B. Haggai preaches to us:
From the two chapters of Haggai, there are two very important lessons that must be preached to the people of God. Both lessons reflect on the nature of God’s people in reference to their attitudes and behavior.
1. Discouragement does not justify idleness. Twenty years before Haggai, the people were excited about returning to the land and rebuilding the temple. It was a dream come true after the seventy years of captivity. But opposition came from the local residents in Palestine who were left in the land by the Babylonians when the city fell in 586 B.C. There was much intermarriage between local Jews who were left from the northern captivity and those Gentiles who were imported into Palestine from other nations of the world (See 2 Kg 17:26-29). Therefore, the local residents were not true Israelites. They would later in history be called the Samaritans (See Mt 10:5; Lk 9:52; 20:334; Jn 4:9,30,40). At the time of Haggai and Zechariah, they were jealous of the Jews. They had lost their national identity through intermarriage. They thus stood in opposition to everything the Jews were doing to restore the identity of true Israel. This conflict played itself out during the ministry of Nehemiah.
It was difficult for the local residents to accept the fact that the Israelites, now called the Jews, had the task of reestablishing the identity of true Israel. They were intimidated by the fact that the returning remnant was so committed to identify again true Israel that they had put away their foreign wives in the land of their captivity in order to return to Palestine (Er 9). But the locals could not and would not do this. The commitment of the returned remnant was a daily sermon of their non-commitment. Subsequently, great opposition by the local residents discouraged the returned remnant. The opposition was so great that the Jews began to believe, “The time has not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (Hg 1:2). They led themselves to believe that it was not the responsibility of their generation to take ownership of rebuilding the temple. So they gave up the task, thinking that sometime in the future the job would be done by someone else.
By the time of Haggai and Zechariah, it had been sixteen years since the people had made any effort to rebuild the temple. As a result, indifference had set in and the people accepted the fact that everything should just remain as it is in order not to cause any future animosity with the locals.
However, their indifference toward building the temple did not discourage them from putting all their efforts into building fine houses for themselves. Haggai shamed them: “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses and this house [of God] lies waste?” (Hg 1:4). The reason for the Lord’s displeasure with them was simple. The Lord’s house was “in ruins while each of you runs to his own house” (Hg 1:9). And now, according to the call of Haggai, it was time to repent of indifference and discouragement and get on with the task of rebuilding the temple. Some of them had made great sacrifices in order to return to Palestine to reestablish the identity of Israel. As stated previously, some had even made the sacrifice of putting away their foreign wives for this purpose (See Er 9). It was now time that their sacrifices not be wasted in idleness.
We must not confuse ourselves with the God-ordained task that they should rebuild the temple by thinking that God needed a house in which to dwell. “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (At 17:24). God needs no sanctuaries or church houses. What the temple signified was the restoration of Israel to the land. And unless they rebuilt the temple, the nations of the world would not believe that the remnant of God’s people, as promised, had been restored to the land of Palestine.
The opposition of the local residents proved that they had moved on from this identity. And thus, they saw that the rebuilding of the temple would separate them from the returned remnant. Nehemiah specifically said to the locals,
Then I [Nehemiah] answered them [the locals] and said to them, “The God of heaven, He will prosper us [the returned remnant]. Therefore we His servants will arise and build. But you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem (Ne 2:20).
Nehemiah made a distinction between the locals and the returned remnant. In making this distinction, he was reaffirming the purpose of God to identity again that the remnant was the true Israel that was restored to the land. The locals, who had intermarried with the Gentiles, “had no heritage” with true Israel because they had lost their identity as Jews.
We would connect the building of the physical temple of God as a metaphor that signified the building of the spiritual house of God that would come many years later. At least both Amos and James made this metaphorical connection (Am 9:11,12; At 15:16,17). The spiritual house of the Lord was established in A.D. 30 on the day of Pentecost (1 Tm 3:15). It continues to this day as the witness of God’s presence among the people of the world. God used Zerubbabel to lead the people into action as a result of the motivation of both Haggai and Zechariah. Zerubbabel was of the Davidic lineage, and is named in the lineage of Jesus by both Matthew and Luke (Mt 1:13; Lk 3:27). However, when the remnant returned to Palestine, they had repented of their desire to have a king over them as the nations around them. Zerubabbel, therefore, only remained a leader among the people without assuming the position of a king. That position was reserved for the King to come. And when the rightful heir to the throne of David came, He built the house of God (See Mt 16:18,19; 1 Tm 3:15).
The spiritual temple of the Lord’s house today is faced with the same challenge as the physical house during the time of Haggai and Zechariah. If the spiritual temple is not organically functioning and growing, then it is dysfunctional and dying. It is simply the nature of the people of God that they should grow. But if there is no work, then the body is not fulfilling its purpose. Paul explained,
But speaking the truth in love, we may grow up into Him in all things, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working of each part, causes growth of the body to the edifying of itself in love (Ep 4:15,16).
