Haggai 1:4-6 (ESV) says, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”
Sadly, this passage is one of the many taken out of context and misused by well-meaning pastors. It is quoted most often in sermons on tithing, telling people that they must give more to church or God will not bless the works of their hands. This is done by equating the local church with the Old Covenant temple. It is this assumption that causes the problem.
Yes, the passage does command building a temple. Yes, the people were to bring in their tithes (the portion of their wealth owed to the upkeep of God’s worship). However, equating the temple with the local church facility twists scripture. The Old Testament temple was never meant as a picture of the local church (by this word I mean the building). The Old Testament temple was a picture of Christ. The temple was symbolic of his body. This is why he said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I’ll raise it up.” (John 2:19 ESV)
Understanding the temple was symbolic of the physical body of Christ—and his dual role as King and High Priest—helps us to better understand how to apply the words of Haggai, today. In Haggai’s day the people had decided it was time to concentrate on their own wealth, homes and farms, but was not yet time to build the temple, the House of God. I’m certain they assured themselves that once they were financially secure there would be time to build the temple and restore the worship of YHWH. God points out to them that without his blessing their efforts to provide for themselves were futile. Their best efforts would reap substandard results unless God worked on their behalf. This blessing was tied to their priorities. Haggai commands them to reevaluate their priorities and put God and His worship above their own drive for prosperity and security. They were to look to God for these.
How does this look today? While this is not a command to build a local church building, there is something to this passage about building the Church. But first we need to see the New Testament equivalent to the command of Haggai. We see this in Matthew 6:31-33 (ESV), “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Just as they were to place a priority on building the temple, we are to place a priority on building the Kingdom of God. So, how do we build the Kingdom?
We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in morals, so the world is attracted. We build the Kingdom by obeying Christ in reaching the lost, so the world is transformed. We build the Kingdom by standing for righteousness in the face of the world’s onslaught. We build the Kingdom by being the very hands of Christ ministering to the physical needs of those around us. These are our priority and meeting our physical needs comes after these. Obedience to Haggai is found in obedience to Matthew 6:31-33. But does this have nothing to do with the local church?
The local church (the body, not the building) is the physical manifestation of the body of Christ in a local community. This means building up the local church, if it is a true church manifesting Christ to the world, is a major part of building the Kingdom. Actually, the lion’s share of our Kingdom building will be done in the local church—and should be. But to make Haggai into a command to tithe or to build a nice church facility is like painting the Mona Lisa but stopping with her nose.