Haggai 2:20-23

Haggai 2

20 The word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, 21 “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22 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. 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.”

The book of Haggai ends in a way that the modern reader might find surprising. It ends by focusing on the governor of Judah, Zerubbabel. In a certain sense, this is not surprising. After all, Zerubbabel is mentioned in the first verse of the book. However, he is mentioned alongside Haggai and Joshua. In fact, throughout this book, he is mentioned but always alongside Joshua the priest. This is the first time that Zerubbabel becomes the sole focus of a divine word. This makes Haggai 2:20-23 unique, but it is what is saidto Zerubbabel that makes it truly surprising.

Yes, what is said is surprising, but it is also very important…and relevant…and “perspective-giving” to the entire book. In fact, these final words to Zerubbabel help us understand with shocking clarity just what is happening in this book and in Israel’s returning to its temple construction.

Through Zerubbabel, God shows how He can give a new name to those with a bad name.

To understand the significance of what is said in these verses, we must first understand from whence Zerubbabel came. He did not have, to put it mildly, a good name. In fact, Zerubabbel’s grandfather, Coniah (or Jeconiah), was singled out as the particular object of God’s wrath in Jeremiah 22. Listen:

24 “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 25 and give you into the hand of those who seek your life, into the hand of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and into the hand of the Chaldeans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But to the land to which they will long to return, there they shall not return.” 28 Is this man Coniah a despised, broken pot, a vessel no one cares for? Why are he and his children hurled and cast into a land that they do not know?29 O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord! 30 Thus says the Lord: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days, for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling again in Judah.”

See in these verses the absolutely devastating consequences of God’s judgment against Coniah:

  • Coniah was a signet ring that God tore off His hand.
  • Coniah would be given to the Babylonians.
  • Coniah and his mother would become exiles.
  • Coniah would die in a foreign land without ever returning home.
  • Coniah’s children would also enter exile.
  • Coniah would be broken and despised among men.
  • Coniah’s children would feel the full wrath of God.
  • Coniah’s children would never sit on the throne of David.

This is what God said in Jeremiah 22 and this was Zerubbabel’s grandfather!This was his name! This was his lineage! This was his past! These were his people!

My grandfather, Leon Richardson, was a loved figure in my hometown of Sumter, South Carolina. He was a very kind man who pastored churches in the area, sold tombstones, and had lived in that town his whole life. He was such a pleasant man that everybody called him Rosie. As a boy I used to always smile whenever an adult, upon hearing my name, would say, “Are you Rosie’s grandson?”

It is a beautiful thing to inherit a loved name. It is a horrible thing to be saddled with a despised name.

I once pastored a church in a town in which there was a family that was infamous for being pugnacious. I will use a different name here, but they were known as “the fighting Johnsons.” And they were known by that name because they would…well…fight and get into scrapes and trouble and all of the kinds of things that make for a bad reputation. If you mentioned that name in that town you would get sad and knowing nods of exasperation at the alleged bad behavior to which the name pointed.

It is a terrible burden, having a bad name.

Zerubbabel was saddled with a name that had been condemned by God because of his grandfather’s unfaithfulness. Imagine the whispers among God’s people when they saw Zerubbabel. Imagine the stares. Imagine the feeling of despair. Imagine Zerubbabel’s long moments of contemplation at night, in the dark, and of his wondering how he could survive with that name, with that judgment, with that inheritance of shame.

God had said of Zerubbabel’s grandfather that he was a signet ring that God had cast off because of his disobedience. “In the ancient Near East,” the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary says, “a signet ring was an engraved stone bearing a mark that was unique to the individual. Such signets were used to sign contracts and/or legal documents or to emboss seals of scrolls, and they could be entrusted to a trusted servant.”[1]The IVP Bible Background Commentary further states:

The term “signet” probably refers to a seal, which could have been either a cylinder seal worn with a cord around the neck or a stamp seal embedded in a ring, which is referred to here. The former was very common in Mesopotamia, while the latter was used in Israel. Thousands of cylinder seals and stamp seals have been found in Mesopotamia and Syro-Palestine respectively. They were a sign of authority, identification, and ownership.[2]

Thus, in God calling Coniah a cast off signet ring, He was speaking of a fundamental break in their relationship, of the consequence of the justly deserved divine wrath that fell upon Coniah.

Coniah, Zerubbabel’s grandfather, was a cast off signet ring.

Now listen to what God says to Zerubbabel, Coniah’s grandson, in the closing words of this book:

20 The word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, 21a “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah…

 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.”

Did you see that? “I will take you…and make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you…”

Warren Weirsbe says of these words:

            Zerubbabel’s ancestor, King Jehoichin (Coniah), had been rejected by God, but Zerubbabel was accepted by God…(Jer. 22:24, NKJV). God was reversing the judgment…[3]

Yes, even though God had said to Coniah that he was a cast off ring and that neither he nor his children would sit on David’s throne, here He is, turning to Coniah’s grandson, Zerubbabel, and choosing him for service, giving him a governorship, allowing him to lead the people back to Jerusalem, and allowing him to play an important part in the reconstruction of the temple.

The one who had a bad name is now given a good name. Why? Because our God is the God who delights in giving a new name to those who are ashamed and broken, to those who feel cast off, to those who have been saddled with the shame of the past.

Hear the good news of the gospel: you may feel like a cast off thing, a rejected thing, a judged thing, an unloved thing, and an object of wrath, but God in love and grace has moved toward you in Jesus Christ and He is saying, “Bring your shame. Bring your fear. Bring your brokenness. For I love you! I value you! I will give you a new name! You have worth! You are my son, my daughter, my child! I have picked you back up! I have restored you! I have a plan for you!”

I talk to people all of the time who feel cursed, who feel alone, who feel cast off. I talk to people all of the time who seem to be ashamed of their name, of their past, of their family, of that thing that everybody whispers about, of that thing that everybody knows about. Dear friend, hear me: you are not defined by your past; you are defined by how you are loved…and you are loved!You are loved so much that God gave His only begotten Son to lay down His life for you!

Through Zerubbabel, God shows how He can give an eternal home to a hopeless people.

And this leads us to our final point, and, indeed, to the book of Haggai’s greatest point. Through Zerubbabel, God shows how He can give an eternal home to a hopeless people.

20 The word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, 21 “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22 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. 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.”

The book ends with words that can only be described as “eschatological” or “pertaining to final things.” It ends with a prophetic note. The imagery is profoundly eschatological:

  • “shake the heavens and the earth”
  • “overthrow the throne of kingdoms”
  • “destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations”
  • “overthrow the chariots and their riders”
  • “On that day…”

This is language and imagery that points to end times events. “That day” clearly involves Zerubbabel but goes beyond him as well.

We must understand two things about Zerubbabel: (1) by being chosen by God and being picked up as a signet ring, Zerubbabel represented the effective reestablishment of David’s line and (2) the promises made to Zerubbabel are clearly made to him as a typeand figure. That is, God is saying something to Zerubbabel in his particular and important moment of historical significance that went far beyond both him and his moment. To put it yet another way, it would be best to see Zerubbabel as a comma, not a period, as a door, not a final destination.

