I want you to use that image to consider the state of the Christian faith in the United States. The wood is the faith, the true faith, the substance of what true Christians both believe and seek to live. The varnish, in this case, is more like a covering that people put on to make the bare wood look good, but in reality it just covers up the beauty of the wood. The varnish is cultural Christianity. During the last two centuries, the unrelenting attack of secularism has, with each generation removed a layer of the varnish. In our day, the final layer is being stripped off and cultural Christians, who have no real heart commitment to Jesus Christ and his gospel, have stopped pretending — I know what that’s all about;
I came from generations of cultural Christians! May it be that the beauty of the true faith is revealed again.
In our day, the veneer of ‘religion,’ which at one time was quite thick and obscuring, is almost gone. We find the wood is beautiful but the table is smaller than we thought, damaged a bit, and in need of restoration.
The passage just read to us is about the restoration of true worship. Let’s talk about that.
The book of Ezra opens and spends the first six chapters telling the backstory. Ezra doesn’t appear on the scene until eighty years after the book opens. But we’re in the part of the backstory where the first returnees from Babylon have gone to Jerusalem. After getting settled, they begin to do what they were sent for: they begin the rebuilding of the temple. All that we read about in this passage is the restoration of the altar of sacrifice and laying of the foundation of the temple. After this, building will stop for about twenty years before the temple is completed.
The spiritual leaders of the nation (represented by Jeshua and his kin) and the political leaders of the nation (represented by Zerubbabel who is in line for the throne of David and his kin) take the lead first in re-building the altar.
Now what is the altar? The altar is what is called in books of Moses “the altar of burnt offering.” The altar in the temple was to be made of bronze but we know that was not required for sacrifices to be accepted — it could be made of earth, meaning, just stones piled up on which wood could be placed to either cook or burn up a sacrificial offering. But the stones had to be in the rough state, they could not be shaped by a tool in any way. This passage implies that they simply made a stone altar which would have been relatively easy. Their purpose was to re-start the worship of God by offering sacrifices.
Now the first and most important thing to understand about this is that under the old covenant, the focal point of worship was the great altar of sacrifice in the courtyard outside the holy place. When God instructed them how to build the tabernacle (the moveable ‘tent of worship’) and later the temple, it was all constructed around the altar. The message was loud and clear: The holy God can only be approached through a sacrifice. Sin must be atoned for. So, with the peace or fellowship offering, the worshipers brought their sacrifice to the priest, he offered it on the altar, and they partook of the meal signifying both God’s acceptance of them as worshipers and their fellowship with God in worship.
In other words, the altar was a place of sacrifice of atonement for sinners AND a place of fellowship for redeemed saints.
This restoration of the most basic element of worship is what we read about in verses 1–7. This occurred in the seventh month, the month of Tishri (which fell approximately during the September/October time frame). That month started with Rosh Hashanah (the civil new year) following on the tenth of the month by the great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and then by the seven day Feast of Booths in which the people lived in temporary shelters with their children to recall their ancestors' days in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The returning exiles gathered together from the outlying villages to Jerusalem and rebuilt the altar. They immediately began to offer the daily offerings, morning and afternoon, sacrifice of one lamb. They skipped the Day of Atonement (probably because there was no Holy Place and ark of the Covenant for the High Priest to enter and sprinkle the blood). Then at the Feast of Booths beginning on the 15th of the month they began to observe all the regularly prescribed and voluntary offerings of the sacred calendar.
- Their worship was commanded by God
- They had not had a temple for nearly seventy years — thus no sacrifice and no public worship.
- And now, they made the first step to the re-establishment of the worship of the true and living God according to the way he commanded worship to take place.
Now what connection does that have with us? Is there anything that we can learn or think about by reflecting on this event from about 536 BC?
Here’s what we need to ponder:We also have an altar that is the focal point of our worship: that altar is the cross. Let me show you the verse that says this.
Hebrews 13.10: We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.
The book of Hebrews is a letter in the New Testament in which the writer lays out in detail the comparisons and contrasts between the whole system of worship under the old covenant — with temple, priesthood, and sacrifice — and the worship of God through Jesus Christ. At the end of the letter, he draws to a conclusion the whole message of the book and he uses these words to summarize it.
True worship under the old covenant took place when the people of God gathered in the temple around the altar and offered sacrifice. It may be that the house church of Jewish Christians in Rome to which the letter was written had been told by their Jewish relatives and friends, “How could you forsake the system of worship given to our ancestors with a priesthood, and a temple, and a sacrificial system for something that has no altar?” Here is the writer’s answer: We do have an altar.
Now, there’s no question that the writer here is speaking metaphorically of the cross as an altar. He’s not speaking of the cross as a literal piece of wood. Pictures and symbols of the cross arose about one hundred years after the death of the last apostle. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have a wooden cross in back that has sometimes been placed on the platform. But, I am rather puritanical about that and I’m reluctant to use any physical representations in worship… except for the God-ordained symbols of the New Testament: the water of baptism, the bread, and the cup — those are the only physical elements God himself has told us to use to point to spiritual realities.
And, he’s not telling us to call the table on which the elements of the communion are placed at the front of the church “the altar” as in some churches. The table in the New Testament is consistently called “the table” or “the Lord’s table,” and it is not a sacred piece of furniture like the great altar. It is a simple table we set in our midst on which to place the elements. Calling the table an “altar” didn’t happen for well over one-hundred years after the death of the last apostle.
No, when he refers to the altar, he is referring to the focal point of worship under the new covenant. Just as under the old covenant, the focal point of worship is the altar of sacrifice, we too have altar that is vastly superior: the cross on which the Savior died.
