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Building for God in Difficult Days (3)

I Lewis, Aberdeen


A firm grasp of truth is a great preservative in serving the Lord. Those who allow God’s Word to settle firmly in the soul are grounded on an understanding of heavenly realities, and can therefore serve the Lord consistently. That is one of the many reasons the Bible emphasises the need for the mind to be informed with divine truth. In a summary verse dealing with the purpose of teaching in the local assembly Paul states that its aims are "edification, and exhortation, and comfort" (1 Cor 14.3). In commenting on some aspects of Haggai and Zechariah we have been learning lessons from the way God worked with His failing people to help them build for Him in difficult days. We have already seen how He challenged their consciences (exhortation) and warmed their hearts (comfort), but all of that was founded upon the informing of their minds (edification). God built truth into His discouraged and disobedient people to fortify their lives as they moved forward for Him. For the purposes of this article we will consider just three areas of truth emphasised in the ministry the prophets brought.

God Informs the Mind

1) Haggai 2.10-14: The Seriousness of Sin

Before Haggai is sent with the message that starts in 2.10 of the book, the Lord has already established the nation’s need of repentance (1.5), His willingness to be with them (1.13), and His promise to bless them (2.7). They had started to build again (1.14) and all seemed to be moving in the right direction. Was this really the time to send a reminder of their sin? Surely praise would more likely encourage further progress? But the Lord’s ways are not ours. Before we can appreciate the depths of His grace and respond correctly to His many encouragements we must learn and re-learn how serious sin is.

The narrative of 2.12-13 is unusual but instructive. In this section the priests, in their capacity as teachers of the law, are asked questions about uncleanness under the law. In 2.12 it is established that a piece of holy meat (sanctified for ceremonial activity) cannot transmit its holiness to other items by touch. On the other hand, in 2.13 it is established that ceremonial uncleanness is contagious. The principle is clear: sin taints everything it touches but holiness, alas, is not catching. In the application to the people in 2.14 the Lord takes them back to the sacrifices they offered whilst the Temple remained unbuilt. They were presenting sacrifices to the Lord all the time that His house lay "waste" (1.4). The message from God was that no amount of service in one area makes up for sin in another. Their refusal to rebuild tainted "every work of their hands", and certainly the bringing of offerings could never compensate for such disobedience.

The Lord told them all of this to drive home the message that sin is serious. God is ineffably holy and His Word utterly authoritative. Sin and disobedience to His Word always matter. We live in a day when those professing to belong to God constantly downplay these truths. Sometimes the blessings of our Christian position are used to minimise the seriousness of sin, as though the New Testament did not teach that we ought to "serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12.28-29). His authoritative Word is divided today into essentials and non-essentials as though we can pick and choose at will. When our Lord taught that there were indeed "weightier matters of the law" He also indicated that the lesser matters required equal obedience: "these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Mt 23.23). No part of His Word can be discarded as immaterial.

Saul learned this truth the hard way. In 1 Samuel 15 he declared that he had obeyed the voice of the Lord, only to be shown that his obedience was partial and failing and that no amount of sacrifice could make amends: "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Sam 15.22). What we might dismiss as a minor departure from God’s Word cost Saul the throne (15.23). The lesson is underlined: sin is always serious.

2) Zechariah 3: The Basis of Blessing

The book of Zechariah is really one long promise of blessing from the Lord to His people. The key lies at the front door as the names given in 1.1 convey the basic message of the book: the Lord remembers (Zechariah), the Lord will bless (Berechiah), at the appointed time (Iddo). The visions of chs. 1-6 start off in that vein with promises that Israel’s enemies will be scattered (1.21), the city of Jerusalem will overflow (2.4), and the Lord will dwell in the midst of His people (2.10). But the nation had to understand how it was possible for blessing to be bestowed on those so unworthy of it. Their sins had been exposed and their failures were clear, so how could such blessing follow? Chapter 3 of Zechariah, therefore, unfolds the basic principle of all blessing: they would be declared righteous by God Himself.

Paul’s diagnosis of Israel’s failure is that they tried to "establish their own righteousness" (Rom 10.3). Taking all their privileges, their divinely given law and having a "zeal for God" (Rom 10.2, JND) they tried to merit God’s favour, but the Old Testament records their sad, failing history. Zechariah 3 pictures the future justification of Israel, when they will be declared righteous by the Lord Himself and every promised blessing will be bestowed upon them. The truth of the chapter easily applies to believers today, as every blessing we have in Christ is based upon our justification.

The vision of Zechariah 3 opens with Joshua the high priest (representative of Israel) being accused by Satan (v.1) because he is clothed in filthy garments (v.3). Although his role was to act for God in holy things, because of his vile clothes he was unfit to serve. Then the Lord speaks: "Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment" (3.4).

When the Lord had finished with Joshua he had a fair mitre on his head (v.5) and was clothed in "pure vestments" (v.4, ESV). In other words, God Himself would provide a righteous standing for His people. Not their works but His will would facilitate blessing. Many principles of justification are found in this section but the most basic is that only God can give His people a right standing before Him. The gospel we preach is no different because "therein is the righteousness of God revealed" (Rom 1.17).

As we build for God and become conscious of failure it is vital to remember that our standing can never change and our future salvation can never be affected because our blessings in Christ are based on the justifying work of God. The hymn writer reminds us of the truth of the vision when he says, "I hear the accuser roar of ills that I have done; I know them all and thousands more; Jehovah findeth none" (S W Gandy). He has provided a standing for us upon which every blessing is based, a standing which no failure in His people can alter.

3) Zechariah 4: The Principles of Power

As high priest Joshua would have been concerned about the nation’s spiritual uncleanness, which explains his centrality to the vision of Zechariah 3. Being the leader in the Davidic kingly line, Zerubbabel would have been concerned about the nation’s moral weakness - hence his prominence in ch.4 which deals with power for testimony. How could he effectively lead such a small and insignificant people among so many enemies? How was it possible for a little company to be a testimony to the Lord? The vision of Zechariah 4 answers those questions and strengthens the people by unfolding the principles of power for divine testimony. Those principles remain today as small, weak companies of God’s people continue to stand for Him.

The vision of ch.4 is of a lampstand which is dependent upon olive trees for the supply of oil that keeps the lights burning. The central truth here is the source of the power needed for witness. Testimony is maintained "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts" (4.6). There were only 50,000 returned exiles, but God said it was not "might" (forces) that mattered. There was only one failing leader, but it was not the power of a man that mattered. Just as the lampstand was entirely dependent upon the oil supply, so the nation’s spiritual ability was dependent upon the Spirit of God. We live in a day when large numbers and dominant personalities are viewed as critical to Christian testimony. "Success" requires impressive attendance statistics and compelling leaders, with believers seeing their own value as somehow determined by which celebrity preacher they read, quote, follow and idolise. Against that backdrop it is encouraging to turn to the Bible and find in Zechariah 4 that it is God, not man, who enables a divine work. Amidst the programs and schedules that local assemblies construct in the service of God, it is good to be reminded that testimony for God is spiritual in character and must be spiritually maintained. All activity must be divinely empowered if it is to be of lasting value.



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