To the first point, Verhoef argues that “the vivid figure of the signet ring attested to the renewed election of the Davidic line, represented by Zerubbabel, the person in whom God had again invested the authority, promised to David and his dynasty. Thus, the historical governor of Judah is elevated to fulfill his God-appointed destiny within the context of the coming and imminent future dispensation.”[4]Bryan Beyer writes that “Zerubbabel’s connection with the line of David may have fueled messianic hopes in Judah.”[5]

This is so! Zerubbabel represented in his person and in his restoration the coming of a leader and a restoration compared to which he and his time were only a foreshadowing, a type. Warren Weirsbe summarizes it nicely when he writes:

            Zerubbabel’s ancestor, King Jehoichin (Coniah), had been rejected by God, but Zerubbabel was accepted by God…(Jer. 22:24, NKJV). God was reversing the judgment and renewing His promise that the Davidic line would not die out but would one day give the world a Savior.[6]

We know that Zerubbabel was a figure of the coming Savior for two reasons. First, Zerubbabel virtually disappears from the scene after Haggai’s references to him and, secondly, when his name does appear again, it is in two passages that are most telling. Here they are:

Matthew 1

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel,and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud…16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

Luke 3

23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24a the son of Matthat, the son of Levi…27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri

Zerubbabel is mentioned near the beginning of the first and third gospels and he is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Meaning, the restoration of Zerubbabel represented the restoration of the line through which Jesus would come: David’s line. God’s picking Zerubbabel back up as a signet ring meant that His Son could now be born as had been prophesied, in the lineage of David.

The implications of this are staggering! It means that the building of the temple is not the main point of the book of Haggai. And it means that the restoration of Zerubbabel is not the main point of the book of Haggai.

It means that Jesus is the point of the book of Haggai! It means that Jesus is the greater temple to whom the restored temple pointed. It means that Jesus is the greater King to whom the restored governor pointed.

Suddenly we understand: the call to rebuild the temple was a call for God’s people to enter into the bigger story of God’s plan of salvation. Their little part was part of God’s rescue mission for humanity. God will indeed shake the heavens and the earth. God will indeed bring the throne of the nations down. God will indeed set all things right. And He will do so through Jesus…and Jesus would come through the line of David, at least in so far as His earthly flesh was concerned.

Are you frustrated? Do you feel hopeless? Can you not understand what God is calling you to, what God is doing in your life? Then dare to trust! When you trust in Jesus Christ you enter a story that is bigger than you and you get to play a part in a story that is truly bigger than its parts!

That rubble at your feet is part of a great and grand drama of salvation! Pick up a stone and put it on top of another! Get back to what matters most! God is moving in the world! God has a plan! God knows exactly what God is doing!

God wants to use you!

“But,” you say, “all I have is this rubble, the rubble of my life.” Then bring that to God! Bring all of it! Bring it and say, “God, this is all I have: my own failures and my own rubble. But I now give it all to you. I trust in you. I believe in Jesus Christ. I trust in Jesus my temple, in Jesus my King, in Jesus, Lord of all.”

Yes, bring that to Him. Bring it, and watch Him work!

It is time to get back to what matters most!

 

[1]Kenneth Hoglund, “Haggai.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary. Gen. Ed., John H. Walton. Old Testament, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), p.199.

[2]John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.798.

[3]Warren Wiersbe, Be Heroic. (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 1997), p.80.

[4]Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi.The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p.147.

[5]Bryan E. Beyer, “Zerubbabel.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. in Chief, David Noel Freedman. Vol. 6, Si-Z (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 1085-1086.

[6]Warren Wiersbe, Be Heroic. (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 1997), p.80.

 

Haggai 2:10-19

Haggai 2

10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, 11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: 12 ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” 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. 15 Now then, consider from this day onward. Before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the Lord, 16 how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. 17 I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the Lord. 18 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: 19 Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.”

In G.R. Evans’ very interesting biography of John Wycliffe (the 14thcentury Christian who is sometimes called “The Morning Star of the Reformation”), she talks about the questions that common Christians had at that time about transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic belief that the substance of the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus in the eucharist. That is, while it still looks like bread and wine in its externals, its substance is “transubstantiated” into something new, the body and blood of Jesus. And this belief gave rise to some very interesting questions.

For some centuries people are known to have asked awkward common-sense questions [about transubstantiation], such as where the substance of the bread ‘went’; how the whole of Christ’s body could be contained in a wafer; or conversely, how all the wafers consecrated over the centuries were not much greater in quantity than the real body of Christ; or how Christ’s body could be ‘all there’ in one place, parish after parish, when a number of Eucharists were celebrated all at the same time; or what happened when a crumb fell to the ground and a mouse ate it.  (Was there some salvific effect upon the mouse?)[1]

That last question—would a mouse be saved if a crumb fell to the ground and the mouse ate it?—reveals some of the absurdities that a “magical” view of Christianity can bring about. We rightly chuckle at the idea that mere physical contact with the elements of the Lord’s Supper might have some saving effect on the soul. And, of course, we do not believe that the supper itself has saving properties. We believe, rather, that it points us to the Savior, Jesus, who alone saves.

But that kind of magical approach is more common than we think. If I step into a sanctuary, does that not make me holy? If I sing the hymns does that not make me a Christian? If I take the offering plate and put something in it does not that have some kind of effect on my soul? These are the “does the mouse get saved?” questions of modern Baptists.

This hope for some kind of magical, physical, talismanic relationship with God is as old as the Fall. In Haggai 2, we see that it was present also in Israel’s life. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps we should not be surprised that some began to think that their mere physical proximity to and work on the temple would render them right before God. Obviously some began feeling this because in Haggai 2:10-19 the Lord addresses this very issue.

It is easier for fallen humanity to infect than to heal.

Haggai 2:10-19 is, at first glance, a very odd text that seems to be asking very odd questions. To modern ears, that is certainly the case. Yet these initial odd questions are asked to get us to some very basic and fundamental spiritual realities.

10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, 11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: 12 ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.”

There are two questions here, one dealing with holiness and one dealing with uncleanness. The first is this: “If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?” The first question we might ask is why would somebody be carrying holy meat in the fold of his garment? The IVP Bible Background Commentary offers a helpful explanation.

The situation pictured here may have been quite common at this time. The altar had been rebuilt within a few years of the return (535), but the temple had not yet been built. This means that meat from the sacrifices could not be eaten in the regular temple precincts, as was the norm. Instead, the food would have to be transported to the eating place.[2]

Thus the question. Is the holiness of the sacrificial meat transferable through a garment to whatever the garment touches? And the answer is, “No.” In other words, holiness does not work like that. You cannot take a holy object, reduce it to a magical talisman, a magical object, and then go around rendering things holy by physical touch.

On the other hand, consider the second question: “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” Unholiness, uncleanness, can contaminate others.

While we are dealing here with ritual holiness and uncleanness, there is a powerful point to be made: it is easier for fallen humanity to infect than to heal.