We must ask ourselves as someone said, “Are we launching out into the deep or dabbling around in the wadding pool?” If we are dabbling, we must remember that a church that will not launch out will eventually go out of existence. Non-growth is a signal of death. And once non-growth sets in, indifference to work occurs.
Our faith cannot be void of works. “Even so faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Js 2:17). What James was saying is that a body that is not functioning is simply dysfunctional. It is dead. And thus, the only way to prove that there is life in the body is by a faith that is working through love (Gl 5:6).
Life must be demonstrated through an active faith. James challenged the indifferent members of the body, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Js 2:18). His challenge was to show our connection with the body by our works. Works is the signal of life and connectivity with the body. The lack thereof is a signal of death. The body is not saved by its works, but without works it is not identified as the body.
The result of Haggai’s exhortation was that within four years—from 520 to 516—the people finished the temple. It is not enough to know that a job must be done. It is not enough to pray about getting the job done. What is important at the end of all planning and prayer is that we go to work in order that the job gets done. Eventually, we must hear announced, “And this house was finished on the third day of the month Adar, that was in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king” (Ez 6:15). God does not reward plans and prayers. He rewards jobs in progress or jobs completed. Is this not what Paul said in the following statement?
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Co 15:10).
The exhortation of Haggai and Zechariah to rebuild the physical temple of God in Jerusalem is one of the most misapplied statements of Scripture. Both the contextual and historical meaning of the prophets’ message are missed by those today who wish to construct some grand physical identity of the church of our Lord in their communities. The misappropriation of the message of these two prophets indicates a failure to understand that the temple of Jerusalem was physical and the temple of our Lord is spiritual.
We must not miss the metaphor of the New Testament writers who used the physical to illustrate the spiritual. Paul metaphorically spoke of the temple in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” “You” in this verse means people, not bricks and mortar. The Spirit dwells in people, not bricks. And thus, the word “temple” is taken from the physical temple of the Old Testament in order to metaphorically refer to the spiritual body of Christ.
Both Amos and James help us understand the metaphorical use of the physical to symbolize the spiritual. Amos prophesied that the remnant of Israel would return and rebuild the tabernacle of God that had fallen down (Am 9:11,12). Though Amos referred to the tabernacle tent, not the physical temple of bricks, He still had in mind the reestablishment of the identity of the presence of God with the returned remnant in Palestine. When the remnant rebuilt the physical temple, it was a statement that Israel was back in business. However, when James quoted the prophecy of Amos in Acts 15:16,17, as he appealed to the gathered church in Jerusalem, he interpreted the prophecy of Amos 9:11,12 to refer to the church, the spiritual house of God (1 Tm 3:15).
What many today do not understand by misapplying the words of Amos, is that the first recipients of the message thought of something physical, but James interpreted it to refer to something that was spiritual. The prophecy, therefore, was metaphorical of the church, the spiritual temple of God. In fact, James’ quotation in Acts 15 of the Amos prophecy leaves little room for the interpretation of Amos 9 to refer to the Jews’ rebuilding of the physical temple after the Babylonian captivity in 536 B.C. There are other prophecies that cover that project. Nevertheless, we feel that the Jews had this prophecy in mind as they laid one stone upon another during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah when the temple was being rebuilt.
By the time of the events of Acts 15, the church had been in existence for about fifteen years. But there were no physical church buildings of the church until the early part of the fourth century. The church existed and grew rapidly, therefore, without the existence of any physical structures. Though the physical temple of Israel, and the early tabernacle, were the signal of the presence of God among the people of Israel, God meant that the spiritual body of His people, the church, be the signal today of His presence among the people of the world. To build a church building for the purpose of signalling to the people of a community that the church exists is to work backwards to something small, located and physical. It is often a backward step to focus the community on something physical and not spiritual. And those who do not have the privilege of building themselves an “identity” with a physical structure, therefore, are sometimes classified as not truly being God’s people in the community.
The more obsessed with the physical we become, the less we focus on the spiritual. In fact, in church growth studies, it is often true that the more people are obsessed with the physical building in which they sit, the less the building of the spiritual house becomes.
By the time of James, and the meeting of the church in Acts 15, the church was still identified as Jesus said it would be, that is, by loving people in action in their communities. By love in action the world identified those who were of the body of Christ (Jn 13:34,35). The early church was thus identified as people lovingly helping one another and others as servants (Gl 6:10). The members of the body were called Christians (At 17:11), or those of the Way (At 19:9). But never was the church identified by some physical structure on 5th and Main.
(Sometimes with zeal the leaders inspire their members within a village to build a “church building.” In wrenching the texts of Haggai and Zechariah out of their historical context, they exhort the members to build in order that the church be identified in the village by a structure, and thus signal to the local residents that the church is here to stay, though they see nothing as this in the church of the New Testament.
