When it comes to faith, Abraham is one person you really want to get to know. Paul calls him the “Father of all who believe” (Rom 4:11) and tells us that we “walk in his footsteps” (Rom 4:12). As you look at his life and how he journeyed with God, you discover that at key points along the way, Abraham stopped and made piles of rocks. I am talking about the altars that Abraham built during his lifetime and what they mean for us. Each altar was a stepping-stone that helped his faith to grow.
I have found six altars that Abraham built during his lifetime and a seventh that came later. Every altar is a place of worship, commitment and dedication. We give things to God at altars and we make decisions that change the direction of our lives. Altar building is part of walking by faith. Today, we don’t use stones but we still build altars to help us remember God’s promises, our responses and the great things He does.
In Gen 12:1-7 God calls Abram and asks him to leave his home and go to a new place that God would show him. God gave him a promise that he would become great! In verse 7 God appears to Abram and he builds his first altar to the Lord. I call this The Altar of Promise because it is Abram’s response to what God promised to do. The rocks were a reminder of what God had said and of the great future ahead! Since it was a big promise, I imagine that Abram made a pretty big pile of stones.
Next he journeyed to the hills between Bethel and Ai (verse 8) where he pitched his tent and built a second altar to the Lord. The second altar is The Altar of Dedication because this was the place where Abram made his decision not to go back to where he came from. This is where Abram said, “I’m in! No turning back. I will follow you for the rest of my life.” Altar building strengthened his resolve to stay in the land and believe God. He knew he might falter, so he built an altar!
Gen 12:10 says, “Now there was a famine in the land.” Things got hard and hot and dry and difficult! So, Abram, the man who had just dedicated himself to stay and serve God turned and ran at the first sign of trouble! He went down to Egypt and while there he told everyone that Sarai was his sister instead of his wife. As a result, he almost lost his wife to Pharaoh! Abram forgot God’s promise and his own commitment and it landed him in a big mess!
Abram messed up but God showed up! He inflicted diseases on Pharaoh and his household. Sarai was returned to Abram and they left Egypt to go back to Canaan. In Gen 13:3-4 Abram returns to the altar of dedication feeling embarrassed and apologetic (he had some things to make right with his wife and with God). When he got there, the stones were knocked down and scattered so he swallowed his pride, bowed down and gathered them up again. He came back after his failure and now The Altar of Dedication, became an Altar of Re-Dedication. When you falter, rebuild your altar!
Yes, Abram failed but God was not finished with him. In Gen 13:14-18, God says, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.
The fourth altar (1. Promise, 2. Dedication and 3. Rededication) is The Altar of Increase. This is where God takes things to the next level in your life and He shows you that His plan is much greater than you realized. Abram would have been satisfied living in his little corner of Caanan but God was going to make him a great nation! Don’t think too small. Leave space for God to bring the increase! Jabez prayed for this in I Chron 4:10 “‘Oh, that you would bless me and expand my territory! Please be with me in all that I do, and keep me from all trouble and pain!’ And God granted him his request.”
Yes, God was making Abram great. He increased in wealth, influence and favour and became a large company of people. There is just one problem: Abram and Sarai had no children and they were old! So in Gen 15:1-5, Abram complains to the Lord, God answers once again and promises to be his great reward and to make him a great nation. In spite of his circumstances, faith rose in Abram’s heart and we are told that “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness” (verse 6).
After this, God tells Abram to do something that sounds very strange to us. In Gen 15: 9-10 we read, “So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other. While the building of an altar is not specifically mentioned here, it is clear that a covenant was being made. Covenant ceremonies always involve the idea of an altar and Abram knew that he was about to enter into a solemn agreement with God. Abram was preparing an Altar of Covenant.
The common practice between kings was to make covenants after a battle or when making an agreement. Animals were cut in half and then oaths were sworn. The lesser king would walk through the bloody pieces while swearing oaths to the greater King promising his loyalty and allegiance. He would say, “I am making these oaths to you today, and if I fail to keep my part of this covenant, may I become like these animals!”
Abram was waiting to walk between the pieces and make his covenant with God but as he waited, he fell asleep. While he slept he saw God as a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud and something happened that stunned and amazed him. God passed between the pieces and God made the promises. Instead of the servant swearing to the master, God was swearing to Abram that what He had promised He would do.
Also, God was saying that He (not Abram) would suffer the consequences if the promise was not fulfilled. In fact, Abram was never called to make vows and oaths. God did all of the promising not only for Himself, but also for Abram, meaning that God would keep both sides of the agreement. God would even pay the price if the covenant was broken on either side. So this is the Altar of God’s Covenant with Abram. Abram killed and arranged the animals but God Himself did the rest.
The sixth altar is the Altar of Sacrifice. God did give Abram and Sarai a promised son named Isaac in their old age. A new chapter of their lives began and even their names were changed to Abraham and Sarah as Isaac arrived. However, when Isaac was a young man, God asked Abraham to do the unthinkable and to offer his son as a sacrifice. We know this story from Genesis 22 and we can understand the struggle that must have raged in Abraham’s heart as he built that last altar, placed his son upon it and raised the knife. Imagine the relief when God spoke and said “Don’t lay a hand upon the boy… now I know that you truly fear God because you have not withheld from me even your son, your only son” (v. 12).
What was the purpose of this last altar? It was pointing towards one more sacrifice that would happen on the same mountain 2000 years later. Mount Moriah from Genesis 22 is Mount Calvary where God actually did sacrifice His only Son in order to keep the covenant that He had sworn to Abram back in Gen 15. The final altar is The Altar of Salvation and it is in the shape of a cross.
Calvary is where God built the final and ultimate altar in order to fulfil His promises, take the punishment for sin and show His covenant love and gift of salvation to the whole world. The blessing of Abraham and true greatness enters our lives at the cross as we receive the gift of forgiveness and new life in Christ. Jesus’ death completed what all the altars were pointing to. The cross became the altar of promised blessing, of deepest dedication, of abundant increase, of everlasting covenant, of ultimate sacrifice and of everlasting salvation!
The cross is the altar that alters everything!