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Three Altars at Bethel

Updated on February 23, 2013
Worship of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin. From
Worship of the Golden Calf, by Nicolas Poussin. From
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

The books of Watchman Nee are worth reading. But Living Stream Ministry is a publishing house associated with the Witness Lee cult. So be careful not to go on and read Witness Lee!


The Altar at Bethel


This Sunday morning, thanks to spending an hour on Facebook (which is unforgiveable, when you are involved in preaching), I had a tough time in getting ready with my Table Message. In our churches, we have three messages for the Sunday service. The first message is the Worship Message (where time is given for individual worship), the second is the Table Message (preparing you to take part in the Lord’s Table), and the last is the Final Message (where a longer message is given for evangelization or edification, as the case may be). The Sunday service lasts for four hours, and nobody feels it too long. Four hours is normal in our churches in our part of the world. Sunday is the Lord's Day, and to be observed 'for the Lord'.

I wasted time on Facebook (unthinkable on a Sunday morning, when you have to give three messages in church). I had meditated on two messages, but the Table Message had not yet ‘come’ to me. Travelling to church, my wife said : ‘Why don’t you preach on the portion we read just now for Family Prayer?’ That was Jeremiah 33:1-9. But no thoughts for the ‘Table’ came to me. Then my eyes fell on the portion in Jeremiah 32:31-41, and it seemed apt for the Table. God was explaining why His people had to go into captivity, and how because of their Babylonian experience He would ‘put the fear of God into their hearts, so that they would not turn away from Him’, Jer 32.40. In verse 39 also, God spoke of how His people would ‘fear Him always’. The thought of the Fear of God seemed appropriate for the Lord’s Table, since we are told to examine ourselves before taking part in the Lord's Table.And one thing generally lacking in almost every believer these days is the Fear of the Lord.

My eye fell on Jer 32.34 which spoke of how Israel had grieved God by putting ‘detestable things in the house called by His name, to defile it’. And next to it, I saw these words: ‘They have turned their back to Me, and not their face.’ 32.33

Abraham’s Altar at Bethel

That struck me as an important thought, for it reminded me of the altar at Bethel, Gen 12.8. Abraham came to Bethel, and pitched his tent on the mountain, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. Watchman Nee (and Oswald Chambers) explained it as Abraham turning towards Bethel, which meant ‘turning his back’ on Ai. Bethel was the house of God, Ai stood for the ‘perishing world’. When you turn to God, you have to turn your back on the world. Many people don’t do that; they want to have one foot in the church, and one foot in the world. They are those with a divided heart, living a double-life. Such ‘worldly Christians’ are travesties of true Christians.

However, soon after setting up the altar in Bethel, there was a test from God, viz. the famine. Abraham should have remained in the land where God had brought him, but in his anxiety and lack of faith in God he went down to Egypt. There he put his wife into great trouble, but God in His mercy bailed him out. So he came back to Canaan. It is interesting to read that he came back to the altar at Bethel, Gen 13.3,4. He prayed to God. We too must come to the altar and confess our sins and failures; only then can we advance spiritually. Otherwise we would keep going around in circles, like the Israelites in the wilderness. So we need to repent, make restitution and set things right with God and with our fellow-believers. We have to ask God to show us where we are going wrong. The prayer of David in Psalm 139.23, 24 must constantly be on our lips, when we go to church to take part in the Lord’s Table.

The Lord will show us where we have gone astray, where we are lacking, where we have failed. But our hearts are very reluctant to face the truth about ourselves, and rectify matters with God and man; many of us (myself included) have not understood the need to ‘keep short accounts with God’. Our prayer should be: “Lord, give me grace to obey. Make me willing. I really can’t do it, but You can do it through me. Help me set things right in my life. I must walk worthy of You.” Somehow, in his own loving and mysterious way, the Lord gets the difficult task done. He gives grace to obey.

Jacob’s Altar at Bethel

The second thought that came to me about the altar at Bethel was regarding Jacob’s life. We know how God met Jacob at Bethel, and gave him a great vision and a great promise to boot (Gen 28.15). Jacob set up a pillar there and made a vow, and spoke about building God’s house at Bethel, the place where he would worship God. Gen 28.22.

