—Ezra 1:5 (NASB)
It’s unfortunate, but the way that many cultures and religions employ “burnt offerings” taints the way that we view them as used in the Old Testament. So often these bad examples employed them to appease a god to keep its wrath contained or to make peace because of a terrible event in the environment attributed to that god’s displeasure. Therefore many see Old Testament sacrifices in the same way, automatically assuming they’re intended to appease God in some supernatural kind of way, perhaps even being performed out of superstition. The fact is that they were intended as the END of the reconciliation process — having first recognized one’s own sin, repented, and finally come to publicly acknowledge it and pledge not to repeat it — or as a freewill form of worship for experiencing His blessings. They were more important than the physical structure of the temple because they represented what was going on in the heart, not what was going on in a specific space.
So essentially we’re presented with the lesson which dismisses any kind of “chicken-and-the-egg” discussion of what comes first; it’s repentance from the heart. In the New Testament the repeated teaching is that WE are now His temple, but the membership requirements are still the same: repentance first. This example in Ezra is especially enlightening in that everyone around could see what they were doing. The Temple Mount was a flat, open space with nothing on it any more, and the walls of the entire city had been pulled down. So even the most casual observer could see that the very first thing this Old Testament church did was to engage in repentance and worship. Would that all those around every church in the world could so clearly see such an example!
Everything else that proceeded to be erected around the activities of the altar took place in the context of true repentance and true worship. This is not just a model for present-day building programs, but for every Believer as a member of the body of Christ. Sometimes we focus so much on what the various parts are doing to reach outward, that we miss the most important connection of what bonds us together through Christ the Head. This is why the discussion of whether or not to water down the Gospel or to change our ways of worship is not trivial, but the very core character of the church. If it doesn’t build upon true repentance and true worship, it will neither last nor function correctly because it will lack the true foundation necessary.†††