A home is traditionally a place of rest and relaxation, a sanctuary from the stresses of the world. After all, a man’s home is his castle; after a hard day’s work and many hours navigating the minefield of societal expectations, we can close the door and truly be ourselves. Home represents a private bubble, hemmed off from the public sphere. In short, our home is central to our self-identity.
Home is also a place to be with the family. For many, it is epitomized by the patriarch or matriarch at the dinner table, bringing the family together. For others, it conjures images of rallying around the evening television, annual holidays, or festive seasons.
These days, the idea of home is no longer so simple. The internet has brought the entire world into our homes, dissolving the barriers between work, family, and play. The current pandemic has only supercharged this trend—we are encouraged to spend more time at home to slow the spread of COVID-19, and some are even under lockdown restrictions that only allow them to leave their homes for a limited number of reasons.
This current pandemic landscape has cast our homes in a new context and made us reconsider what our homes mean to us. Many are working from home, homeschooling, caring for dependents. In contrast, those who live alone or keep social distance because of underlying health reasons may feel isolated and miss the human touch. Rather than a sanctuary, a home may variously feel like a prison, a menagerie, or a space that needs to fulfill all life functions.
What about a Christian household? Many churches have had to cancel or reduce their in-person worship service and fellowship schedules due to the pandemic. This has highlighted the need to build strong personal and family altars in our homes. But how can we construct this altar? And how can this become the central pivot around which we build our homes?
THE ALTAR IN ABRAHAM’S HOUSEHOLD
When God called Abraham to depart from his country to go to a land that God would show him, Abraham obeyed by faith, not knowing where he was going (Gen 12:1–4; Heb 11:8). That was the watershed in Abraham’s life when he established a new pivot for his family. Away from the comforts of his former family life, Abraham laid a new foundation for his household. As he moved to Shechem, the Lord appeared to him and told him that his descendants would inherit this land. And there, Abraham built an altar to the Lord. When he moved to the mountain east of Bethel, he pitched his tent and again built an altar, calling on the name of the Lord (Gen 12:7–8). After returning from Egypt, where he went to escape from famine, Abraham came “to the place of the altar which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the LORD” (Gen 13:4). Later, Abraham moved his tent and dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre in Hebron. And he built an altar there to the Lord (Gen 13:18).
These actions signify Abraham’s resolve in laying the foundation of worship for his household. The altar was the center of Abraham’s family life, and it was evident in the life of his son, Isaac. When God tested Abraham and asked him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, both father and son traveled to the place of offering. As Abraham loaded the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac, the latter could see what was missing: “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen 22:6–7). Such familiarity with the practice of sacrifice must have been due to his father’s training and frequent participation in his father’s offering at the family altar.
Subsequently, when Isaac established himself and settled in Beersheba, God appeared to him and reiterated the blessing He had promised to Abraham. Isaac continued his father’s practice and built an altar there to call on the name of the Lord (Gen 26:23–25).
In Peter’s first epistle, he wrote:
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Pet 2:9)
Recognizing that we are God’s chosen people, we can certainly take a leaf out of Abraham’s book as we establish our Christian households. We can erect our family altar by instituting family worship as the galvanizing pivot for our homes.
Family altars can take several formats. The Bible describes prayers as offerings of incense to God (Ps 141:2; Rev 5:8). It also says we should “continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Heb 13:15). Hence, our family altar can undoubtedly take the form of family prayer and hymnal worship. While we encourage one another to have personal prayer time with God, we should also set aside a regular time to gather as a family to pray. It could be for twenty minutes daily or half an hour weekly. There can be a common family prayer list that unites the family in their prayers. Pray for one another. Pray collectively for unbelieving family members and relatives or those who are weak in faith. Intercede for church matters. We can let this be an opportunity for each family member to share their challenges and to request for intercession. The list goes on. The key lies in having a central pivot around which the family can grow together in the Lord. Over time, the family will also draw closer to each other. Like Abraham’s household, we can pass this heirloom to the next generation, as the young observe and participate in worship with their elders.
Indeed, Abraham passed his family heirloom of altar building to Isaac, who passed it to Jacob. When Jacob left his father’s household, he had yet to establish his own altar—he saw God as the God of his father and grandfather, but not as his own (Gen 28:13; 31:5, 29; 32:9). Later, after he had endured many hardships and wrestled with God, he finally surrendered his life to God. God also blessed him with a new name, Israel. When he erected his altar, he called it El Elohe Israel— literally, “God, the God of Israel” (Gen 33:18–20). He finally acknowledged that the faith of his fathers was his own.
