April 14, 2019
The word altar first appears in the Bible in Genesis 8, when Noah first came off the ark. He built an altar and offered sacrifices of every clean animal and every clean bird. That’s a lot of sacrifices. Of course, this idea of sacrificing to God goes all the way back to Genesis 4, when Cain and Abel presented their offerings to the Lord. And so throughout the OT, altars and sacrifices appear regularly. Abraham built altars – so did Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon – the list is long. The entire book of Leviticus contains instructions for sacrifices to be offered on the altar at the Tabernacle – later the Temple. So, altars and sacrifices played an important role in the OT.
But when you get to the NT, the practice seems largely to disappear. You don’t build altars anymore, and of the 432 times the words altar or altars appear in the Bible, they only appear 23 times in the NT, mostly in reference to those OT altars.
Of course, through our study of Hebrews, we’ve found that’s because all those OT altars and sacrifices pointed to Jesus – and His sacrifice on the cross. In fact, a couple weeks ago, we read of one of those few times an altar in the NT refers to a NT altar. Chapter 13:10 said, “We [Christians] have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle [those still under Judaism] have no right to eat.” Interesting verse – from the context, we found he was referring to Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross. There’s a sense in which the cross could be called the final altar.
He’s also made the point since Jesus’ death is the one and final sacrifice, there remains no sacrifice for sins anywhere else, to include those OT practices. And so, you can’t leave Jesus and go back to an altar and start sacrificing animals again. That won’t work. Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross are the final sacrifice, and dare I say, the final altar to which we look.
Which begs some questions for me. Why, then, do many churches call the area here at the front of the auditorium, usually in front of the pulpit – an altar? Come to the altar. Is that in the Bible? What kind of altar is it? What are we sacrificing? I can remember one of my seminary professors getting quite animated about the practice – saying, this isn’t an altar. For the Christian, there is one altar, and one sacrifice. And there’s a sense in which, he was right.
Further, why do churches call the invitation at the end of their worship services, an altar call? That’s kind of interesting. Is that in the Bible? We’re not exactly sure when the practice earned that name – most point to the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th centuries. For example, pointing to Charles Finney and his revivals where he would encourage people to respond to the message by coming to the mourners’ bench – presumably to mourn over their sin and find Jesus as Savior. Regardless, in church history, it’s a relatively new practice – this idea of extending an invitation or an altar call – to sacrifice what? That’s what an altar is for. Would it be better said to come to accept or trust a sacrifice already made on an altar we cannot repeat?
In my years here at Alliance, it has not been our practice to extend an invitation at the end of our worship services – to give an altar call – and that has not been without controversy or criticism. Many have questioned our obvious evangelical oversight – perhaps you have. We’ve had cards written, phone messages left by people aghast that we would not extend an altar call. One lady left a rather strong message having visited the church, starting with, “Woe be unto you.”
Google the words altar call and you’ll find lots of articles about the practice – some for, some against. Google invitation songs, and you’ll get lists by the dozens, to include perennial favorites, Just As I Am, I Surrender All, and Come Just As You Are. Some of you can remember singing many verses of Just As I Am, hoping someone would respond so you could go to lunch.
I suppose the biblical basis for the altar call is to give people the opportunity to respond publicly, to confess with their mouths, Jesus as Lord. Now to be clear, I’m not opposed to the practice. But again, it is a new development found in revivals, crusades and festivals – then mimicked by the church in an effort to put on mini-evangelistic crusades every Sunday – to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ. So it is well-intended – I would even say, perhaps something we should do every so often.
But back to my questions – why an altar call, and what is it we are sacrificing? A more fundamental question: do Christians still make sacrifices? And right now, you may be rightly confused. You say, well, no – not for salvation. In fact, you can rest assured, we will not be slaughtering any animals up front – because, the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. For the Christian, the sacrifice of Christ on the altar of the cross is the one and final sacrifice to which we look for salvation. We don’t sacrifice anything – He did – He took our sins in His body and sacrificed everything. So those end-of-service events are more rightly called, invitations – to repent and believe the gospel – to trust Christ and His work alone for salvation.
That is, if we are talking about an invitation to believe the gospel. But, are there times we call for Christians to sacrifice – not for salvation – but for sanctification – to grow in being like Jesus? Again, are there sacrifices Christians make today? There are. Not to become Christians, but because we are Christians. And so, can we call it an altar call? Perhaps. Read the text with me for today in our almost completed study of Hebrews – Hebrews 13:15-16.
