Last year I taught a Sunday School series entitled “The Church and the Challenge of Homosexuality.” Of course, we know why homosexuality presents us with such a challenge: no moral issue so clearly addressed in Scripture is more discussed today in the public square than this one. So we have to be ready for the challenges and the complicated questions that we are facing and will face in the future over this issue. One such question every church will have to answer is this: can someone who has an attraction to the same sex be a church member? In fact, that question is not very complicated. We should answer it the same way we would answer it about any other sin, namely, by asking this: where is the person’s heart? Does he embrace homosexuality as good thing, celebrate it, and affirm it as his identity? Or does he come with a repentant heart, ready to struggle and fight against what he knows to be sin? That is the only question that matters. I don’t care what he has done in the past. All I care about is where his heart is now with respect to sin.
In other words, the key issue that divides the church from the world is not that the world is made up of sinners and the church isn’t. No, both world and church are made of sinners. The key dividing issue is that the church is made up of repentant sinners. Repentance is what distinguishes us. And what is repentance? Repentance is a change of mind and heart that leads to a change of action. It is the turning of a mind from evaluating sin as good and desirable to seeing it as something to be hated and therefore fought against. But I cannot turn my back on one wall without turning my face to the other, so is it impossible to turn away from sin without orienting your heart where it ought to be, namely, to Christ. True repentance is always accompanied by faith, that is, looking with one’s mind and heart to Jesus Christ as one’s only hope.
The book of Haggai begins with judgment and ends with the promise of blessing. The whole book takes place in 520 BC in Jerusalem in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. The exile began with the toppling of two houses: Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem and the royal house of David, which had been removed from the throne. These two houses—temple and throne—were central to the identity and hopes of the Jewish people. Haggai begins in 520 BC, where returned exiles now back in Jerusalem can see the ruins of the old temple before them, and where kingly authority over them is now wielded by Darius of Persia, who is certainly no son of David. So the book begins in the aftermath of judgment on the nation of Judah for her terrible sins.
But in addition to the judgment they have already received, at the beginning of the book the people are facing economic disaster because of their disobedience. And how did they disobey? They did not prioritize the rebuilding of the temple of the Lord. They had given more attention to their own needs and desires than to the things of God, and for almost two decades the work on the temple had stalled. So God struck them with lean crop yields that devastated their economy and caused them to suffer. And yet, by the end of the book, God is making glorious promises of blessings to come for his people. The same God who struck their crops now promises abundance. The same God who had toppled the house of David promises the restoration of David’s throne.
So what is it that makes the difference between God’s people under judgment and God’s people under blessing? It is their repentance. In 1:12 and following, we read the account of the people turning from their self-centered way of thinking to a God-centered way of thinking, which produced the fruit of obedience. They started the work on the temple, and everything changed.
Listen to this word: the most important factor about where you stand with God is not how bad your sin is. It is not what you have done or how long you have been doing it. God does not expect you to spend months and years atoning for it. Atonement is his job. The most important factor that pertains to your standing with God is where your heart is right now. Even if you are the most wretched sinner imaginable, if you draw near to God, he will draw near to you, as James 4:8 promises. He doesn’t hold you at a distance. He doesn’t say, “Well, after you have wallowed in your failure for long enough, I’ll tell you when it’s okay to come out and then maybe we can talk about getting you back into my good graces over time.” Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, all God cares about is the direction you’re pointed. Take one step in his direction, and he will run to you!
So where is your heart? Some of you still live under the lordship of sin right now. It is time to confess a new Lord: Jesus Christ. Perhaps you need to come to him for the first time in conversion. I know that many of you are believers who have repented of sin and put your faith in Christ. And yet, repentance and faith are not one-time acts. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, raising these 95 points for theological discussion, the very first one said this: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” For as long as we are on this earthly pilgrimage, repentance never stops. That’s because sin never ceases its attack on us. The life of a Christian, therefore, must be a life of making war on sin by focusing one’s affections on Christ. The call of the Word of God for us today, and every Sunday, is for us to repent of our sins and believe in the gospel.
These latter verses of Haggai divide into two sections, which provide two promises that pertain to us. These two promises are two reasons that we should, once more, turn to God in repentance.
Let us repent of our sins because…
I. God will bless his repentant people (vv. 10-19).
According to Ezekiel 18:23, God has no delight in the death of the wicked. This is why he declares in the two preceding verses, “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live.” As Lee said a few weeks ago, we may be accustomed to thinking of God as eager to pounce on us in judgment. But the opposite is true: God is eager to pounce in mercy and blessing! He is slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, eagerly awaiting to bless those who turn to him.