What does it mean for us to restore worship today? It means to again make Jesus Christ the focal point of worship — the God-man who came for the purpose of dying for our sins:
Mark 10.45: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
That was his whole purpose: to give his life a ransom for many. The cross represents the whole life and ministry of Jesus; it even represents the empty tomb from which he rose from the dead. The cross is Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, powerful to save all who come to him.
- Our altar is the place of sacrifice.
- Our altar is the place of fellowship.
Cultural Christianity focuses on other things: Jesus as social justice warrior; Jesus as great moral teacher; Jesus as the champion of the oppressed. And he’s all those things and more. Only they aren’t the central focus. Jesus the Savior is the central focus; everything else only finds its place with that at the center.
My friends, how far the church has wandered and is wandering from that central truth today. Why? Because when we hold up the central focus of the gospel, people say, “You Christians are so exclusive! All you focus on is sin! Why are you so intolerant?” It frightened us. But we need to stop being afraid!
- But we had better ask God to raise up leaders who point to the cross and call for repentance and faith!
- We’d better find ourselves in our church saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”
- We’d better stop pining for the good old days when more people spoke well of Jesus and went to church on Sunday… because the good old days were mostly a thin veneer of religiosity.
That’s the first part of the passage. In the second part, the writer tells us that, after they re-established the focal point of worship, they undertook the rebuilding of the temple around the focal point.
Beginning in verse eight, we read that the people under the same spiritual and civil leaders, began to rebuild the temple. All this passage really describes is the re-laying of the foundation stones that had been torn down.
Under the old covenant, a building was necessary to conduct the worship of God. When I say ‘necessary’ I mean commanded by God. Here’s what you need to know: True worship under the old covenant took place when the people of God gathered in the temple around the altar and offered sacrifice.
It appears that, at the laying of the foundation stones, the leaders led the people in a penetrating experience of worship. They apparently used Psalm 136 as the song of celebration. That song is a responsive song in which someone sang the verses, and all the worshipers responded after each line with the words, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” That’s called antiphonal worship, and in a large group, it can be quite moving.
Having re-established the altar, they now seek to re-establish public worship. What is public worship? Public worship is what takes place when God’s people gather together to praise God from their hearts around the focal point of the sacrificial altar. This is both something that true worshipers find to be instinctive AND at the same time, it is something that must be taught and we must learn to experience it.
An additional note to this passage is that, though all the worshipers responded from the heart, there were mixed emotions among them:
Ezra 3.11–13: And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
Worship isn’t always filled with joy. Sometimes we worship out of grief, sometimes out of bewilderment. Sometimes out of pain. Sometimes out of joy. But true worship involves bring our hearts to God in acknowledgement of his grace.
How does that relate to us now? Let’s use another two verses from the same passage in Hebrews 13.
Hebrews 13.15–16: Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
True worship now takes place when the people of God gather around Jesus Christ with their hearts given to God and offer a sacrifice of praise. True worship under the new covenant does not require a building, though we naturally in times of peace and prosperity, build places where we can gather to worship God. But worship involves coming together around the focal point, the cross, and bringing our hearts to God. And this passage says that we also offer a sacrifice. Not one that adds to the sacrifice on the altar of the cross — that’s God’s sacrifice for us which we rejoice in — this is a sacrifice that we bring to God when we come to the crucified and risen Savior, now at the Father’s right hand, and we offer a sacrifice of praise; then we leave to do good and share what we have with those in need.
A commentary I read this week by William Lane put it this way: “Authentic worship consists in the praise of God and in a shared life of love.”
I meet Christians today who don’t see any need for public worship. “I can worship God on my own,” they say. Well, of course you can. But that’s private worship. And as important as it is, the Bible also stresses public or corporate worship when we bring our hearts to God along with others and offer the sacrifice of praise.
You see, we need today, in our rapidly declining culture, to stress two things.
- First, we must re-establish the altar — the focus on Jesus Christ who died for our sins to justify us and rose from the dead to save us.
- Second, we must re-establish public worship — meeting to praise God and learn to live a shared life of love.
The pastoral staff went on a retreat this week from Sunday evening through Tuesday evening. A family in the church let us use their house in Tawas. We spent most of the time talking about our hearts: What the Bible says about the heart, the natural deceitfulness of the human heart, the cleansing of the heart in conversion, and what it means for us to guard our hearts. Over two days, different ones shared their experiences, their pains and joys in relationship with God. We sang and prayed together.
At the last meeting, I led a discussion on how we can help the people of God in our local church to focus wisely on their hearts. We discussed how bewildering modern life is for people (including us who were on the retreat), how difficult it is to know how to respond to a culture that is giving up on the thin veneer of faith that held for so long. How a proper focus on the heart might impact Children’s ministries, Student Ministries, preaching, music, small groups, and so forth.
When we concluded I asked people how they were feeling. Most of them said, “I felt really good until this discussion. Now I feel depressed. The weight of what we’re involved in as leaders in the Christian movement has come back with a vengeance.
I felt kind of bad. I like it when people feel good. So, I pondered for the rest of the week whether the retreat was good or bad. Yesterday, I thought I ended on the wrong note. Today, I think we ended on the right note.
Like most of you, I waver on whether the present generation is a good time or a horrible time to be a Christian. As the culture slides into anti-religious chaos, we can either see the present time as the entrance into a new age of persecution, brainwashing, and martyrdom OR as a new opportunity for life-changing ministry. I suppose, in a sense, it’s whatever we chose to make it.
Like the desk in my office, the thick and crusty veneer of decades of cultural Christianity and vague spiritually have been wiped away like paint remover removes old varnish. What lies beneath is the real thing in all of its beauty and vulnerability. “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” We need to display, individually and in our worship, it in all its life-changing power.