The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. Then he proceeded from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 12:7-8).
Abraham was on a journey, moving from one place to another. Abraham was a person who responded in faith to the call of God. Everywhere he went, Abraham built altars. Each of these altars defined his spiritual journey. These were the sacred places where God met with Abraham and places where Abraham called on God. The altar was a memorial where Abraham celebrated his covenant relationship with God. The covenant relationship was mutual. Abraham and his descendants would live in obedience to God, and God would bless Abraham by making him the spiritual father of many nations. Every time Abraham approached an altar, he was reminded of God’s promises. The altar became a testimony to the faithfulness of God. Worship at the altar meant that Abraham continued to look for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Most Pentecostals were saved at an altar. The gospel was proclaimed, the Spirit convicted and called, and the sinner responded by going forward to the altar. That sacred place where the sinner kneels to confess sin and accept Jesus as Lord is a memorial to God’s saving grace. Just as Abraham returned again and again to the altar, so the obedient believer should return to the altar. It is the place where we call upon the Lord, always going forward in our spiritual development. The altar call provides the time and space for us to meet with God once again, to call upon God that we might renew our commitment, to be sanctified, or to pray through to the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Pentecostal worship has always been about movement. We pray that the Spirit will move among us. We come to church expecting to be moved by the Spirit. At some point in the service, we are invited to move from our seats to pray at the altar.
Pentecostal spirituality has suffered the loss of lament in prayer. We have been told that our victory in Christ means that we will not suffer hardship. If we do encounter distress, by faith we should make a positive confession and put a smile on our faces. But that is not the testimony of the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, when faithful people were distressed, they tore their clothes, put ash on their heads, and cried out to God. These prayers of lament are not faithless acts; they are cries of faith. In their distress, they did not turn their faces from God, but toward God. They insisted that God turn His face toward them. This is passionate, meaningful prayer.
The altar was a place where Abraham’s faith was sorely tested. “Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9). God had asked Abraham to offer his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. The altar always costs us something. At the altar we die.
Isaac had been Abraham’s greatest joy. The name Isaac means “laughter.” Abraham laughed when the angel announced that he and Sarah would have a son. We can only imagine the joy and laughter that Isaac brought to his aged parents. Isaac represented the whole of Abraham’s relationship with God. Isaac was the fulfillment of God’s promise. The death of Isaac meant the death of God’s promise. Living the life of faith is always a struggle. Faith sometimes requires great risk. It requires that the believer trust in the faithfulness of God, even in the most difficult times. As Abraham approached the altar with a heavy heart, he spoke words of faith: “God will provide for Himself the lamb . . .” (Genesis 22:8).
The altar is the place of God’s provision. As Abraham raised the knife over Isaac, he heard the voice of the angel: “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad” (Genesis 22:12). As he looked up, he saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. He offered the ram as a sacrifice upon the altar that had been built for Isaac. As the flames of the sacrificial fire consumed the ram and the smoke of the fire danced toward heaven, we can imagine the sounds of joy and laughter as Abraham and Isaac worshiped God. Abraham named the altar “Yahweh Yireh,” that is, God provides. At Yahweh Yireh, Abraham experienced the depths of despair. He brought to the altar his greatest treasure—his son. In his act of faithfulness, he discovered the faithfulness of God. Abraham’s place as the father of faith was firmly established only after he offered Isaac. The angel of the Lord said, “ . . . because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son . . . I will greatly bless you” (Genesis 22:16-17). The altar of Yahweh Yireh is a memorial to God’s commitment to bless the nations of the earth. Here at Yahweh Yireh, despair gives way to hope.