In his fictional masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape giving advice to his nephew and apprentice, Wormwood, about how to ensure that the human being (“the patient”) whom Wormwood has been assigned to tempt ends up in Hell. Letter number II indicates that Wormwood’s patient has recently professed faith in Christ and has joined a local church. In light of this fact, Screwtape gives Wormwood this advice:
“Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy [God] allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.”
That last phrase, “the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing,” really says a lot, doesn’t it? And don’t you know the feeling? The day you find out you have been hired at a new job, you are full of dreaming aspiration about what the future holds. Six months later, as you have settled into the routines of it, you find your dreams and ideals giving way to the harsh reality of the daily grind, and you are struggling to survive. Or, perhaps, the day you got engaged filled you with dreaming aspirations about a “happily ever after” waiting for you, but years later you have come to understand that marriage is hard work, and not always a joyful work.
In the year 586 BC, the kingdom of Judah was overtaken by the Babylonians, most of the people were taken into exile in Babylon, and the temple in Jerusalem that King Solomon had built was destroyed. But in 539 BC, the Persian empire conquered the Babylonians, and King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree that the Jews could return to their land and rebuild their temple. So by the year 536 BC, the foundation of the temple had been laid. But the work came to a halt due to opposition from local enemies of the Jews, as well as difficult economic conditions. But then, about 16 years later in 520 BC, Haggai came on the scene and delivered a series of prophetic messages to the people to call them once more to the work of rebuilding the temple. This particular message we are reading about today took place “in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month,” which on our calendar would be October 17, almost a month after the Lord had stirred up the spirits of Zerubbabel the governor, Joshua the high priest, and the people to get back to work on the temple. God spoke to the people again because he anticipated the possibility that they would get discouraged in the work as they moved from dreaming aspiration to laborious action. And why would they possibly be discouraged? Verse 3 explains: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” Why would this temple be nothing to those who older members of the community who had seen Solomon’s temple? It is because Solomon, the wealthiest king in Israel’s history, had built the first temple by the skills of hired craftsmen and had adorned it with gold and other precious metals. On top of that, the first temple housed the Ark of the Covenant, the very symbol of God’s presence. And the former temple stood during the time of Israel’s sovereignty as a nation, the time when the sons of David ruled from Jerusalem. It was closely tied to the house of David, a symbol of Davidic rule as an expression of God’s sovereignty over the nation. The old men and women who had been in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 586 knew this second temple would be nothing by comparison. They didn’t have the resources to hire skilled craftsman or to adorn it with gold, and the ark, presumably having been taken by the Babylonians, was never recovered (remember: Indiana Jones is fiction). Moreover, they were building this temple, not during the time of Davidic rule, but under the rule of King Darius of Persia. Judea is not a nation but a province of the Persian empire. When construction got underway, and the people were celebrating at this time of year the Feast of Tabernacles (the same feast during which Solomon had dedicated his temple), reality set in: this new temple would be nothing compared to the first one.
And so the people are facing the possible discouragement that comes when you question whether or not what you are doing is really worthwhile. As a church, we are in an exciting time. We have many dreams that we believe God has given us, dreams about fulfilling the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations by sending out church planters, pastors, and missionaries across the globe, as well as becoming more intentional about discipleship here in Jackson. But in whatever ways you participate in the fulfillment of this mission, I want you to know that the day will come when you will wonder if what you are doing is worthwhile. Those of you who go out to plant churches, the day will come when you will wonder if you will ever have converts. Those of you who share the gospel with your neighbors here in Jackson, the day will come when a neighbor who professed faith at one point will abandon the faith later, leaving you to wonder if your investment of time and energy accomplished anything significant. You parents who are actively and intentionally discipling your children, the day has probably already come when you have asked, “Is anything that I am doing making any difference?” In our dreams, we see the big picture and the finished product. But we don’t see all of the ups and downs, all of the long hours of seemingly fruitless labor, all of the attacks of the enemy, that occur when our dreams bump up against reality.
