Ezra & Nehemiahby Robert M. Solomon
Altars feature prominently in Scripture. The first thing that Noah did when he came out of the ark was to build an altar (Genesis 8:20). Abraham did the same when he reached Canaan (12:7).
The altar was a central object in the tabernacle and temple, as commanded by God (Exodus 27:1-8; 2 Chronicles 4:19). Sacrifices made on it allowed worshippers to find forgiveness for their sins and to be reconciled with God. This sacrificial system of the Old Testament is fulfilled by Jesus: His sacrifice on the cross is an effective once-for-all atonement for our sins (Hebrews 9:11-28; 10:1-14; 13:10-12).
As Christians, we are a priesthood of believers who are called to offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5), not on a physical altar but as a spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1). Although we no longer have to burn sacrifices on a physical altar, the Old Testament altar remains an important reminder of our salvation in Christ and our daily discipleship in Him. Our spiritual sacrifices include our dedication of ourselves and all that we have to God, as evidenced by how we worship, love, and serve God.
In the book of Ezra, even before the Jews build the temple, they build the altar; such is its importance (Ezra 3:2). Once they have settled into their towns, they make their first pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the seventh month, the most important month in the Jewish calendar. It is the month when the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Tabernacles are observed.
The Jews gather ″as one″ (v. 1), meaning they are united in purpose to build the temple and worship God. The altar is built, with Joshua and the priests taking the lead, supported by governor Zerubbabel (v. 2). They locate the foundations of the former altar and build a new altar on its site (v. 3), thus honouring the place that God had chosen for the temple and altar (2 Samuel 24:18; 1 Kings 9:3). At the altar, the people offer burnt offerings in the morning and evening, as stipulated in the law (Ezra 3:3; Numbers 28:1-8). They also celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles, an important festival during which they dwelt in temporary shelters that recalled their exodus journey (Numbers 29:12-39). Having returned from their exile, this was of special importance to them.
Not all is well, however. The Jews suffer from ″their fear of the peoples around them″ (Ezra 3:3). They sense hostility in their neighbours, which will threaten their building project. Nevertheless, it is a happy occasion, for they have restored the worship of God (vv. 4-6).
The Christian life involves ″offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ″ (1 Peter 2:5). There is an inner altar in our hearts where we offer ourselves, our time, heart, mind, and treasures to God. We must ensure that this altar is not forgotten or ignored.
Why was the altar important in Old Testament worship? What is its significance in the New Testament? See Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:15-16; and 1 Peter 2:5. What does this say about the centrality of the cross of Jesus and the crucified life He calls us to live? See Luke 9:23 and Mark 8:35.
The people restored their worship before they embarked on rebuilding the temple. What spiritual principle can you learn from this? What would it mean for us today to restore our worship?