Returning to Bethel
Paul L. Garlington
The very familiar expression, “sacred cow,” meaning something, or someone that is unreasonably immune from criticism, comes from the veneration of the cow by the Hindus. The irony of the Hindu situation is, that while the sacred cow is flourishing, many of the Indian people are starving. Consequently, one of the immediate benefits of the sacrifice of our sacred cows is a barbecue that can also alleviate starvation. Is there a sacred cow that we need to reevaluate? Perhaps, it is the way historically we have viewed the church as the house of God, resulting in the suffering of many people analogous to the Hindus. God’s command to Jacob to return to Bethel yields very exciting insights about the true nature and meaning of the house of God and why returning is so essential. (Gen 35:1-15)

“Then God said to Jacob, ‘ARISE, GO UP TO BETHEL, AND LIVE THERE.’” Since Bethel means “the house of God,” God’s instruction to Jacob to return to Bethel and live there requires some elucidation. We have been taught that the house of God, or the church, is a building, but how many of us actually live in a church building? We have also come to think of the house of God as organized religion. But again, how many of us, in point of fact, actually conduct our lives and affairs in the context of organized religion? There are also those, particularly in government, who view the church as a corporate entity, having non-profit status. Do any of us really live there? Or perhaps the church for some is a worship service as indicated by the expression heard in some circles, “Let’s have church.” But do you really think you could live THERE? Alas, some have tried, a few are still in therapy. So if the church/house of God is not a building, organized religion, a corporate, non-profit entity, or a worship service, then what is it?

Before answering this vital question, we must clarify one additional misconception. When God brought the children of Israel out of Egyptian captivity to Mount Sinai where they heard for themselves for the first time the voice of God, their response was interesting to say the least. In essence, they told Moses that they did not want to have direct union/communion with God. “‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us...’ So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.” (Ex 20:19,21) And so, apparently in compliance with this exceedingly foolish request, we see the emergence of a priest/clergy class, a permanent sector of society established to be our spiritual intermediaries. But was this God’s plan? Hear the word of God: “I bore you (all of you) on eagles’ wings and brought you (all of you) to myself. You (all of you) shall be to me a kingdom of priests.” (Ex 19:4,6) And so today, this priest/clergy class, in order to ensure their permanent employment, now unfortunately have a vested interest in the people never growing up, or coming to know and trust the voice of God within their own being. The clergy has become for too many people a permanent crutch, a perpetual set of training wheels, preventing the people’s return to Bethel. Nevertheless, scripture declares, “He (God) doeth His will...and none can say unto Him, what are you doing? No flesh can resist His will nor glory in His presence.” God has decreed, “They shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.” (Jer 31:34) “And all your sons will be taught of the Lord, and the well-being of your sons will be great.” (Is 56:13)

Therefore having abandoned God’s original plan, the truths of what the house of God really is have been lost in obscurity. Hence, the present necessity and urgency of, “‘Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and has been with me wherever I have gone.’” (Gen 35:1-3) So what, indeed, is the house of God? It is the place where you live, the place where God answers you in the day of your distress. It is the place where you like Jacob, awake from your sleep of separation from God, and exclaim with joy inexpressible, “Surely the Lord is in this place...How awesome is this place (i.e., wherever you are)! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28:16,17)

Obviously, if the house of God is the place I am heard in the day of my distress, surely I don’t want to be caught in the wrong place, believing it is the house of God. It is this dilemma that preachers seem so loathed to explain. The promise is perpetually held before us that we will get better; revival’s coming they say, a great move of God is on the way; if we fast, pray, put our foot on the head of the serpent, rise up against the enemy, rebuke the devil, take authority over all evil, things will surely change, sooner or later. But alas, all things continue as they were from the beginning. Why? Without question, the distress will not, yea cannot, cease until we return to the real house of God, the place where God speaks to us (individually) and answers us in our distress.

After having returned to Bethel, we are specifically instructed to, “Make an altar THERE to God...” Can you feel it? Even the inclination to embark on this journey is a sign that the wind of God is at your back, and the presence of God indeed goes before you preparing the way. If you will receive it, this is a journey of no distance, returning to a place we never left, acquiring what we never lost, becoming what we already are. It is said of Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather, that he was a man of the altar and the tent. Everywhere he pitched his tent (i.e., became conscious of God’s presence, here, there, and everywhere), Abraham built an altar. Inasmuch as we have absolutely nothing to give God that does not already belong to God, the only thing that we can place on this altar is our illusion that we can be or have anything apart from the One, besides whom, there is none other. The altar, therefore, is the place of relinquishment and renunciation; it is the place where we joyfully surrender all beliefs in a power, presence and intelligence apart from the One God. The altar is the means by which we guarantee to ourselves that everything in our tent (God’s temple) says, “Glory.” Anything that doesn’t survive the altar doesn’t get in the tent. The end result is that our tent is always a place of joy. “The sound of joyful shouting and salvation is in the tents of the righteous.” (Ps 118:15) Have you come to the place of absolute commitment, such that every idea, plan, relationship must come by way of the altar? Anything that the altar does not consume was conceived in God. Contrariwise, that which can be destroyed is not of God, and should always be released with joy. He is no fool who sacrifices what he cannot keep to keep what he cannot lose.

