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.
Abram and Sarai, with Lot traveling with them, came into the promised land, as they followed God’s plan wholeheartedly. They did not stay on the fringes or the edges of the promised land, but they traveled to its heart, until God told them, “To your descendants I will give this land.” How the Lord appeared to him we are not told, but Abram knew it was God who had called him.
For himself and his companions, he pitched a tent, a temporary structure that they used to move from place to place. Our physical condition requires some protection from the elements, but Abram chose the slightest, and though the tents of that day could be quite elaborate it was still a temporary structure that illustrated his life of migration as he followed the plan of God.
But for God he built an altar, a permanent structure set onto the land. And the disparity between tent and altar shows a profound understanding in Abram’s thinking. Abram would come and go, but the presence and worship of God must be permanent throughout the land. To build an altar is more costly in terms of materials and effort, but Abram’s priorities were established in his heart – the worship of God was infinitely more important than the living conditions of Abram.
The altar was a place of sacrifice, where Abram could perform his worship of God by going to Him through making sacrifices of animals. The shedding of the blood of animals pre-figured the sacrifice of Christ – “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Heb. 9:22) – the cross was the real altar of God that truly removed the sin of the world. Abram’s worship was similar to the worship of Abel and Noah, and among the people of God there was an awareness of their sin, and of the personal relationship they had with God.
He called upon the name of the LORD, and though that name was re-affirmed later to Moses (Exod. 3:13-17), God identified Himself as “The LORD, the God of you fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” There is in the knowledge of His name, an awareness also of His Being. John Calvin wrote, “the altar was erected for the purpose of calling upon God. The altar then is the external form of divine worship; but invocation is its substance and truth.” So the simple worship was also profound and still relates to us today: the confession of sin, the belief in a means of gaining forgiveness (for us the cross of Christ), and the renewal of the relationship between the Creator God and the worshiper.
Here is a principle that people of faith grasp – God must have the first priority in my life. He is not a convenience that I have come upon, some good luck charm that might help me when I need it. He is the all-wise, omnipotent Creator and Redeemer in whom all my hopes lay. He is the First and the Last, My Savior, My Lord, and the Shepherd of my Soul. Dare I do less than Abram did? Dare I build a house for myself, anything of substance, before I have first sought to build a place of worship for my God?
Our lives will not have the proper balance, everything will be in some disorder, until we have established this priority – God must come first! Christ said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). Give Him the first and the best part of your day, tithe the first part of your income, let Him be the first love of your heart, and you will find that your day, your money, and your heart’s affections will be in more order and balance than before. Your day will be ordered by God, and you will find that you have time for all that you require. Your money will be more wisely spent and more sincerely made. And your love for those around you will actually grow stronger.