We see this principle at work in the first section of our passage. It begins in verse 10 with a reference to the date: the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month in the second year of Darius. To us, that would be December 18, 520 BC. But more importantly, from the standpoint of the text, it is exactly three months since the people started working again on the temple, which was the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month (1:15). Their repentance has been demonstrated over this three-month period. The word that God speaks to Haggai commands him to ask the priests a question about the application of the Law. The question pertains to the relative transferability of holiness and of uncleanness. So, in the first scenario, Haggai asks the priests: Suppose someone has gone to the altar to offer a sacrifice. The animal is consecrated to the Lord, and a portion of it is burned on the altar, but the worshiper takes a portion of the consecrated meat in his garment that he is going to eat and carries it. What if that garment touches something else: bread, stew, wine, oil, or any other kind of food? Does holiness transfer to the third degree, from meat to garment and then to whatever the garment touches? The priests respond simply: “No.” That’s not how it works.
That question sets up a contrast with the following question, which is more to the point. Haggai asks the priests again: What if someone becomes unclean by touching a dead body? Can the defilement transfer three degrees, from the dead body to the person who touched it, and then to anything else the person touches? The priests respond by saying, “Yes, defilement does transfer that way.” It’s similar to the way you can catch an illness from somebody else, but you can’t catch health. Defilement transfers more easily than holiness.
The application of this point comes in verse 14: “Then Haggai answered and said, ‘So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean.’” In short, Haggai declares that the former disobedience of the people with regard to the temple has defiled everything they do, particularly in their worship. Think of it this way: the ruins of the temple, which had sat in the city as a testimony to the unrepentant hearts of the people, was like a corpse the defiled them all. As a result, when the people came to offer their sacrifices at the altar (for there was an altar, even though there was no temple), everything they offered there was defiled. And so, what should have been a means of covering their sins—sacrifices on the altar—was actually no such thing. Sacrifices do not atone for the sins of an unrepentant heart.
That is an important point we must recognize: sin cannot be atoned for mechanically. The story is told of an Irish woman who had just gone to confession, where Catholics reveal their sins to their priest so that they can receive forgiveness and be in a state of grace so long as they don’t commit any more bad sins. As she was leaving, she ran into another woman who happened to be her greatest enemy in town. Upon seeing her, the other woman said all kinds of nasty, abusive things to her face. The first woman replied, “Isn’t it a shame for ye to be talking to me like that, ye coward, and me in a state of Grace the way I can’t answer ye? But you wait. I won’t be in a state of Grace long.” I would say she rather missed the point of confession. Sin cannot be atoned for mechanically. You can’t jump through a set of religious hoops and think you’ve got it covered. God is after your heart. He will extend no forgiveness to the person whose heart is unrepentant. But he will extend infinite forgiveness to the one whose heart is.
So Haggai tells the people that their formerly unrepentant hearts had defiled their sacrifices at the altar. More than that, they also resulted in God’s judgment against them. Verses 15-16 say that their yield of food and drink was far less than expected. A man looking out over a field might expect that it would yield twenty measures of grain, but come harvest time he realized it was only ten. A man looking at the quantity of grapes in a winepress might assume it was enough grapes to yield fifty measures of wine, but in fact the grapes had only enough juice in them to yield twenty. God makes clear in verse 17 that he is the one who caused this: “I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight [hot, dry conditions] and with mildew [result of too much moisture] and with hail, yet you did not return to me, declares the LORD.” So not only did the corpse of the temple, the symbol of their unrepentant hearts, defile their sacrifices, it also decimated their economy.
Everything that Haggai has said to this point is talking about the past, when the people were unrepentant and self-centered. But it has all been leading up to verses 18-19: “Consider from this day onward, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the LORD’s temple was laid, consider: Is the seed yet in the barn? [No. The low yield from the previous year has left little for them to eat after the planting for this year.] Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing.” Keep in mind that the date is December 18. We wouldn’t expect any of these crops yet. But God has a word for his people about the harvest that is coming up in a few months in the final words of this section: “But from this day on I will bless you.” Mark it on your calendar, Israel. Your repentance has brought you from curse to blessing, just like that. What was once a corpse of a temple is now living again. The house of Solomon that was toppled is on its way back up, a symbol of hearts that have turned away from self and to God. Blessing is sure to follow.
