Ezra 3:1-6 When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred feasts of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord's temple had not yet been laid.
Ezra 3:10-13 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: "He is good; his love to Israel endures forever." And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
The first group of returnees from exile was led by Zerubbabel, together with Jeshua the high priest. The total number of this first group was 42,360, including men, women and children. It was a happy and sad home-coming. When they returned and gathered at Jerusalem, they saw the temple in ruins. They had to rebuild the temple out of the ruins, but their first priority was the altar: "Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God" (3:2). They started to offer sacrifices to the Lord, even though the temple foundation had not been laid: "On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord's temple had not yet been laid" (3:6).
The altar where the burnt offerings were sacrificed was a bronze structure that was about 1.3 m high (about chest level of an adult) and 2.3 m square platform for the burnt offerings. According to Exodus 27, the altar was the first structure encountered by the worshiper in the temple. It is located in the courtyard known as the outer court. Here, the person offering the animal for sacrifice lays his hand on the animals to identify with the animal to be slaughtered and burnt: "He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him" (Lev. 1:4). His guilt would be removed as the animal is sacrificed and burnt.
This picture of the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem reflects the priority of worship -- removal of our guilt by identifying with Jesus Christ as the atoning sacrifice, the Lamb that was slain as our sin-offering. We need to receive Christ by faith as God's atoning sacrifice for sin as the first step in the restoration of our worship of God. This truth is foundational in our relationship with God and must always be preached: "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor 15:3). The basis of our relationship is not found in our own righteousness but on Christ's self-substitution. As long as we keep this in mind, we shall not experience guilt and condemnation: "For it by grace you have saved through faith... not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
So, even before the foundation of the temple was laid, the foundation of our relationship with God through Christ has to be established. Unfortunately, there are still many churchgoers who have yet to experience this truth of justification by faith or have forgotten this truth in their walk with God. They are churchgoers with a religion of Christ, rather than disciples with a relationship with Christ. And they are still troubled by a guilty conscience before God instead of enjoying intimacy with God in Christ.
Father, help us always to return to this first point in our restoration of worship--our relationship with You. Thank You that Christianity is not a religion of rules and regulations but a relationship of freedom from guilt and condemnation because of Christ's self-substitution for our sins at the Cross. Amen.