Elder Neil Phelan, Jr.
"But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John" - Luke 1:13
It had been about four-hundred years since the ink had dried from Malachi's pen and that long since the voice of a true prophet had been heard in the streets. There was no open vision; no verbal instruction from Jehovah: the heavens were brass. The priests had corrupted themselves, their traditions had paralyzed God's people. There was a spiritual famine, and to make matters worse, it was during the ministration of a wicked king: "in the days of Herod." If there had ever been a time in which God's people should be discouraged and name their children "Ichabod", this was the time. But even in the midst of discouraging circumstances there remained a faithful few who had not deserted the alter. Among those was a faithful husband and wife named Zacharias and Elisabeth.
Zacharias means "Jehovah has remembered" and Elisabeth means "God is my oath". They were both of priestly lineage, but at this point in their ministry they seemed to be forgotten of God for another discouraging circumstance prevailed in their lives: they had no child. How many times Zacharias and Elisabeth had petitioned Jehovah for a child God only knows. But even though the times were dark, their seasons were dull, and their prayers were seemingly unanswered, we find a testimony that has thwarted the designs of Satan time and time again: they had not deserted the alter of God.
According to the inspired record of their lives "they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless"-Luke 1:6. Here is a special blessing couched within two words, "BOTH RIGHTEOUS": the husband and wife were both believers. This is a great blessing. Zacharias and Elisabeth agreed upon the oracles of God and lived accordingly. In their house there was one God and one alter. If this be your case, rejoice, and use it to its fullest benefit. It is at the alter of God that your marriage will become all that it can be. It is at the alter of God, that your children will receive their greatest and most lasting blessings. If you have the opportunity to worship with your spouse and your family and you are not taking advantage of this opportunity, blessings are flying over your head.
If your spouse is not a believer, do not compromise; do not desert the altar. Compromise seems to be a choice tool of Satan. After all, he despises God's alter. Compromise will never take the place of faithfulness. The downfall of Solomon was compromise with his wives and their gods. And although Ruth's husband was an Israelite, in a time of famine he deserted the alter of God and led his family into Moab. It was there that Elimelech lost his life and his two sons died estranged from the tents of his brethren. I have known of members who have worshiped alone at the alter for over thirty years, who later witnessed their children and spouse converted to the common faith. And this is the focus of this article: faithfulness, not to man, but to God, for therein is found an abundance of blessings. Who ever you are, whatever your circumstances may be, do not desert the altar of God.
Elisabeth and Zacharias were busy in God's temple: they were "walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord". This reflects an active posture in God's house which is always the safest and the most blessed. And even though our best efforts are in vain without God's blessings, we must agree with Spurgeon who said "the order of Cromwell is appropriate for service at the altar of God: 'Trust in God, and keep your powder dry."
Would we not all agree that God's altar deserves as much devotion and attention as any secular activity. How meticulous we can be in our secular pursuits while we set a lower standard in God's house. Solomon wrote, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest" - Ecclesiastes 9:10. I believe Solomon's eye was upon the house of God as he penned these words. Pastor, deacon, song leader, member, be diligent in God's house. You serve a noble King who deserves our best efforts. Slothfulness does not become "kings and priests".
IN THE LIGHT THEY HAD
Elisabeth and Zacharias were not perfect, but they were living up to the light that God had given them. That is all God expects of His people, to live up to the light that He gives them. And this is a lifelong challenge for every child of faith. It is growth; it is maturity; it is the "perfecting of the Saints". When we find ourselves receiving little light from God, must we not admit that we are not walking or using the light that He has already given us? If we say, "I have little light", God must reply, "you are not living up to the light I have given you. Use what you have and I will give you more." Living up to the light that God has given is like walking down a dark path with flashlight in hand. Every step is progress in our journey, but with every step the light reaches out just another step before us. Standing still may allow us to become secure with familiar surroundings, but Christian's journey never ends until he arrives at the Celestial City. When we travel with the light that we have been given of God, our batteries will never run down: we are recharged with energy from on high. To truly fellowship with the Lord, we must go on, we must progress, we must walk by faith.
Living up to the light that we have is the self test for hypocrisy. "Am I using what God has given me?", is the appropriate question. James said, "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" -James 4:17. James is not saying that God has opposing views of sin in different individuals. James is saying that God judges us by our knowledge; by the light He has given us. He expects us to live up to what He has freely given us by His grace.(Luke 12:47-48). Take the self test....are you living up to what you know to be true?