Youths should start building a personal altar and personal relationship with God while we still live in the family home. Then, when we fly the nest for studies, work, or the next step in life and have our first taste of independence, we must ensure we continue our personal altar to the Lord. Carve out a time for daily Bible reading and prayer, and not as an afterthought just before we fall asleep. Since we will have more control of our time, we should use it wisely and seek positive ways to strengthen our worship of God at home. Find ways of incorporating livestream services and online fellowships into our schedule, or set up a small Bible study with friends. If we live far away from a physical church building, it is even more critical to remain virtually connected to the church and fellow members.
LEARNING FROM JEWISH HOUSEHOLDS
By the time the Israelites entered the land of Canaan after forty years in the wilderness, they were a nation of people with an established system of communal worship. They gathered as a congregation for Sabbath worship and for keeping the festivals. God also appointed the altar in the tabernacle of meeting to make offerings and sacrifices, which was later set up in Shiloh (Deut 12:5–6, 13–14; Josh 18:1). Despite this formalized worship, God reiterated the importance of weaving God’s word into every aspect of their family lives. As He instructed:
“And the words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You should teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut 6:6–9)
The above passage introduces another consideration for Christian households. The regular church services we attend and the religious education classes our children join do not replace the teaching of God's word in our homes. The significance of “when you sit in the house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” is to embed the word of God in our everyday life.
Following the example of Jewish households, Christian adults should seize every opportunity to discuss God’s word in our daily routine and activities. As we observe the sunshine or the rain, we can reflect on God’s creation and God’s providence. If we notice a rainbow, we can talk about the story of Noah. When our children quarrel and fight, we can remind them of Jesus’ teachings concerning forgiveness. We can use every encounter to weave in the word of God elegantly and positively into our family life.
To write God’s word “on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” signifies that Christian households must remember to apply the word of God as they leave their house for their daily activities and when they return home. Again, Christian parents can remind their children of being the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and practicing Christian virtues whenever they step outside of the home. Likewise, when the children return, adults can show concern by engaging in conversation about their encounters outside. It then becomes natural to weave the word of God into our conversations, to encourage, comfort, or counsel.
During the formal family altar time, be it daily or weekly, children can be encouraged to speak about lessons they learned in church or their reflections about the word of God in their daily lives. Adults should do likewise to lead by example. The key lies in having the word of God anchor the principles of conduct in the household.
For those who live alone, the home should still be a place where God’s word is ever-present. Research the online resources and content created by the church for members’ daily devotion. This can be hymnal recordings and choir presentations, sermon and seminar recordings, Bible study guides, blogs, and social media content. Access these throughout the day so that God’s word can act as a light to our feet on our daily walk. A daily routine could consist of reading the Five Loaves Two Fish blog (blog.tjc.org) with our breakfast, listening to a lecture series from the tjc.org archive on our lunchtime walk, and putting on hymns as we do the housework. These are not alternatives to spending time in prayer and Bible study but can all contribute to strengthening our personal altar.
THE CHURCH IN OUR HOUSE
Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. (1 Cor 16:19b)
Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house. (Col 4:15)
Some believers in the early church offered their houses as places of worship. Even as the church grew to encompass many different families, the Christian concept of the church remained as the “house of God” or the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15; Eph 2:19). If we consider how Timothy had known the Holy Scriptures from childhood (2 Tim 3:15), we could reasonably conclude that he was taught at home by his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice (2 Tim 1: 5). Hence, while the church is the household of God, the reverse should also apply—our family should also be the church of God.When Joshua addressed the people for the final time, he urged them to discard the gods their fathers had served and to make a choice. They could choose the gods from the other side of the river or the gods of the Amorites; but Joshua and his household had decided that their family altar would be dedicated to the Lord (Josh 24:15).
What about us today? Have we instilled family worship and the constant reminder of God’s word in our homes? Will we dedicate time to pray and learn God’s word, whether by ourselves or with our household? Have we erected our altar to God, wherever we pitch our tents? If we can build our homes around this central pivot, then our homes can indeed be the church of God.