In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes from the perspective of a demon, Screwtape, giving advice to his nephew and apprentice, Wormwood, about how best to tempt and, ultimately, destroy the human “patient” to whom Wormwood has been assigned. In Letter number 12, Screwtape notes that Wormwood’s patient, who is a regular churchgoer, has begun to drift away from God little-by-little. Screwtape tells his apprentice not to let things move too quickly, lest the patient be awakened to the danger he is in. He does, however, favor letting the patient wallow in a feeling of guilt that is not very strong, but just strong enough to do serious damage. He writes, “If such a feeling is allowed to live, but not allowed to become irresistible and flower into real repentance, it has one invaluable tendency. It increases the patient’s reluctance to think about the Enemy [God]. All humans at nearly all times have some such reluctance; but when thinking of Him involves facing and intensifying a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt, this reluctance is increased tenfold. They hate every idea that suggests Him, just as men in financial embarrassment hate the very sight of a bankbook. In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget about them as soon as possible when they are over. A few weeks ago you had to tempt him to unreality and inattention in his prayers: but now you will find him opening his arms to you and almost begging you to distract his purpose and benumb his heart. He will want his prayers to be unreal, for he will dread nothing so much as effective contact with the Enemy. His aim will be to let sleeping worms lie.” Do you know the feeling when that nagging half-conscious sense of guilt seems to build up over so much time that you have no desire to think about, much less pursue, God? Perhaps you have lost your temper with your children and/or your spouse one too many times. Or maybe you have been racked with anxiety about your finances and have failed to trust God and seek first his kingdom. Maybe you have been involved in sexual activity apart from marriage, or you’re addicted to pornography, or you are overrun with envy regarding the successes of others. Or maybe it’s just been weeks or longer since you have really stopped your life to pray. You might think that turning back to God now would be a worthless pursuit, given the extent of your sin. At the very least, you might have to dig in for a long road of self-atonement before you could get anywhere near his heart. To you, God is speaking right now, in the words of Zechariah 1:3: “Return to me, and I will return to you.” He doesn’t ask you to atone for your sins. He has already done that. He asks you to repent of your sins. And the moment you turn your heart away from sin and to him, his blessing, his favor, his presence, will rest upon you. Whatever has happened before now, let this be the day you turn back to him.
God’s blessing on his repentant people is the first reason we should turn away from sin and believe in the gospel. Second,
Let us repent of our sins because…
II. God will establish the kingdom of the Son of David (vv. 20-23).
Remember, this is a tale of two houses. Everything in the book of Haggai up to this point, including verses 10-19 that we just surveyed, has been about one house: the temple. These last four verses are about the other house: the house David, or the line of kings descended from him. And just as the first house was being rebuilt, God declares, so will the second house be rebuilt.
In this second prophetic message delivered on December 18, 520 BC, God speaks through Haggai to one man: Zerubbabel, governor of Judah. Zerubbabel was not a king. He was a provincial governor under the authority of Persia. But he was a descendant of David. God declares to Zerubbabel what he is going to do in the future. God is about to shake the heavens and the earth (v. 21), he is about to overthrow the thrones of the kingdoms of the earth and destroy their strength (v. 22). He is about to overthrow chariots and their riders, so that armed riders on horses will slay one another in battle, just as they did when Gideon’s 300 men defeated a confused army of thousands and thousands. In other words, God tells Zerubbabel that he, he himself, is about to overthrow all the kingdoms of this world, strip them of their military might, and divest them of authority. In the last sermon on Haggai, we saw in 2:6-7 that God promised to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea, the dry land, and all nations. The purpose in that text was so that the nations, having been defeated by Israel’s God, would submit themselves and pay tribute to Israel, thereby filling up the new temple with the glory of the nations.
But in this text, nothing is mentioned about the wealth of the nations. This text focuses on another reason that God is going to topple the kingdoms of this world, and that is in verse 23: “On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts.” A signet ring is a sign of royal authority. With his signet ring, a king could put the stamp of his authority on a decree so that it might be clearly recognized as from the king. In Genesis 41:42, the pharaoh of Egypt puts his signet ring on the hand of Joseph son of Jacob, signifying that Joseph now has the authority to act in the name of the pharaoh. God says he is going to make Zerubbabel like a signet ring, meaning he is going to invest Zerubbabel with divine authority to rule in God’s own name. God will mediate the rule of his kingdom through Zerubbabel, the descendant of David.
