Rebuilding the New Temple
Challenging the tithe superstition
In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: "These people say, `The time has not yet come for the LORD's house to be built.'"
Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: "Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?" Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it."
This is what the LORD Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored," says the LORD. "You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?" declares the LORD Almighty. "Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands." Haggai 1:1-11
Here's a little background to this passage: The Israelites were in Babylonian exile. As had been prophesied by Isaiah 150 years earlier, Cyrus (aka Darius the Mede) conquered Babylon and subsequently ordered that the temple be rebuilt (he was clearly impressed with Isaiah's prophecy about him). So, after the 70 years of exile, about 50,000 Israelites went back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. However, the current inhabitants started opposing the construction project and through an impressive lobbying effort had the construction project ruled illegal ("I'm sorry, this area is no longer zoned for Temples"). The Israelites presumed that it must not be God's timing for the temple to be built, and stopped work on the Temple, instead concentrating on their own homes and personal lives. This brings us to the opening prophecy of Haggai.
This passage has haunted me for many weeks, especially after listening to an exposition on the passage about how God deals with His people, which brought new light to my reading of it. Normally I have heard this passage taught with regard to finances and tithing, with the point being that if you tithe faithfully to your church, you will not be in want. However, as I have meditated on the Haggai passage, I am not certain that this is the proper application.
The passage had actually been rumbling around in my brain for several months prior to hearing this message. We had just relocated, purchased a home, and were deeply involved in home improvement projects. We had a big hole in our checkbook that went directly to Home Depot. As you can guess, I could relate somewhat to the passage, even though we were not putting in any paneling and hadn't been called to build a Temple. Or had we?
In context, this story is about God's people giving up on a very clear prophecy, rationalizing that because things were not going smoothly, God was not blessing them. They presumed, not that the prophecy was wrong, but that instead, their timing may just be off. I think that is a reasonable response, by human standards. I think most of us would admit that this is how we generally would think things through in this day and age (I've been on enough church leadership teams to recognize this thinking). However, God was saying to the people, "hey, I told you to build the temple, I gave you the money you needed to build it, and here you are, competing for Architectural Digest's home of the year."
God was saying that they had no business pursuing their own goals while His goals were being ignored. I do not know whether or not the Israelites were using what God had provided to build their own homes (I suspect not), or whether or not the practice of tithing had stopped. Haggai 2:14 would imply that this in fact continued, as God told Haggai "everything they do and everything they offer is defiled."
So what has the Haggai 1 passage to do with tithing? In context, it would not seem "not much." But, let's take a look at how it does relate.
God's plan, obviously, was that the Temple should be rebuilt. After all, this was prophesied before Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the original temple. It is interesting to note, and I think pertinent to this discussion, that this is the same Temple that Jesus visited with his disciples when He chastised them for being too impressed with it (Luke Chapter 21), prophesying that the Temple would be soon completely destroyed.
It is my hunch that the Temple was important for a number of reasons, one of which being that the Temple was a symbol of what God was going to improve upon in the New Covenant. In other words, the Temple stood for something - it was the dwelling place of God. It was not going to be the permanent dwelling place, however. Jeremiah had prophesied the replacement of the Old Covenant with the New, with a rebuilding of an eternal Jerusalem. Joel prophesied God pouring out His Spirit on all flesh, of God dwelling in His people.
So what is going on? God was building for Himself a place to dwell among His people that would be a temporary solution, but would also point to the permanent solution. God would build a temple that would last forever, and He would eventually build it out of His people. That, in essence, is the New Covenant. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 3:16, "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" Peter says (1 Peter 2:5) that we are living stones, built into a spiritual house. So, we, the people of God, are the new temple, the dwelling place of God.
How, then, do we relate to the Haggai prophecy today? Is tithing the answer to our financial woes, or is God saying something else here?
I think God is saying a couple of things. First, the general principle seems to be put God's vision first, and the provision for all our needs will fall into place (ref. Matthew 6:33); if we ignore God's vision, put priority on our own desires, and no matter how hard we try, we will always be in want, even if we tithe.
But more specifically, what this passage says to me is that in these last days, God is still trying to build His Temple; His vision hasn't changed. However, instead of a brick & mortar structure, He is constructing a spiritual building made from people-stones. In other words, God is building a community in which He will live. He doesn't want to just indwell a pile of loose stones and rubble. I think if we can make any specific application of the Haggai prophecy today, it is that we need to overcome whatever obstacles we face and make community a priority over our focus on self.
How this works out in a practical sense is something we need to consider. Relating this to the topic of the tithe, which has either correctly or incorrectly been tied to the Haggai passage, makes for an interesting analysis. For example, there are many people who routinely write out their 10% (gross, of course) tithe checks to their local church, and go on their way feeling that they are doing their part to "build the temple." But is this necessarily true? Does this get them "off the hook" as it were, with regard to Haggai's warning? In reference to Haggai 2:14, it would seem that if our focus is still self (i.e. a tithing based on legalism), our tithe/offerings are possibly defiled, and therefore of benefit to no one.
Let's take a look at what many churches do with their tithe income. Most of the money often goes to taking care of their buildings, whether through mortgages or rent, and maintenance. Is this the same as building the Temple? No, as God no longer indwells buildings. A church building and the Temple are apples and oranges, in my thinking. Other common expenses are staff salaries, programs, materials, missions, etc. I am not saying that these might not be good things - they may or may not be.
But, how much of the church's income goes to the actual development of community? If a church's focus is in getting people to one of four Sunday morning services where people spend perhaps 90 minutes and then go to do their own thing, I'd say very little goes to actually constructing the community where God wants to dwell. Some churches, conversely, do very well in facilitating true community.
If we say (I am guessing) that perhaps 10-20% of the average church's expenses go toward the facilitating of actual community, that means that of your personal income you are giving perhaps 1 to 2% toward community, presuming you don't take affirmative action on your own to facilitate community. We have to ask ourselves, then, is this a valid way to use our tithe, in light of the Haggai passage?
Could God be saying to us, "you are living the American dream at home and at church, but my house is still in ruin?" I believe that God is saying that He has given us resources with the intent that we use them to build a community that He can indwell. Good stewardship of those resources may or may not mean tithing to your local church. Rebuilding God's Temple may mean having your neighbors over for dinner, housing home fellowships, paying to have someone's car repaired, or feeding the poor. It may mean a lot of things that I haven't even thought of. Some of what it means may be rather uncomfortable to our way of life, and outside of what we have been taught regarding how we are to "give back to God." It may mean breaking the tithing "superstition" and being personally responsible for spending what God has given us, rather than turning it over to an institution. It may mean supporting your local church, and doing these other things.
I think that how you give and how you live has to be an issue between you and God as you follow how you believe God is leading you. It also is a community issue, and we need to challenge each other to grab hold of God's vision and make that a priority. As with the building of the physical Temple, we can expect opposition and hard work. God did not drop the Temple from the sky or make obedience a piece of cake, and He probably won't instantly change the American lifestyle to make Christian community accessible or even acceptable. But, God's promise is to bless the building of His Temple, if we press through.
Just remember, God doesn't live in a building anymore - He lives in your friends and neighbors and even in the homeless - or will live there eventually as you bring those people into the community of God.
Copyright © 2001 Alden Swan, All Rights Reserved. Reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, is expressly forbidden without prior written permission.