What Does God Need with a Temple? (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Exodus 33:1-17
John 14:8-11
Haggai 1:12-15

So I am a big fan of Star Trek, but only the original series.  As many of you know, many years after the original series was aired a number of movies were made.  Some good, and one that was really bad.  My introduction today actually comes from Star Trek V, which is probably one of the worst movies of all time.  The plot works like this - a fanatical religious cult leader uses his mind control powers to gain control of the starship Enterprise to take it beyond some sort of energy barrier where the land of Eden is believed to be located.  While on the Eden planet, they find a powerful being who purports to be god and demands they provide him with the starship Enterprise so he can traverse the energy barrier.  It is as this moment that Captain Kirk issues one of the all time great lines in movie history.  “Excuse me!  I would just like to ask a question.  What does God need with a starship?”  

Before I look at how Captain Kirk’s question relates to Haggai, let’s recap a bit.   In our passage today, we discover that Haggai’s pleas to rebuild the temple have worked and the people together with their political and religious leaders have begun work on the temple.  However, I want to ask a very basic question that almost seems too obvious.  To paraphrase, Captain Kirk, what does God need with a temple? 

The temple is central to the whole book of Haggai.  As we have seen in chapter one, Haggai urges the people to build the Temple .  In chapter two Haggai will continue to encourage them when they begin to slack off.  Haggai will then deliver a message about ritual purity which is important because the temple’s holiness must be protected.  However, why is it so important to Haggai that the people build the temple?

The answer is not as obvious as you might think.  When David brings up the idea of building a temple in 2 Samuel 7, it is presented entirely as an initiative of King David.  God never asks or commands that a temple be built.   Furthermore, let me also read a passage from Isaiah 66, “Thus says the Lord, Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool, what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?”  In this verse, God seems to mock the whole concept of a temple as a place that would somehow contain His presence.  Nor is the only place where the whole project of a temple seems questionable, Jeremiah and other prophets had spent a lot of time devaluing the temple because of the improper attitude the people and the kings of Israel had toward the temple believing God would spare them from conquest and disaster since doing so would destroy His temple.  It turns out God does not mind so much having the Babylonians destroy the temple, and Ezekiel provides a vivid description of the spirit of the Lord leaving the temple and departing from Jerusalem before its destruction by the Babylonians.  In Ezekiel 11 God tells the people that although they have been taken to Babylon He will continue to be as a temple to them.  

So if the Temple was an initiative of David, used as propaganda by the kings and as a talisman by the people, the whole concept God mocks in Isaiah, and His presence has departed from in Ezekiel and then operated as a temple for the people while they were in Babylon, what is the point of the temple?  In fact, there seems to be almost an anti-temple thread that runs through the Old Testament. So why is it so important that the people build this temple?  

See what I mean, it as not so obvious an question as you might would have thought.   However, I want to suggest three ways to answers this question of why in Haggai the temple needs to be built.  Furthermore, I think you will find that each of these three answers is relevant to our own life and how we relate to the presence of God.  

To answer this question, first I want us to look at our reading from Exodus that records a curious debate between God and Moses.  This event occurs right after the incident involving the golden calf.  If you remember Moses had just met with God on top of Mt Sinai and had been given the ten commandments. one of which forbade constructing any physical representation of God.  The people had taken all their gold that they had plundered from Egypt and built a calf, which was a sacred animal in Egypt, and worshipped it as God.  

At this point God enters into an interesting conversation with Moses, the point of which is to allow Moses to intercede for the people and to arrive at an understanding of what God’s plan is really all about.  God tells Moses that He will still bring the people to Canaan because He had promised this to Abraham.  However, although assured of success, God says that He Himself will not go up to Canaan among them, instead God would send His angel before them.  Furthermore, God would not meet with the people except through Moses in the tent of meeting which was outside the camp.  In other words, God would not meet them in the tabernacle that would contain God’s presence and that would have been located in the midst of the people.  

Moses knows the arrangement is not tenable or consistent with God’s character.  So Moses asks how will anyone know that they are God’s people?  “Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”  As I said, God is instructing Moses to intercede for the people and so though God is arguing, He is really leading Moses to the answer.  In education we call this the Socratic method.  God agrees with Moses statement and concludes their discussion by agreeing to do exactly as Moses suggests.  God will dwell in the midst of the people and will go with them.  He will not be relegated outside the camp and it will not be the angel of the Lord who goes before them.  At this point God renews His covenant with His people and then gives instructions for the building of the tabernacle, the precursor of the temple and the place where God’s glory and presence will reside.  

You see what Moses understands is that we cannot be the people of God and keep God outside the camp.   We cannot receive the promises of God if God is not in our midst.  The plan of God is for Him to be our God and we to be His people and that plan demands God’s presence.   You see that is what the people that Haggai is ministering to have missed.  They have forgotten that it is God going with them that makes them distinct.  The temple is a sign of the closeness of God.  They were not bad or evil people.  Remember that most of the Israelites stayed in Babylon.  The ones that returned were the true believers.  However, it was just easy for them as it is easy for us to become consumed by our daily lives, concerned about paneled houses and to hold God at arm’s length.   The temple with the presence of God will not let them have a God they hold at arms length.  The temple will not let them reduce their relationship to God to one that is merely spiritual.  