Warren Wiersbe sums it up nicely when he writes of these verses that “you can transmit defilement from one thing or person to another, but you can’t transmit sanctity. The same principle applies in the area of health: you can transmit your sickness to healthy people and make them sick, but you can’t share your health with them.”[3]Ralph Smith agrees and summarizes it like this: “Holiness is not transferable…But impurity is transferable.”

The looming question over all of this is this: why would this point need to be made? And the answer is that it appears that many of the Jews who were rebuilding the temple had come to believe that their mere contact with and proximity to the holy and sacred temple made them holy, that just by virtue of their putting stones on top of one another and building the building they were having holiness and a right standing with God zapped magically into them!

Can a mouse become a Christian if he eats the Lord’s Supper?

Can an Israelite become a true child of God if he works on the temple?

Do you see how this works?

Ralph Smith writes:

Haggai seems to be saying that just restoring the temple building is not enough. The temple was no fetish. Its presence did not guarantee God’s blessings. Jeremiah in his temple sermon made it clear that the people’s right actions and attitudes brought security and blessing (Jer 7).[4]

It is a strange thing, but in this fallen world sin is more contagious than holiness.

Being right with God is a matter of internal transformation notexternal proximity.

Just as a garment carrying sacred food cannot render something holy simply by touching it, so too the Israelites were not rendered holy merely by virtue of their work on the temple.

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. 15 Now then, consider from this day onward. Before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the Lord, 16 how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten. When one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. 17 I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and with mildew and with hail, yet you did not turn to me, declares the Lord. 18 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: 19 Is the seed yet in the barn? Indeed, the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing. But from this day on I will bless you.”

It is possible to work on the temple of God, to be in close proximity to the holy, and yet be as unholy as you were before you started working, before you drew close. Why? Because proximity does not equal transformation. It is the changed heart that is rendered right! It is the redeemed heart that is saved!

Kenneth Hoglund, in commenting on our text, writes that “the point…is that other items do not become holy by contact with something that is consecrated; it takes an intentional action of devoting something to God to impart holiness.”[5]That is so. Israel needed that “intentional action of devoting [itself] to God.” So do we!

Again, Rex Mason summarizes this text thus:

It is a warning to the community engaged in the rebuilding that the mere presence of the temple would not automatically guarantee the holiness of the community. In the manner of the earlier prophets Haggai would be saying that repentance and a right way of life alone would invest the temple and its worship with true meaning.[6]

How is your heart? Are you truly walking with the Lord Jesus Christ or are you contenting               yourself with merely being around the things of God? Has the church become for you what the temple had obviously become for Israel, even in this stage of renewed rebuilding: a talisman, a supposed magical item nearness to which, you think, can render you right with God?

Hear the warning of Haggai! The mouse that eats the crumb is just a mouse eating a crumb! There is nothing magical there!

The Israelite piling stones on top of one another is just an Israelite piling stones!

The Baptist with his Bible might just be a lost person who owns a Bible!

Proximity is not transformation!

Taking the Lord’s Supper does not magically render you saved.

Going to church does not magically render you a child of God.

Singing the hymns does not mean that the truths you are singing have taken root in your heart.

Putting money in the plate does not mean you are carrying your cross.

Church, hear me: it is not enough to be near the things of God and it is not even enough to be busy with the things of God. We must be God’s child to be saved! We must be born again!

Some years ago Richard John Neuhaus reported on a fascinating and troubling statement by a church authority about people being reminded of their sinfulness at the Lord’s Supper table.

In the United Kingdom, a new Methodist Book of Worship has just appeared…Excluded is the “prayer of humble access” at Holy Communion, which begins, “We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord.” The liturgical committee thought the prayer was too “grovelly.” Said the Rev. Norman Wallwork, speaking for the committee, “An overriding element of the Eucharist is to be lifted up by the healing of God. We do not want people to be brought down at this holy moment and reminded they are a sinner.” Maybe he is making a point about the collective nature of sin, or maybe his grammar is as muddled as his theology.[7]

Ah! If there is anything about which we need to be reminded, it is that we are sinners in need of grace! That fact of the matter is we cannot be “lifted up” until we realize that we have been brought low by sin and shame. Without a deep awareness of the tragedy of the unredeemed heart we will fool ourselves into thinking that other things—crumbs, or wafers, or stones, or offerings—might just save us. But they never will! They never will!

What is better than building the temple? Serving the Lord of the temple! If you truly give Him your heart, you will serve Him. But if you seek to serve without giving Him your heart, you will trick yourself into thinking that you have something you do not have: an actual relationship.

Jesus Christ calls to us to come to Him. Do not confuse your service for your Savior or nearness for relationship. Bow the knee and heart to Jesus Christ, and you will live!

 

[1]G.R. Evans, John Wyclif: Myth and Reality(Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 2005), p.187.

[2]John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.797.

[3]Warren Wiersbe, Be Heroic. (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 1997), p.77.

[4]Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary. vol.32 (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1984), p.160-161.

[5]Kenneth Hoglund, “Haggai.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary. Gen. Ed., John H. Walton. Old Testament, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), p.197-198.

[6]Rex Mason, The Books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p.22.

[7]RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. June/July 1999.

 

Exodus 40

tabernaculoExodus 40

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “On the first day of the first month you shall erect the tabernacle of the tent of meeting. And you shall put in it the ark of the testimony, and you shall screen the ark with the veil. And you shall bring in the table and arrange it, and you shall bring in the lampstand and set up its lamps.And you shall put the golden altar for incense before the ark of the testimony, and set up the screen for the door of the tabernacle. You shall set the altar of burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and place the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. And you shall set up the court all around, and hang up the screen for the gate of the court. “Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy. 10 You shall also anoint the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and consecrate the altar, so that the altar may become most holy. 11 You shall also anoint the basin and its stand, and consecrate it. 12 Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water 13 and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest. 14 You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them,15 and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.” 16 This Moses did; according to all that the Lord commanded him, so he did. 17 In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected. 18 Moses erected the tabernacle. He laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars. 19 And he spread the tent over the tabernacle and put the covering of the tent over it, as the Lord had commanded Moses. 20 He took the testimony and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark and set the mercy seat above on the ark. 21 And he brought the ark into the tabernacle and set up the veil of the screen, and screened the ark of the testimony, as the Lord had commanded Moses. 22 He put the table in the tent of meeting, on the north side of the tabernacle, outside the veil, 23 and arranged the bread on it before the Lord, as the Lord had commanded Moses. 24 He put the lampstand in the tent of meeting, opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle, 25 and set up the lamps before the Lord, as the Lord had commanded Moses. 26 He put the golden altar in the tent of meeting before the veil, 27 and burned fragrant incense on it, as the Lord had commanded Moses. 28 He put in place the screen for the door of the tabernacle. 29 And he set the altar of burnt offering at the entrance of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and offered on it the burnt offering and the grain offering, as the Lord had commanded Moses.30 He set the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, 31 with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. 32 When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed, as the Lord commanded Moses. 33 And he erected the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. 37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.

