Bethel: The Place of an Altar
Bethel means “house of God” and was one of the most sacred places in all the land. Sooner or later every Christian will be led by God to their personal Bethel. It’s my prayer that God will use the following words to deepen your spiritual life, encourage you and bring you to a place where God can reveal Himself in a special way.
Several of God’s great patriarchs were blessed with unforgettable spiritual experiences at Bethel.
Genesis 35:1-3 – “And God said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there and make there an altar unto God. Then Jacob said unto his household, let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress.”
Jacob had been to Bethel before. It was there that God let a ladder down and Jacob saw angels ascending and descending. In an hour of great distress, God ministered to Jacob, and there at Bethel Jacob made a covenant with God. God had manifested Himself to Jacob in a special way, and Jacob made some promises to God. Soon thereafter, Jacob departed from Bethel, which means the house of God, or the place where God’s presence is manifest.
The second time that Jacob was at Bethel was on his return trip out of Canaan. There an angel of the Lord wrestled with him. One of the most fantastic experiences that Jacob ever had took place in the house of God. Instead of staying where the presence of God was manifest, instead of being faithful to the house of God, instead of pitching his tent in Bethel, Jacob again departed.
We next find him in a strange place called Shechem. It was there God said to Jacob, “Jacob what are you doing here? You have slipped away from Me and you have been careless in your spiritual life long enough. You’ve gone your own way and you’ve done your own thing. It’s time for you to arise, and go back to Bethel.”
Build an Altar at Bethel
In verse one, God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there and make there an altar unto God.” It’s repeated in Genesis 35:7, “And he built there an altar, and called the place El-Bethel.” If we’re going to respond to the call of God to go back to where we first met Him, and dwell in the place where God makes His presence manifest, the first thing we must do is build an altar.
An altar is used for a lot of things in relationship to God. An altar is used as a place to pray. An altar is used to offer sacrifice. An altar is used as a place to make commitments. An altar is used as a place to humble oneself. It was never to be made of new stone. It was always to be rough field stone, for God never wanted the hand of flesh at the altar of God.
It was David who said, “Oh Lord, I will compass thine altar, and I will dwell where thy glory dwells.” It’s easy for us to get so involved in everyday activity that we forget the altar – the place where we can pour our hearts out, the place where we can humble ourselves, the place where we can acknowledge our need of God, the place where we can offer our sacrifices, the place where we can put God first, the place where we can worship, the place where we can pray, the place where the fire burns, the place where we can draw near to God. It’s easy to get involved in other things and neglect the altar. The first thing that Jacob had to do when he left Shechem and started back to Bethel was build an altar.
When he and his household reached the hilltop of Bethel, he stopped everything until he carefully erected an altar to God. There he bowed his heart and called the altar El-Bethel, because he said, the God of His house is today in His house. If we want God to make His presence felt, all we, as His people, must do is say, “Lord, I want your presence to be felt, so I’ll build an altar.” When Elijah wanted the fire to come down from God out of heaven, he first built an altar. When Joshua wanted to know that God’s presence would be with the Israelites as they marched into the promised land across Jordon, God caused Joshua to erect an altar. As we study the Old Testament, we see over and over again that the people of God were altar builders.
Let’s arise and go back to Bethel. We need altars more than we need programs. We need altars more than we need talent. We need altars more than we need promotion. God knows today that we need altars. You may not have talent. You may not have capacity or strength to do some things, but everyone has the capacity to build an altar. So, if we’re going to go back to Bethel, let’s build an altar.
Put Away Strange Gods
Not only is Bethel a place of an altar, but, according to verse two, it’s also a place of sanctification. This simply means separation from ungodly things. Jacob said to his household, and to all that were with him, “Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments” (Genesis 35:2). Jacob was saying, “We’re going to Bethel, let’s sanctify ourselves.”
What would happen if we went through our houses and destroyed all the strange gods? I wonder, what would fill our trash cans if we really sanctified ourselves? Moreover, I wonder what would happen if we would begin to search our hearts, and would lay aside those things that have somehow crept in, and have taken over a prominent place in our lives. If we started to Bethel, we would have to lay aside certain things. You see, there’s a price to pay. God is a jealous God, and He demands that we lay aside those things that have a tendency to crowd Him out.
It’s so subtle. A strange god can become a part of our lives almost without our recognizing it. Suddenly, something can lay hold of us that demands our time, that consumes our energy, that takes away from us, that demands from us, and when it’s all over, it amounts to nothing. I’ve noticed that, every time God begins to do a work in a man’s heart in scripture, there’s a stripping away of things that distract us from God. The Apostle Paul, alluding to this as a runner, says that he will lay aside every weight, and the sin that does so easily beset him, so he can run with patience the race that’s set before him (Hebrews 12:1).
I am amazed at the things that so easily fasten themselves upon us, that are nothing more than weights. They don’t keep us from running, but they keep us from running well. If you and I are going to go to Bethel, we must lay aside things that are so unnecessary. You say, “What are they?” I don’t know. But you know. No one has to tell me what hinders me, I know. And perhaps what I have to lay aside is different from you. I don’t know what strange gods you’re holding in your hand or heart, but if we’ll turn around and face toward Bethel, God will say, “That’s it, right there, put it down.”
You see, we still need some old-fashioned sanctified preaching that will burn inside of us and make us live differently than we’re living. We need the kind of preaching that will make a change inside of us, so that we don’t compare ourselves among ourselves, but say instead, “God, I don’t particularly care what people have to say; what is it that you require of me if I’m to go to Bethel?” And the more I think about Bethel, the more necessary it is for me to go there, and the more foolish it is for me to stay in Shechem. Why should I live in the valley of Shechem, when I can walk upon the mountain of Bethel?