We do this just as much as these ancient Israelites.   Functionally we act as deists.  Deism is a view of God held by many early American thinkers that believes that God created the universe but once He had done so it He just let it run according to natural law no longer acting or interceding.  While many of us would reject this view as non-Biblical, we approach our lives as if this is what we believed, acknowledging God’s existence and secure in a belief that He has created the universe but content to act as though He is no longer intervening.  We believe God did some cool things a long time ago and we believe God will eventually do some cool things again but right now God is in heaven and we are here.  He has His world and we have our world.  We have practically banished God outside the camp.  It is not that we do not acknowledge Him or respect Him.  Instead we take the lessons and teachings of the Bible and relegate them to the spiritual realm and live as though Christianity is about a separate world from the one we actually live in.   That is what I mean by saying we are functionally deist.  I believe this is essentially how the community of believers that Haggai is ministering to are acting.  The temple is Haggai’s attempt to shatter this system of though, not because God needs a temple to be worshipped or to act, but because the people need to understand that if He is their God and they are His people, then He is present, and cannot be ignored or relegated away to the spiritual realm.  

It is true that God is transcendent but what the temple teaches us, and what the incarnation of Jesus teaches us, and what the Holy Spirit teaches us is that God is also immanent.  God refuses to be banished to the world of mere spirituality.  God demands to be here in the midst of His creation with His people because for God the key to His plan is the phrase repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament - I will be your God and you will be my people.  That means a real relationship where God lives with us, experiences what we experience, feels what we feel, and suffers what we suffer.  

Nor is this a concept that is found only in the Old Testament buried in obscure books like Haggai.  When we enter into the community of God’s people, when we become part of the church, it is not through a pronouncement of words but through a physical symbol in which actual real, physical water is applied.  When Jesus gathers His disciples to explain what His coming death means, Jesus does not give them an abstract, spiritualized theology, Jesus gives them a meal.  So when we gather to experience the mystery of Christ and Christ crucified we eat real bread and drink real wine.  

Like baptism and communion, the Temple is physical and this is important for another reason.  Not only does God interact and work in the world, God is a creator God.  God created this world, the physical, material world of soil and trees, of animals and rivers and mountains.  In the ancient world a temple was considered a small model of the universe illustrating to the people the beauty and splendor of the reign of the god who inhabited the temple.  A temple was very much a model to help the people understand the true nature of this world - to visualize God ruling over His creation.  

All the promises God made to Israel were about real land and real prosperity.  We all have all heard a variation of the story about pirates or some sort of adventurers looking for treasure and the story concludes with them coming to the realization that the real treasure was in their hearts and inside them all along.   I hated that story when I was kid, it was such a letdown, and here is the thing - it is not the Christian story.  The Christian story does have an immaterial, spiritual disembodied ending.  Because resurrection and restoration is not a spiritual escape but a very real, physical, material renewal.

As a model not only does the temple represent creation it is also the blueprint of what creation is becoming.  The temple is future oriented showing the workings of God and His creation in harmonious completion.   The temple functions as a downpayment and a plan and an aspiration of a world united and perfected by the presence of God.  For the Israelites, the temple would point to the future and would leave no question as to the goal and purpose of God’s plan for His people.  The Israelites were to be a part of something bigger than the harvests, eating, drinking, clothing, wages, and paneled houses that so concern them in Haggai.   

So the temple is a picture of hope.  As Chris so eloquently stated in a sermon a few months ago, hope is not mere optimism or a solution.  Hope is a mystery and a absurdity that challenges accepted opinion and says that the world does not have to be this way.   It is about a God who is faithful despite our faithlessness.  A God who vetoes our faithlessness.  

For us who share like the Israelites the urge to see God as something remote out there in the sky far away.  For us who like the Israelites have the tendency to segregate God to a couple of hours one day a week and focus on the stresses and demands of the more immediate, how do we break out?

The answer is found in verse 13.  Look at it with me and listen to the language and you will hear the importance, “Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, ‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord.  This verse is the central teaching of Haggai.  Haggai’s whole message to the people is summed up in four words, two in Hebrew.  I AM WITH YOU.  It is God’s presence that the temple is all about.  “Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct.”  

If you will notice in verse 14, God is referred to as the Lord of Hosts.  Haggai constantly uses this phrase “Lord of Hosts” to describe God.  You find God referred to as the Lord of Hosts in verse 2, 5, 7, and 9.  I am always going on and on about the importance of repetition in Hebrew.  So what is the significance of describing God as the Lord of hosts?  

The hosts are the angels.  Hosts can be thought of as a multitude implying a great number of angels, but more concretely it has a militaristic sense as if the angels are soldiers of an army.  It would almost be a better translation to use the phrase Lord of armies.  The metaphor for God described by the phrase ,”Lord of hosts” is of a conquering king leading His armies into battle.  Haggai uses this phrase because He wants the people to understand that God is not distant but near and active.  In fact, Haggai wants us to understand God is leading the host and they are preparing for an invasion.

The return of God to the temple to establish His rule, to right the wrongs of the world, to end the reign of the powerful who use their might and wealth to oppress was the very heart of what the Israelites awaited when they were at last freed from exile.  What Haggai is telling the people is  God is on the move and when He comes it will be as a conquering king leading an invasion that will make the glory of Assyria, and Babylon, and Persia look as nothing.  So God is not distant but present and with His people.  

Of course we know the rest of the story that it is in Jesus that we see the perfect presence and image of God.  Jesus who says that he who has seen me has seen the father.  Hebrews says Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature.  Jesus is everything the temple pointed to who breaks in from heaven and begins the invasion.  This invasion in no spiritual one but a real invasion where God’s presence comes as a baby who cries because He has is dependent on His mother for food, who gets dirty, who is hungry, and thirsty and tires.  He is crucified on a real wooden cross with real nails.  The temple, the incarnation, Jesus what they represent is a God that will not be pushed out and who is not a disinterested transcendental remote force off in the sky somewhere.  A God who comes to us with one, simple central message “I AM WITH YOU.”  That is why God needs a temple.