This is the fifth message in a series on the Book of Haggai.
On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests for a ruling: If one carries consecrated meat in the fold of one’s garment, and with the fold touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy? The priests answered, ‘No.’Then Haggai said, ‘If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ The priests answered, ‘Yes, it becomes unclean.’ Haggai then said, So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. But now, consider what will come to pass from this day on. Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, 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. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord. Consider from this day on, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid, consider: Is there any seed left in the barn? Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing? From this day on I will bless you (Hag 2:10-19).
The Lord peels the hearts of his people like an onion.
He penetrated their work-hardened, smooth, materialistic exteriors in the heat of August with questions. “Why are you working so hard with so little to show for it? Is it not because you are putting your interests ahead of the Lord’s?” (Hag 1:3-11, my paraphrase).
They responded by returning to their mission of rebuilding the temple at harvest time in September and the Lord encouraged them and told them, “I am with you.” (Hag 1:13).
He wasn’t done peeling them, and in October, as their reconstruction of the temple faltered in critical comparison to the glories of Solomon’s temple, the Lord asked the people, Why do you cling to the past instead of trusting the Lord for your present and future? (Hag 2:1-9, my paraphrase).
Now in the cold of December, the Lord strips away layers deep in the soul with this question, “Is it your work and sacrifices that bring you blessing, or is it your repentance and obedience to my word?” (Hag 2:10-19, my paraphrase).
There is nothing more uncomfortable than this peeling and stripping away of all the defenses, aspirations, conceits, vanities, illusions, resentments and fears with which we layer ourselves against pain and death. The problem is that our self-protection cannot distinguish between friend and foe. Its weight slows us and turns us inward, even as our fears drive us to keep moving and adding more layers as we exhaust ourselves.
Tet, there is nothing more necessary than this peeling and stripping away of self. However much it exposes us and makes us vulnerable, the Lord must have his way with us or we will die, crushed beneath a load of guilt and shame that we haven’t done enough, won’t ever do enough, but can’t stop the doing even though it is sucking the life out of us.
It matters not whether the doing is the evil pursuit of our own appetites or our heroic struggles to achieve the good. If the focus is self-fulfillment, self-destruction, self-protection, self-improvement, self-righteousness, self-reliance, self-actualization, self-motivation, self-revelation, self-denial, self-discovery, self-promotion, self-acceptance, self-enlightenment or self-you-fill-in-the-blank, it is all selfish. Good, bad or indifferent the self must die.
The cross of Jesus Christ is the ultimate stripping down to the core truth of our existence which is that our sole legitimate claim is that we have a God who made us, saves us and lives for us. The Apostle Paul succinctly sets out this truth:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me . . . You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory (Gal 2:19-20; Col 3:3-4).
Every other claim we assert to the possession of anyone or anything is false. When we come through the cross all that we are left with is Christ who says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25).
It was five hundred years before Christ would appear on earth with this new life, but the Lord was preparing the way through Haggai. The Lord was reviving and restoring his people even as they restored his temple. He had to get them to see that the blessing of life is found in God alone, not in their performance.
So the Lord speaks a hard truth through Haggai. “You can wear holiness on your sleeve and try to touch everything with it, but it is not going to rub off” (Hag 2:11-12). Only the Lord is holy and holiness is solely derived from his presence. Things and places aren’t inherently holy. We can be made holy by the Lord’s presence in our hearts, but we are incapable in and through ourselves of making anything holy.
On the other hand, our sins do rub off on others. It doesn’t matter that our activities are well-intentioned and sacrificial. If they do not originate with God or follow his instructions to us, they are sin. As Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18:20).
Everything we touch in the pride of legalistic achievement, or in the fulfillment of our lusts and appetites will contaminate those around us with selfishness. If we insist on our own way rather than the Lord’s, we will defile and be defiled (Hag 2:13-14).
As I have noted before in this series, the people that Haggai was addressing were upstanding citizens, hardworking, devoted to their homes, faithful in attendance at the temple, but their activities were motivated by a sense of dutiful compliance, not the heart-felt, mind-convicted response of gratitude that is the mark of true obedience.
Our sovereign Lord won’t settle for dutiful compliance. Even when we think that there are no more layers to be peeled off of us, he keeps going because he wants our hearts.
Only the obedience of a repentant heart will satisfy God. A repentant heart is possessed by a man or woman who chooses to face God and what God wants instead of turning away and moving on his or her own impulses or vacillating between the way of the Spirit and the way of the flesh. David prayed for such a heart as we must because it won’t come naturally to our sinful natures–
Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to
revere your name.