And in particular, we are a church that is in a position to be tempted by nostalgia, just as the older members of Haggai’s community were. Nostalgia is a feeling of longing for the good days of the past. Understandably, the old men in the community felt a sense of nostalgia for Solomon’s temple. Perhaps some of you who have been at Cornerstone for some time feel the pull of nostalgia for the days when the church was smaller, and it seemed that everybody knew everybody. As we grow, and as the culture of the church changes as a result of this growth, aren’t we losing something precious? No doubt we are. We are losing something precious in the same way that we do when we watch our children grow up. The other day, as I dropped my son Ethan off at his kindergarten class, he pulled out one of his toys that he had brought for show-and-tell and had to tell me about it before I left. What would have been a rather ordinary moment any other day became for me on this day a moment that I decided to savor and remember. What suddenly came to my mind was the impending sense of Ethan growing up and being too old to talk to me about his toys for show-and-tell. And when that time comes, I will have lost something precious. But God has not made our children to be frozen in time for us as museum pieces. He has destined them to mature, and his glory is revealed in that process of maturity, even if we feel the pull of nostalgia along the way for the things we once loved when they were small. The truth is, churches go through life cycles the way human beings do. No church can stand still and be frozen in time. Churches either grow, or they decline. God has blessed us with tremendous growth, both numerically and spiritually, in the last several years. And along with that growth come inevitable changes, not to our doctrine or our fundamental commitments, but to our culture. Perhaps the pull of nostalgia is one of those things that could tempt you toward discouragement as we move together to fulfill our mission as a church. Let the prophet Haggai encourage you today: our mission is worthwhile; our destiny, through all the ups and downs, through all the changes and adjustments, is glory.
Notice that, after identifying the possible source of discouragement in vv. 1-3, Haggai gives three commands. The first he repeats three times, addressing Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the people in turn. That command is “Be strong” (v. 4). Take courage. Or, to put it negatively, he says at the end of verse 5, “Fear not.” Be strong. Fear not. This is to be the condition of our hearts. We must not be paralyzed by anxiety about the future or the fear of failure. We must have the courage to put our reputation, our possessions, our financial security, our future, our very lives on the line for the sake of obeying our Lord to make disciples of all nations.
And if our hearts are filled with courage and not anxiety, we will have the ability to fulfill the command that comes between “Be strong” and “Fear not.” And that command is in the middle of verse 4: “Work.” Haggai commands the returned exiles to dedicate their hands to the task in front of them of rebuilding the temple. We have a task before us as well, and it will require the active participation of the whole body. We must dedicate ourselves to the work that is before us, the work of making disciples, baptizing and teaching them, to the ends of the earth.
But in the face of discouragement, when dreaming aspiration turns into laborious action, why should we be strong, fear not, and continue with the work? One of the things I love about the Bible is that so often it argues its case. God does not just tell the Jews what to do. He gives them reasons for it. Let us be encouraged to persevere in the work God has called us to do in spite of all discouragement and disappointment we may face along the way, for two reasons outlined in this text.
We must be persevere in the work of the Lord because…
I. God, our faithful covenant Lord, is with us (vv. 4-5).
The end of verse 4 reads, “Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts.” I am tempted to close my Bible and end it here. What more needs to be said? When God says, “I am with you,” it doesn’t matter what you are doing, how unfruitful it may appear to be, how risky it is, or how much opposition you are facing. You have no need of any other reason to continue the work that has been given to you. If God is with you, what else could you possibly need?
Perhaps you hear this and say, “Yes, that sounds great so long as you have the assurance from a biblical prophet that God is with you in what you are doing. But since there are no biblical prophets around today to speak authoritatively for God, we can’t know with the same assurance that God is with us the same way he was with the returned exiles in their task of rebuilding the temple.” But here I would beg to differ. We don’t need a prophet today to tell us that God is with us in the task of making disciples. Listen to the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:18-20, spoken to his disciples after his resurrection: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Until this present age comes to an end, we have the very promise of Jesus Christ himself, God in the flesh, that he is with us in our task of baptizing and teaching all nations. No matter how difficult or discouraging the work may be at times, what more do we need him to say to us?
But God expands on this promise. He says, “I am with you,” in verse 4, and then adds in verse 5, “according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.” When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he led them to Mount Sinai in the desert, where he gave them his covenant, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Then, as Moses was on the mountain for forty days receiving instructions about building the tabernacle, the people became impatient and created a golden calf for themselves to represent God and engaged in pagan worship practices, explicitly violating the second of the Ten Commandments. After Moses came down and put a stop to that, God told him to lead the people up to Egypt. God would send his angel before them to give them the land he had promised to their father Abraham, but he himself would not go up with them. His presence would not dwell among such a stiff-necked people.
