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Rev. Hanko is pastor in the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2004, p. 78.


The Third Prophecy (cont.)


2:11. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; ask now the priests concerning the law, saying,

Haggai is commanded to go to the priests with a question concerning several points of law, the law of Moses. He asks the priests these questions because they were the official interpreters and teachers of the law. This is especially clear fromMalachi 2:6, 7. There we read:

The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity. For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.

This particular question is not specifically answered in the law of Moses. There is, in other words, no specific verse or verses in which the questions of Haggai are dealt with, but the answer could easily be deduced from the teaching of the law regarding cleanness and uncleanness, especially in personal matters, and the priests to whom Haggai brought his questions apparently had no difficulty finding answers.

They answer these questions, however, not only as a matter of personal interest for Haggai, or even for themselves, though the matter certainly concerned them also, but for the benefit of the people who were doing the work. That is clear from verse 14, where the lesson from the law is applied to the people in the form of a rather sharp word of God that concerns the personal holiness of the people in the work they were doing.

That Haggai addresses this matter of holiness does not mean that people had turned away from God once again and were living very sinfully. Of that there is no evidence in the text or in the other accounts of the work. In fact, the blessing that God promises in verses 15-19 is proof that God was pleased with them and with the work they were doing. Nevertheless, the matter of their holiness was so important that it had to be addressed at the very beginning of the work.

12. If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine of oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No.

The two questions are very similar. The first concerns the meat of the sacrifices, especially of the sin offerings (Lev. 6:25, 26) that were offered in the temple. That meat is called “holy flesh” by Haggai. That meat was apparently carried at times by the priests in the skirts of their robes, perhaps to the altar to be burned there, or from the altar to be eaten by the priests or the people. In instances where they were carrying the meat, Haggai asks if contact with the robe in which they carried the meat would make other things holy. He mentions other food especially. In other words, if the robe brushed against other food, would the holiness of the sacrificial meat be transferred to the items that were touched by it or by the robe in which it was carried?

The priests were able to answer that question correctly with the simple answer, “No.” Leviticus 6:27indicates that the garment itself or any other vessel in which the meat was carried would be holy. The rest of the priests’ answer is not specifically given in the law, that the holiness would not be transferred from garment or vessel to other things. They must have deduced their answer from those passages in the law that indicated that the people, who often ate the meat of the sacrifices, were not themselves necessarily made holy by the holy food they ate. It was possible for them to eat and to remain unholy.

Haggai is talking about ceremonial holiness, the “holiness” of things that were set apart and kept separate for the worship of God. That ceremonial holiness, however, is a picture of true spiritual holiness, for true holiness also means to be set apart for and dedicated to the service and worship of God. Haggai, then, is pointing out through this question and its answer that holiness is not transferred by mere external contact with holy things.

The Jews often fell into that way of thinking. They thought that because they had the temple and the sacrifices and the worship of God there, and because they attended faithfully on those things, that they were different and better than the nations around them. Nor were the Jews unlike Christians today.

That is also a very important principle in the New Testament. It is a principle that applies to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper and to the water of baptism. It also applies, however, to any circumstances in which we have external contact with holy things, worship, the reading and study of the Scriptures, prayer, church membership, the hearing of the preaching. In all of these circumstances we come into very close contact with holy things, but the holiness of those things, which is the holiness of God Himself, is not transferred by mere contact.

We must think of the holy flesh in terms of the sacrifice of Christ, which alone redeems and sanctifies, of the Spirit of the living God, and of His own divine saving power. These things are carried to us in the preaching of the gospel, the sacraments, prayer, church membership, and all of the other means that God uses to give His saving grace to His people, just as the holy flesh was carried in the priest’s garments. The holy things of God are wrapped in these things, and we come into contact with them only through these “wrappings.”

The holiness of the things of God, their separateness, lends a certain holiness and separateness to the external forms in which they are wrapped, but the holiness is not further transferred by mere contact with those forms and wrappings. Hearing the preaching, attending on the worship of God, being a member of the church, does not make someone holy. This first question and its answer, therefore, add up to a warning against formalism and dead orthodoxy in worship and church membership first of all.

The principle that is illustrated by this first question and answer applies in other everyday circumstances and relationships of life. In marriage between a believer and unbeliever, for example, the believer may have no expectation that his own holiness will be transferred to the unbeliever simply by virtue of the fact that they marry. Those who sin by marrying unbelievers often justify what they do on the ground that their marrying the unbeliever will have a good influence on the unbeliever, but that is a vain hope in light of this Word of God. Holiness is not transferred in that way.

We learn that same principle in the rearing of our children. Our own personal holiness and the holiness of godly and pious family life are not automatically transferred to every child who is born in a covenant home. Holiness does not come in that way, no more than it did in the case that Haggai cites to the priests.

Holiness comes only as a gift of God purchased by the blood of Christ and given through the Holy Spirit. The Lord hints at that in verse 14 when He points out that the people of Judah were in themselves and in all the works of their hands unholy. Even their sacrifices were not holy, without the work of God’s Spirit and the blood of Jesus that was symbolized by those sacrifices. Church membership, faithfully hearing the preaching, being baptized, praying, do not in themselves make anyone holy.

13. Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean.

The second question Haggai asks of the priests is really the opposite of the first. He asks concerning ceremonial uncleanness. There were many ways in which a Jew could become ceremonially unclean, all of which made it impossible for him to enter the temple or present his sacrifices. One way a person could become unclean was through contact with a dead body (Lev. 22:4). In that case a person had to wash himself and was unclean for the rest of the day (Lev. 22:6, 7).

Haggai’s question concerns contact of someone with something that had become unclean. Would the uncleanness be further transferred by contact with something or someone who had become unclean? The answer of the priests, the opposite of the previous answer, taken from Leviticus 22:4, 5, was that the uncleanness would be transferred. The person who had become unclean would make everything he touched unclean, even the food he ate.

To understand the point of the answer, we must see that the ceremonial uncleanness of which the law spoke was a picture of the defilement of sin. Those laws certainly were used by God to protect the physical health of His people, but the main reason for them was to teach spiritual truths, in this case to teach them about the pollution of sin. Contact with death made a person unclean because death is the punishment of sin.

The point of the question and its answer, then, is that while holiness is not transferred by external contact with holy things, there is the real danger that the pollution and defilement of sin is so transferred. To use a similar example, one drop of filth will pollute much water, but many added drops of clean water will not make the container of filthy water clean.

The application of this is best seen in the commands in Scripture to God’s people to keep themselves separate from the ungodly (II Cor. 6:14-18). The danger is always that they will become polluted and unholy. They must, therefore, maintain what is sometimes called the antithesis, their spiritual separation from the ungodly and from their ways.

This separation means they may not marry the ungodly (I Cor. 7:39), may not be joined to them in any unequal union (II Cor. 6:14), ought not have fellowship with them (Eph. 5:7-12). They need not go out of the world altogether, as Rome teaches (I Cor. 5:10), but there must be a clear separation between them, and that especially of a spiritual character. If that separation is not maintained, it is not the unholy that will be made holy, but the holy that will be profaned and made unclean.