In saying this, Haggai is deliberately echoing an earlier prophecy of Jeremiah. The word of the Lord through Jeremiah declared this message to King Coniah (also known as “Jeconiah” and “Jehoiachin”) in Jeremiah 22:24-25: “As I live, declares the LORD, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off and give you into the hand of those who seek your life, into the hand of those of whom you are afraid, even in the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king od Babylon and into the hand of the Chaldeans.” King Coniah of the house of David reigned a grand total of three months over the kingdom of Judah before the Babylonians deposed him and made his uncle Zedekiah a puppet king in his place. Some years later, when Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon, they took him prisoner as well and left the throne of David empty. God indeed had cast off the signet ring of the Davidic king, divesting David’s house of royal authority because of the wickedness of David’s descendants. The line of David failed to produce the righteous rule that would have resulted in an everlasting kingdom.
And yet now, God addresses the house of David once more on the other side of the exile, and he tells Zerubbabel, “I will make you like a signet ring. When I topple the kingdoms of this world, I will once again exercise my rule over creation through the house of David.” God had chosen the house of David, and he had promised in 2 Samuel 7:15 that he would never take away his steadfast love, his covenant loyalty, from David’s house, as he had taken it away from King Saul before David. The house of David had failed, but God’s promise to David will not.
One lingering question here, of course, is this: When did Zerubbabel ever become a king? In fact, he didn’t. He never rose above provincial governor. Did the promise of God fail? No. Haggai appears to be doing here what other prophets do in other passages: represent a descendant by the name of an ancestor. For example, in Hosea 3:5, when the prophet foretells the restoration of Israel, he says, “Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days.” Hosea prophesied long after the death of David of a future day when Israel would seek “David their king,” by which he means, not David himself, but the promised son of David, the Messiah. The same thing happens in Ezekiel 34:23, when God declares that in the day he regathers Israel to himself, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them.” Again, this is a reference to a descendant of David. When Haggai declares to Zerubbabel that on the day he topples the kingdoms of the earth, he will make Zerubbabel like a signet ring, we are to look for a fulfillment of that promise in a descendant of Zerubbabel. And indeed, when we flip the page from Malachi to Matthew, we see listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel. As Jesus declared after his resurrection in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And one day, when he returns, he will topple the kingdoms of this world and exercise his rule over creation.
So what does that have to do with repentance? Remember what John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed in their public ministries: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” What is the connection between repentance and the nearness of the kingdom? It is this: when the kingdom comes, it will plow over all rebellion. If you are in rebellion against King Jesus, you will fall under the judgment that is to come when he asserts his sovereign rule. Romans 8:13 declares, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Paul is speaking here of eternal realities: eternal death and eternal life. No one will inherit eternal life who does not make war on sin. Jesus commanded us to be radical in our fight against sin, even if it feels like we are plucking out our own eye or cutting off our own hand, if that is what it takes to win the fight, we must do it. So make war. Don’t underestimate this enemy. Don’t get comfortable with the selfish ambition, the lustful thoughts, the greed, the anxiety, the seething anger toward another person, the drinking parties, the lure of gossip, the self-consumed sense of despondency, or whatever else has worked its way into your life. Fight it until it lies dead at your feet. As John Owen said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
So you must repent in order to enter the kingdom. But another connection between repentance and the kingdom of Christ is this: the only way you can truly repent and defeat the power of sin in your life is if you are drawn to something better. You cannot learn to hate sin simply by gazing at it and willing yourself to hate it. That is a losing battle. Cast out one demon, and it will bring seven more with it to fill the empty space that is left. The only way to defeat a strong desire is with an even stronger desire. The way to make war on sin is to fix your gaze on Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of David, and to desire him and his kingdom more than anything. When you find yourself craving the attention of others, or sexual fulfillment, or more money, or more power, and these cravings cause you to contemplate a pathway of disobedience to God, you must fight to find joy in the one who can bring greater satisfaction than all of these things: Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, giving himself for you and to you.
If you have never confessed faith in the lordship of Jesus Christ, I call upon you in his name to repent, trusting in his death and resurrection alone to make atonement for you. Declare your repentance and faith publicly through baptism. If you do, you will belong to the kingdom of the Son of David, and you will know the blessing and favor of God upon you, being saved from the judgment that is coming when God topples the kingdoms of this world. I invite all baptized believers in good standing with a local church to fight against sin with me now at this table, as we eat and drink and once more fix our gaze on the Son of David and his coming kingdom.