A few weeks ago when I was studying for a Bible Study, a verse in a commentary stuck out to me and I noticed something that I had never really paid attention to before. It was this idea of building false emotional religion, on a place that has a reputation of true spiritual experience.
It was all about Bethel.
If you were to go on a walk through the town of Bethel you would find some rocks that could really tell a story. These rocks have been around thousands of years. In fact, there is one somewhere that was once a pillow for the head of Jacob.
“Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.”
So Jacob built an altar of remembrance, a pillar, out of the stone he slept upon.
Later, the Lord told him to go back to Bethel and build an altar. So Jacob took his people with him. But first Jacob told them to prepare,
“Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.” (Genesis 35:2-4).
Put away your “gods,” get rid of your idols, be set apart for the Lord.
Bury your sins like a dead man.
And the Lord changed his name. No longer would he be called a heel catcher and a deceiver, but he was called Israel, “governed by God.” (Genesis 35:9-10)
And so, time passed and God fulfilled His promise to the children of Jacob /Israel/.
Bethel– “House of God”
Bethel, a place that began as a promise. A place of preparation. A place of repentance. New beginnings. Sanctification.
This experience for Jacob really had nothing to do with, just “God being in this place and I just didn’t know it.” It had to do with God being with Jacob, and Jacob never knew it. This intimacy with God was built on the altar of repentance and consecration to God through faith. Every true altar, and cross is built the same way. It isn’t about the place, it is about the heart.
But people want the short cut. People just want to walk into a place that is “anointed.” They want to receive what they won’t labor for. They want the resurrection power without the cross of obedience. They want to experience God, on their own terms.
It is the same in Bethel. What was once known as a place where Jacob met with God and was born again, and named by his Father in Heaven–became transformed by superstition into this heavenly “stargate,” where these mystical and pagan priests told worshipers they could find a stairway to heaven, a back-door to the born again blessing.
Jeroboam Makes Gold Calves
25 Jeroboam then built up the city of Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and it became his capital. Later he went and built up the town of Peniel.
26 Jeroboam thought to himself, “Unless I am careful, the kingdom will return to the dynasty of David. 27 When these people go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple of the Lord, they will again give their allegiance to King Rehoboam of Judah. They will kill me and make him their king instead.”
28 So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”
29 He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom.30 But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there.
31 Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi.32 And Jeroboam instituted a religious festival in Bethel, held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in imitation of the annual Festival of Shelters in Judah. There at Bethel he himself offered sacrifices to the calves he had made, and he appointed priests for the pagan shrines he had made. 33 So on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a day that he himself had designated, Jeroboam offered sacrifices on the altar at Bethel. He instituted a religious festival for Israel, and he went up to the altar to burn incense. (1 Kings 12)
How horrible. What once was a place for idols to be burried has now become a place where idols are enthroned. Where the God of Israel is depicted by a cow! Not only that, but it imitated the truth. They celebrated an imitation. Of course that made it feel a little less idolatrous. “We do the same things you do in Jerusalem.” and “We are not that different.” After all, they still celebrated the feast of shelters. It felt comfortable, as they held to the traditions. Outwardly it was similar, inwardly there was a golden calf on the throne of their hearts.
Instead of seeking Yahweh in truth and obedience, and trusting Him to establish his kingdom, Jeroboam set up a religion that would further his personal agenda. False religion empowers and enriches (money teachers, prosperity preachers, faith healers, repentance stealers). It wasn’t just another denomination. It was man made. It was a look alike religion, but with a satanic substitution.
Maybe they told the people, “God is doing a new thing.”
But God Will Judge
At the Lord’s command, a man of God from Judah went to Bethel, arriving there just as Jeroboam was approaching the altar to burn incense. 2 Then at the Lord’s command, he shouted, “O altar, altar! This is what the Lord says: A child named Josiah will be born into the dynasty of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests from the pagan shrines who come here to burn incense, and human bones will be burned on you.” 3 That same day the man of God gave a sign to prove his message. He said, “The Lord has promised to give this sign: This altar will split apart, and its ashes will be poured out on the ground.”
Who does the prophet address? It wasn’t Jeroboam, the priests, or the worshipers. He shouts to the stones! The stones of the altar would be more likely to hear the words and respond! Oh, altar, on you will burn the bones of the pagan priests and false teachers! “…The stones of which would sooner hear and yield than those who were mad upon their idols and deaf to divine calls” (Matthew Henry).
