Putting First Things First (Haggai 1:1-15)
Some folks have their priorities precisely in order. Take, for example, the farmer who placed this ad in a New Mexico newspaper: “Farmer with 16- irrigated acres wants marriage-minded woman with tractor. When replying, please show picture of tractor.”
He had his priorities in order, but do we? If we’re attempting to decide whether to buy a new wardrobe or to give more to the church, what priorities are going to determine our choice? If we’re debating whether to take our children to the movies or to read to them from Scripture, what priorities are going to help us choose? If we’re trying to decide whether we want some recreation or whether we’re going to go talk to our neighbor about his soul, what priorities are we going to choose?
Our text this morning is about people who had trouble with their priorities.
Some fifty thousand folks returned to Judea following the Babylonian Captivity. Others returned under Ezra (458 BC) and Nehemiah (455 BC). Cyrus appointed Sheshbazzar governor of Judea, gave him some articles, and told him to take those articles and to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:14-16). Under Jeshua and Zerubbabel, the altar and sacrifices were re-established, but the “foundation of the LORD’s temple had not yet been laid” (Ezra 3:1-6). The temple’s foundation had not yet been laid because the people faced many discouragements. They faced opposition, and some who remembered the former temple’s glory were disappointed at the way the new temple looked. The people became so discouraged that they soon stopped the construction.
That’s the situation in which Haggai prophesied. Because the people had lost their priorities, Haggai exhorts them to put first things first. As Haggai exhorts these people to get their priorities right, he tells us the type of people to whom he prophesied.
A Procrastinating People, v 2
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come for the LORD’s house to be built.”’”
In essence, the people were saying, “It’s just not the right time to continue building the temple. Let’s wait, and then the time will be right.” How many times do we put off doing what we know is the right thing? How many say, “One of these days I’m going to be baptized into Christ,” although they know their life is but a vapor? How many say, “I know I need to speak to my friend about his soul, but the time just isn’t right?” How many say, “I’m going to teach a Bible class one of these days, but I’m just so busy right now?” How many say, “I’m going to apologize for that wrong, but today just isn’t the right day?”
Scripture has much to say about procrastination. Immediately before healing a blind man, Jesus told his disciples, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (Jn 9:4). In other words, we need to do what we can when we can. We’re not always going to have the opportunity to be baptized, we not always going to have that friend to speak to him about his soul, we’re not always going to have the health to teach that Bible class, and we’re not always going to have that relationship to mend.
Hebrews 3:12-15. Notice that twice in that passage, the author tells us to act “Today.” Are we ready to act this very day without another moment’s procrastination?
Archias, the magistrate of Thebes, was sitting with many mighty men drinking wine. A messenger came in bringing him a letter, informing him of a conspiracy against his life and warning him to flee. Archias took the letter, but instead of opening it, put it into his pocket and said to the messenger who brought it, “Business tomorrow.”
The next day he died. Before he opened the letter, the government was captured. When he read the letter, it was simply too late.
Are we going to wait until it’s too late to act?
A Paneled People, vv 3-4
The Lord then said to Haggai, “Is it time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
The Hebrew word for “paneled” can mean “covered,” “roofed,” or “paneled.” However, we understand the Hebrew word, the meaning of the text remains: The people had put the finishing touches on their homes, but they neglected the house of the Lord. They put themselves and their own desires in front of the Lord’s work.
Do we put ourselves and our own desires in front of the Lord’s work? We know that we are to sacrifice for the cause of Christ. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26-27). “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).
However, sometimes do we act more like the Jews in Haggai’s time than the disciples which Jesus desires? When we give to the work of the church, do we sacrifice, or do we live in luxury while we allow the Lord’s work to suffer? When it’s time to worship on Sunday evenings, do we come to honor the Lord, or do we stay home and watch our big-screen TV? When the elders announce a need for Sunday school teachers, do we rise to the challenge, or do we stay in our comfort zone with our friends in the class we enjoy? Are we willing to sacrifice for the cause of Christ, or do we seek our own comfort?
