(These are some notes from the message shared last Sunday when we gathered as a church.)
We're beginning a series in the book of Haggai. This book comes towards the end of the Old Testament, and towards the end of the period of history that the Old Testament covers. So how is the book of Haggai relevant to us today?
In order to do that, we're going to go old school and take an approach that the Puritans liked back in the 17th Century: asking questions and then explaining the answer.
Question: What approach should I take to the Old Testament?
Answer: If Jesus is my Lord, I must submit to his understanding of the Old Testament, and follow his approach.
In other words, if Jesus is my guide to life, he must therefore be my guide to the Old Testament. So what approach did he take to the Old Testament?
There are some very helpful passages in Luke 24. The resurrected Jesus appears to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. They are unable to recognise Jesus, and instead speak of their despair after the death of the one they thought would be the Messiah. Jesus responds like this:
"Wasn't it necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24v26-27)
Remember, at this time "all the Scriptures" meant "all the Old Testament". So Jesus uses the Old Testament to explain the gospel. Later, the two followers describe their experience:
"Didn't our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" (Luke 24v32)
As Jesus explained the gospel through the Old Testament, he ignited their hearts and "opened...the Scriptures". He does this again a little later to a larger group of followers, and again we read of their experience:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures... (Luke 24v44)
Jesus is teaching us that it is only when we recognise the gospel in the Old Testament that our minds and Bibles are truly open.
Question: What does that mean in practice?
Answer: Firstly, it means the Old Testament is not about me.
The accounts in the Old Testament are not fundamentally tales to teach me about morality. I'm reminded of the cartoon "He-Man" that I watched when I was a child (ok, and maybe when I was an adult, too!) I'd watch the episode, thinking it was all about action and fighting, but then, at the end, there was a short scene where He-Man would talk to the viewer. He would explain how the story was really a lesson about morality, e.g. If Orko had been honest with his friends from the start, he would never have been kidnapped by Skeletor!
In other words, the moral was "If I'm a good person, I end up being the hero".
This is not the message of the Old Testament. It is not an adventure story that teaches me how to become the hero by being good.
As an example, consider the well-known story of David and Goliath. It's tempting to see this story as a call-to-action. If I'm brave and strong - if I have enough faith - I'll defeat my enemies and win my battles.
But consider what's really happening. God's people face an enemy they are unable to defeat. God provides a shepherd, not a soldier, as a rescuer. This shepherd enters the battle claiming he is not alone, but God is with him. He defeats the enemy, not with a sword, but with something far humbler - a sling.
Already, we begin to see how this points to Jesus. He is the rescuer that God provides to save us from an enemy we cannot defeat (Satan). He is the Man-With-God, a good shepherd who gains victory, not with a sword, but with something far humbler - a cross.
I can learn helpful lessons about life from the Old Testament, but it is not fundamentally a book about me.
Question: So what is the Old Testament about?
Answer: The way God rescues His people from temporary situations in the Old Testament reveals something about how He saves His people eternally through Jesus Christ.
As examples, we can see this in the way He saves His people from condemnation through Noah; from famine through Joseph; from slavery through Moses; from sovereign instability through David; from exile through Cyrus (prophecied by Isaiah).
But here we have Haggai! What has Haggai got to do with the gospel?
Question: What's going on at the time of Haggai?
Answer: God wants His people to rebuild the temple.
There had been a time of sovereign instability - unreliable kings ruling over Judah. This ends with Judah being overthrown by the Babylonians. They destroy the temple, all the important buildings, and the walls around Jerusalem, and the people are taken into exile (2 Kings 25v8-12).
But some years later, the Babylonians are overthrown by Persia, and the Persian King, Cyrus, instructs the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1v1-2). They begin; then are stopped for several years; then are allowed to begin again, but are reluctant to do so. It is at this point that the prophet Haggai appears! He is used by God to spur the people on to rebuild the temple.
Question: What has the temple got to do with the gospel?
Answer: Jesus came to replace the temple as the place where we meet with God
Jesus is now our high priest in heaven. We do not go to a temple to come close to God. Instead, in Christ we are always in the presence of God.
So what is our temple? It is one where the foundation is the gospel, and the walls are the people who believe the gospel - who see the gospel as the foundation to their lives. We are given this picture by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2v19-22:
"So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."
A church is the people, a spiritual home made of bricks that are breathing, where lives are the stones. The foundation of this home is the gospel - Christ is the cornerstone, and the gospel teaching of the apostles and prophets fills the rest of the foundation.
(Turn this concept upside-down, and we find another biblical image of the church as a human body, where the people are the parts of the body, and Christ is the head.)
So when Haggai talks to the Jews about the temple, he is not talking to us about the church building. We are not to think of bricks and mortar, of mortgages and timetables. These can be helpful, but they are not the church. We can use these things as a church, but they do not make us a church.
For us, the temple is God's people built on the foundation of God's Son. Haggai's encouragement to invest time and energy into the temple for God's glory is an encouragement for us to invest our time and energy into our church communities for God's glory. This work is to be done upon the solid foundation of the gospel. Christ's completed work motivates and enables our ongoing work.
In the next post, we'll look at chapter one and Haggai's first challenge - the danger of being safe.