David Seamands has quoted a “God-is-dead” theologian’s answer to a reporter’s question,“What do you mean by God?” “God?” the theologian answered, “God, to me, is that little inner voice that always says, ‘That’s not quite good enough.’”[1]

That is an interesting and sad definition, especially given the conclusion of the book of Exodus. The book of Exodus concludes with the children of Israel’s (and Moses’) obedience and God’s blessing of them in the aftermath. The point of the conclusion of Exodus, to be sure, is not the greatness of the people. It is the greatness and goodness of God. But we certainly do find here a beautiful picture of God living in relationship with His children and God’s pleasure at their obedience.

Indeed, we can live in a relationship with God that is situated high above such “That’s not quite good enough” scolding, and this is because of the grace and love of God toward us. The completion of the tabernacle and God’s response to this gives us a wonderful picture of that truth.

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Exodus 36:8-39:43

tabernaculoExodus 36:8 – 39:31

[the construction of the tabernacle]

Exodus 39:32-43

32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did. 33 Then they brought the tabernacle to Moses, the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 34 the covering of tanned rams’ skins and goatskins, and the veil of the screen; 35 the ark of the testimony with its poles and the mercy seat; 36 the table with all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 37 the lampstand of pure gold and its lamps with the lamps set and all its utensils, and the oil for the light; 38 the golden altar, the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance of the tent; 39 the bronze altar, and its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils; the basin and its stand; 40 the hangings of the court, its pillars, and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court, its cords, and its pegs; and all the utensils for the service of the tabernacle, for the tent of meeting; 41 the finely worked garments for ministering in the Holy Place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons for their service as priests. 42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

The word “obedience” has fallen onto hard times in the popular vocabulary of Evangelical Christianity. We prefer to talk instead of “spirituality” and “victory.” “Obedience” sounds so very puritanical to us, so oppressive. Yet, I suspect Dallas Willard was correct when, in his book The Great Commission, he wrote, “The missing note in evangelical life today is not in the first instance spiritualitybut rather obedience.”[1]And I suspectJerry Bridges was correct when, in his book The Pursuit of Holiness, he wrote, “God wants us to walk in obedience—not victory.”[2]

Obedience to the Lord is so very important, whether talk of such is popular or not. This is why Exodus 36-39 is so valuable. These chapters give us an amazing picture of what obedience looks like. These chapters are dominated by a long chronicle of the construction of the tabernacle in all of its various components. At the end of Exodus 39, in verses 32-43, the people have completed their work and the scriptures comment on the reaction of Moses and, indeed, of God Himself.

True obedience is obedience defined by the will of God.

We begin by observing the standard by which obedience is defined. Who determines the line over which “disobedience” happens and behind which “obedience” happens? The language of our text is telling.

32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did.

42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

This is a text filled with telling repetitions, as we will see. For our purposes here, note the following:

  • “according to all that the Lord had commanded” (v.32)
  • “according to all that the Lord had commanded” (v.42)
  • “as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it” (v.43)

Who establishes the line? The Lord does. “Right” and “wrong” are not defined by our whims or proclivities and wants. They are defined by the character and nature of God. Obedience is therefore always to the praise of God for it is in agreement with the heart of God. Perhaps this is why this particular text has echoes of Genesis 1-2 in it. Victor Hamilton explains:

A number of phrases in these last two chapters of Exodus recall similar phrases in the first two chapters of Genesis. Such parallels suggest some connection between God’s building his world, and Moses and the Israelites’ building the tabernacle. Here are four of those:

(1) “And God saw everything he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen. 1: 31) with “And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the LORD commanded, so they had done it” (Exod. 39: 43);

(2) “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished” (Gen. 2: 1) with “Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished” (Exod. 39: 32);

(3) “God finished his work which he had done” (Gen. 2: 2) with “So Moses finished the work” (Exod. 40: 33);

(4) “So God blessed the seventh day” (Gen. 2: 3) with “And Moses blessed them” (Exod. 39: 43).

We might also include the extensive use of the Hebrew word for “skilled labor” (mĕlākâ) throughout chaps. 25– 31 and 36– 39 with the use of the same word in Gen. 2: 2–3 to refer to the “work” from which God rests. Similarly, one may see a connection between the use of the verb “sanctify, consecrate” (qādaš, Piel) for what Moses is to do with the tabernacle’s sancta and the priests (40:9–13), and the use of this verb, again in the Piel, for what God does with the seventh day at creation (Gen. 2: 3). Many commentators have remarked on the Exod. 39–40 parallels with Gen. 1–2…[3]

We might say, then, that obedience is convergence with the creative heart of God insofar as obedience helps to shape our lives into that which we were originally created to be. Obedience is a Genesis 1-2 reality, a creative reality, an “It is good!” reality. Conversely, sin is destructive. Sin tears down. But obedience is constructive. Obedience builds and creates and transforms.

If true obedience is defined by the will of God, that means that we must know the will of God in order to be obedient. For this reason, immersion in the word of God and frequent communion with fellow believers in worship, ministry, and mission are extremely important. The community of God’s people helps us to obey as we gather in solidarity around divine truth.

True obedience is complete obedience.

There is another telling repetition in these verses.

32 Thus all the work of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting was finished, and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses; so they did.

42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

Observe:

  • “all the work” (v.32a)
  • “all that the Lord had commanded” (v.32b)
  • “all that the Lord had commanded” (v.42a)
  • “all the work” (v.42b)
  • “all the work” (v.43a)

All…all…all…all…all!Which instructions did Israel obey? All of them. Which part of the way did Israel travel in their obedience? All of the way. What portion of their efforts did they give? They gave their all!

Too often we pacify our own consciences with the thought that, while we may have disobeyed the Lord on thispoint we at least did not disappoint Him on thatpoint. We grade ourselves on a curve and we create the curve.

However, obedience to God is less like doing an average paint job as opposed to a great paint job than it is like an average life-saving surgery as opposed to a great life-changing surgery. Much is at stake!

One wonders if our inability to be perfect becomes a bulwark behind which we attempt to shield our intentional mediocrity and apathy. But we must remember that Jesus say we “therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The fact that we are saved by grace and not by works does not negate the need for or importance of obedience. As a child I learned to sing:

Trust and obey,

for there’s no other way,

to be happy in Jesus,

but to trust and obey.

May the “all’s” of our text be emblazoned on our hearts and minds. When we think, “How many commandments of God should I obey?” may we hear the cry of our text: “all…all…all…all…all!” And may this drive us not to despair and then to godlessness but rather to Jesus who is our all!

True obedience receives the blessing of God.

What is the result of obedience? Self-congratulatory plaudits? A trophy? Self-righteousness? No, on the contrary, it is the blessing of God Himself! God honors the obedient heart.

42 According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so the people of Israel had done all the work. 43 And Moses saw all the work, and behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, so had they done it. Then Moses blessed them.

This blessing from Moses is truly the blessing of God for Moses was simply the instrument through which God gave His commandment. The people were therefore obeying Moses only in a penultimate sense. Ultimately, they were obeying God.