A Punished People, vv 5-11
The Lord continually punished the Jews in Haggai’s day because they did not put first things first. They planted, but had little harvest; they ate, but never had enough; they clothed themselves, but were unable to keep warm; and they earned wages, but they soon lost their money. In the next several verses, God made it abundantly clear that they were punished for their sins. What the people had the Lord blew away because his house stood in ruins while the people were busy with the own houses. Because of the people’s sins, God sent a drought upon them.
God does not punish arbitrarily. God is just: “Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth” (Rom 2:2). In other words, God always does that which is right. He wasn’t punishing the Jews just to be punishing, but he was punishing them for their sins. We know that God doesn’t punish arbitrarily today but that his judgment is based on truth.
God continues to punish those who don’t put first things first. “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows” (Lk 12:47). In other words, if you know you’re supposed to put first things first and you don’t, the punishment’s going to be severe.
In context, why was the rich man in the narrative of the rich man and Lazarus condemned (Lk 16:19-31)? Was it not precisely because he didn’t put first things first? Lazarus lay at his gate needing to be fed, and the rich man was only concerned with his own luxury and aid no attention to Lazarus?
Will God punish us because we fail to put first things first? Are we going to be more concerned with our needs and desires than the needs of those around us? If so, God will be far from pleased. Are we going to be more concerned with our own needs and desires than with the work of the Lord? If so, the Lord will be far from pleased. Will the Lord punish you because you fail to put first things first?
A Productive People, vv 12-15
The people “obeyed the voice of the LORD their God.” Is there anything greater that could be said of the people—that they obeyed the voice of the Lord?
Do you obey the voice of the Lord? You know that we’ve been instructed to obey the Lord. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men!’” (Acts 5:29).
Do you obey the voice of the Lord? When it comes to the forsaking of the assembly, do you obey the voice of the Lord? When it comes to your recreation, do you obey the voice of the Lord? When it comes to your family life, do you obey the voice of the Lord? When it comes to your work life, do you obey the voice of the Lord? When it comes to your prayer life, do you obey the voice of the Lord?
The people came and began working on the house of the LORD Almighty, their God.
Because of Haggai’s preaching, the temple was constructed in a short period of time. For sixteen years, the people had done absolutely nothing on the temple, but four years after Haggai began his ministry, the temple was completed. The people became productive.
Are we going to be productive? There are souls to be won in this community. Are we going to rise to the challenge and see that they’re taught? There are bereaved who need to be comforted. Are we going to rise to the challenge and comfort them? There are sick who need a ride to the doctor. Are we going to rise to the challenge and see that they get that ride? There are folks who are hurting and who need a sympathetic ear. Are we gong to be that sympathetic ear?
With the British encamped at Germantown, George Washington held one of his inevitable councils of war. General Anthony Wayne was all for attacking without delay, but most of the other officers sat around the table offering innumerable excuses for holding back. When all the dissenting votes were in, Washington turned to Wayne, sitting quietly in a corner, reading a book. “What would you say, General?” Washington asked. Wayne slammed the book shut, then rose slowly to his feet, glaring defiance at the group of distinguished officers, “I’d say nothing, Sir. I’d fight.”
What are we gong to do? Are we going to talk a good talk, or are we going to act?
In verse 13, the Lord provides this promise, “I am with you.” No wonder they were able to complete the temple in just four years!
If God is with us, we will be able to accomplish much! You know that God is with us. Jesus directly said such in the Great Commission. Matthew records: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20). I’m not so certain, however, that Jesus’ promise there is unconditional—he had just told the disciples to go into all the world. Had they failed to go into all the world, I doubt seriously that God would have been with them. I doubt seriously that if we fail to do the Lord’s work that God will be with us!
Think of what’s entailed in that promise! When I go to talk with someone about his soul, Jesus goes with me. When I go to comfort a brother or sister in pain, Jesus goes with me. When I enter that classroom of 20 4-year-olds, Jesus enters that classroom with me.
Are we going to be a productive people?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.