is mentioned in Genesis 12. 9, ‘And he removed from there unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent having Bethel on the west and Hai on the east; and there he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord’. We suggest that this altar could be called the Altar of the Pilgrim Walk. It corresponds to the statement in Hebrews 11. 9, ‘By faith he sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise’.
It is interesting to note both the location, and the type of residence that Abraham chose to dwell in. He moved to a mountainous area and not to a lush wellwatered valley. He was obviously not seeking after a life of ease and comfort, nor did he choose to dwell in a palatial estate; which considering his wealth, he could easily afford. But we read that he pitched a tent, thus choosing a nomadic over an urban lifestyle. This is the first time we read of a tent in relation to Abraham. We don’t see him living in a tent in Ur of Chaldees or in Haran and certainly not during his lapse in Egypt. Only when he came to Canaan did he live as a stranger in the land of promise ‘dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob’. The transient nature of the tent bears testimony to his willingness to have no roots in this world, accepting to be a pilgrim and a sojourner in it. He owned not even so much as to set his foot on, Acts. 7. 5, and that in the land that he would receive for an inheritance.
Abraham, and his fellow pilgrims Isaac and Jacob, are said to have died according to faith, having not received the promises in this world. The tenor of their lives was that they ‘confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’, Heb. 11. 13. As the children of God in our time, as indeed in every dispensation, we too are called upon to ‘live as sojourners and pilgrims in this world’.
Let us sing then, with full hearts and as true pilgrims:
I'm but a stranger here; Heav'n is my home; Earth is a desert drear; Heav'n is my home. Danger and sorrow stand round me on every hand; Heav'n is my fatherland; Heav'n is my home Thomas R. Taylor
The third altar: The Altar of Separation
‘And Abram removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar to the Lord’, Gen. 13. 18. In this move by Abraham, away from Sodom and Gomorrah, those vast cities of the plain, and into Hebron, we see a practical demonstration of his stranger-ship. He desired to separate himself to the Lord from the hustle and bustle of the world. This man of God desired no city here. ‘Because he looked for the city whose builder and maker is God’, Heb. 11. 10. This is the statement in Hebrews that corresponds to the building of this altar and we could therefore call it The Altar of Separation. Not only did he live a pilgrim’s life; denying himself the pleasures of this world, but he took the positive step of separating himself to God. He wanted to be in communion with his Lord in the quiet place of fellowship, Hebron.
Genesis 13 three times records his separation. First, in verse 9 he asked to be separated from Lot’s materialism. Secondly, in verse 11, he separated himself from Lot’s choice of the evil cities, and thirdly, in verse 14, he is seen finally separated physically from Lot as a the carnal believer.
It is then, in this state of bliss and fellowship, that the Lord renews the promises of his inheritance, vv. 14-18. True to his stranger-ship he is seen dwelling in a tent with an altar outside it – an altar of separation to God.
The secret of this faithful man’s separation from the worldly system of his day and to his God was in the fact that he kept his eyes on a ‘heavenly city’. As Hebrews 11. 16 puts it, ‘But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly, wherefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he has prepared for them a city’. How much appreciation Abraham had of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, Heb. 12. 22, is hard to tell. During His earthly ministry, the Saviour referred to Abraham’s knowledge of His future day of glory by saying: ‘your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it and was glad’, John. 8. 56. Had God, in His grace, given Abraham a vision of Christ’s glory, and of the heavenly city? No doubt He did! It was this vision that kept his values of earthly things in perspective.
The child of God in this age, as in every age, is called upon not only to live as a pilgrim and sojourner in this world, but also positively to separate himself to the Lord. There is a threefold aspect to this separation. We are to separate ourselves firstly from the world system of greed, self promotion, lustful life-style and denial of God. This is the same world system that denied the Son of God and crucified Him. As He contemplated the cross, the Lord rightly discerned the evil power of the prince of this world as the motive behind the hatred this world had shown to Him, John 12. 31; 1 Cor. 2. 8. Through the cross of Christ, we are crucified to this world, and consider our selves dead to its attractions and allurements, Gal. 6. 14. Secondly, we are not to be bound in an unequal union with unbelievers such as in a business relationship or in marriage. Thirdly, we are to be separated from any man-made religious system. Not only are we to be outside of such systems, but we must go out only to Him, bearing His reproach. How fitting to see that the inspired reason for this is: ‘For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come’, Heb. 13. 10-14. This is much the same thought that guided Abraham in the path he took; after all he is the father of all who believe.
The fourth altar: The Altar of Sacrifice
‘And they came to the place which God had told him; and Abraham built an altar there’, Gen. 22. 9. Here is a most touching account of the supreme test of Abraham’s faith. How is it that the man who is now called ‘the father of many nations’ is asked to offer up the only heir he had as a burnt offering? Who would then carry on the promised seed? Also, how about the covenant that God made with him regarding the land? How will all the nations of the earth be blessed without the promised seed? Abraham never put these questions to the Lord. He obeyed, never seemingly for a moment doubting the purposes of God. In Hebrews 11. 17-19 we read, ‘By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son … accounting that God was able to raise him up … ‘. This statement corresponds to the building of the altar in Genesis 22. We can therefore call it ‘The Altar of Sacrifice’. Here we have the earliest foreshadowing in the Scriptures of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Abraham’s faith was sorely tested, but he never wavered, he believed his God was able to raise up from the dead. Still the test seems too severe for us to comprehend. For him to have to lay on the altar, with his own hands, his miracle son, in whom all his hopes and ambitions lay, is very hard even to imagine. Isaac asks the heart-wrenching question, ‘Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham replies in unflagging confidence, ‘My son, God will provide himself a lamb for the burnt offering’. How prophetic were these words. And God did provide the Lamb in the person of His Son, John 1. 29.
God would not ask His servant to do something He Himself would not do: ‘He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all’, Rom. 8. 32. A substitute was found for Isaac in the ram caught in the bush by its horns, but our Lord had to taste death by the grace of God for every man. He was truly raised from the dead by the power of God and not just figuratively as was the case with Isaac.
We see absolute obedience on the part of Abraham because he was fully persuaded that God could raise Isaac up from the dead. To Abraham indeed, faith was ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, Heb. 11. 1. He knew the certainty of God’s promises.
For us today, the question is whether we can thoroughly trust our God in all the circumstances of our life. Obviously none of us will be subjected to the same testing but are we willing to commit our all to Him who never makes mistakes? Do we fully trust in His wisdom, goodness and kindness? Are we willing to accept that His will is the best for us? If He were to bid us to sacrifice our substance, our time and our dearest things for Him, would we be willing to place all on the altar of sacrifice?
Do we truly believe what we sometimes sing:
Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid? Your heart does the Spirit control? You can only be blest, and have peace and sweet rest, As you yield Him your body and soul. Elishah A. Hoffman