For a time it looked as though the covenant at Mount Sinai, having been broken by Israel as soon as it was ratified, would be gone forever. But Moses pitched a tent outside the camp, and there he met with God, and there he prayed for Israel. And in response to Moses’ plea of intercession, God said to Moses in Exodus 33:14, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God then revealed his name to Moses as the one who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6). In other words, at Mount Sinai, God demonstrated that his grace is greater than the sins of his people, and the effective intercession of their covenant mediator, Moses, ensured that his presence would continue with them in spite of their failure. The same is true, Haggai says, even now, after the people have so thoroughly broken the Sinai Covenant that they have experienced its final curse: exile. The ruin of Solomon’s temple is a testimony to the persistent rebellion of Israel. The foundation of a new temple is a testimony to the even more persistent love of God for Israel.
God assures them, just as it was with Israel in the wilderness, “My Spirit remains in your midst.” God has not abandoned his people. And if Israel had reason to be hopeful, we have even more reason. For our covenant mediator is not Moses, as faithful as Moses was. Our mediator is Jesus Christ, of whom we sing,
Five bleeding wounds he bears, received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers, they strongly plead for me:
“Forgive him, O forgive!” they cry;
“Forgive him, O forgive!” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
And because our mediator has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, whom he has poured out on his church, we have the assurance that God’s Spirit not only dwells among us (as he dwelled with Israel), but that he has actually taken up residence in us according to the promise of the new covenant. According to 1 Corinthians 3:16, we are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit dwells in us! Whatever reason Israel had to be confident of God’s presence with her in 520 BC, we have far more reason for confidence in 2015. So let us be strong, fear not, and work, because God is with us.
We must persevere in the work of the Lord because…
II. God, our victorious warrior king, is for us (vv. 6-9).
The promise that God is with us would not mean much if God did not have the power to make our mission succeed. But his power in these verses is portrayed as unlimited. He promises that he will “shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land,” exercising his sovereign power over every part of creation. More than that, he is sovereign over all nations, as he says in verse 7: “And I will shake all nations.” What does this image of shaking creation and of shaking the nations represent? Verses 21-22 shed more light: “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.” For God to shake the heavens and the earth and to shake the nations is for God to triumph over the nations in battle and assert his sovereignty over them.
But to what end will God, our victorious warrior king, shake the nations? Verse 7 reads, “And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.” The picture is of the nations subdued under God’s power so that they bring tribute to his temple in Jerusalem. God will not only conquer the nations; he will plunder them. Does this mean we worship a God who is essentially a thief, who in his poverty robs other nations? Absolutely not! Verse 8 reads, “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.” This is the equivalent of Psalm 50:10: “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousands hills.” God is not robbing the nations. He is claiming what rightly belongs to himself as Creator and Ruler of the world. The nations are mere stewards of God’s property, and they should have already been paying tribute to their king. In the absence of their doing so, he will shake them until they do, bringing their wealth to his temple.
And what will be the result? Glory to God and blessing to his people. Note verse 9: “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts.” When the wealth of nations streams to Jerusalem, the temple will become more glorious than it was in the days of Solomon. On that day, the house of David will be restored, Israel will once more have national sovereignty, and the worship of Israel’s God will be universal.
There is a story in Mark 8 where Jesus and the disciples are traveling in a boat across the Sea of Galilee, but the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them. Having just had an encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus told them, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” By “leaven” he was referring to the pernicious influence of these groups, but the disciples thought he was talking about the fact that they had forgotten to bring bread with them. As they were discussing this issue among themselves, Jesus asked them why their focus was in the wrong place. He asked, “Don’t you remember when I broke five loaves for five thousand people? How many baskets did you have left over?” And they answered, “Twelve.” “And remember when I broke seven loaves for four thousand people? How many baskets did you have left?” They said, “Seven.” What is Jesus’ point? Why in the world are you worried about not having enough bread? If the man who can multiply bread at will is with you, you will never lack bread. Haggai is saying something similar: why are you worried about not having silver and gold to adorn this temple? The God who owns every ounce of silver and gold in the world is with you! Take heart! God will be glorified in this temple.
