The New Testament employs the metaphor of building to convey what the church is and how it functions. One merely has to open their bible to the book of Ephesians to see a prime example of this. In this letter Paul speaks of how the church in Ephesus, and by extension all churches, are like a building which is built on a foundation (the teaching about Christ) with an immovable cornerstone (Christ himself) as the unifying factor giving stability and direction. This building rises up from the ground and becomes a place where the presence of God, through his Spirit, really and truly lives: in other words, it becomes a “holy temple”. Furthermore, Paul explains how God gives leaders in the church who are tasked with building up the believers into unity in faith and a deeper knowledge and maturity in Christ.
We could also flip back a few pages to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and read again this language of building, stones, and foundations. Here Paul warns pastors and church leaders to build carefully because not all foundations are created equal. There is a way for your ministry to crumble into a pile of rubble, while your own life and salvation barely escapes the catastrophe. Paul explains that this happens because church leaders follow the instruction and blueprints of the current “wisdom” of the age. This is folly and God will expose it.
There are other New Testament passages which use the building metaphor, but it is also instructive to dig around in the Old Testament and find the foundation or backdrop to this language. One place where we can do some digging is in the prophecy of Haggai, who lived and ministered among the exiles who had returned to the Promised Land. The Babylonians had destroyed Solomon’s majestic temple and left the land in ruins and rubble.
Faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding their lives, their nation, and God’s temple, the returned exiles were quickly discouraged. They looked at the impossible and decided to focus instead on the possible. They saw the unimposing temple foundation already laid in the time of Ezra, thought of the opposition and sacrifice it cost, and decided to get busy with building their own houses. They reminisced about the former beauty and size of the old temple, and concluded that nothing they built could compare. They knew God’s prior instruction to build the temple, doubted his promise of blessing, and delayed obedience.
For this believing remnant of Israelites, it was easier to leave the impossible task of temple-building for a later time, and to concentrate on getting themselves established in the land. They would build their houses, plow the earth, plant the crops, and prune the trees. These were all necessary actions and even God-glorifying. The problem was that these tasks were done to the neglect of the task God had given them. They were attempting to rebuild their nation using the world’s blueprint: me first and in my time. And so, God sent Haggai to shake things up and remind the people of his blueprint.
God’s blueprint was one that seemed impossible and perhaps even foolish. Were they really to risk life and limb to build an unimpressive temple? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until a time of peace and prosperity to restart the building project? God’s answer through his prophet was this: “No, it would not be better to wait. No, the world’s blueprint will not work and in fact you can already see the evidence: your crops are failing just like your plans!”
Haggai insists that the people reconsider both their building methods and their building projects. God’s blueprint is only impossible for those who decide to build without God. With God no building project is impossible and no work is in vain.
Haggai does not only bring rebuke, but also encouragement. For those who obey God and seek to follow his blueprint, God will be with them. His Spirit will move among them and replace their fear with conviction. The same Spirit who can make dry bones come to life, can take rough stones and build something glorious.
At this decisive historical moment, God’s people believed God’s message and set to work. Following the blueprint set forth by God, they built and completed the temple. They sought first the kingdom of God and made his plans and purposes of first priority. They are an example for us to follow today.
And what about us today? Our church building work is different in nature than the temple building of Haggai’s time, but the substance and blueprint remain the same. We have been instructed by God to build up his “holy temple” of redeemed sinners into something glorious. If you’ve looked at the pile of blackened, crumbly stones with whom God has chosen to build, it will seem an impossible task. Can these stones really amount to anything notable or praiseworthy? Are we really to risk life and limb to build an unimpressive church? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until a time of peace and prosperity to take on the more difficult building projects? Isn’t the rejected rubble of this age or of that place too far gone to be included in the building?
Haggai gives us a good foundation from which to answer these questions. Give careful thought to your ways. Obey God’s good instruction. Do not fear. Be strong. God is among you. Glory will come.
A greater prophet than Haggai also came to his people with a Word from God. He not only gave instruction and reminded the people of God’s blueprint, but he gave himself up to be the cornerstone of the building. He gives unity and purpose to the building. He promises that no stone is irredeemable if it is firmly cemented upon the true cornerstone. He gave his Spirit to chisel off the edges and smooth out the stones. Through his instruction he lays out the blueprint and at his return he will bring about the construction project to a glorious conclusion.
May we build on this rock and cornerstone and not neglect the task before us.