Samuel Kuo—Brooklyn, New York, USA
In the Bible, building altars to God is typically depicted as a positive act and something many ancient saints engaged in. Noah built an altar and offered it to the Lord (Gen 8:20). Wherever Abraham traveled, he built altars (Gen 12:7–8). We also often cite Isaac’s example to illustrate how we ought to prioritize our life: to first build an altar (spiritual life), pitch our tent (family life), and finally, to dig a well (professional life) (Gen 26:25).
While altar-building, as individuals or as families, is encouraged, we need to be aware of the altar's design and for whom we are building it. In ancient Judah, the story of King Ahaz serves as a warning, as he copied the design of an idolatrous altar and installed it in Jerusalem. Although we may feel we would never do what Ahaz did, the reality could be quite different. For this reason, we must remain watchful.
Now King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, and saw an altar that was at Damascus; and King Ahaz sent to Urijah the priest the design of the altar and its pattern, according to all its workmanship. Then Urijah the priest built an altar according to all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus. So Urijah the priest made it before King Ahaz came back from Damascus. And when the king came back from Damascus, the king saw the altar; and the king approached the altar and made offerings on it. So he burned his burnt offering and his grain offering; and he poured his drink offering and sprinkled the blood of his peace offerings on the altar. (2 Kgs 16:10–13)
Let us first consider what we know of Ahaz’s motive in building an altar inspired by an idol-worshipping nation. Ahaz had long venerated the surrounding Gentile nations, along with their gods and rituals. He “made his son pass through the fire,” likely meaning he offered him to Molech, a foreign god (2Kgs 16:3). This was the practice of the Canaanites (Lev 20:2–5; 2 Kgs 23:10). Later, when Syria and Israel besieged Ahaz, he immediately turned to Assyria, the world superpower at the time, for help. “And Ahaz took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house, and sent it as a present to the king of Assyria” (2 Kgs 16:8). It is pertinent to note that no one forced Ahaz to do this, and it would seem that the plan worked.
As Ahaz traveled to meet the king of Assyria, he passed through the land of Syria. In Damascus, he became enchanted by an altar that he saw and resolved to have a copy made for Jerusalem. At that time, it was common to associate a nation's success with the gods they worshipped, and Syria was the nation that had earlier besieged Judah and taken some cities (2 Kgs 16:5-6). For this reason, Ahaz resolved to make an altar like the one in Damascus. Once completed, he deemed it “great” (2 Kgs 16:15).
It was not that Ahaz had not witnessed God’s power. Indeed, Isaiah had prophesied and encouraged him during the aforementioned Syro-Israelite besiegement, giving him God’s assurance of protection (Isa 7:3–17). God also sent the prophet Oded to convince Israel to release any Judean prisoners they had captured in battle (2 Chr 28:5-15). But after peace was attained, Ahaz either forgot or refused to recognize God’s protection. Ultimately, Ahaz was lured by the outward success of nations such as Syria, as evidenced by his avowal: “Because the gods of the kings of Syria help them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help me” (2 Chr 28:23).
It was clear that Ahaz had forgotten he was the king of the chosen people of the one true God.
Today, it is possible to find modern parallels to Ahaz’s behavior. It could happen when youths start comparing their lifestyle with that of non-Christians, leading to complaints of, “I can’t do this. I can’t do that. I don’t fit in.” It may result in, or amplify, feelings of low self-esteem and inferiority. Also, church members may start comparing the True Jesus Church to other denominations and conclude that we fall short in terms of congregation size, diversity of membership, perceived quality of activities, financial power, biblical scholarship, and the like. There may be others who are embarrassed because we pray in tongues and do not see it as something to be treasured. Such comparisons may lead them to question whether we are really the true church. In truth, when we appraise our lives and our church from a worldly perspective, we, like Ahaz, are in danger of erecting blasphemous altars. The solution is to cultivate a proper spiritual perspective about who we are. We must remember that we are members of the true church whom God has prepared before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3–4).
Bringing Idolatrous Worship into the Church and Home
He also brought the bronze altar which was before the Lord, from the front of the temple—from between the new altar and the house of the Lord—and put it on the north side of the new altar. Then King Ahaz commanded Urijah the priest, saying, “On the great new altar burn the morning burnt offering, the evening grain offering, the king’s burnt sacrifice, and his grain offering, with the burnt offering of all the people of the land, their grain offering, and their drink offerings; and sprinkle on it all the blood of the burnt offering and all the blood of the sacrifice.” (2 Kgs 16:14–15a)
Initially, Ahaz installed the new altar behind the original bronze altar. When he returned from Damascus, he made some inaugural offerings (2 Kgs 16:13). However, with time, his backsliding worsened. Ahaz moved the bronze altar northward, relegating it to an inferior position, and began using the blasphemous altar for the daily sacrifices. Unbelievably, all this unfolded within the temple courts, the place that Solomon had built and dedicated to the true and living God.
