Imagine for a minute that you’re part of a crew of thousands, sent by no less than the king of a global power, to do the most important assignment of your life. Your job is to rebuild the temple of God.
For seventy years your people have languished. All your life, you’ve heard the stories.
The city. Oh, the city!
And there on a mount called Moriah, you’ve heard about the most splendid, most glorious instrument of the worship of God. Envisioned by the Sweet Psalmist of Israel, and built by his son, the wisest of kings ever to occupy the planet, this masterpiece was destroyed.
Your fathers came clean with you. They owned up: they’d screwed up miserably. And there was nobody to blame but themselves.
But today’s a new day, and you will be witness to a changing of the seasons. You have been chosen – you and 42,000 others – to return to Jerusalem and stand again on that mountain.
It was here that Abraham had offered his son as an obedient sacrifice to his God.
It was here that David had conquered the Jebusites and established a new home for a nation.
It was here that the Lord of Heaven appeared to Solomon and whispered, “If my people, who are called by my name…” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
You’ve been back in the land of your ancestors for a few months now. It has taken some time to settle your families and establish homes. But now the signal has gone forth. The time has come. And you and your companions have gathered as one man.
Can you imagine the adrenaline?
Can you imagine the sense of destiny?
Can you imagine the odd mix of sober with celebration?
Let’s do it! Grab a stone! Lay a beam!
As you stand with the other laborers, armed with tools and materials, and assisted by animals, you realize you aren’t the only ones on the holy hill. You and your friends are joined a cadre of priests.
Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brothers arose and 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. So they set up the altar on its foundation, for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening… and afterward there was a continual burnt offering…. (Ezra 3:1-3, 5)
Before there was a temple, there was an altar. Before the work of Zerubbabel and his hired craftsmen came the work of Joshua and his priests. This is still the order in which God accomplishes His work. First the inner work, then the outer.
That’s important to remember. We have a tendency to believe that while the outer work takes time, the inner work should be over and done in short order. After all, isn’t God’s forgiveness immediate? Isn’t it true that a person can go from darkness to light with a simple act of faith?
Yes. But soul transformation, spiritual development, deliverance, and spiritual warfare require more – much more.
Israel was so capable (like us) of getting many things wrong. Here is one thing they got right.
While many there, I’m sure, were ready to start with the foundations of the temple proper, these two leader/partners understood the importance of reestablishing worship before reestablishing the house of worship. In spiritual life the altar always comes before the house.
So were these men giants of the faith, who recognized the spiritual depth of their actions?
Nah. They were scared spitless. Terrified. And they needed all the help they could get.
They felt the heat, and they built an altar.
Sorry if that spoils the story for you. But get over it and get real. These people were in hostile territory where, for 70 years, other people had taken up residence. In dealing with their fear, they had some choices. Retreat back to Persia? Ask for military protection? How about compromising with the enemy?
Instead of all that, they sought God. They recognized that alignment with God’s will and worship of God’s character brings God’s protection from fear and from our enemies.
And get this! These sacrifices became the backdrop for everything that happened during the temple construction. They continued. Consistently, daily, the priests offered sacrifices to God. While the beams were being imported, they were offering themselves and their sacrifices. While the stones were being moved, the smoke continued to rise from the altar. No worker, Israelite or otherwise, ever worked on the building apart from the fragrance of the smoke off the altar.
In New Testament terms, this speaks on a whole new level. We work consistently in the shadow of a cross, where God’s Son became our sacrifice once and for all. We never work, rest, or do anything that isn’t against the backdrop of that sacrifice.
As the sacrifices served as Israel’s expression of faith in God to protect them from their enemies, we also move forward with courage toward God’s will. Our safety is found, not in outward resources or human schemes, but in the protecting power of the blood of Christ. To get to us, the enemy must go through Him. And just as Israel aligned themselves with the will of God, and attuned their hearts with the worship of God, we must also do the same. The techniques are different, but the heart is not – we are to lay ourselves, our possessions, our wealth, and our attention on an altar that serves as a meeting place between God and man. Nothing gets in the way of that – not even a building project! Nothing gets in the way of the meeting place (prayer), the connecting point (the blood of the sacrifice), or the offering of God’s people up to their Creator and Redeemer.
If the work of the altar ever stops, the work of the building has stopped with it – regardless of how it looks to the neighbors.