Day 26, Chapter 26: The Altar
Have you ever been lost? I have. Well, not really lost. I'm a man, you understand. We don't get lost; we simply drive around for hours because we like to take the scenic route. It's entertainment. After a few hours we stop to "use the restroom" and very discreetly check with someone else to confirm that we're not really lost.
"Yep, right on target," we declare to our passengers. "All we do is..."
The most I've not really been lost is ninety miles.
I recall a time I wasn't really lost in the woods. I was hunting in an area of Colorado that was new to me. We arrived at our cabin late in the afternoon and I decided to take advantage of the last couple hours of daylight. I'll just go scout around a little, I thought. This will give me a slight advantage in the morning. And who knows, I might even get lucky and see an elk. Better take my gun.
I scouted 20 minutes too long. This meant a lengthy walk back to the cabin in the dark. No problem. I had my flashlight, compass, and survival gear. I wasn't scared. That's why I whistled and hummed as I walked. I always whistle and hum in the woods at night when I'm not really lost and not really scared. Somewhere I missed a turn. Things look different going the opposite direction, especially in the dark.
Nothing jump-starts the imagination like being alone and lost - well, not really lost - in an unknown woods at night. (Not that I was scared, you understand.) Creatures I don't even believe in live in unknown woods at night. I heard noises that were downright weird. I also walked past approximately ten mountain lions and five bears. Luckily, they heard me whistling, detected my confidence, and ran off. It helps to be smarter than they are.
In times like these, at some point the mind begins to think crazy thoughts and ask strange questions. I know all elk are supposed to be vegetarians, but I wonder if some are really meat eaters? I recall thinking. They don't have deductive reasoning like we humans, but could they possibly know why I'm out here?
"Naw!" I heard myself say out loud.
Then for some unknown reason I also heard myself say very loudly, "Sure is a great night for a walk. I hope no elk think I've been hunting them."
Suddenly something near the trail jumped. Limbs and branches cracked and the ground shook as something sounding like a horse rumbled through the night. I think it was a Sasquatch. After I set a new record for the 400 meter dash, I slowed down to 50 mph and congratulated myself for having the calmness to take advantage of this time alone to enjoy some jogging. If you're going to be almost, but not really, lost in the woods, you might as well get in a little aerobic exercise.
"Most guys would never think of that," I bragged to myself. "They'd be too scared." Finally I came to the main road. I was only a mile or two south of where I wanted to be. Not bad, I thought.
As I approached the cabin, my concerned buddies were outside waiting for me. "We were starting to get a little worried," they said. "Were you lost?"
"Not really," I replied.
"Probably just wanted a little exercise, right?" They remarked in a matter-of-fact manner. Guys understand things like this. 1
We humans aren't really lost. We're just wandering around the planet exercising in the darkness. The reality of our denial is often lost to us. Admitting our lost condition is the first step to being found. The next step? Finding the cross.
The streets of London can be challenging to navigate. The city is huge and it's streets meander in different directions. I've been there on numerous occasions, and most of the time while being transported, I have no idea where I am or how I got there. I simply leave it to my host and the cabbies. There are certain landmarks that serve as fail-proof reference points for the locals. One of them is the Charing Cross. Near the center of the city, it is known by most Londoners.
A little girl was once lost in this overwhelming maze of concrete, rivers, buildings, and roundabouts. A bobby, the informal term for a British policeman, found her wandering the streets. Between her sobs and tears she explained to the bobby that she was lost. "I don't know my way home," she cried. The policeman asked her for her address. "I don't know what it is," she said, even more panicky.
"What is your phone number?" He inquired. She didn't know that, either. "Is there anything at all you can think of?" The kind bobby asked the little girl. Suddenly, her face lit up. "I know the cross," she exclaimed. "Take me to the cross. I can find my way home from there." 2
The lost have been finding their way home from The Cross for two thousand years. Easy to find, yet missed by many, it marks the way to Father's house. I both hate and love the cross. It was there that humankind’s greatest act of injustice occurred, and yet it was also the place of heaven’s greatest act of love. The cross is, indeed, history’s greatest paradox. Frequent visits there to think and meditate are recommended.
God hid pictures of the cross in the Old Testament. The pieces of furniture in the Tabernacle, for instance, were in the shape of a cross. Other pictures were given, not through an object’s shape, but it's message or meaning. One of these was a mountain named Ebal. Located across the valley from it was another mountain, Gerizim, and these two mountains became very significant.