Thereafter Jacob did a 20 year course in the School of Harsh Discipline, which was Laban’s house. Jacob was deceitful, but Laban was an even greater deceiver. However, all that hardship and suffering did not break Jacob. Then God met him at Peniel and broke him one night in a memorable ‘wrestling match’. Jacob’s hip was put out of joint, and he had to walk leaning on his staff. But if you read on, you will find that Jacob still had a lot of his native wit and natural wisdom.

When Jacob got back to Canaan, he didn’t proceed to Bethel (where God wanted him to be). He settled down in the valley of Shechem, and built his own altar there. He got his daughter Dinah into a mess. We too are like that. We will not obey God fully, but will interpret God’s word and command according to our own convenience. That’s how we make God’s word of no effect in our lives.

Jacob realized the need for consecration. He told his family to put away their ‘foreign gods’ (idols), purify themselves and change their garments, Gen 35.2. When he set things right in his family, the terror of God fell on his enemies. Jacob came to Bethel, and built the altar, offering a libation in his worship. The libation or drink offering points to his rejoicing in the Lord. When we obey the Lord, then our hearts fill with joy. Submission to the Lord, full surrender, is what consecration means. Have we laid ourselves, spirit, soul and body, on the altar? Are we as ‘living sacrifices’ (Rom 12.1)? Have we understood that henceforth we are ‘to live for God alone, and not for ourselves’, for that is what consecration means (2 Cor 5.15)?

Jeroboam’s Altar at Bethel

But the story of the altar at Bethel doesn’t end there. We see another altar appear at Bethel in the time of Jeroboam. This wicked king of Israel set up a false altar at Bethel, where he encouraged worship of the golden calf. Jeroboam imitated the pattern of worship in Jerusalem, and distorted it in his own ‘Egyptian’ way; he propagated a false worship of God. The false worship prevalent in America these days is nothing but Jeroboam’s perversion of true worship. For example, entertainment is considered worship in American churches today. Carnal young people sing contemporary Christian music or CCM (as it is called), with shallow lyrics, and this ‘worship’ is popular even in conservative churches in that apostate nation. What a tragedy! People want to have a good time in the flesh, and they reject the very idea of the Cross. No wonder, almost all American churches don’t have the Lord’s Table regularly, but only once a month, or once a quarter, or even once a year. So there is no opportunity for self-examination, or searching of hearts(1 Cor 11.28). What a shame! As regards the Cross, Christians in that country prefer to have the cross on their church-steeple, or as a little crucifix around the neck; or, better still, they would love to do Christian business in ‘crosses, crucifixes, and other cute (and idolatrous) artifacts’. Enter the Christian bookshops over there, and you will find that they are no better than ‘the tables of the moneychangers’ seen in Herod’s Temple. The emaciated versions of the Bible popular in Christian circles today have all emerged from godless America. Ignorance of the word of God is rife in that country. In my opinion, the evangelical churches and the conservative theological seminaries are mainly responsible for the rot that has set in 20th and 21st century ‘Christian America’. It is pointless to blame charismatics and the cults, when the evangelicals in that country reject the Cross of Christ, or make it of ‘none effect’. The cross is seen in Romans chapter 6, Galatians 2.20, 2 Corinthians 4:8-12 and many other passages in the New Testament. It is not so much Christ dying for us, but we having died with Him are prepared to follow Him carrying our cross.

God in his mercy sent prophets to warn the people of Israel. Two of the greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha, did their ministry in apostate Israel. The false god of lust and self-indulgence seen in the worship of the golden calf at Dan and Bethel prevailed over the true worship, which was restricted to Jerusalem and Judah. Talking of ‘lust and self-indulgence’ a visit to the mega-churches (and the 'emergent' churches) would give you an idea of the sensuality and counterfeit spirituality that has taken over Christendom.

God sent his prophets to Israel again and again, but they only hardened their hearts all the more. Amos and Hosea were two powerful prophets, who inveighed against the iniquity at Bethel. Interestingly, Hosea does not call it Bethel, but he speaks of it as ‘Beth-aven’, the house of vanity. What does it mean? Bethel, the house of God, is now Beth-aven, the house of vanity. When you have a crossless Christ and uncrucified believers, you have carnal excitement - a corruption of spiritual worship and a gross caricature of the truth.