But not only will God be glorified, his people will be blessed, because he is for them. The last part of verse 9 speaks of the blessing of peace “in this place” (a reference either to the temple or to Jerusalem as a whole). Peace is not merely the absence of strife and conflict. It is holistic blessing: prosperity, fruitfulness, and joy under the favor of God. So the image that emerges here is one of a restored Israel, triumphant over the nations through the power of their God, worshiping him in a temple that has been adorned with the plunder of the nations, with Israel enjoying the blessings of his favor. If that won’t motivate a returned Jewish exile to be strong, fear not, and work, nothing will.
Of course, we must ask now from our perspective about the fulfillment of this prophetic word. It was indeed partially fulfilled in the immediate future, when the silver and gold of the nations, funneled through the coffers of the Persian King Darius, were employed for the completion of this building project in 516. Centuries later, a new stage of fulfillment came when Herod the Great renovated the temple with Roman funds taken from the nations and made it more marvelous than it had ever been, well more than twice the size of Solomon’s temple. When Jesus and his disciples journeyed to Jerusalem, it was Herod’s temple that caused the disciples to marvel (Mark 13:1). Though they could not imagine it now, Haggai’s contemporaries were beginning work on a structure whose beauty and splendor would be far beyond anything they had ever seen.
But the wording of the text actually suggests a greater fulfillment to come. When God says he will shake creation and the nations, it leaves you with the impression of a worldwide upheaval that is to come on the Day of the Lord, when God’s sovereignty over the nations through Jesus Christ is fully revealed. It makes me think of the day when, as Revelation 11:15 puts it, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” In fact, the author of Hebrews interprets the passage in just this way when he says in Heb. 12:26-29, “At that time [at Mount Sinai] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Haggai’s prophecy awaits a future fulfillment when Jesus Christ returns to exercise his rule over the nations.
And what of the temple itself? After being renovated by Herod in the first century BC, it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD, just as Jesus predicted it would be. It has never been, and I think probably never will be, rebuilt. Is that an indication that God has abandoned the temple? No, not at all. Far from abandoning it, God removed the limited physical structure so that he could expand it to the ends of the earth, making the whole of the new creation into his dwelling place. The temple is God’s space, and as such, its inner sanctuary was off limits to man. We are exiles from Eden, unable to dwell with God. Until, that is, the veil of the temple was torn at the moment the sacrifice of Christ was offered to the Father on Golgotha. And it was torn, not so much to let us in, as to obliterate the distinction between God’s space and ours. Because of the work of Jesus Christ, God’s space will one day expand to encompass a new creation, and the whole earth will be a temple. As John says of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:22-26, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.” God will fill his house with glory, just as Haggai predicted.
But until then, tomorrow is another Monday morning. The daily grind will hit once again, and the disappointments and frustrations of life will face us as they always do. This is why we must be strong, fear not, and work by faith. God assured the returned exiles in Jerusalem that their labors on the unimpressive structure before them would somehow stand in continuity with the temple in its final glory, the new creation. And so we must believe about our own mission. As we labor to make disciples to the ends of the earth, we must always remember that we are preparing for the day when the glory of the nations will stream to the eternal city, New Jerusalem. Whatever ups and downs, whatever frustrations and disappointments come along the way, that hope must carry us.
So let us go on, knowing that our faithful covenant Lord is with us, our victorious warrior King is for us. But how can we know that? We know because he gave his Son for us. If you have never confessed faith in Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, and raised for your salvation, I urge you to do so. Identify yourself with him through baptism, in which you declare before the world that you have died to yourself, and you now live to him. Perhaps you will say, “I can give it some thought, but there is no way I can make such a big decision, one that will change the whole direction of my life, so quickly.” My response is this: what do you find lacking in Christ? What do you have to lose that you will not gain a thousand times over in him? You cannot stand in a neutral place before him. He is Lord of all, and every moment you refuse to bow to his lordship is another moment you spend in rebellion against him, storing up wrath for the day when he comes to shake the nations. And no one will ever say in his kingdom, “I’m glad I became a Christian, but I just wish I had taken some more time to think about it first.” Now is the time. This is the day of salvation. Call upon Christ to forgive you of your sins, and come tell us that you desire baptism.
If you are a baptized believer who is in good standing with a gospel-preaching church, we invite you to partake of the bread and the cup with us. Let us eat and drink in remembrance of his broken body and shed blood once more as we express our ongoing faith in his atoning work. And let us lift our gaze above the disappointments and frustrations of this world so that we might taste the glory of a world to come.