Victor Hamilton says of this blessing:

Exodus 39:43 is the only occasion in Exodus in which Moses blesses anybody. It is doubtful if Moses honors Pharaoh’s request to Moses to bless him (12: 32). What a contrast between how Moses responds to Israel in chap. 32 and at the end of chap. 39! In chap. 32 he blasts them; here he blesses them. What he sees the people have done in chap. 32 incenses him; what he sees the people have done in chap. 39 inspires him.[4]

This is a crucial and important point. See the difference in the reaction to Israel’s sin before the golden calf and the reaction to their obedience in constructing the temple. The former brings judgment and grief. The latter brings blessings and joy. We see this likewise in the New Testament’s image of God saying to His children, “Well done, thy good and faithful servant!”

Dallas Willard is correct: we do not need “spirituality,” we need obedience. Jerry Bridges is correct: we do not need “victory,” we need obedience.

We need, in other words, an Exodus 39 moment, a moment of clarity and gratitude that gives way to joyful and exhaustive obedience. When this happens, the people of God enjoy the favor of God.

Even so, the cross of Jesus Christ is there to add a most important element. There is hope even for those who have been disobedient—and does this not describe us all?—for those who have failed time and time again. The cross of Christ reminds us that God Himself has made provision, through the death of His only begotten Son, to pay the price for our disobedience so that the repentant can be forgiven, can be restored, can be brought into the life of joyful obedience for which we were originally designed. The cross reminds us that while obedience is important, our salvation hinges ultimately on the obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us and who gave Himself for us. The cross reminds us that blood has been shed to save us from the terrible consequences of our disobedience and to draw us in to the glory of God’s mercy and love.

Read Exodus 36-39.

See and learn what true obedience looks like…and obey!

Strive to obey in all things!

Do not hedge your bets!

Do not play games!

This matters!

But know, if you fall, that the Lord Jesus is here…and that He loves you…and that He came so that your fall would not destroy you…and that, through Him, you can press on again, leaving behind death-bringing sin and pressing on in the life-giving grace and mercy of the God who made you for this!

 

[1]Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 44.

[2]Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), 22.

[3]Hamilton, Victor P. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 18993-19005). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4]Hamilton, Victor P. Kindle Locations 19005-19008.

 

Haggai 2:6-9

Haggai 2

6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 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. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. 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.’”  

Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who was standing outside of a store watching another man whittle little wooden dogs. This whittler was amazing at his craft. He would take a piece of wood and, methodically and without hesitation, whittle until he had a perfectly shaped little wooden dog that he would then give to bystanders. The man watching all of this was amazed. When the whittler stopped to take a break the man asked, “Tell me: how in the world do you do that?” The whittler paused for a moment, looked at the next piece of wood in his hands, and said, “Well, I take a piece of wood and then I get rid of every part of it that don’t look like a dog.”

I have heard versions of that story all of my life. The humor in it (and, if I might say, the profundity in it) rests in the fact that some people really do have the ability to see the hidden reality in a given situation instead of the situation itself. Most of us look at a piece of wood and say, “wood!” Artists look at the same piece and say, “dog!”

In Haggai 2:6-9, God teaches Israel this very lesson. They had now been working on rebuilding the temple for about a month. It was not going well. So they looked at it and said, “Unimpressive. Underwhelming. Incomplete.” But God looked at it and said something else.

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Exodus 36:1-7

Ff108270Exodus 36

1 “Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the Lord has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.” And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the Lord had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. And they received from Moses all the contribution that the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the craftsmen who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing, for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more.

In a May 2015 article in The Atlanticentitled, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving,” Sam Kean told the story of a man in Brazil who went from being stingy and miserly to being excessively generous. In fact, many believed he became toogenerous! What caused the change? Brain damage from a stroke, apparently. Here is what the article, in part, says:

In the early 1990s, a quiet man named João quit his job running the human-resources department of an insurance company in Rio de Janeiro and began selling french fries from a street cart. The fries quickly proved popular, in part because they were delicious—thin and crisp and golden. Even more enticing, João often served them up for free. All you had to do was ask, and he’d scoop some into a box, no charge. What money he did take in, he frequently gave away to children begging in the street or used to buy them sweets. Day after day, he came home to his wife and son without a single real in his pocket.

In his previous life, João—a chubby man with pointy ears and arched black eyebrows—had been stern and serious, prone to squirreling money away. But after suffering a health crisis in 1990, at age 49, he wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.” And nothing made him happier than giving. To those who didn’t know him well, he must have seemed like the embodiment of selflessness—the Saint Francis of Rio de Janeiro.

What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. Among other symptoms, he became a chronic insomniac and lost his sex drive; he started forgetting things and had trouble focusing; his movements slowed. And, his neurologist says, he became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy. (João died of kidney failure in 1999. His doctor provided only his first name, to protect the family’s privacy. )

We’ve long known that there’s a clear, consistent link between generosity and happiness: surveys done around the world, of many different societies, have found that giving produces high levels of satisfaction and well-being in the givers. What scientists didn’t have a good grasp of until recently were the neuroscientific roots of this feeling—why we get a boost from giving.

A decade ago, Jordan Grafman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University Medical School, investigated this link by putting volunteers in an fMRI machine and asking them to decide whether to donate to certain charities. Grafman and his team gathered data on which brain systems were most active during the process.

They had expected to see heightened activity in people’s frontal lobes, a part of the brain that helps with social reasoning and with weighing different courses of action—just the sorts of talents needed for this task. And the frontal lobes did, in fact, come to life on the fMRI scans. But Grafman was surprised to see the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits rev into high gear as well. “Our first impression,” Grafman says, “was that we might see some activation [in those circuits], just because usually when people give, they feel a little bit better. But we had no idea about the degree.”

Specifically, his team saw the brain’s mesolimbic system light up. This system forms a key part of the brain’s pleasure circuits, an archipelago of structures that stimulate the production of the chemical messenger dopamine, which makes us feel good. Neuroscientists usually associate activity in these circuits—which many other species also have—with hedonistic delights like food and sex. Grafman determined that giving money away excited these circuits even more than receiving money did. What your mother told you, then, is true: it is better to give than to receive. She probably just didn’t realize that, neurologically, giving is roughly on par with eating fudge or getting laid.

If giving feels so good, why don’t people do more of it? (One survey found, for example, that 85 percent of Americans donate less than 2 percent of their income to charity.) Part of the answer lies in the fact that other areas of the brain, like the frontal lobes, suppress the instinct for generosity at times. That sounds miserly of them, and maybe it is. But the frontal lobes help us see the bigger picture, and can alert us to the downsides of giving.

