Briefly explain the purpose of this series—God asks questions get beneath the surface of our words and actions to our real values and beliefs. Real change happens only at this level, and God’s questions thus help us to change deeply and lastingly.
This week’s question is found in Haggai 1. Read 1:1. Haggai was an Old Testament prophet who arose around 520 BC and spoke to Jews who had returned from exile to Jerusalem some years earlier. Here’s the question God asked them through Haggai (read 1:4). These people had been released from exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild his temple—but they weren’t rebuilding it. In order to understand this question and its relevance to us, we need to first understand the meaning of building God’s house and the privilege of building it.
The privilege of building God’s “house”
Unlike pagan deities, God didn’t want a temple to have some place to live and be fed. Rather, his temple was a communication device—its architecture, furniture, priests, rituals and animal sacrifices taught the gospel (“good news” about God’s plan of salvation) to Israel and through them to the rest of humanity (Court of the Gentiles). Through the centrality of animal sacrifice, God revealed that our main problem is our true moral guilt. Because God is holy, our sins separate us from him and bring us under his judgment of death. But they also taught that God is loving, and that he would provide a blameless substitute whose death would pay for our sins (DAY OF ATONEMENT). By commanding them to rebuild the temple, God was giving them the great privilege of helping one another and the rest of the world learn about him and how to receive his forgiveness.
We have been given an even greater privilege. Jesus has come to fulfill the temple sacrifices (Jn.1:29; Mk.10:45). Because he lived a sinless life, his death could be a real sacrifice to pay for our sins. And because he was God, his sacrifice paid for all of our sins. The moment you entrust yourself to him by asking God to forgive you through Jesus’ sacrifice, God comes to live in your heart and you become part of God’s new temple (1Pet.2:4,5). And God gives you another privilege—the privilege of building his new “house” by helping people come to know Christ and by helping fellow Christians to mature in Christ (1Pet.2:9). This is the purpose of human history. Everything pales in comparison with this great purpose! Jesus gives each of us the privilege of playing a unique role in building it with him. But it’s easy to compromise this priority...
The danger of compromised priorities
These people had begun well, and laid the foundation (Ezra3:10). But then they experienced opposition from neighboring enemies who threatened legal action (see Ezra4:4,5,24). They allowed this opposition to discourage them, and they quit rebuilding the temple for 10-15 years. They didn’t simply say: “We reject God’s priorities!” Instead, they rationalized their disobedience by saying it wasn’t the right time to rebuild the temple (read 1:2). This was really unbelief in God’s power to protect them from their enemies (after all, he released them from exile!). Once they compromised the priority of rebuilding the temple, they inevitably got caught up in other priorities—like furnishing their own houses (1:4,9). So they lost all sense of privilege and urgency about the purpose for which God brought them home!
It’s easy for me to throw a self-righteous snit about their compromise, until I realize that I have done the same thing (to greater or lesser degrees) many times. And my guess is that if you have been a Christian for very long, you have too. When we meet Christ and experience God’s love, we naturally want to tell others about him and help one another grow in him. Every truly converted person has experienced the exhilaration of this new purpose for their lives. But sooner or later, we run into obstacles. It may be opposition from family or friends. It may be the disappointment of seeing people walk away from following Christ. It may be the pain of seeing how much more sinful we are than we realized. It may that life gets more complicated (marriage; children; career; etc.). These difficulties force us to make a choice. Either we let them deepen our trust in God’s mercy and power, and persevere in his priorities—or we opt for unbelief, get discouraged, and compromise our commitment to serving Christ. This is creates an affection vacuum in our hearts. The joy and satisfaction we should be getting from serving Christ wanes, so we begin seek this from good-but-non-ultimate things like material possessions, entertainment, career, family, etc. Our enmeshment in these pursuits often leads to the further rationalization that we don’t have time to serve God sacrificially. We may say: “When the kids are raised, when my job is less demanding, when I get out of debt, when my marriage is in better shape, etc.” Some of us completely drop out of involvement with God and his people; some of us continue our involvement—but it becomes perfunctory, without any real zeal or passion. Can you relate to this?
God’s loving discipline
How does God respond when his people compromise his priority for their lives? He has the right to say (like my boss said when I got drunk on the job): “You are definitely fired! Get out of here!” But God is so merciful that he doesn’t give us what we deserve. Instead, he gives them/us his loving discipline. God expresses his loving discipline through Haggai in three ways:
He asks us a question that pricks our conscience (1:3,4). Had God simply charged them with spiritual compromise, this may have merely incited defensiveness (“We go to synagogue most weeks! We donate to the building fund! We’ve got to support our families!”). But a question like this pricks their consciences by making them reflect more deeply: “How come you have plenty of time to remodel your own houses—but you don’t have any time to rebuild mine?” “I rescued you and gave you the high calling of representing me to humanity. How can you reject my priorities?” “Is it really true that it is not time for the house of the Lord to be rebuilt—or is it that you have allowed yourselves to fall from this high calling to merely living for your own comfort?”
