A Consolation When Our Work Seems Small
June 9, 2024

A Consolation When Our Work Seems Small

Passage: Haggai 2:1-9

Background: The Fall of the First Temple

This afternoon, we’ll once again open our Bibles to the book of the prophet Haggai. As I mentioned last week, Haggai was sent by God to the people of Israel. God had established a unique relationship with Jews, called a covenant. They would be His people, and He would be their God. And one of Israel’s kings built a stunning temple for worshipping the LORD who was in their midst. But within a few generations, the Jews turned away from God and committed grave injustices against him. And God decided, judicially, to penalize his people for their wickedness. He gave the Jews over to foreign armies. The temple was destroyed. And the people were either scattered or killed.

Several decades after all this, a remnant of the Jews returned to their homeland with the hope of rebuilding. But many of these Jews became distracted with their personal priorities and ambitions, and the temple of God was left in ruins. As we saw last week, though, it’s at this point that God sent Haggai to the Jews, to help them get their priorities back on track. And God uses Haggai to stir these people up to restore the temple, and to renew their devotion.

We’ll be picking up in Haggai, chapter 2. I’ll be reading verses 1 through 9. Haggai 2, verses 1 through 9. Before I read our text, let’s pray and ask for the Lord’s help.

[Pray and Read Text]

The Temple in Jerusalem and the Church of Christ

The book of Haggai speaks about the rebuilding of a physical, historical temple in Jerusalem. And the instructions and promises given here really apply to this physical building project that was started in 520 BC. But these instructions and promises are also pointing to something else. God’s work in human history to decree the construction of this physical temple in the days of Haggai – it was done to foreshadow the building up of a greater temple – a greater dwelling place for God that was yet to come.

It’s actually not uncommon in the Old Testament for God to use real, historical events to foreshadow greater spiritual truths and events coming in the future. When the Jews were rescued from their slavery in Egypt, it foreshadowed our rescue from our bondage to sin. The Passover lamb foreshadowed the blood of Jesus that would be shed to shield us from death. The rise of King David from Bethlehem to save the people from their enemies – pointed ahead to another king born in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ, who would win even greater victories. There are many more examples like this.

And the Biblical writers themselves affirm that Old Testament events and signs point to Christ and have ongoing usefulness for us. As Romans 15:4 says, “For whatever was written in former days (in the Bible) was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Likewise, 1 Corinthians 10, verse 11 says, “Now these things (referring to historical events from the Old Testament – these things) happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

So what’s this “something else” that Haggai’s temple-building project was anticipating? What was it pointing to? Multiple passages in the New Testament suggest that it was pointing to the building up of the Church. 1 Peter 2:5 tells Christians, “You yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.” Similarly, the end of Ephesians 2 says that in Christ, “the whole structure [of the Church], being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. [And] In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 3 urges the members of the Church to take care how they build, and reminds them that they, the Church, are a temple of God. So I’m convinced that the book of Haggai is relevant for Christians today. It encourages us to build up the Church – to bring together and build up human hearts for the worship of God.

The section of Haggai we’re looking at today – it divides into three sections. First, verses 1 to 3 reflect on the seeming smallness of our obedience. But second, verses 4 and 5 point out the strength God provides. And finally, verses 6 through 9 anticipate the splendor of God’s house. I’ll unpack the text under these three points: The seeming smallness of our obedience, the strength God provides, and the splendor of God’s house.

The Smallness of Our Obedience

So first, the seeming smallness of our obedience.

Here at the beginning of Chapter 2, the people have been working diligently on building the temple for about a month. The end of chapter 1 tells us that they started on the 24th day of the 6th month. And the word of the LORD comes to Haggai here on the 21st day of the 7th month. We don’t know exactly what the temple looked like one month in – but you can imagine that the people had just gotten started placing stones, and laying timbers.

And as the initial excitement of this new project begins to wear off, these people begin to notice that this thing that they’re building doesn’t look all that impressive. All they can see with their eyes is a dusty construction site – bits and pieces of the foundation, maybe; a couple low walls. This project isn’t nearly as flashy and fabulous as they thought it would be. And the old-timers who remembered the original temple – they could tell that this new one wasn’t going to look nearly as glorious. Their materials were simpler and less attractive. They couldn’t overlay everything with 45,000 lbs of gold like King Solomon had done with the first temple. They didn’t have an abundance of precious stones, ivory, and bronze to decorate and embellish. In comparison to the first temple, their temple seemed so small. So unimpressive.

And the LORD understood their distress. In verse 3, the Lord asks the people, “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?” God is aware what the temple looks like. It looks like nothing in the eyes of the people.

From a human perspective, it’s quite common for our obedience to God to look like it’s producing nothing. Your prayers may feel dull and weak. When you try to bring up heartfelt spiritual conversations with others, the results might be disappointing. Your daily Bible reading may not bring the sudden, visible growth you were hoping for. You might spend all day, struggling to turn from your lust, anxiety, disbelief, or other temptations, and to turn in faith toward Christ. But when you wake up the next morning, you’re back to square one! Your work looks like it has accomplished nothing.

In those moments, it can be tempting to think that obedience isn’t worth it. The Jews perhaps worried – if our work looks like nothing in our eyes, it must look even less significant to God. Perhaps after all this effort, God won’t approve of what we’ve done. Maybe he’ll point out all the imperfections in our work, all our shortcomings. And it’ll all be meaningless.