João’s case reveals what happens when the frontal lobes lose the ability to weigh in, allowing warm, fuzzy feelings to run amok. João’s doctor believes that his stroke severely damaged a structure called the medial forebrain bundle, a collection of neuron fibers near the base of the brain. To monitor other regions, the frontal lobes need to receive input from them, and that’s where the medial forebrain bundle comes in. Like an Internet trunk line, it pipes in data from all over the brain, allowing the frontal lobes to suppress, in the service of a larger goal, some of the urges that arise. (Your frontal lobes may, for instance, steer you away from that second slice of chocolate cake if you’re on a diet.) When parts of the bundle in João’s brain got destroyed, his frontal lobes lost the ability to control certain impulses—including, apparently, the impulse to give money away.[1]

“Pathologically generous.” Now there is a phrase! I am intrigued by this neuroscientific examination of generosity. It also makes me think that neuroscientists would likely also diagnose Israel as having had a corporate pathology of generosity on the basis of Exodus 36. In this chapter, the people of Israel literally give too much and have to be told to stop! Was it because their frontal lobes were not doing what they should? Or was it because they had had an overwhelming vision of the goodness and glory of God?

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Haggai 2:1-5

Haggai 2

1In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet: 2 “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, 3 ‘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? 4 Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. 

I do so love these pictures that float around online that show people trying, and failing spectacularly, to create the item pictured on the package! Many of these are food-related. Here, for instance, is a cookie monster cupcake as presented and as attempted:

1

I love the sarcastic “Nailed it!” And here is a Little Mermaid cake:

2

Whew! Not even close! And here is a bunny pancake and a pony cake:

3

4

But this one might be my favorite:

5

I laugh because pretty much anything I ever attempt runs into the same hilarious and frustrating problem.

There is a great distance between the “is” and the “ought,” no? We all know what it is to have our “Nailed it!” moment of disappointment. Israel did as well. Haggai 2 begins with Israel’s “Nailed it!” moment, their moment of sadness in the distance between the “is” and the “ought,” between the reality and expectation.

We must not be at peace with the distance between the “is” and the “ought.”

Israel heeded the call of God and returned to the task of rebuilding the temple. After a period of time, the Lord spoke to them about their work.

In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet: 2 “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, 3 ‘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?

Carol and Eric Meyers point out that “this date is toward the end of Tishri—that is, on October 17, 520…nearly a month would have passed since the people responded to Haggai’s initial call to work.”[1]This is significant for, after a month, while the project was still certainly in its beginning stages, the people would have had time to get a sense of the scope of the project, of how it was going in its initial stages, and to begin to form opinions of how the work was progressing.  For these reasons, the words of the Lord must have been devastating.

3 ‘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?

The note of disappointment is palpable. But why were those who remembered the former temple, the temple destroyed in 587 BC, disappointed? They were disappointed because they knew that this new temple would not be like the old. Verhoef explains:

The disappointment was…on account of the lack of suitable material and the absence of sacred objects, such as the ark of the covenant. The new temple, they realized, would never be like the old. They had no resources to pay skilled craftsmen from abroad as Solomon had done, and they could not begin to think of covering the interior with gold (1 K. 6:21, 22). In spite of the work already done, there was nothing to show for it.[2]

But there is something else. There is also the human tendency to romanticize the past. Ralph Smith makes the astute observation that “those who had seen the former temple would remember it through their eyes as children” and that “childhood memories of older adults are often fuzzy and sometimes exaggerated. These people might have remembered the former temple as greater and more splendid than it really was.” He concludes that this dynamic “could have added to their dejection when they saw the smallness of the new temple.”[3]

The interesting question is why God would point out the shabbiness of the current project in light of the temple’s former glory? Why would He do something that, in human terms and, perhaps, in modern terms, we would see as unduly critical and discouraging? I believe a couple of dynamics are at play here.

The first dynamic is that God did not want the people to grow accustomed to the distance between the “ought” and the “is,” between what the temple was in its state at that time and what it had been in its former glory. There is a human tendency to see “the perfect” as “the enemy of the good” and to grow accustomed to mediocrity since we can never be perfect. I believe that God is warning the people not to grow accustomed to mediocrity, not to settle. To do that, we must not be at peace with the distance between the “is” and the “ought.”

We can likely see this reality at play in Ezra 3 and the people’s reactions some years before when the foundation of the temple was initially laid after their return from exile. This is an uncomfortable passage. We would call it awkward. But watch the different reactions of the people.

10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.

Do you see? Many are thrilled at the laying of the foundation but those who knew what the temple used to begrieved at the distance between the “ought” and the “is.” It is good to lay the foundation! It is good to begin the work! But it is not enough. We must be driven by a desire to see the glory restored!

There is more happening here, as we will see, but I believe it is critically important for the modern church age to reclaim a sense of discontentment with the “is.” We must push toward the “ought.” We must not say, “Well I am a bit better than I was and I am certainly a lot better than that person!” No, we must desire to be more, to grow more, to look and sound ever more like Jesus Christ!

Have you grown dull in your efforts and content with mediocrity? Are you resting on your laurels, content with one step when there are a million more to go?

This will sound harsh in our day of “everybody gets a trophy.” It will sound too demanding. But Church, can we not look back at the glory of the early church and grieve that we do not have that kind of power, that kind of glory, that kind of influence, and that kind of world-transforming ministry? Is it not right for us to grieve at the distance between the “is” and the “ought.”

I do indeed celebrate small victories. We must! But we must never let the celebration of small victories cause us to lose our passion for bigger victories!

It is wonderful to see small victories…but let reach for great victories! Where there is progress, let us celebrate…but progress is not completion! Let us press on! Let us move forward!

But there is another reason why God raises the awkward point of the distance between their “is” and their “ought.” I believe He was not only trying to motivate the people to more, He was also trying to challenge the people not to despair!

But neither should we despair, for between the “is” and the “ought” is God’s gift of the “becoming.”

What the Lord says immediately after pointing out their limited success is crucially important.

4 Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.

“Yet now be strong.”

It is as if the Lord is saying, “I know how discouraging the distance between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ can be for you, especially to those of you who remember the temple in its former glory! But do not despair! Do not grieve yourself into inactivity! Be strong! I am with you! The glory will return! I am with you in the process of becoming!”

As a pastor, I have seen this dynamic in the local church. I once pastored a church in which a certain group of people seemed to be stuck in the past. They would speak of large youth trips that their large youth group took twenty years before, of large choirs that filled their choir loft years before. Their fixation on what waswas obvious. I wanted, at times, to yell aloud, “But what about now! What about the kids in the youth group now! What about our choir now! This is their moment! This is their time! Do not miss the beauty of the present because of constant comparison to the past. Join us in the journey of becoming instead of getting stuck in the story of what was.”

True, we must not become content with the “is,” but neither should it cause us to despair. This is why God moves on in our text to call the people to hope and to renewed effort.

Our text truly is an important text for congregations today.

To the young, the Lord says, “Do not grow content with comfortable mediocrity.”

To the old, the Lord says, “Do not get stuck in your memories of the past.”

To old and young alike the Lord says, “I am still here! I am right here! Get up! Get to work! Be strong! The God who brought glory in the old days is the God who is with you right now! I am here!”

Observe the empowerment of God and the obedience of man: “Work, for I am with you.”

We do not work in our own strength, but we do work.

We do not trust in our own obedience, but we do obey.

And as this happens, God’s gift of “becoming” happens. We begin to become what we ought to be. We begin to grow, to change, to move forward!