From James we are reminded of the dreadful sin of omission: not doing what we know we should, living up to our degree of light. A close cousin to unbelief, this sin is just as deadly as sins of commission, only much more subtle. Has God given you light upon a portion of His word; has He revealed a precious truth to you? Others may not know; may not comprehend; may not have been shown what you have been shown. God does not deal with every pilgrim in the same way; with the same light. How dark it would be if all light was revealed to one man, or, if the same measure of light was revealed to all. Is your light under a bushel? Place it on the candlestick, the altar of God!
When God gives us light, He expects us to live up to it whether any other person understands us or not. When we do not, we commit the fatal sin of omission. Consider Noah; the Judges; John the Baptist; and even Christ. Misunderstood by men, but well understood by God, shining their light in the midst of a dark world. There is a cross, but a blessing. A paradox to the world, but simple maxim in the spiritual realm. It is faith in its most simple form.
The world has well used the slogan, "marching to the beat of a different drummer", but there is a real maxim to this slogan in the spiritual realm. If God has told us to make an ark should we not begin the task? If he has spoken to us to leave our kindred, our family, and their idols, as He did Abram, should we not go? If He has called us to blow the trumpet, should we not blow it? Has God given you light to see His altar? By faith, make it your own!
We would not attribute the birth of their son to their works, but this is a fair question to consider. What would Zacharias and Elisabeth missed had they deserted the altar of God? Simeon or Anna? How many blessings would they have missed? Some have been confused in their thinking. Because God did not send a lightning bolt and strike them dead when they did not attach themselves to God's altar, or when they were unfaithful to the altar, they have concluded safety. But we must point them to the truth of the matter. How many blessings and opportunities flew over their heads as they circled in the desert of unbelief? Can you see the contrasting picture? Many carcasses have fallen in the wilderness of unbelief and omission.
Many times the blessings of faithfulness go unnoticed, but the Lord is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Do not compromise. Stay at the alter and keep praying, blessings will come your way. God's altar is one of faith. Do not desert the altar.
UNBELIEF MAKES US DUMB
Even God's most faithful servants can stagger in unbelief. We are quick to believe a sad report, but what about a glad one. Faithful to the altar, Zacharias here stumbles in unbelief. The glad tidings were, "thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John." Zacharias looked to self to supply the petition, rather than to the God who sent the messenger. His reply was, "Whereby shall I know this? for I am and old man, and my wife well stricken in years." Faith will take God at his word, as a little child, and has an eye toward God to supply the blessings. For his sin, Zacharias was unable to speak until the performance of the blessing.
Just as Zacharias, we, too, lose our testimony when we stagger in unbelief. Whether it is over the most simple doctrine in the word of God or the most challenging practical lesson, our testimony is weakened when we stagger in unbelief. If we doubt the doctrines of the Bible, how can we effectively witness to others? Did Christ rise from the grave? Did He put away the sin of the elect? Were we chosen before the foundation of the world? We must never stagger in unbelief. It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaketh. If we are not thoroughly convinced, how can we convince others. There is power in a believer's testimony and this testimony is fused to the altar of God. Make your calling and election sure: never desert it.
A PLACE OF BLESSING
The alter has always been a place of blessing. Faithful Abraham was always building an altar. Wherever he sojourned, he would erect an alter for worship and sacrifice. Abraham built alters, Isaac built altars, Joseph built altars. Where you find the patriarchs, you find them erecting altars to worship the Lord. If you are considering a move from your altar, seek a place where one has been consecrated by God. If there is no altar there, do not go unless God has called you to build one. Do not desert the altar of God. Blessings unfold here.
It must be a place of blessing because the altar is a safe place, "For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie." It is a hallowed and consecrated place where God tabernacles with His people. Every step away from the city of the great King, for whatever reason, is down.
It is at the altar that we find old Simeon, faithful to the altar of God. It was there that he held our Lord in his arms and "blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word" - Luke 2:28-29. And what about Anna, "a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem"- Luke 2:37-38? She, too, beheld the glory of God in the face of the Christ child. Promises and blessings unfold at the alter of God.
Our story concludes with triumphant joy surrounding the altar of God. Zacharias fades from our view with prophetic blessing pouring fourth from his lips concerning his newly born son. The last scene we witness of Elisabeth is one that every expectant mother anticipates: the naming of her child, "Not so; but he shall be called John." God reserves His best blessings for the faithful. He has ordained that they shall unfold around the alter of God. Yours may not be a child, but divers blessings are born around the altar of God. In prosperity, in famine, in darkness, in adversity, whatever the circumstances may be, do not desert the altar of God. Stay at the altar of God and keep praying, blessings will come your way!