God may ask us the same basic question. There was a time when I was going to seminary when God asked me: “Why do you study my Word for nine hours every day—but you haven’t told anyone about me for nine months?” That question laid bare my lack of zeal for God’s passion—lost people. It created a painful discrepancy between what I said I was doing (preparing myself for ministry) and what I was really doing (using theological study as an excuse to avoid ministry). It made me realize that I was afraid in a strange city, and that I was protecting myself instead of trusting God to reach out to strangers. It was a painful question, but it led to positive change and spiritual renewal (EXPLAIN). He has asked me similar questions many times since then.
He frustrates our attempts to find fulfillment apart from serving him (read 1:5,6,9-11). Part of Israel’s covenant agreement with God was that if they departed from allegiance to him, he would discipline them by withholding agricultural prosperity. They were frustrated that the weather was causing consistent drought and crop failure. But God says: “It’s me! I am blocking your material prosperity because you will be fulfilled only when you return to serving me as the integrating priority of your life.”
This specific discipline is not part of our covenant relationship with Christ, but God does promise to discipline us as his children (Heb.12:5ff.) when we stray from loyalty to him. One of his disciplinary means is simply to withhold from us the peace, hope and joy that our hearts have experienced when we followed him fully. Without this, we cannot truly enjoy the things we put in his place. We may engage in more entertainment or hobbies—but it doesn’t fill the hole in our hearts (EXAMPLE). We may make more money and/or rise higher in our careers—but this doesn’t give true purpose to our lives (EXAMPLE). What we have experienced when we were living in humble and grateful obedience to Jesus can’t be duplicated by anything else.
He calls us back to our part in building his “house” (read 1:7,8). What an amazingly merciful invitation! Even though they had deserted their posts for 15 years, God doesn’t “fire” them—he still has a role for them. They couldn’t undo the 15 year delay—but they could move forward with God to rebuild the temple! He gives them a very specific and concrete way to resume his purpose for their lives.
Whether we have compromised God’s priorities for 15 years or 15 days (ME), his grace is such that he is always willing to provide a concrete opportunity to represent him!
One more point before we move on to the conclusion of this passage: We need to be willing to be “Haggai’s” to one another. We need to ask this kind of question. We need to point out how pursuing other priorities is not leading to a fulfilled life. We need to call one another back to heart-commitment to the work of building God’s “house.” Apart from giving and receiving this kind of exhortation, Heb.3:13 says we will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Do you have “Haggai’s” in your life? Do you give them the GREEN LIGHT to challenge you—or have you given them a YELLOW/RED LIGHT? Are you willing to speak up like Haggai—or do you sin against your Christian friends by remaining silent? I find that I have to continue to check myself on this because I tend to drift away from this kind of healthy relating into distance that is more comfortable—but dangerous to my soul. How about you?
Repentance & God’s response
Notice how the people respond, and then how God responds to their response.
First, Haggai tells us that the people responded to God’s discipline by “fearing the Lord” (read 1:12). This is a synonym for “repentance” (a change of attitude & direction). It means that they acknowledged their defection and recommitted themselves to him and to his priorities for their lives (“obeyed”).
God doesn’t want us to jump through hoops of external conformity—he wants us to return in our hearts to him as the most important Person in our lives. This includes agreeing with God that we have compromised our loyalty to him, and agreeing to resume serving him. God sees and values and responds to a broken and contrite heart (Ps.51:17; Isa.66:2). Jesus’ death forgives our Christian desertion as much as it forgave our pre-Christian treason! Listen to him instead of to Satan’s accusations!
The moment they repent, God draws near to them in support (read 1:13). He assures them that he is with them, to protect and guide them. And he stirs up their spirits (supplies them with motivation) to rebuild the temple (read 1:14,15). Fifteen years of spiritual alienation and lethargy evaporate in the blink of an eye, and are replaced by confidence in God’s love and zeal for his purpose!
If you have been compromised (especially for a long time), Satan will say: “Why bother to repent? Even if you do, it will take such a long time to recover spiritual vitality and motivation that it’s not worth it.” But God says: “Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you” (Jas.4:8). God doesn’t relate to us on the basis of what we deserve—he relates to us on the basis of his grace. All he requires is a heart of honest humility and willingness to trust and obey. The moment we adopt this heart attitude, his Spirit will communicate encouragement to us in ways that are personally relevant and effective. And he will supply renewed motivation to serve him by giving his love to others. Your fresh experience of God’s forgiveness of your sin makes you able to share with humble confidence to others—and this is the main way we build God’s house (1Pet.2:9,10)!
How about you? Do you recognize God’s work in your life through the principles in this passage? What difficulties have arisen that have tempted you to compromise? What rationalizations have been most attractive to you? How has God exposed your compromised priorities? How has he encouraged and motivated you when you repented? Who will share what God is showing them about this?