So, apparently, we do sacrifice. Again, these are not sacrifices we offer to provide for our salvation. But having been saved, there are sacrifices we make. After all, if Jesus’ cross was indeed an altar of sacrifice, then when He calls us to take up our crosses daily – there is a call to self-sacrifice. And of course, many of us know the famous verse in Romans 12:1, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice…” Interesting – we take up our crosses daily – instruments of death – we offer our bodies as living sacrifices. So yes, we do sacrifice daily, in our pursuit of sanctification – holiness – to be like Jesus. So, what do those sacrifices look like? Here, the author of Hebrews lists a couple:
- The Sacrifice of Worship (15)
- The Sacrifice of Work (16)
Let’s begin with the sacrifice of worship in verse 15. Through Him [Jesus] then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God. By the way, those same words appear in Leviticus 7 and Psalm 50 to speak of OT believers offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving. What is a sacrifice of praise? He goes on to tell us – it is the fruit of lips. He’s talking about verbal praise. But, did you notice the word, continually? I mean, I’m okay with praising, but continually? That’s challenging. Which means, it’s not just on Sundays, true. (Sunday worship – Chan) But it also means, we don’t just praise when things are going our way. We like to praise God for His goodness toward us – as we count goodness. He says continually. All the time. This reminds me of that very familiar passage in I Thessalonians 5, where Paul writes:
16 Rejoice always;
17 pray without ceasing;
18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the first thing that jumps out at me is the all-encompassing nature of those commands. What do I mean? Look at the commands – we are to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. But that’s not exactly how he says it – he uses words like always, without ceasing, in everything. In other words, do these things all the time. Now, this is how I’d like it to read:
Rejoice when things are going your way.
Pray when you have needs, when you want something.
Give thanks, then, when you get what you want.
Of course, that sounds pretty selfish, but, if we were honest, isn’t that the way most of us do it? We rejoice when things are going are way – when life is relatively problem-free; our kids are agreeable, we’re getting along with our spouses or parents, the bills are paid, we like our jobs or our classes. Things are going our way, just like we’d write the script, and so we can rejoice and be glad. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. Certainly He doesn’t make my bad days, does He? So I don’t rejoice in those days, right?
And as for prayer, well, it’s easiest to remember to pray when I need something. After all, we know God is God – He can answer my prayers and meet whatever needs I may have – He does own the cattle on a thousand hills, right? (Psalm 50) And when He meets those needs, delivers me from trials, makes my life happy, then I can give Him thanks. It’s easy to remember to thank God when I get what I want.
But that’s not the way Paul or our author writes. Paul said to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in everything; our author said to offer the sacrifice of praise continually. Not just when I feel like it – not just when it’s easy. And Paul ends it all by saying, this is the will of God in Christ Jesus. It is God’s will we rejoice, pray, and give thanks, praise, all the time.
Now, we’re in Hebrews 13 – we’ve been in the book for 16 months now. We know well the author is writing to persecuted, suffering Christians – because I’ve reminded us almost every week. And he now has the audacity, as he gets to the last chapter – closing the book, to say, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise. What? But dude, we’re suffering – greatly. I don’t feel like praising. I feel like complaining, whining, or even worse, accusing God.
And I want to suggest you can do some of that. It’s okay to pour out our hearts to the Lord. But don’t forget He is sovereign, He is in control, and He always has our best in mind. So the author writes to these suffering Christians – and to you in the midst of your very challenging and difficult circumstances today, and says, through Him – that is, reminding ourselves of who Jesus is and what He has done – let us continually, all the time – offer up a sacrifice of praise. So Christians do offer sacrifices. Maybe it’s a sacrifice because it costs us something. It costs us to be in an attitude of praise, even when we don’t feel like it or want to, when we are suffering. When our circumstances wouldn’t call for it. But we do it through Him.
He goes further to explain what kind of praise to God – that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. Yes, you can certainly live a life of praise in your actions, but here he is specifically talking about words – verbal praise. And that praise is found in thanksgiving. Gratitude. Again, remember the plight of the readers – suffering – but in the midst of it, offer the sacrifice of praise in thanksgiving.
Can I tell you when I was a young believer, it used to irritate me when people were always thanking God for this, praising God for that, saying Lord willing at the end of every sentence. Now, it is true, sometimes those words become empty, meaningless, mindless sayings. You know what I’m talking about. But, perhaps we should have the praise and thanks of God on our lips more readily.
Paul said, rejoice always, in everything, give thanks. And again you say, wait a minute. You don’t know my life. You don’t know what I have to put up with at home. You don’t know about things at work or school. You don’t know the financial challenges we’re facing. You don’t know the physical problems I have. That’s right, I don’t. But, Paul too was writing to a young church facing persecution from without and conflict from within. And he says, rejoice. It doesn’t matter what circumstances you may be facing – rejoice. It doesn’t matter if things are going your way or not – rejoice. It doesn’t matter if your life is unfolding the way you’d write the script – rejoice. Because God is at work in our life.
I’m reminded of the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. If there was ever a griper about his lot in life, it was he. He was one negative guy. To listen to him, everyone and everything was out to get him. For example, at one particular point in his life, after his son Joseph had been sold into slavery by his eleven brothers, a famine hit the land. Of course, we know in the interim, Joseph had been promoted to prime minister in Egypt. Jacob sent 10 of his sons down to Egypt to buy some grain, and they come back with grain, but without Simeon, one of the sons. And what’s more, the prime minister of Egypt had told the brothers, don’t come back for more grain unless you bring your last brother, Benjamin. I know that all gets confusing, but this is the point – at this point in the story, when Jacob finds out Simeon is a prisoner in Egypt and the Prime Minister (Joseph) wants to see Jacob’s youngest son, Jacob cries out to his sons, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.”