God Answers Prayer at Bethel
Not only is Bethel a place of an altar and sanctifying power, Bethel is also a place of answered prayer. Perhaps one reason our prayers are not answered is that we’re not praying them at Bethel. God required Jacob to go to Bethel.
I’ve seen in my own spiritual life that, when I have pitched my tent at Bethel, God answered my prayers. There is a place that God demands we go, if we are to have prayer answered. There is a place to which you and I must come and an effort that we must make. We need not only to build an altar, not only to sanctify ourselves, but also to recognize there is a place we can go, that special closet of prayer, so we know when we pray, the answer will be forthcoming. I don’t know if you have ever been there, but there is a place called Bethel, where God answers prayer.
Jacob was tired of living at Shechem. He was tired of doing things in his own strength and depending on others. He knew he needed to find a place where God answers his prayers. Have you ever prayed when you knew God wasn’t going to hear you? Have you ever been in a place where you knew the heavens were brass? It seemed as if God had sealed up the glory world and the communication system was broken down.
David found himself in that place when he cried out and said, “O God take not Thy Holy Spirit from me” (Psalms 51:11). Help me to be, O God, where you can help, and hear me when I pray. Wouldn’t you like to live at Bethel, where every time you opened your mouth you heard a clear communication to God? It’s a place where God answers prayer.
God’s Presence is Felt at Bethel
Before we leave verse three, we ought to underscore the last phrase. Not only “will I make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress,” but “God was with me in the way which I went.” It was at Bethel that God made His presence so real that Jacob knew God was with him. He didn’t have to check with anyone. He didn’t have to get anyone else’s opinion. He knew as a result as of living in Bethel, God was with him.
Have you ever experienced a period of time in your life when you’ve not been aware of God’s presence? There is nothing more miserable in all the world than not to feel God’s presence. I know what it is to walk through a period of time and wish that somehow God would make His presence felt. Job had that experience when he said, “I looked before me and I couldn’t detect His Presence, and I sought for Him in back of me, and He wasn’t there, and I looked to the left and to the right, and I couldn’t feel God.” Thank God Job maintained his faith.
Jacob, had wondered away from Bethel, and had become so involved in making a living and in building a kingdom for himself that, one day in Shechem, he woke up and thought, “Oh only if I could feel God’s presence again.” It was at this time he heard the voice of God saying, “Jacob, if you really want to feel my presence, go back to Bethel where I first made My presence felt; I’m still there.” I want you to know that God hasn’t left you if you don’t feel His presence. You and I have left Him. If we’ll go back to Bethel, where we left Him, we’ll find Him there waiting to reveal Himself to us.
God Demands Holiness at Bethel
Genesis 35:4 – “And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.”
I wonder why the scriptures put such an emphasis on the fact that they brought earrings, and gave them to Jacob before they’d go to Bethel. Is God saying to you ladies with earrings, that you’re suppose to take them off? Of course not. I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t only the women who wore earrings, men also wore them. The earring had an interesting significance, in that they indicated the person’s identification with the worship system of the gods of that age.
It was a way of saying, “I wear this to identify myself with the religions of this world.” Therefore, Jacob told his household, “I’m going to Bethel, but you’re not going with me, unless you are willing to stop identifying with the things of this world system. I’m going to demand that you walk in holiness and separation if you’re going to go to Bethel.” I believe with all my heart if we’re to pitch our tents in Bethel, God demands that we stop identifying with some of the things that we’re identifying with.
God said to Jacob who said to the people, “There will be no question of whose side we’re on when we start to Bethel. Everyone will know that there’s been a change, everyone will know that we are different, everyone will know which side we’re on. There will be no doubt about it.” Oh, God, gives us men and women today who will reach up and remove their spiritual earrings and cast them aside and say, “God I want the whole world to know that I’m on your side.”
Nowhere in the Bible has God ever suggested we seek the approval and applause of men. Nowhere in the Bible is it indicated we should be so well-liked by this world’s system, that people will put their arms around us and call us jolly good fellows. Just the very opposite. The Bible declares that, if we identify with God, we’ll be pilgrims and strangers in the land (1 Peter 2:11), and men and women will look and say, “Who is that crowd?” Wouldn’t it be wonderful for us to say, “We are the crowd who lives at Bethel, and we don’t have earrings in our ears.” It’s a place of God’s holiness.
There is Power When God is With Us
Genesis 35:5 – “And they journeyed, and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.”
Imagine this holiness band, walking out of Shechem, walking into the midst of the enemy, where the enemy could have utterly defeated them. They wouldn’t have a chance. But they were on their way to Bethel, and as they marched through the land, God marched ahead of them. Every time they walked past a city or village, God put a holy fear in that city, until the Bible says, terror struck them. Jacob and his sons walked right on by. They didn’t have a sword or spear; they didn’t have an army to protect them, they didn’t fight any battles, they didn’t depend on the arm of the flesh. God’s divine protection compassed them about (Psalms 32:10, Psalms 34:7, 1 Peter 1:5).
We are on our way to Bethel and God is our God, and we commit our ways to Him. We’re not going to worry about it. We’re not going to be frustrated. We’re not going to be driven by fear. The God whom we serve is able to deliver us. They marched through the land of the enemy on their way to Bethel, and God protected every step they made, until they pitched their tents in Bethel.
We are in this world but we’re not of it, and I don’t care what the world system has to say, or what their threats and accusations are. If we’ll start toward Bethel, the God that is among us will strike terror in the hearts of the enemy and let His people march through.
Isaiah 54:17 – “No weapon formed against us will prosper.”