Christ never leaves His people in the “is.” He always moves in and through and among us to help us become what we ought. And the posture we must embrace in this becoming is therefore a posture of expectancy, a posture of hope, a posture of readiness.

“Fear not,” the Lord told Israel. There is more happening than what you see!

God is with us!

God is at work in and through us!

Let us work in the light of that promise!

 

[1]Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8. The Anchor Bible. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1987), p.49.

[2]Pieter A. Verhoef, The Books of Haggai and Malachi.The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p.97.

[3]Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary. vol.32 (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1984), p.157.

 

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom

91NsMDZz0JLBrandon O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom is a very interesting, extremely well-crafted, important, and immensely enjoyable consideration of religious liberty. It uses the 18th century Baptist pastor and religious-liberty advocate Isaac Backus as a case study for calling the reader to consider and reconsider the issue of religious liberty and the assumptions that have for too long undergirded the ensconced positions of the evangelical right. I hasten to add, however, that O’Brien’s telling of Backus’ story has neither the detachment nor the merely utilitarian air of a pure case-study. Backus’ amazing life certainly is not reduced to a simple means to an end in this work. This is indeed good history and a fascinating biography! But it is clearly intended to be a foundation off of which O’Brien assesses the current ecclesio-cultural landscape and the wider arguments surrounding the question of religious liberty.

After experiencing a powerful conversion, Backus and his mother join the Congregationalist church, essentially the established church, but soon become discontented with the low expectations of the church as symbolized most clearly in the “half-way covenant” and what they perceived to be the dullness and spirit of compromise in the church. Through a series of events, after first becoming a separatist pastor and after a long struggle over the question of infant baptism marked by consistent vascillations concerning his own view, he eventually became a convinced Baptist pastor. O’Brien notes that he, O’Brien, greatly appreciates the tenacious and rigorous process of free and principled thought that Backus evidenced in this transition even as O’Brien’s own journey has taken him in the opposite direction, that is, out of Baptist life and into Presbyterianism with its commitment to infant baptism. Thus, O’Brien has, at least at points, more of a paradigmatic appreciation for Backus than a desire for simple imitation. That, certainly, is a more than legitimate position to take. Many of us appreciate the principles and modus operandi of our heroes even if we end up in different places.

O’Brien applauds strongly Backus’ view of religious liberty. In essence, Backus was the man for his time. Baptists, along with Quakers, found themselves at loggerheads not only with the theological and ecclesial positions of the dominant Congregationalism of New England but also in a position that was fundamentally punitive, both culturally and monetarily, to their convictions. In Massachusetts all citizens had to pay the religious tax toward the livelihood of the Congregationalist clergy, be they themselves Congregationalists or not. Backus argued against this, not from a pecuniary standpoint but rather from the standpoint of principle (regardless of what some in the Continental Congress said to the contrary when Backus argued the Baptists’ case before them). For when separatists were forced, by law, to pay for the livelihoods of the establishment clergy and when, even worse, they were harassed and persecuted (i.e., imprisonment, property confiscation, harassment, etc.) for failing to do so, the state was forcing its citizens to violate their own consciences. I have, to be sure, just given a woefully inadequate summary of a much bigger story, but this book tells about the unfolding of that whole drama and its eventual resolution in the adoption of the general concept of religious freedom that we have today.

O’Brien tells the story well. He gives interesting anecdotes from Backus’ life (and the lives of others) that keeps the telling from become dry. I highlighted numerous passages that I found compelling and that I wanted to remember and ruminate on further. I was especially touched by O’Brien’s recounting of the Backus’ efforts to compile a large collection of grievances from those who had been oppressed for simply wanting to follow their own convictions in religious matters. O’Brien likened Backus’ efforts to the compilation of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I was particularly touched by Backus’ sincere investment in and outrage at the stories of injustices that were perpetrated upon those without a voice, by Backus’ fervent advocacy on behalf of the wronged parties, and by his righteous indignation at any insinuation that the claims were exaggerated or even outright lies.

Along the way, and against the backdrop of Backus’ story, O’Brien pushes against certain cherished assumptions of Evangelicals. He looks closely, with helpful evidence to fortify his assessments, at the assumption that America was “a Christian nation,” at the assumption that the modern conservative church is being “persecuted” (with a helpful consideration of what that word means and does not mean), and at the question of how Christians today who wish to argue for religious liberty should most effectively do so in the public square. In all of this, O’Brien is neither patronizing nor preachy. His style is irenic and honest. He clearly wants the modern reader to consider, against the backdrop of the development of religious freedom in 18th century America, what we mean when we say and think and assume certain things.

If I have any quibble, it is that I would have liked to see O’Brien flesh certain ideas out further. Take, for instance, the following statement:

To make any progress in debates and discussions about religious liberty, we have to figure out how to have the conversations in the lingua franca of the modern political system. This is especially true when the appeal for religious liberty today is perceived as a cover for misogyny, racism, or homophobia. Appeals to Scripture and the Christian tradition become shrill when the hearer doesn’t speak the language. In other words, original sin may be a helpful concept for understanding religious liberty within the family of faith. But the concept will likely come across as tone deaf in the broader culture. Advocating for our own religious liberty—and defending the rights of others— requires the mental agility to have the conversation differently with insiders and outsiders. (Kindle Locations 1454-1460)

One may grant the general point (I do) and yet still have real questions. Does the lingua franca necessarily exclude theological and biblical assertions, even granting the inherent limitations of making such assertions to those who do not hold to our a priori commitments to the validity of such, or are we only talking about the linguistic vehicles of these assertions? (I.e., Is it the mere recitation of scripture or the way in which it is employed in such situations that is the problem?) To what extent does the perception of “misogyny, racism, or homophobia” steer our methodology and can this be taken so far that the very epistemological foundations of our convictions are abandoned in our efforts to avoid these perceptions? Can we give away too much in our effort to conceptually connect and, in reality, do those efforts gain what we think they will? How does careful, intelligent, principled, and prophetic pushback against the system itself (upon which the assumptions undergirding the lingua franca is predicated and out of which it emanates) as Christians work with this approach?

The statement, “Appeals to Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition become shrill when the hearer doesn’t speak the language,” probably deserved more nuance. For instance, is that a de facto reality? Does O’Brien mean all “appeals to Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition,” regardless of how they are prefaced, explained, and nuanced themselves? In short (and again), is it not possible to give away too much in the noble desire to contextualize and speak the lingua franca?

Let me be clear: Brandon O’Brien knows all of this and I have no doubt would point out that these are questions that simply could not be pursued to great length in the book without it becoming a primary on apologetic methodology. And, knowing Brandon as I do, I have no doubt that his answers to these questions would be much more insightful and helpful than my own, thus my mild frustration at wishing he would have gone further in examining these ideas.

That being said, this is a fantastic book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I kept thinking that this would be a great tool to use in a small group setting to discuss the basic questions, “What is religious liberty? How, practically, does it work? What does it look like in 2018 America?”

O’Brien and his book would be a great guide through these important considerations.