Dutiful religious compliance will take life, it won’t give it. Ever since they had returned from exile, the remnant people of Judah had only received half of the expected yield from their plantings. Their crops had suffered disease, mildew and hail and they were barely getting by despite their hard work. “‘Yet you did not return to me,’says the Lord” (Hag 2:17). Their human solution was to work harder, but they had received even less for their efforts.
Then the Lord called them back to their calling for him and they obeyed. From that moment the blessing of prosperity began. The simple truth is that the Lord blesses us for doing what he calls us to do, but if we pursue our own ends we are on our own and in a world scourged with sin, the odds against our success are prohibitive.
The blessing begins with the obedience. The Lord doesn’t wait until the conclusion of the work. The seed was still in the barn at the time of the promise, but the harvest was assured (Hag 2:18-19).
I have lived my life among religious people, Christian people. Many times have I heard, “I have served the Lord faithfully, said my prayers, paid my tithes and offerings, kept the commandments, attended church, sent my children to church school, worked hard, practiced clean living, so how come my business is failing, I have cancer, my spouse has left me and my children are in trouble? Why does God let this happen” or words to that effect uttered with pitiful sorrow and often bitterness.
These are tough questions, but they reflect the spiritual error of confusing the means with the end. “You did not return to me,” is the Lord’s crisp judgment. The things we do–good things, religious things, virtuous things–are only things. At best, they are expressions of a life, but are not the life itself. Prosperity, health, and family are gifts of the Lord, but when they come to represent the Lord to us, we are just indulging in a burnished version of the ultimate selfish question, “What’s in it for me?”
The Lord responds, “This isn’t about you. Unless you are with me, body, mind, soul and spirit, you are lost. If I, alone, am not enough for you, nothing and no one else ever will be.” This is the breakpoint where worshipers separate from idolaters and the obedient leave behind the merely compliant to enter full citizenship in the kingdom of God with all its benefits.
Mere belief will not bring us into that kingdom-life, any more than dutiful compliance will. What is required of us is a total concentration and reliance upon God as our hope and salvation. The respected Welsh preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote–
This total concentration on God, is essential. You may say, “I’ve always believed in God. Isn’t that enough?” People have often told me, “I’ve always believed in God. I’ve always said my prayers.” And yet they are full of troubles and problems and defeat because mere belief in God is of no value. “The devils also believe, and tremble,” says James 2:19. God must become the supreme focus of your life. He must be the one object of your desire and of your ambition (Seeking the face of God: Nine Reflections on the Psalms [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005]
I was fortunate as a teenager to find this truth by contemplating the words of an old hymn, Is Your All on the Altar. I arranged it as an accompanist for a friend who sang it beautifully on many occasions. The chorus carries the message–
Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid?
Your heart does the Spirit control?
You can only be blest,
and have peace and sweet rest,
as you yield Him your body and soul.
– Elisha A. Hoffman
Sitting at the piano, tracing the words with the notes, I was convicted that the Lord demanded everything from me and provided everything for me. That’s when I began to fall into a deeper love with the God of grace and that’s why the Book of Haggai reads like a love letter to me.
I have been false to that love at times and have certainly pursued my own ends to exhaustion and diminishing returns, but over time I’ve learned that it is a mistake to think of the words to Is Your All on the Altar as a mere altar call. They are a rule for living.
We cannot have rest or the Lord’s complete blessing unless and until we lay everything that we have and all that we are on the altar before him, and (this is the part too often missed) leave it there and never pick it back up. This is the message of Haggai pointing to the truth of the cross and the power of the resurrection.
Next time in the final message of the series, I will discuss the assurance of our salvation revealed through Haggai.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Hansen are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
Kent Hansen is a Christian attorney, author and speaker. He practices corporate law and is the managing attorney of the firm of Clayson, Mann, Yaeger & Hansen in Corona, California. Kent also serves as the general counsel of Loma Linda University and Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Finding God’s grace revealed in the ordinary experiences of life, spiritual renewal in Christ and prayer are Kent’s passions. He has written two books, Grace at 30,000 Feet and Other Unexpected Places published by Review & Herald in 2002 and Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press in spring 2007. Many of his stories and essays about God’s encompassing love have been published in magazines and journals. Kent is often found on the hiking trails of the southern California mountains, following major league baseball, playing the piano or writing his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday” that is read by men and women from Alaska to Zimbabwe.