“Do you want to be clean?” Preaching to the affections from the Old Testament

I mentioned the other day the conversation I had with Dan James about Haggai 2.  One of the things I’ve been challenged about increasingly is the importance of preaching to the affections.  This is an old puritan phrase meaning that our preaching should speak to the whole person not just to the intellect. We don’t just want to inform people with information as we explain Scripture nor do we want to move straight from information put into the head toa list of applications, things that we want to help people do in response.

Preaching should speak to the emotions as well as the intellect. It should move us.  Sometimes this will mean that we will be swept off our feet with the shock of what God has to say, sometimes it means that we will be cut to the heart with conviction and sometimes we will experience a warming of our hearts. Perhaps it is even right to say that God’s Word will woo us.

In that context, as we looked at Haggai 2 I was struck by verse 11-14:

11 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: 12 ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’” The priests answered and said, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” 14 Then Haggai answered and said, “So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the Lord, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean. 

Here, Haggai talks to the priests about the affect of uncleanness.  Cleanness and uncleanness was a category of spiritual status for God’s people. In the Old Testament, we can spot three of those categories:

  • Holy v Profane
  • Righteous v Sinner
  • Clean v Unclean

Whilst there are links and overlaps between these categories it is important not to confuse them together, unholiness, uncleanness and sinfulness are not equivalents.  The difference between being holy and profane is about either being set apart for a special purpose towards God or being involved in the common and ordinary things of life.  Being righteous is about being in the right with God, knowing him and keeping his law as opposed to the sinner who rebels against God and disobeys him. Meanwhile cleanness is about something different again. It’s not specifically about sin although to pursue unclean things may be sinful. Rather, it is a way of recognising that God has put order, structure and boundaries in place but because of the fall, those boundaries often come down. It’s about the way in which life is messy and painful as a result of the fall and how we come to experience and be affected by the mess.

Now, some of the things listed as clean or unclean in the Old Testament may seem obvious to us. We can see why infectious diseases and dead bodies might be seen as unclean. However other things such as certain foods and perhaps some of the bodily fluids may seem less so, arbitrary even. It is important to realise that in the Old Testament, the distinction was not an evaluation of moral value but rather and observation of how those things provided a visual, symbolic representation.

Here in Haggai 2, the prophet talks about cleanness and uncleanness. He talks to the priests about how clean things contaminate unclean things but how clean things don’t seem to be able to de-contaminate the clean. I want you to notice here that the priests are immediately able to recognise the truth of what Haggai says. The shock factor, the surprise for them is not in hearing that their best efforts now can’t undo past problems. It was, as we saw in the previous post that God was going to bless where blessing was undeserved. So, here Haggai builds a relationship based on a common understanding.

I think the people we talk to about Jesus, whether the Christians we preach to or the seekers we witness to will get that. We know that our best efforts to cover up past failings, past hurt past wrongs simply does not work.  To give three examples

  1. We know that if we try to pain over a crack in the wall that if it is caused by a structural problem, it will simply reappear.
  2. We know that the person who looks at something dodgy on the work internet cannot then undo or remove that questionable search by simply googling lots and lots of good, work related things.
  3. We know that if we are carrying guilt or shame that we cannot get rid of it by attending church regularly, working hard, doing good works etc.  We can try and try but that pain and shame remains there in our hearts. We cannot escape our guilt.

So, we immediately identify with what Haggai is saying. But notice something else, particularly when we get to the third example, we are not just dealing with intellectual agreement. Something deeper is happening. We are speaking to emotions and affections.

Often when I’m preaching I will move from trying to tell people how and why they are sinners. There’s a reason for this. Deep down, they already know. Indeed, I may well say something like:

 “I don’t need to tell you that something is wrong. You know it. I don’t need to list for you all the ways you might have failed to love God with your whole heart or how you’ve failed to love your neighbour. We know in our hearts that so often we let down and fail those that love and care for us the most. We know in our hearts how often we have hurt the very people that we love the most.”

And this I think is where the symbolism and language of “clean and unclean” works so powerfully. We identify with the longing to be clean. We identify with that sense of being unclean so that people will even describe the things that we have thought said and done, and perhaps even more so the things others may be thinking about us or have said or done to us as making us feel dirty.

So this clean and unclean language speaks not just to the mind but to the heart. It speaks to the affections. We are not just trying to persuade people intellectually that they are sinners. Rather, we are inviting them to respond with their whole person, to acknowledge the pitiful state that they find themselves in. This isn’t something we have to work hard on. It’s something they instinctively know and recognise. This gives us the opportunity to focus our attention on why there is hope, why it is possible for that good news to come, seemingly from nowhere, that there is a God who will bless, a God who will cleanse and heal.

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