Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Reason For The Altar

Joshua 22:21-34

“Then the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh answered, and said unto the heads of the thousands of Israel, The LORD God of gods, the LORD God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know; if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the LORD, (save us not this day,) That we have built us an altar to turn from following the LORD, or if to offer thereon burnt offering or meat offering, or if to offer peace offerings thereon, let the LORD himself require it; And if we have not rather done it for fear of this thing, saying, In time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have ye to do with the LORD God of Israel?

For the LORD hath made Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad; ye have no part in the LORD: so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the LORD.  Therefore we said, Let us now prepare to build us an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice: But that it may be a witness between us, and you, and our generations after us, that we might do the service of the LORD before him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings; that your children may not say to our children in time to come, Ye have no part in the LORD.” (Joshua 22:21-26) 

Israel had come against the Trans-Jordan tribes convinced that the huge altar they had built indicated they were turning away from Israel and trying to separate from them, or that they were already being influenced by their neighboring nations and the people who remained in the land.

When the leaders went to confront them, the two and a half tribes pointed out that they were cut off from the rest of Israel by the Jordan River and that they were in fact concerned that Israel might accuse them of not really worshipping God and refuse to allow them access to the Tabernacle or refuse to come to their aid if they were attacked.  

“Therefore said we, that it shall be, when they should so say to us or to our generations in time to come, that we may say again, Behold the pattern of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifices; but it is a witness between us and you.  God forbid that we should rebel against the LORD, and turn this day from following the LORD, to build an altar for burnt offerings, for meat offerings, or for sacrifices, beside the altar of the LORD our God that is before his tabernacle.” (Joshua 22:28-29) 

The gigantic altar had been patterned after the traditional Jewish altar so that if the question ever arose, it could be used to show that they believed the same thing and worshipped the same way.  They had no intention of using the altar for sacrifices or in any other way turning away from God’s commands.  God had forbidden them to offer sacrifices anywhere but at the Tabernacle.  The altar was merely a symbol of their worship of God.

“And when Phinehas the priest, and the princes of the congregation and heads of the thousands of Israel which were with him, heard the words that the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the children of Manasseh spake, it pleased them.  And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest said unto the children of Reuben, and to the children of Gad, and to the children of Manasseh, This day we perceive that the LORD is among us, because ye have not committed this trespass against the LORD: now ye have delivered the children of Israel out of the hand of the LORD. 

And Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, and the princes, returned from the children of Reuben, and from the children of Gad, out of the land of Gilead, unto the land of Canaan, to the children of Israel, and brought them word again.  And the thing pleased the children of Israel; and the children of Israel blessed God, and did not intend to go up against them in battle, to destroy the land wherein the children of Reuben and Gad dwelt.” (Joshua 22:30-31)

When they realized the concerns that had led to the construction of the altar the leadership acknowledged that no sin had in fact been committed and that there was valid reason for the construction of the altar.  Had Israel attacked the trans Jordanian tribes, they would have brought the wrath of God on themselves, because no sin had occurred.  When they explained it to the people they were equally pleased and changed their mind about attacking.

Matthew 18:15-17 gives Jesus’ instructions for dealing with sin in the church. “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.  But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.”  

In their eagerness to prove their stance against sin, many churches have skipped steps moving directly to excluding a person from the church without taking the trouble to find out what was really going on or correct the problem.  By doing so they have hurt or destroyed other Christians.  In Luke 17:1-3 Jesus said, “It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!  It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.  Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.”  

Unfortunately, such actions are taken over minor and inconsequential matters.  Romans 14:1 warns, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.”  We are not to make issues of things God did not give specific instructions about.  Romans 14:19-21 commands. “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.  For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.  It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.”    We ought not risk destroying weak Christians over some point God didn’t consider worth mentioning.  As Romans 15:1 says, “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  The pastor or church leadership ought not set standards other than God has set.  In doing so, they put others at risk.

“And the children of Reuben and the children of Gad called the altar Ed: for it shall be a witness between us that the LORD is God.” (Joshua 22:34)

The altar was a witness that both groups of Israel worshipped the Lord as their God.  


  1. Happy Thanksgiving, Donald! God's blessing from us to you and yours!

  2. Thanks, Ian. May you also experienc eGod's blessings.

  3. This issue was a good model for what should have been done; not only in going too far, but in not going far enough. As you pointed out, some churches are very stringent over issues that Christians should not attempt to impress on others. Other churches allow anything in the doors, grieving the Spirit and making that body impotent. Israel under Joshua did what was right in both regards; looked into the matter thoroughly, discussed it, and determined whether the issue was serious or otherwise.

  4. I've heard you mention the Reformation before, and I was wondering: what do you think about that entire era? I have been recently studying it in depth and am saddened by how incredibly political the whole reformation was. It is made to sound very heroic and godly in this day and age, but I'm not seeing this; I'm seeing alot of people using Christianity as an excuse at least in part to accomplish other things. It's a depressing book to say the least. What are your thoughts about the Reformation, the denominations and doctrines that emerged from that era?

    1. Sadly, most reforms, including religious ones, are about advancing a certain agenda, rather than about resolving basic problems. Most of the reformers only wanted to to change a some few personal grievances against the Catholic Church's excesses, with no intention of addressing the underlying problems that caused those excesses.

      Each of the reformers was so busy trying to attain dominance for his own position that they would not even consider another's position, even going to the point of having those who questioned their position killed.

      Non Catholics Christians are generally referred to as "protestants". In fact the name only refers to those groups who broke away from the Catholic church during the reformation in protest of the abuse of power by Church leaders.

      Throughout the Christian era, numerous Christian groups have existed outside the Catholic Church, having no ties to it. Several of them can be traced back to before the the founding of the Catholic Church in the fourth century. Some of these groups are the Waldensians, the Albigenses, the French Hugenots, the Mennonites, the Coptic church of North Africa, and many Anabaptist groups, some of which later became known as Baptists. All were systematically persecuted by the Catholic Church, and later by Protestant groups.

      All of the groups which separated during the reformation retained some Catholic doctrine usually including some form of Baptismal regeneration, infant baptism, and the necessity of good works to keep one's salvation. Most hold some form of clerical hierarchy, in which final authority for doctrine truth rests in the top level and all look to that top individual or group for guidance.

      True protestant groups include the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Christian and Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian and Congregationalists, as well as several less well known groups.