When we consider that the altar of olden times symbolizes prayers and worship (Ps 141:2), we realize that building a blasphemous altar could happen even today.
Several years ago, when I was visiting one of our churches outside of the US, I was stunned to witness several of our members walking about in the chapel at night, repeatedly shouting, “Fire, fire!” I learned that they were imitating the neighboring Pentecostal churches and had adopted this practice in place of praying in the Holy Spirit. This unfortunate state of affairs was the outcome of the influence of wayward workers and our members being seduced by the theatre and excitement of the other denominations. In this way, they had strayed from the precious truth of the True Jesus Church. Eventually, the workers and members in that church fell away for good.
In recent years, some errant church workers and members have been promoting the idea that Satan is self-existent. This concept has a certain appeal on the surface since it would seemingly detach God from any connection with the devil, and with evil and suffering. But it has a fundamental problem. The concept is incongruent with the Bible’s teaching that no one, except the Almighty God, is self-existing. Those who uphold the erroneous belief are, in effect, gifting Satan with a status that he has long desired, which is to be like God. Thus, the very heart of the idea is blasphemous—how could we even entertain the notion that anyone or anything is comparable to the one true God? As church members, our natural inclination is to respect all workers. Nevertheless, we would do well to heed the Bible’s teaching: “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:21–22).
In wider society, there is a current trend for “mindfulness,” a practice that finds its roots in Buddhism and involves meditation to bring one’s attention to the present moment. Many psychologists promote its benefits for mental well-being, so it is increasingly used in secular settings such as schools, hospitals, and prisons. Corporations are encouraging employees to use mindfulness apps. Hotel chains are advertising mindfulness amenities on their premises. There are a plethora of articles, videos, and social media posts on the subject. As the world gravitates toward this trend, we must take care to discern and understand that it is no substitute for prayer.
Moreover, it is not the type of meditation we should practice as Christians. Instead, we should be undertaking biblically-based meditation, which is centered on the word and works of God (Ps 1:2; 77:12). Our goal should be to develop the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).
Whether at church or in the home, we must be wary of bringing impure ideas and practices into our worship. We must honor and worship God in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23–24).
Bringing Idolatrous Methods into Serving
“And the bronze altar shall be for me to inquire by.” (2 Kgs 16:15b)
After moving the bronze altar, Ahaz repurposed it “for [him] to inquire by” (2 Kgs 16:15). Some Bible scholars think this is a reference to extispicy, a practice whereby occultists would inspect the condition and positioning of animal entrails in the act of divination. Regardless of the specifics, the bronze altar's original purpose was certainly not for divination, but rather it was for making offerings to God, for atonement, thanksgiving, fellowship, and restitution (Lev 1–5).
Since the altar was the structure for making offerings, it can symbolize our service to God. Just as idolatrous worship can displace godly worship, so idolatrous methods can displace biblical service. As living sacrifices, we should not lose sight of God’s will and make the mistake of repurposing ourselves for things that we ought not to do. For example, in the True Jesus Church, it has long been understood that we should emphasize God and His word when we evangelize. However, this does not always happen. I saw promotional materials for an event that highlighted the speakers as the main attractions in one local church. The same church also used a praise band whose music was amplified with deafening loudspeakers, a practice of other denominations. The result was that the congregation was roused by the emotive music but was disturbingly lethargic when it was time to pray in the Spirit. Thankfully, I have since learned that things have improved in that church, and matters are much more in order now.
When worldly values and the appealing but ungodly practices of other denominations influence the service we offer to God, we are no longer using our altar of sacrifice for its ordained purpose. We have debased our service to God.
The story of Ahaz, as well as present-day iterations, serves to give us a warning. Altar-building ought to follow God’s specifications (Ex 20:24; Josh 8:30–31). Its associated worship and service should be genuine, holy, and pleasing in God’s sight. As we build our altars individually at home or collectively as a family and in the church, let us remain vigilant, lest our altars blaspheme against God.
 “Mindfulness,” Psychology Today, accessed March 23, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/mindfulness.
 JH Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Vol. 3) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).