So the members gather wood poles and grass and build with zeal their “temple.” When it is completed, everyone sits proudly on benches, and then they wait for the people of the community to come. But Sunday after Sunday it is the same old group of builders who sit in the midst of their accomplishment, patting themselves on their backs that they have a “church building” as the identity that they are the true church in the village. But then they begin to wonder why God is not blessing them with multitudes to come to their new building since they sacrificed so much to build it. They even scratch around in their Bibles in order to find some “biblical name” to nail on the main post in order to convince the people that they were truly the church of the Bible.
And then one unfortunate day a bush fire ravages through the village. It devastates the village. Fathers, mothers and children run for their lives in order to escape the ravaging fire. All the huts of the village, with the grass church building, end up as a heap of ashes. Everyone is so discouraged and disheartened by the devastation.
So the leaders of the church stood up to encourage the members to build again the identity of the church in the village. But something changed in the hearts and thinking of some of the members. Certainly, there were those members who again started gathering poles and grass to rebuild their “temple.” They were convinced that if they could rebuild their church building before the other religious groups in the village, they would gain some of the members of the other groups.
But there were some members—and often only a few members—who realized that something was certainly wrong with their focus. They started listening to their hearts and not looking on something physical as the identity of the body of Christ. So they ignored the voices of the those who were trying to usher all the members to rebuild a physical identity of the church. Instead, they started helping their neighbors rebuild their huts and lives. They went to work helping their neighbors collect poles and grass for their huts in order that their lives be put back together. They helped them find food and make sure that all their needs were served. They even gave them some of their own clothing.
The focus of the religionists identified themselves by first focusing on the burned down church building. But the Christians of the group thought first of their neighbors whose huts had burned to the ground and whose lives were devastated by the fire. The identity of the religionists was in their building, but the identity of the Christians was in their loving service to help their neighbors.)
When people start identifying the church by a physical structure, then we know that we have missed the point of Jesus’ exhortation that we be identified by our love of one another and service to the communities in which we live (See Gl 6:10). In fact, the more we place emphasis on the building as the identity of the existence of the church in our communities, the less the church grows in the community. People may see a physical structure, but they feel love. Church buildings often become “sitting rooms” of the indifferent sick who are waiting on the call of the Great Physician. We must remember that the Physician is on call out in the fields of labor for those who have fallen because of their toil of love to help others. He is not in the “sitting room” answering the cry of those who would sing out, “Come now Lord Jesus and fetch us out of the midst of these bricks, or grass, or whatever.” We are sometimes in our buildings as some poet wrote:
“I sat in the assembly one Sunday morn,
the members talked so loud,
and showed as little reverence,
as any worldly crowd.
Again, I sat in the same building,
but all was quiet now,
for in the casket up front,
lay one with pallid brow.
And then I thought how strange it is,
that we do oft accord,
more reverence to one that’s dead,
than to our living Lord.”
2. Indifference breeds procrastination. In the beginning, the Jews became so discouraged by the local opposition that they led themselves to believe that it was not the right time to rebuild the temple (Hg 1:2). And once the discouragement spread among the people, the job that they knew they should do was simply put off for another time. And thus they convinced themselves that another day would do.
Paul exhorted the Corinthian disciples, “Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Co 6:2). Someone once said, “The only things you can be sure of accomplishing are the things you do today.” When we consider the task of building the temple of God today through the preaching of the gospel to the lost, there can never be any attitudes among us that tomorrow will do. But because of our procrastination, it seems that tomorrow is always going to be a busy day.
It is not that we need a prophet today to stir our spirits to work. We must listen to the dead preachers of the past. We must open our Bibles and listen to Haggai and Zechariah and others who stirred the people into action. We must follow the example of allowing the Lord to stir us up through the prophets. “Then the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel …. And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of armies their God …” (Hg 1:14).
We must never allow opposition and discouragement to put us to sleep for Jesus. Lethargy is a sign of weakness for the Lord. We must always remember the encouraging words that the Lord said to Zerubbabel, “… be strong all you people of the land … and work, for I am with you” (Hg 2:4). “Do not fear” (Hg 2:5). And to every Christian the Lord would say, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rv 2:10). We must be faithful unto death, knowing that Jesus is with us every step of the way (Mt 28:20). And because of our acute sense of His awareness in our lives, we can “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ep 6:10). As we stand before any task that must be done for the Lord, we must always remember the encouraging words that God gave to Joshua as he stood ready to assume the task of taking the land of promise for Israel:
Only be strong and very courageous so that you may observe to do according to all the law that Moses My servant commanded you. So do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may prosper wherever you go (Ja 1:7).
[Don’t miss Zechariah and some great prophecies tomorrow.]