If there’s a character quality that binds us all together, I think it’s this: We want to bring something to the table. Something of importance or necessity. Something we can be known for. Whether it falls in the category of showmanship or salesmanship we want to be good at something. To be a team member the team can’t live without. Or the missing piece to a puzzle.
Devotional Scripture: Exodus 20:22-26
Key Verse: “An altar of earth you shall make for me…If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.” Exodus 20:24-25
We may squawk about the necessity of alone time (at least I do) but deep down it feels good to be needed. In the work place or the home place or the places we favor in between, it’s nice to think we provide (at least in some small manner) a benefit helpful to someone else. A skill, a strength, a shoulder, some smarts, a home cooked meal for a new mama, or at the very least some level headed common sense we’d be happy to share if the world would just listen.
And if none of that is needed, then excuse me while I go eat a tub of ice cream and head back to bed. Because disappointment will abound.
Perhaps that’s why it’s hard for some to accept Christianity. Because truth be told when it comes to salvation, we bring nothing to the table. No works in and of themselves are good enough to get me into heaven. There’s no quota I can fill. No talents or abilities that can help. No amount of good I can accomplish to get me on the right side of eternity.
Because plain and simple, I’m a sinner. We all are. Imperfections and short comings thrive in each one of us. (Sorry for the bad news.) So apart from the righteousness of Christ placed in the account of a believer, we’ve got nothing. “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:22b-24).
To try and justify ourselves apart from Christ is like offering God a pile of menstrual rags and asking, “Here is this good enough?” Disgusting right? But that’s what scripture says our best efforts amount to (Isaiah 64:6).
Now to be clear, I’m not talking about the works we do in Christ. God finds those beautiful. Spirit rendered fruit is not rags. It’s a tapestry God himself is weaving. One that will line the walls of heaven for all eternity.
No, what I’m talking about is the stuff we do beforehand. The things we try and do to prove our worth to God prior to coming to Christ. And every time we come up short.
Look what God says to the Israelites just before entering the Promised Land. “Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people” (Deut. 9:6). It wasn’t because of them, it was because of Him. God did it all. They brought nothing to the table.
Which brings us to our text today. Directly after the Ten Commandments God gives instructions concerning altars. The main point being this: Any altar they built was to either be of dirt or unhewn stone. Meaning no tools were to be used on the altar. No work of man was to be added to the altar of sacrifice.
But why? That’s the question we want to search out. Why was it so important for no chisel to be used? Because the altar pictured the cross, upon which the Lamb of God, would give His life. And to chisel on the altar was to bring works to the cross. And man can add nothing to the cross. It was all Jesus. It was all God.
It’s God who chooses us.
“Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4).
It’s God who draws us.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
It’s God who nails our sin to the cross.
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2: 13-14).
It’s He who grants us repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). It’s He who gives us life (Eph. 2:4-5). “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself” (2 Cor. 5:18).
To think we’re responsible for any of it is to bring tools to the altar. But every bit of salvation is the powerful working of God (Col. 2:12). From the drawing to the choosing to the saving to the sealing.
Then on the last day it’s Christ who will raise us up (John 6:40). It’s Christ who will and already has declared the victory (Col. 2:15). We’ve got no reason to boast, but every reason to bow. We have done nothing; He has done everything.
In addition, there could be no steps up to the altar as the pagan shrines often had. Because there could be no going up to God, it is God that would come to us. Redeeming every sinner willing to recognize His ability to do so.
Truly, to realize I bring nothing to the table, yet understand I now belong there, is to sit in the depths of God’s amazing grace.
Think of it this way, the instructions for the dirt or unhewn altar of stone are given on the heels of the Ten Commandments because God knew they would break every one of his rules. So out of mercy God wasted no time in telling them how to construct an altar for when they did. An altar with rough, jagged, perhaps awkward, sometimes difficult to handle, unhewn stone. Because neither they, nor we, can bring anything to the table of salvation. It’s God who does the work at the altar and God who works in our life.