Exodus 35:20-35

tabernaculoExodus 35

20 Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. 21 And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. 22 So they came, both men and women. All who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets, all sorts of gold objects, every man dedicating an offering of gold to the Lord. 23 And every one who possessed blue or purple or scarlet yarns or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or goatskins brought them. 24 Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. 25 And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. 26 All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. 27 And the leaders brought onyx stones and stones to be set, for the ephod and for the breastpiece, 28 and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. 29 All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. 30 Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. 34 And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. 35 He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.

For years I have heard people reference the 1987 film, “Babette’s Feast.” However, I have only recently watched it. It is a truly beautiful film that speaks of the power of love, of sacrificial giving, and of how such giving can bring healing and rejuvenation to an entire community of people. The Wikipedia summary of the story is quite well done:

The elderly and pious Protestant sisters Martine…and Philippa…live in a small village on the remote western coast of Jutland in 19th-century Denmark. Their father was a pastor who founded his own Pietistic conventicle. With their father now dead and the austere sect drawing no new converts, the aging sisters preside over a dwindling congregation of white-haired believers.

The story flashes back 49 years, showing the sisters in their youth. The beautiful girls have many suitors, but their father rejects them all, and indeed derides marriage…

Thirty-five years later, Babette Hersant…appears at their door…sisters cannot afford to take Babette in, but she offers to work for free. Babette serves as their cook for the next 14 years, producing an improved version of the bland meals typical of the abstemious nature of the congregation, and slowly gaining their respect. Her only link to her former life is a lottery ticket that a friend in Paris renews for her every year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris and her lost lifestyle, she decides to spend it preparing a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday. More than just a feast, the meal is an outpouring of Babette’s appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice; Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal.

The sisters accept both Babette’s meal and her offer to pay for the creation of a “real French dinner”. Babette arranges for her nephew to go to Paris and gather the supplies for the feast. The ingredients are plentiful, sumptuous and exotic, and their arrival causes much discussion among the villagers. As the various never-before-seen ingredients arrive, and preparations commence, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will become a sin of sensual luxury, if not some form of devilry. In a hasty conference, the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but to forgo speaking of any pleasure in it, and to make no mention of the food during the dinner.

…Although the other celebrants refuse to comment on the earthly pleasures of their meal, Babette’s gifts break down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.

The sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris. However, when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are aghast. Babette then reveals that she was formerly the head chef of the Café Anglais, and tells them that dinner for 12 there has a price of 10,000 francs. Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life”, to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.” Philippa then says: “But this is not the end, Babette. In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be” and then embraces her with tears in her eyes saying: “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”, which is precisely how the short story ends.[1]

Yes, there is great power in giving out of the overflow of one’s heart. Babette’s sacrifice in the form of a truly beautiful and delicious feast brought focus, healing, and a sense of revival to the little sect of people. There is a particularly poignant scene in which Babette, aware that she has won a great sum of money, stands by the ocean and obviously determines that she will give a great gift to this little group of austere Christians. Her heart is stirred to do so. Sacrificial giving can create love. Likewise, a community of love will give sacrificially.

We see this same reality in the latter half of Exodus 35. Here, the people rally and give out of their hearts. As a result, the community is focused, healed, and revived.

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Haggai 1:12-15

Haggai 1

12 Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord. 13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, “I am with you, declares the Lord.” 14 And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king.

One of the most interesting and moving books I’ve ever read is a biography of J. Heinrich Arnold entitled Homage to a Broken Man. Heinrich Arnold was the son of Eberhard Arnold, the founder of a Christian group called the Bruderhof. Heinrich Arnold would become a leader of the Bruderhof after his father died. It was a group that began with a strong dedication to what mattered most in life: radical commitment to Jesus Christ and an intention to live out the life of Christ in the most literal of ways. It was, of course, an imperfect community, but it was truly trying to follow Jesus. However, in time, as always seems to happen, conflicts entered the community. Clashes of personality and agendas, hurt feelings, ego trips, and the like entered the life of the Bruderhof. As a result, the community drifted away from what matters most. They drifted away from the original purity of the movement, from their original sense of calling.

In the midst of these conflicts, Heinrich Arnold became seriously ill. While preparing for death, he had a moment of clarity and a realization that he must say something, that he must call the Bruderhof back to what mattered most. Peter Mommsen, his grandson and the author of the biography, explains what happened.

On September 29, Heiner took another turn for the worse. Not only was organ after organ failing, but he was also short of oxygen and had difficulty breathing. In the afternoon Cyril came into his hut, visibly shaken. “There cannot be much more time left,” he said.

The nearness of death transformed Heiner. His spirits rallied as if preparing for a momentous event. And he was. Life was running out, and before it was gone he must accomplish his mission. This was no time for caution: from now on, every moment had to count; every thread of his life must be reexamined and brought together. Above all, every task that had ever been placed on his shoulders must be taken up one final time – and fulfilled.

One of these stood out above all the rest: the community’s restoration to its early vigor and health. God would certainly require him to account for this. So would his father. But how could the people in Primavera find their way back to it? In a sense, he knew the answer. He knew that all of them desperately needed personal renewal – himself as well. They needed to rediscover the joy of their first love. Nothing less would be enough to save them. But how could such a renewal come about?

Heiner asked for the community to gather and had himself carried out of his hut on a stretcher. “Brothers and sisters,” he began, “I am not worthy of speaking to you. But because this hour is critical, I want to beg you: Repent. Each of us bears a guilt for what has gone wrong; I know I do. But let us turn away from all this evil! Only remorse for the past can give us courage to face the future.”

Heiner grew short of breath as he spoke but pulled himself together: “We have a promise—‘Behold, I make all things new!’ Everything can become new! Let us return to the calling that brought us here in the first place. Let us change our lives and love one another so that everything can become new!”

As the meeting broke up, joy swept the gathering; many embraced and asked each other’s pardon. “This is the gospel—this is what we need now!” “I have grown callous and cold. Forgive me.” “I have been far too wrapped up in my work.”

Faces streamed with tears. Karl, who had been weeping openly throughout the meeting, was now so deeply moved that he fainted. The hope they had lost in the bleakness of the last months was returning with double strength. At last their course had been reset.

For the rest of that week, the community was in upheaval. People met to set relationships straight and to rid themselves of longstanding grudges. Heiner heard a dozen, and then at least a dozen more confessions. Faces were cheerful and frank, and eyes shone. Exhaustion vanished.[1]

I find this profoundly touching and moving. One person cries out above the conflicted community and calls them back to what matters most. The Spirit of God falls, the people repent, and they return to their original sense of community. I am particularly struck by the last two words describing what happened after the community repented: “Exhaustion vanished.”

Living life on your own terms is exhausting. Repentance and returning to God is refreshing.

I believe that the story of Heinrich Arnold and the Bruderhof at this point mirrors the story of Haggai and Israel in 520 B.C. And I believe they both mirror what happens whenever the people of God repent and return to a deep and sincere commitment to what matters most, to life in Jesus Christ.

Let us observe how this unfolded for Haggai and the people of God.

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