4 When King Jeroboam heard the man of God speaking against the altar at Bethel, he pointed at him and shouted, “Seize that man!” But instantly the king’s hand became paralyzed in that position, and he couldn’t pull it back. 5 At the same time a wide crack appeared in the altar, and the ashes poured out, just as the man of God had predicted in his message from the Lord.
As Jeroboam raged at the boldness of the prophet, that interrupted his solemn ritual, his own hand withered. It was paralyzed. It literally dried up.
And the altar cracked. And ashes poured out. The only sacrifice here that could please God, was the sacrifice of idols and everyone connected with them. Matthew Henry said, “How could the gift be acceptable when the altar that should sanctify it was an abomination? It was a reproach to the people, whose hearts were harder than these stones and rent not under the word of the Lord.”
Their hearts were harder than the stones that broke open at the Word of the Lord.
It Was a Sign
6 The king cried out to the man of God, “Please ask the Lord your God to restore my hand again!” So the man of God prayed to the Lord, and the king’s hand was restored and he could move it again.
The stones of the altar were broken open. And yet the hearts were harder than stone. The king cries out, for a superficial prayer to be made for him. “Restore my hand!” Please. His hand that was hardened by God, was a sign of a heart that was even more hard, more withered, more paralyzed, and more useless.
And yet, he pleads for prayer from the very man he was just seeking to kill. “The time may come when those that hate the preaching would be glad of the prayers of faithful ministers” (Matthew Henry).
It is ironic. And yet, a prayer is answered and his hand is restored. But notice, that he had no desire to pray for God to forgive his idolatry, or change his heart. He only cared about restoring the strength of his flesh.
“I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness: they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah.” Jeremiah 23:14
How many times have you seen faith healers work on the flesh of the unrepentant? Is that really evangelism? Jesus healed people, body and soul. He never sought to heal just body alone. But false spirituality seeks one without the other.
“Do Not Even Eat With Such People . . .”
7 Then the king said to the man of God, “Come to the palace with me and have something to eat, and I will give you a gift.”
8 But the man of God said to the king, “Even if you gave me half of everything you own, I would not go with you. I would not eat or drink anything in this place. 9 For the Lord gave me this command: ‘You must not eat or drink anything while you are there, and do not return to Judah by the same way you came.’” 10 So he left Bethel and went home another way.
The man of God was commanded to not fellowship in the house of idolatry. There was no true repentance. He could not sit at their table and endorse them. (1 Corinthians 5:11)
Isn’t this true with all healing ministry. If a man has a miracle affecting his flesh he is for sure grateful. He will deal kindly to the minister or prophet, even maybe tithing. But unless his heart is healed, he walks away unregenerate.
So the man of God leaves.
The Sin of Doubt, A Personal Compromise
11 As it happened, there was an old prophet living in Bethel, and his sons came home and told him what the man of God had done in Bethel that day. They also told their father what the man had said to the king. 12 The old prophet asked them, “Which way did he go?” So they showed their father which road the man of God had taken. 13 “Quick, saddle the donkey,” the old man said. So they saddled the donkey for him, and he mounted it.
14 Then he rode after the man of God and found him sitting under a great tree. The old prophet asked him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?”
“Yes, I am,” he replied.
15 Then he said to the man of God, “Come home with me and eat some food.”
16 “No, I cannot,” he replied. “I am not allowed to eat or drink anything here in this place. 17 For the Lord gave me this command: ‘You must not eat or drink anything while you are there, and do not return to Judah by the same way you came.’”
18 But the old prophet answered, “I am a prophet, too, just as you are. And an angel gave me this command from the Lord: ‘Bring him home with you so he can have something to eat and drink.’” But the old man was lying to him. 19 So they went back together, and the man of God ate and drank at the prophet’s home.
“I am a prophet too.” Of course it would happen in the place of false religion that there would be a false prophet, that would conjure up some lie to trip up the man of God. And in disobedience to the Word of God, this man of God fell prey to the lies of a false prophet.
Oh Lord protect us, from those old prophets. Protect us from listening to the old respected men whose names once stood for your Word and your Truth. Please protect us from trusting in men, doubting your Spirit, and compromising your Word.
20 Then while they were sitting at the table, a command from the Lord came to the old prophet. 21 He cried out to the man of God from Judah, “This is what the Lord says: You have defied the word of the Lord and have disobeyed the command the Lord your God gave you. 22 You came back to this place and ate and drank where he told you not to eat or drink. Because of this, your body will not be buried in the grave of your ancestors.”