Ebal was barren and rocky - that’s where it got its name, which means “stony heap of barrenness.” Gerizim, on the other hand, was fertile and lush. Consistent with their names, Ebal became the mountain associated with the curses and judgments associated with sin, Gerizim with the blessings of redemption. It was on these two mountains that both of these results - the curses resulting from disobedience and the blessings associated with obedience - were read to the twelve tribes of Israel (Joshua 8:30-35). These blessings and curses can be found in their entirety in Deuteronomy 27 and 28.
The reading ceremony was unique. With the Israelites in the valley (Shechem) between the two mountains, delegates from six tribes went to the top of Ebal, and representatives from the other six went to Gerizim. The curses were read from Ebal, no doubt a consequence of its condition and name, and the blessings were read from Gerizim. It would have been quite dramatic for the listeners below as these blessings and curses rang out across the valley. Through this dramatic enactment the message to Israel was clear: the choice of whether you'll be blessed or cursed is completely up to you.
What was not so clear that day was the picture of the cross and our redemption hidden in the actions. Israel was commanded to build an altar on Ebal upon which they offered sacrifices and offerings to Jehovah. None was built on Gerizim. The barrenness and absence of life on Ebal represented us humans in our fallen, spiritually dead and cursed condition. The altar and sacrifices offered there symbolized Jesus becoming our sacrifice in order to take our curse and death. He went to "Ebal" for us, the place of barrenness and cursing, in order to give us the life, fruitfulness, and blessings represented by Gerizim. The New Testament makes this clear:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us - for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" - in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:13-14)
These verses make clear that because of Christ's sacrifice we have the awesome privilege of choosing the blessing of Deuteronomy 28. But there was another part of the ceremony that also pictured this great truth. Israel did more than sacrifice on Ebal's altar. They also whitewashed the stones and wrote on them all the words of the Law of Moses. This is detailed in Deuteronomy 27:1-8. Why this strange act? Not until Holy Spirit interpreted it for us through the apostle Paul's writings do we find the answer:
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His Cross.” (Colossians 2: 13-14 KJV)
I'm sure these Israelites on the mount of cursing didn't know they were painting a picture of the cross, where Christ would cancel the curses they were writing and bestow on us the blessing of redemption. It must have been quite a day for Christ as He watched this from heaven. Perhaps He winced a little as He watched the actions and listened to the curses being read from Ebal. The pain He would endure when fulfilling their prophetic actions would be horrific. And yet He must have smiled when He heard the wonderful blessings being read from Gerizim. "For the joy set before Him [Christ] endured the Cross," the Hebrew writer told us (Hebrews 12:2).
Take some time and read Deuteronomy 27 and 28. Think of the price Jesus paid at the Cross, and determine to receive its blessings. In fact, why don't you declare the blessings mentioned in Deuteronomy 28 out loud over yourself and your family. Consider doing it daily for a while.
At some point, years after this ceremony, the Samaritans built a temple on Gerizim, in opposition to the temple at Jerusalem. This became their place of worship. Though not sanctioned by God, it's easy to see why they chose Gerizim over Ebal as their place of worship. The problem is, however, that we can't bypass Ebal (the cross) and go straight to Gerazim, (the blessings). Many people try to do this. But there is simply no way home... without starting at the cross.
I encourage you to visit Ebal often in your meditations. There you will find an old rugged cross; worship Him there. The more you do, the more you'll find yourself at Gerizim.
“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I'll cherish The old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to The old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”3
Pray with me:
Father, we are so grateful for Your gift of grace - by it we are safe from eternal condemnation and empowered to live a life of victory. Jesus, it's Your cross that made this grace available, and today we choose to reflect upon and return to it.
Help us to daily find the cross, acknowledging and appreciating its significance. It is the reference point for all of life’s treasures. We are asking that You teach us to fully appropriate this heavenly endowment - cancelled curses and bestowed blessings of redemption.
Receiving the full rights of Your family is a choice left to us. We choose to live in the charted course of blessing laid out in Your word, Father. We also choose to obey Your commandments and walk in Your ways, not to earn Your blessing but to model You and Your ways.
We boldly declare that Your blessings pursue and overtake us, such that we'll be favored everywhere we go. Blessed shall be all that we produce and touch, and victory over our enemies will be secured.
At the foot of the cross there is redemption; a fountain of blessing and abundant life. We choose to sit before the old rugged cross and drink deeply as we enjoy the pleasure of Your company.
Watch prayer here:
This chapter introduction originally appeared in Dutch Sheets, The River of God (Ventura, CA: Regal 1998), pp 177-188. Used by permission.
Adapted from D.T. Forsythe, quoted in Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book (Grand rapids: Kregel, 2009), p 124.
George Bennard, “The Old Rugged Cross,” 1912 (lyrics in the public domain).