Bible Study

Back to the Altar

Might the altar be the antidote to our frazzled minds and restless hearts?

Dwain N. Esmond
Back to the Altar
children and father parent praying with bible on the bed, family pray together, online church, home church

The atmosphere that fateful day on Mount Carmel1 was charged, though an eerie silence hung above the assembly. In previous times this elevated mount was lush and beautiful, but all that had changed. 

What used to be green was now burnt and bare, the result of a painful three-and-a-half-year drought. 

The Drought Within

Perhaps greater than the physical drought that gripped the nation was the spiritual drought that left God’s people soul-thirsty and faith-depleted. Israel was ruled by the evil King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, perhaps the worst choice ever in a mate. Ahab’s Sidonian bride had helped change his allegiance to God. 

Ahab’s small acts of religious compromise soon became full-grown apostasy. Ahab built Jezebel a temple to Baal in the capital of Samaria and erected an Asherah pole as well. Eight hundred fifty prophets led the pagan worship of these deities, but even this did not appease Jezebel. Her first recorded act in Scripture is “prophet genocide.” False worship and true worship cannot coexist. One has to die for the other to live. The Bible says in 1 Kings 16:33: “Ahab [and Jezebel] did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” Israel had God’s full attention. 

Meeting on the Mountain

It was into this devastating spiritual crisis that God called the prophet Elijah, whose name means “Yahweh is my God.” God birthed Elijah for this moment! Of Elijah Ellen White comments, “There dwelt in the days of Ahab a man of faith and prayer whose fearless ministry was destined to check the rapid spread of apostasy in Israel.”2 

When Elijah confronted Ahab, Ahab accused God’s prophet of troubling Israel. Perhaps that was understandable, for it was Elijah who declared that not a drop of rain would fall except at his word. Three years later Ahab’s resolve was broken. When Elijah ordered Ahab to meet him on Mount Carmel, along with all the prophets of Baal and Asherah, he meekly obeyed. Such was the spiritual authority vested in God’s servant. How so? He was on God’s mission to rebuild Israel’s broken altar. 

On Mount Carmel Elijah set out the terms of the contest. Two altars would be erected. Jezebel’s prophets would lay their sacrifice on one and Elijah would do the same on the other. “Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God” (1 Kings 18:24), Elijah concluded. The entire nation agreed, and as we know, the prophets of Baal screamed and cried, cutting themselves until they bled, but nothing happened. Their god never responded. 

It was then that Elijah called the people near and repaired the broken altar of the Lord, the altar to which God sent fire to consume Elijah’s sacrifice. This demonstration of God’s power was unprecedented and unforgettable! In an instant God restored His supremacy and reordered Israel’s spiritual priorities. 

A Hidden Gem

Often missed in this amazing biblical narrative is a note hidden in 1 Kings 18:36. It was “at the time of the . . . evening sacrifice” that Elijah prayed for the fire to fall from heaven, for God to show that He was Israel’s God. Morning and evening worship experiences were the spiritual bookends of Israelite life. 

God had instituted this personal/ family worship experience to develop a devotional cadence in His people: “One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight” (Ex. 29:39), said God. In a very real sense, Elijah was not just calling the nation back to the altar of true worship; He was calling the nation back to the altar of regular, systematic worship of the true God. Israel’s corporate worship altar was broken, but Israel’s personal and family altars had been broken long before. 

Might we be facing a similar fate today in the Seventh-day Adventist Church when it comes to personal and family worship? A 2018 worldwide survey of Seventh-day Adventists found that only 34 percent of Adventist homes are engaging in regular morning and evening worship, and only 52 percent of church members have any personal devotions at all.3 Can a church with an end-time message centered on worship—the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12—deliver this solemn message if its members are not faithfully engaged in personal and family worship? In other words, can we proclaim effectively what many are not doing daily? 

Ellen White comments, “There is nothing more needed in the work [of God] than the practical results of communion with God.”4 She writes further, “Like the patriarchs of old, those who profess to love God should erect an altar to the Lord wherever they pitch their tent. . . . Fathers and mothers should often lift up their hearts to God in humble supplication for themselves and their children. Let the father, as priest of the household, lay upon the altar of God the morning and evening sacrifice, while the wife and children unite in prayer and praise. In such a household Jesus will love to tarry.”5 

Our Most Pressing Need

The restoration of personal and family worship among Seventh-day Adventists is perhaps the most pressing need of our time. But it will not be easy. Today we face the challenge of technology that increasingly occupies our time and alters our minds. Our addiction to media, especially social media, has left us anxious, irritable, lonely, stressed, depressed, sleepless, and unhappy with our station in life. 

Ironically, personal and family worship has the opposite effect. It calms our minds, decreases loneliness, reduces stress, increases peace, fulfills our emotional needs, and teaches us contentment. Might the altar be the antidote to our frazzled minds and restless hearts? 

Now more than ever, God is calling us back to His heart, to consistent times of refreshing in His presence. It is for this reason that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has launched the Back to the Altar initiative, a landmark effort to rebuild the broken personal and family altars in God’s church. By 2027 we hope to see at least 70 percent of Adventist members engaged in morning and evening, personal and family worship. You will hear much more about this initiative in the days ahead, but we can all start right now. If we go back to the altar with God, we will be transformed into His image and empowered to finish His work! 

1 This story can be found in 1 Kings 16-18.

2 Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), p. 119.

3 Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, “The Global Church Member Survey” (Silver Spring, Md.: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2018), p. 14.

4 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 47.

5 E. G. White, Child Guidance (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1954), pp. 518, 519.

Dwain N. Esmond