The Priority of God’s Work

Domenic Marbaniang
Published in REVIVE, Kumbanad, March 2011.

Text
Haggai 1:1-4, 9

In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.’ “Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house….”

In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar’s army plundered Jerusalem and burnt God’s temple to the ground. The tragedy was already foretold by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. God had delivered His people into the hands of their enemies because of their sky-reaching transgressions. But, He didn’t leave them without a promise. Jeremiah had prophesied that after 70 years of captivity, Babylon would be punished and the people would return to the Promised Land. Accordingly, Cyrus captured Babylon in October 539 B.C., and in 538 B.C. issued the decree to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Consequently, about 50,000 Jews returned to Palestine under the leadership of Zerubbabel and laid the foundation after two years in 536 B.C. The Book of Ezra records the scenario of this mega event in these words:

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11-13)

However, this joy was very short-lived, for soon the adversaries of Judah raised such a great storm of opposition that crushed down all their excitement for the temple of God. Consequently, the rebuilding work came to a standstill and the temple area looked all lifeless, listless, and ruins altogether. This continued for 16 years until, God sent two of His prophets Haggai and Zechariah to prophesy to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem. In 520 B.C., Haggai began to prophesy in order to persuade the people to return back to their original calling, the purpose for which they had returned to Jerusalem.

There were two chief problems that God underlined with regard to the lethargy of the Jews:

1. Their delusion with regard to time. They said, “The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built” (Haggai 1:2). They had not only given up working for God, but had developed a rational argument for such a lifestyle. They lived as if there was so much of time yet, and that the work of God could be done at a more plausible and convenient time. God confronted this mindset and demanded of them an explanation for the same. He commanded them to consider their ways. What was it that they had started out from Babylon for? Why had they arrived at Jerusalem? Why were they in this land at such a time?

The tragedy was that they were using up God’s allotted time of work for anything else than God’s work. 16 years after the foundation had been laid, there was no temple yet. Of course, they had begun well, amidst great songs of praise and tears of joy; but, now, all of it was dust and ashes. The fire had gone out of the holy altar. The hands of the servants had grown feeble and slack. The temple of God had been abandoned. Does he who runs the race receive the prize for starting out well, or does he for ending well? How often isn’t it the case with God’s people that they have started on the work of Christ’s kingdom with all flare of excitement, with such immense zeal and enthusiasm, but the invasion of the world into their lives has dampened all of it down to a mere selfish and fruitless living. God calls us to work. Jesus said that we must do the work of Him who sent Him as long as it is day; for a night is coming when no one can work (John 9:4). Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians saying “Redeem the time for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). We cannot live careless and listless lives while the whole world sinks in sin and darkness, while the temple of God is left unbuilt. We need to get back to where He has placed us in the building up of the Body of Christ, the temple of the living God (Ephesians 4:11,12,16).

2. Secondly, their shift of focus from the temple to their own houses. God asked “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Haggai 1:2). How different was their way from that of David who said “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent” (2 Samuel 7:2), and also “Better is one day in Your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10). God testified about the Israelites saying “my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house” (Haggai 1:9). How different was even this from the passion of Solomon who first gave himself to building the temple of God, and only then to build his own house. But, the tables had turned in the returning Jews’ case. They had transferred the love that rightly belongs to God to their own selves, families, and businesses.

Hadn’t Jesus laid the great condition for discipleship: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38). We know the sad case of the rich young ruler who sorrowfully left Jesus because of one such costly demand of him. Discipleship has a cost, and it doesn’t always mean a posh personal lifestyle. It means a life of self-sacrifice, to deny the self (Matthew 16:24). It was with great sadness that Paul wrote to the Philippians about people in ministry saying “everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21). He could only find in Timothy a true servant attitude, who in his very young life wholly committed himself to the Body of Christ taking “genuine interest” in the welfare of the children of God, rather than in his own comfort.

But, the Jews at Haggai’s time had no time for these. They built palaces and paneled houses while the temple of God was a heap of ruins. And, God rebuked that. But, how had this lethargy and lukewarmness crept into their spirit?

The Book of Ezra reveals three alarming forces:

1. The world’s proposal for ministerial partnership. In Ezra 4:2, we see the unsaved and unbelieving people of surrounding areas coming to Zerubbabel and proposing to build the temple along with them. Of course, Zerubbabel didn’t allow that, though later on the enemies did manage to get into the Holy chambers in Nehemiah’s time. But, sadly the Church of Jesus Christ hasn’t been safe from such adulterous and idolatrous luring. Several times, she has turned her eyes towards aliens, to their colorful robes, to their customs and rites, and to the things that the world adores. The result: the defilement of ministry and the ruining of God’s temple. Therefore, had Paul warned to be careful how we build upon the foundation, Who is Christ; for no other foundation can any man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1Corinthians 3:10,11). In His letters to the seven Churches in Revelation, Jesus warns several times to disconnect ourselves from those who are strangers to God’s ways. But, how are we attracted to the plurality of pluralism and the irresponsible attractions of syncretism? We continually see the Church falling prey to the powers of secularization, to the extent that it is almost difficult to differentiate between her and the world. The worldly waters of godless University affiliations, media hypes, power mania, flickering trends, and natural philosophies heave heavy upon the boat of salvation. Some have given in to dishonest practices, natural to the sinful mind, in order to pull on their Spiritless machinery of ministry. God calls us to repentance, to a life of separation; separation by the Cross of Jesus Christ that rends us away from the world, to build His temple not according to the wisdom of the world but according to His pattern in heaven. It is a high and holy calling. Let’s pursue that in purity of dedication and resolve.

2. The world’s counsel towards ministerial discouragement. In 4:4-5, the enemies of God hired counselors to discourage the people of God from doing His work. Discouragement is a powerful tool of the devil. The Choir leader of Solomon’s temple, Asaph, narrowly escaped the jaws of this monster. In Psalm 73, he records his story of discouragement, of how he had turned bitter and frustrated when he watched the prosperity of worldly people, while he felt his life not as materially successful as theirs, despite His faithfulness to God (Psalm 73:12,13). But, the problem of evil met its end as soon as Asaph entered the sanctuary of God (v17), for then he realized what ultimate reality is all about. What the world pursues is wind, lusts that pass away. He recommits himself to seek God as his everything in both heaven and earth. To a man of God who has realized the excellency of  the knowledge of Christ and His power of resurrection, all the “highly-valued things” of this world are as rubbish (Philippians 3:8-10). He lives by the motivation of the love of Christ.

3. The world’s use of brute political force to ban God’s work. In the rest of the part of Ezra 4, we see their conspiracy and false accusations against the people of God. They accused them of being a nation within the nation (an accusation that some have leveled against Christians in this country as well). They accused them of being a national threat, and so tried to get the ministry legally banned.

But, Haggai and Zachariah prophesied and encouraged the people to start the work. God said “Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house.” When God is with us, who can be against us? The leaders were encouraged and began the work, and the prophets stood with them (Ezra 5:1-3). God turned the political powers in favor of His people. In 516 B.C. the temple was finished and dedicated.

Let us commit ourselves strongly to the priority of God’s work. Hell may hurl at us its winds and its flames, but the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. We also have this promise in these last days: “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house” and “From this day on,” i.e. the day from when the work is resumed, “I will bless you” (Haggai 2:9,19). May this be that day!

© Domenic Marbaniang, 2011
Published in revive, Kumbanad, March 2011.

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