Wah, everything is against me, he cries. Everyone’s out to get me. My life is the pits. But nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than everything being against him, everything was for him. Joseph was sold into slavery to save lives during the famine. The famine throughout the whole world was just to get Jacob and his family to Egypt – so that God could fulfill His promises to this family to make a great nation. What Jacob perceived as evil was really for his good – because God cares and works for His covenanted people. So we can rejoice, knowing, somehow, even the difficult circumstances are accomplishing God’s purposes for us.
Have you ever thought of it that way? Can I remind you, God is never asleep, never napping. He’s never unaware of what’s best for you. And knowing that, we can praise continually, rejoice always, and give thanks in everything.
And let me suggest something else. Paul says to rejoice always, it’s an action word. He doesn’t just say, be joyful, he says, rejoice. The emphasis is on an outward expression of joy. In other words, don’t just be joyful, don’t just experience the emotion of joy – do something to let people know. Our author says, praise God with the fruit of your lips. We say it.
Meaning, people should look at Christians as the most joyful people on the planet. I didn’t say the happiest, I didn’t say the giddiest or the silliest – I said the most joyful – and we have every reason to be. Sure, life may be difficult, but we know what’s coming. We’ve escaped the wrath of God, we know the forgiveness of sin, heaven is our home, a city and a country awaits – and in the meantime, God is working everything altogether for our good. So we can rejoice, out loud.
One of the ways Christians are to be different is we are to express attitudes of deep-seated joy – despite our circumstances, despite our problems, we actively praise. We don’t find joy because of the circumstances, we find joy in spite of the circumstances. Now, listen. I’m not saying we don’t experience trials. I’m not saying we never face sorrows or disappointments. I’m not saying we never mourn or grieve. But even in the midst of it, we know joy. The overall disposition of the Christian is joy – and it is expressed – fruit of our lips – continually. And the way we do that is to remember, no matter how bad it gets, God is still in charge, He knows what He’s doing, and He’s doing what’s best.
And what is the actual praise – what is the fruit of our lips? Thanksgiving. Gratitude. Paul says, in everything give thanks. Gratitude is to be a hallmark of the Christian life. Now notice, Paul says to give thanks in everything – not for everything. There’s a big difference. We don’t have to give thanks for the trials, we give thanks in the trials that God is accomplishing His purposes.
You know, I can’t possibly know everything you’re going through. But I don’t need to. If you know the Lord Jesus Christ this morning as your personal savior, there are some things I do know about you. I know He’s given you the forgiveness of sins. I know He’s given you eternal life and heaven as your home. I know He’s given you His Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing that promise. I know He who began the good work in you will carry it on to completion in Jesus Christ. I know He has you right where He wants you. So, I can say to you, praise Him, further, rejoice always. Express the fruit of lips that gives thanks, in everything.
Which brings us to the second sacrifice of the Christian in verse 16 – the sacrifice of works – that is, doing something. What I mean by that is not only do we sacrifice with our lips, but with our actions. Look at verse 16 – do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
He lists two things we ought to be doing – first, we should be doing good. That’s clear enough – by our righteous lives, we are doing good as opposed to doing evil. Again, Christians should be characterized by their good works. We remember the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Again, Christians should be characterized by doing good – and through the centuries, we have been. We’ve been the ones building schools, orphanages, hospitals. We need look no further than across town to Samaritan’s Purse to see the good Christians do in the name of Christ to alleviate suffering, to serve in the name of Christ in disaster, to provide medical care, to provide Christmas boxes in the name of Christ with the message of Christ.
But, we should not leave good works to them to do across our country and around the world. We should do it in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our workplaces. Christians should be known for doing good. To one another, certainly, but to unbelievers. Peter said it this way:
12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.
But further, not only do we do good by our works, we do good with our resources – that is, by sharing. By giving. Christians should be known as people who give generously – sacrificially – after all, with such sacrifices God is pleased.
The word sharing is the word koinonia, a fellowship in a bond of life that unites us in Christ. We should be sacrificially, giving people, to those in need. This was a characteristic of the early church. Over and over we read those who had shared with those who did not. And such giving to one another was attractive to those outside the Christian community. Look at Acts 2:
42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.
44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common;
45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,
47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Can you imagine what that was like – no needy people among them, because they cared for one another – physically, with their resources. Relationally, because of spending time together. Spiritually, because they spent time in each other’s homes, committed to the Apostles’ teaching – the Word of God.
Christians are giving people. In fact, in II Corinthians 9, that famous chapter on Christian, sacrificial, joyful giving, Paul says God increases our personal resources so that we can give – not for our personal physical benefit, but for our personal spiritual benefit – so that we can give and thereby increase the harvest of our righteousness. Not saving righteousness, sanctifying righteousness. And with such sacrifices, God is pleased. The reason we have so much, is so we can share so much. So we can give abundantly.
So Christians do sacrifice. They sacrifice praises of thanksgiving. They sacrifice selflessly in their time and resources, to do good, and to give. I should give an altar call. But I am encouraging you, right where you are, to sacrifice – to sacrificially give God what He commands Christians to give. And find great joy in the process.