Bethel is the house of God, the place where God dwells. The altar at Bethel speaks of turning our backs on the world, repenting of our sins and failures, and consecrating ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord. That is what the altars of Abraham and Jacob at Bethel remind us of. But Bethel can become Beth-aven, in the hands of the Jeroboams of Christianity – the popular preachers seen on TV and who have a mass-following around the world. Let us note: what is acceptable in the world is an abomination before God.

Bethel is where God dwells. In the case of an individual believer, the heart is the residence of the Holy Spirit; or more correctly, the inner man, the spirit. That is the ‘secret place of the Most High’, Psalm 91.1. But, alas, our spirits are defiled, our hearts are hardened by the deceitfulness of sin; and having lost the vision of the altar (the cross), we walk on the broad way that leads to hell and destruction. Bethel, the holy place, sacred from the days of the patriarchs, became a place of curse and corruption since the days of Jeroboam and the other kings of Israel. What a fall for Bethel! What a lesson and a warning to all of us.

Copyright: Pratonix/Roland Oliver


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    • Dave Mathews profile image

      Dave Mathews 6 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

      Many great lesson reminders popped up for me thank you.

    • tlpoague profile image

      Tammy 7 years ago from USA

      I felt moved not to long ago to write a hub about our churches. I quit going for years because I felt I wasn't finding the satisfaction to fill my needs. I was left spiritually hungery. Then I thought I found a church to fit my needs, only to be let down once again by their lack of wanting to change. It seems that they wanted to grow as a church since it was so small, but they didn't want to make the changes needed to grow. I have since stopped going, but continue to pray for them. Sometimes I find it heartbreaking to want to walk in the Lord, but can't find the spiritual support needed to understand that walk. It is refreshing to come across hubs like this to give me a better light in my walk. Thanks! I am truly grateful I found your hubs.

    • profile image

      Dale 7 years ago

      Thanks. It put a sobriety in my heart, for which I am thankful. One the prayers on my heart recently has been "Lord help me to fear You and tremble at Your word." I believe one of the signs of the anti-christ is lawlessness which is extremely prevalent wherever I go. One of the best antidotes to lawlessness is the fear of the Lord. I am truly grateful for this message.

    • profile image

      Darlene Turpin 7 years ago

      I could very much relate to this hub...I also asked my pastor to preach on repentence..So I am waiting to hear what words come out of his mouth...I find my church to be so laxed in sin. It is the preaching where repentence is never mentioned..Plus our church only has the Lords table once a month and we are trying to get this. changed...I also believe there are so many that are luke warm..A sin is a sin is a sin...we must continually ask for forgiveness and repent and change our ways..I pray the Lord to work on me and show me what needs to be changed in my life and with His help I will overcome.

      This was a hub I surly needed to be reminded of..I thank my Lord that He knows me so well that He will show me what changes that need to be made in my life and He will be right there to help me in this changing. We do have many watered down churches been to many...Sometimes I even wonder if the Holy Spirit is even working in our own church due to no one seems to be effected by the messages..They have no emotion, no Amen no Hallelujah , no thank you Jesus. They feel that a sermon that lasts an hour is too long..I see them clock watching. Even the messages are not blessing me or anyone as they drink there coffee during service..which bothers me tremendously..I have never seen this before..that's what I mean about being laxed..I am really praying about this church and as to whether I really need to be going there...

      Thanks Roland great Hub as usual..But this one really really hit home..

      Voted up and useful

    • Tamarajo profile image

      Tamarajo 7 years ago

      I enjoyed this study on altars.

      I so agree that the modern church has drifted off into strange places and worship of other things in His name.

      It is tricky sometimes not getting caught up in its flow. Staying in the Word and close to Him is the key

      Good teaching.

    • Pratonix profile image

      Pratonix 7 years ago from Asia

      I thank God for His marvellous kindness in giving me this message at the last minute. I failed Him, by not spending much time at His feet on Sunday morning. But God is always good. It is we who misunderstand Him so much.

      Thank you, Johnny. We need, more specifically, an altar experience! When the altar is properly established, then Bethel can be built.

    • profile image

      johnnynaakea 7 years ago

      Great word Patronix.We all need to have our own Bethel experience.