The Bible describes a series of mass deportations after the empire of Babylon conquered Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. Great numbers of Israelites were taken to Babylon from about 600 BC and especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. But Babylon had its own problems, and when it was conquered in 538, the Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed Jews in Babylon to return to Israel.
Several books of the Bible describe what happened when they returned. One of those books is Haggai. In chapter two of the book of Haggai, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Haggai telling him to ask the people who returned this question: “Does anyone remember this house – this Temple – in its former splendor? How, in comparison, does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all!” (Haggai 2:3).
The decades had not been good to the Temple. Foreign occupiers had profaned what wasn’t destroyed in the initial conquest. Jews who remembered Solomon’s Temple could only shake their heads and weep. Since Israel was still governed by Persians, it wasn’t likely that the Jews would be allowed to rebuild a Temple. But through the prophet, God made them an amazing promise:
The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.—Haggai 2:9
That promise was fulfilled in time. A second Temple was eventually built in Jerusalem. A few centuries later, a foreigner named Herod married his way into the Jewish royal family, and to win favor from the people, and perhaps to create a name for himself, he began a massive project to rebuild the Temple. Authorities disagree how long that project took, but we read in John 2:20 that it was still underway after 46 years.
Herod’s Temple must have been really something. Mark records an incident where the disciples were struck by its magnificence: “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!'” Jesus wasn’t impressed, and replied, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2)
In 70 AD, the Roman general (and future emperor) Titus destroyed Jerusalem, and razing the Temple. In this way he fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy, just as Herod had fulfilled Haggai’s.
But the promise that God made through Haggai still endures. The Apostle Peter makes an amazing offer to all who put their faith in Christ:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.—1 Peter 2:4
By all accounts, Herod’s Temple was truly magnificent, but God is building a new Temple: a spiritual house whose chief cornerstone is Christ. This new Temple far surpasses Herod’s Temple, just as it had surpassed those sad ruins that Haggai looked at.
Our role as Christians isn’t to build a new Temple: God is doing that, far better than we could ever do. But a New Year is a time to pause and reflect on what we’re doing and where we’re going.
What are you doing with your life? Are you like Herod, working on things that will only endure a few years after you’re gone?
How about our church? What are we working on, and will it last? It isn’t our responsibility to build the church. Jesus told his disciples he would do that (Matt 16:18). But he did commission us to make disciples. He wants lots of living stones for the glorious new Temple he’s building.