“So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods which are among you.’” If you would know the joy of God’s way, you must put away your foreign gods even before you begin the journey. Why? Because there can be no return to Bethel until we have been sprinkled clean from all of our idols. The renunciation of the belief in a power apart from the One God is absolutely nonnegotiable “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4,5) Do you get it? We do not have to be concerned any longer about how to get our needs met, relationships healed, and harmony restored. All these things are already included in the house of God. In the Father’s house, only that which occasions joy and rejoicing exists. I use to think the issue was how to get people healed, feeling better, etc. However, the paramount issue is getting back to the Father’s house. Furthermore, don’t just visit. Live There!

Jacob also instructs all of his household to, “Purify yourselves, and change your garments.” James clearly states that we purify our hearts by ridding ourselves of all double-mindedness. We must concede that God is One, the only One, the only power, and there is none besides Him. God is omnipresent being. God is good. God, good is all there is. Therefore, it is all good. There are no black holes in omnipresent being. No places where God ceases to be God, good. It is time for all of us to stop limping between two opinions. All double-mindedness indicates a commitment to believe in two powers called good and evil. There is eternally only One power and that power is good. This must always be our eternal, unchangeable touchstone. Having purified ourselves through the elimination of all double-mindedness, we now have the pure heart that sees God through all contrary appearances. While there may be times when to outward appearance, it seems blacker than a thousand midnights, our pure heart remains undisturbed. “...By His light, I walk through darkness.” (Job 29:3) Therefore, fear not. “Light (the truth that God is) arises in the darkness for the upright.” (Ps 112:4) Who are the upright? These are they who have turned from idols to serve the living God.

Therefore, whenever you find yourself in distress, cease all analysis of , or attempts to eradicate, the seeming distress. Just return to Bethel, rejoicing in the fact that you don’t have to change location geographically. This is an attitude shift. Realize that wherever you are, you can return to the one God with all of your heart, and you can build an altar, pitch a tent, and know surely the Lord is in this place. “Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn. If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea. Even there Thy hand will lead me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to Thee. And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee.” (Ps 139:7-12) “When I awake (i.e., from my dream of separation from God, good) I am still with Thee.” (Ps 139:18) Remember, Bethel is where you live. Hence, whenever you find yourself caught off center, with your peace disturbed, GO HOME! Return to your rest. “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell (live) in the house of the Lord (Bethel) forever.” (Ps 23:6)

“As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.” Do you see it? Nobody “messes” with God’s people who are on this journey of no distance. We’re not going out against the enemy; we’re returning to God. The consequence of which is fear falls upon all those who would be our enemy. It should be obvious here that if those who claim to be the church were in fact Bethel, they would not be in perpetual warfare. When “new gods were chosen; there was war in the gates.”

“So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him. And he built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him.” Thus, we have another definition of the house of God. It is the place where God reveals Himself to you. This revelation can occur at any place or time, be it your job, house, or the beach, in an airplane, or whatever. Like the turtle who carries his house with him wherever he goes, the consciousness of God’s omnipresence is our perpetual, inseparable house in which we dwell all the days of our life.

Bethel is also the place where God blesses us. Anyone who abides in God consciousness will discover, not only that he is blessed, but is indeed a blessing to everyone and everything in his world. Increase upon increase, an abundance of all good things will be the constant order of the day. As a consequence, you “will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, and in whatever he does, he prospers.” (Ps 1:3) None of life’s demands can ever exceed the supply of God’s house. Can you think of any sane reason why you would want to live anywhere else?

Once you’ve returned to Bethel, you are no longer a stranger in paradise, or alien in the promised land. It is here that you finally realize you have indeed recovered the joyful experience of having it all.

Now that we know what the house of God is, isn’t it crystal clear that it cannot be confined to, or defined by, a building, worship service, or anything else for that matter? Wherever you are, if you will only realize that the place where you stand is holy ground, there God will speak to you with a thundering silence that says peace, be still to every contrary wind and wave. There will most assuredly be a great calm. And here is the good news: This can happen to anyone, anywhere when all glory is given to the One God, besides whom, there is none other.

Are you ready to return to Bethel? Remember, it is the only place where God speaks to you, reveals Himself to you, blesses and multiplies you, and faithfully responds to you in the day of your distress. “I was glad, very glad, when they said, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”


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