This old man had deceived the young prophet. “If he had been a good prophet he would have reproved Jeroboam’s idolatry, and not have suffered his sons to attend his altars, as, it should seem, they did.” (Matthew Henry). If the old prophet was a true and holy prophet, the Lord wouldn’t have had to sent this young man of God out of his way to prophesy at Bethel.
“I suppose it was done with a bad design, to draw him into a snare, and so to expose him; for false prophets have ever been the worst enemies to the true prophets . . . God’s people are more in danger of being drawn from their duty by the plausible pretenses of divinity and sanctity than by external inducements; we have therefore need to beware of false prophets, and not believe every spirit.” (Matthew Henry).
I find it interesting that the most dangerous threat to God’s people is not the king, or the government that has the power to kill us–but spiritual deception that comes from corrupted and compromising religious leaders.
And the judgment came upon the man of God. A lion came and attacked him.
For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
When the old prophet found his body, he buried him in his own grave. Maybe he was identifying with the man of God? Maybe he was feeling his own hand in this man’s death? Maybe he worried about the judgment that may come upon him for his own disobedience to God as a prophet?
He cried out as in agony. “He had reason to think, if he must die for his disobedience in a small matter who sinned by surprise, of how much sorer punishment he should be thought worthy who had belied an angel of God and cheated a man of God by a deliberate forgery. If this were done to the green tree, what shall be done to the dry?” (Matthew Henry).
And yet, even with a broken altar and broken stones. Idolatry continued. Jeroboam went on unchanged.
33 But even after this, Jeroboam did not turn from his evil ways. He continued to choose priests from the common people. He appointed anyone who wanted to become a priest for the pagan shrines. 34 This became a great sin and resulted in the utter destruction of Jeroboam’s dynasty from the face of the earth.
What was the point of all of this?
Was it even worth it?
Well, 300 years later a king was born. His name was Josiah. His birth was predicted by this same prophet who stood up to King Jeroboam. Within 56 years of Josiah’s birth, he would fulfill this prophesy and burn the bones of those priests upon those very stones.
15 Josiah also broke down the altar and high place at Bethel. Jeroboam son of Nebat had made this altar. Jeroboam caused Israel to sin. Josiah broke down both that altar and the high place. He broke the stones of the altar to pieces. Then he beat it into dust and he burned the Asherah pole. 16 Josiah looked around and saw graves on the mountain. He sent men, and they took the bones from the graves. Then he burned the bones on the altar. In this way Josiah ruined the altar. This happened according to the message from the Lord that the man of God announced. The man of God announced these things when Jeroboam stood beside the altar at the feast.
Then Josiah looked around and saw the grave of the man of God.
17 Josiah said, “What is that monument I see?”
The people of the city told him, “It is the grave of the man of God who came from Judah. This man of God told about the things you have done to the altar at Bethel. He said them a long time ago.”
18 Josiah said, “Leave the man of God alone. Don’t move his bones.” So they left his bones and the bones of the man of God from Samaria.
So Josiah burned the bones of the pagan priests. This act certainly didn’t hurt them. But it did, and still does, serve as a striking picture of their eternal fate, where the fire is never quenched.
The altar was destroyed, but there may be a few stones still there, telling a story. Reminding us that we need to come to the altar of Christ, we need to pick up our cross and obey the Word of the Lord. We meet God at an altar, but we can’t set up our own. We need to come to the place where He set it up–the Cross of Jesus Christ. He alone is our Lamb and our High Priest forever.
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” 1 Timothy 2:5
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” Matthew 7:13
It is interesting how so many churches call themselves Bethel, “House of God.” And yet, even Bethel was corrupted by false spirituality. The namesake is not just Jacob, but Jeroboam as well. I can think of a rather famous church right now, called Bethel. It seems to be following in the traditions of Jeroboam, mixing “church” with man made false teaching and paganism.
But praise the Lord our Savior! Our God who desires us to worship Him in Spirit and Truth. Our God leads us into all Truth! We can be close to God. We can be the people that the Lord will draw near to! It comes down to our hearts.
“The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” Psalm 34:18
“The LORD is near unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth.” Psalm 145:18
“For this is what the high and exalted One says– he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Isaiah 57:15
It isn’t about where you are geographically is it? It is about where God meets the sinner; it is about the true altar. Come to the Cross of Christ, repent of sin, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.