But in addition to this inward doubts, the Jews were facing external challenges, as well. Another part of the Bible, Ezra chapter 6, tells us that local officials from the Persian government were putting pressure on people who were rebuilding, trying to collect the identities of the people in charge. It was intimidating. The people were forced to consider – is this little temple thing – is it really worth it? Am I determined to obey God here, even if it puts me in trouble with the government? Even if it costs me my job, my home, my family, my life?

The Strength God Provides

But God speaks to the people in the midst of their feelings of doubt and deficiency, to strengthen them. And this is my second point – the strength God provides. In verse 4, God says, “Yet now be strong…” He says this three times, to Zerubbabel the governor, to Jehozadak the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people. “BE STRONG.” But the idea behind this phrase isn’t just, “have bigger muscles.” It’s not talking about that type of strength. Instead, God is urging the people to be strong in their resolve – to be strengthened in their determination to see this good work through to completion. He’s calling them to prevail over their doubts and disappointments and to work – as he says at the end of verse 4 – to work for I am with you.

You’ll notice here, God isn’t pushing them toward self-reliance, or self-empowerment. He isn’t saying, “Be strong, because you have more hidden potential than you know! Work, because you can do anything if you put your mind to it!” No, God tells them to be strong and work because He is with them. He’s teaching them to trust in him, to depend on him, to find their strength in him.

Yet you have to remember here – God’s presence isn’t something the people can see. What they see is a city that has no temple. What they see is an unfinished building project that’s exceptionally mediocre. What they see is one another – ordinary people, with their ordinary shortcomings, doing ordinary work. But God insists that there’s a reality at work that they can’t seeHe’s present. He will help them.

And this means that the presence of God doesn’t depend on the beauty of the temple, or the perfect performance of the people. But in verse 5, God confirms that his presence is tied instead to something far more stable – his promise: his covenant. Though the people have often wandered from God, he has never wandered away from them, from the day that he first rescued them from Egypt to the present. And this is the foundation that God wants the confidence of His people to be built on. They can continue to find strength, to endure in their work, and to do all things without fear because of this unseen reality: that God is with them.

The Splendor of God’s House

But there’s another unseen reality that God wants to point them to in verses 6 through 9. He speaks to them about a reality that is yet to come. He makes promises about the future splendor of the temple. This is my third point: The splendor of God’s house.

And I want to remind you, though God’s promises here really apply to the future glory of this physical temple – the symbolic fulfillment of these promises for the physical temple underscores the certainty that God will fulfill these same promises with regards to the spiritual temple of the Church.

So let’s consider, for a moment, how the promises made here are fulfilled with reference to the physical temple. First, in verses 6 and 7, God promises to shake the world – to shake the nations. The world will be subjected to earthquakes and wars and geopolitical upheaval. The Persian empire will fall. The Greek empire will rise, and then fall before the Romans. And in the midst of this, God promises that the “treasures, or the desired things, of the nations will come in.” A simple reading of the text, then, suggests that the wealth of the nations will be brought into the temple to expand and adorn it.

And history tells us that this temple was, in fact, mostly funded by the wealth of foreign nations – first, by the Persian king Darius in Ezra 6. And then hundreds of years later, by the Roman official Herod, when he poured resources into a massive project to expand and restore the temple. And as a result, the splendor of the second temple physically rivaled that of the first temple built by Solomon.

Also, in verse 7, God promises, “I will fill this house with glory.” And this temple is literally the temple, that Jesus Christ walks into during his earthly ministry. The divine Son in human flesh enters into this physical building. And the glory Jesus brings and the peace he proclaims is greater than anything the people had in the days of Solomon.

Yet the truer and greater fulfillment of these promises relate to the spiritual temple of God’s assembled people, the Church. Though the Church has still been established, the church is still growing – still being built up – and we’re still waiting for the ultimate fulfillment of these promises. Sometimes the work seems to go slowly. Sometimes our service in the church looks like nothing to our eyes. But the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost confirms to us the same reality that God spoke about in the days of Haggai, “I am with you, declares the Lord of Hosts… My Spirit remains in your midst.”

And God has further encouragement for us in these promises, here. He declares that he will shake the earth, the heavens, the land, the sea – the kingdoms of this world will ultimately be shaken and overthrown. But Hebrews 12 reminds us that the shaking of the nations won’t destroy our future prospects because we’re receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Instead, the shaking will be for the enrichment and establishment of the Church. And the treasures of the nations that will come in to expand and adorn the temple won’t just be polished gold and silver, but will be people­ from every ethnicity, language, and country.

And though our little church in Mount Pleasant may seem ordinary to us, from what our eyes currently see, God has promised that he himself will fill the temple with glory. The people of God will be glorified, with new immortal bodies, with the unfading beauty of holiness and righteousness – with unspeakable peace – all will be well! Because this is what God has promised, not just to those laboring in the days of Haggai, but really and truly to us.

The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former. The former temples were majestic pieces of incredible architecture, emptied of all things unclean and defiled, shining with the purest gold. And yet these physical buildings were just symbols and signs. They were intentionally temporary. But the permanent, perfect glory that we’re waiting for will arrive when Christ comes to His Church, to render her totally pure, to dwell in her midst, to fill her with visible, eternal glory, and to give her everlasting peace. This is what our work is contributing to. This is our hope. So let’s take hold of these promises and continue to labor, even when our work seems small. Please pray with me: