Tonight we are carrying on with our studies in the Old Testament book of Zephaniah. Our subject is GOD ACTING. We have reached chapter 3 and we are going to be looking at verses 1-8. By way of introduction let me recap. Zephaniah was preaching in the reign of King Josiah - a 7th century reforming King of Judah. His father and grandfather had sunk the country into evil forms of paganism involving child-sacrifice and sexual decadence. So Josiah was turning back to the true and living God. During repairs at the Temple in Jerusalem he had rediscovered the Bible (or that part of the Bible that by then had been written). But for all the good Josiah did, after his death many returned to those evil pagan practices. And subsequently they experienced God's judgment in 587 BC. That was when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and its people taken away as captives into exile.
Before all that happened, however, Zephaniah was prophesying (or preaching) a very simple message from God. It was about God acting in judgement if people continued to ignore or defy him. Part of this judgment we can see now was fulfilled in that sack of Jerusalem in 587 BC. But we know from the New Testament that the ultimate fulfilment will be one day in the future with a truly catastrophic day of wrath - God's wrath at the end of history when Jesus Christ comes again as judge. God's acting in judgment, therefore, is not just for the Jews. Chapter 2 tells how the Philistines to the West, the Assyrians to the North, the people of Moab and Ammon to the East and the Cushites to the South would all experience God's judgment – that is all points of the compass. Zephaniah is saying that God's judgment is for all; and that includes us. So we, too, need to listen to Zephaniah. Well, so much by way of introduction. Can you now turn in your Bibles to Zephaniah 3 and verses 1 to 8. And my headings for tonight are first, SOCIETY COLLAPSING, secondly, LEADERSHIP FAILING, and then thirdly, GOD ACTING.
So first, SOCIETY COLLAPSING and verses 1 to 2.
Our passage tells of a society (or city state) that is collapsing or soon to collapse. Look at verse 1:
"Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled!"
There is social oppression, religious rebellion (people rebelling against God) and moral defilement. Verse 2 then focuses on the fundamental problem which is the prior spiritual collapse. And what counts as "spiritual collapse" is defined in verse 2 which says:
"She [that is the city] obeys no one [or as can be translated 'She listens to no voice'], she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the LORD, she does not draw near to her God."
The city (the city state or society), therefore, is not listening to and obeying God's word. It is not accepting his discipline. There is no real belief in God. Nor is there any real relationship with him through private or public prayer and praise. There is, in fact, "godlessness". But you say, how can a whole city be "godless" or "godly"? Well, it varies. But a democratic society like ours is godly, first, when the majority of its individual citizens themselves hear God's word, accept his discipline, trust in him and pray to him. That is why evangelism must always be our priority. That is if we are concerned not only for God's glory, but also the good of our neighbours and of society as a whole. So evangelistic small groups or events you can invite your non-Christian friends to are important.
But then (and this is too often forgotten) a city trusts in the Lord and obeys his word when its official enactments seek to be in accordance with God's word and truth. Nor does that mean a theocracy with a Christian version of Sharia Law. No! But with all the necessary caveats and with Christians proposing rather than imposing their views, Christians should be publicly witnessing to God's truth and seeking just and good law. We do that by the ballot box, by lobbying our MPs, by contending for the truth and contending for liberty for the gospel. And we do that in whatever ways are appropriate, at home, in the shop, on the work floor, in the office, or as teachers, social workers, doctors, students, parents, brothers, sisters and in private conversation or by writing letters and e-mails. There are so many ways for whoever we are. We must move on, for there is another fundamental reason why societies collapse. It is...
Secondly, LEADERSHIP FAILING and verses 3 to 5.
When there is no leadership or failing leadership, huge damage is done everywhere. When rulers are ruling to satisfy their own egos, or for what they can get, things will go from bad to worse. Without doubt you have problems with leadership today. There are problems in Britain and not least in Government. Because there was so much "sleaze" among our elected leaders, in 1994 a Committee on Standards in Public Life had to be set up in Westminster and a Parliamentary Commissioner on Standards in 1995. Tragically corrupt civic leadership is worse in many developing countries where unchecked dishonesty among leaders can be rife. Well, leadership was failing in Zephaniah's time. Look at verse 3:
"Her officials are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning."
The officials were so unconcerned for the good of the people, they were like lions. And other rulers were so personally greedy and out for taking all they could get, they were like hungry wolves. But it was not just corrupt politicians that were a problem. There was corruption in religious leadership as well. Look at verse 4:
"Her prophets are arrogant; they are treacherous men. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law."
Prophets (or preachers) are to speak God's word. But too often throughout history - in Zephaniah's time and since - they have not done so. In Zephaniah's time prophets had to be in line, at least, with what God had revealed to Moses. In the Old Testament there is no greater authority than Moses, whose teaching you have in those first five books of the Bible - Genesis to Deuteronomy. But many prophets were ignoring Moses and the law of God that King Josiah was rediscovering. They were not speaking in line with God's truth. After Moses and then prophets like Zephaniah and other Old Testament writers, you have God's final revelation in Jesus Christ and his apostles, recorded now in the New Testament. So our Bible is God's full revelation and it is with this that the preacher now has to be in line. That is why, to quote Article XX of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, the Church (or its leaders and teachers) must
"not ... ordain [or teach] any thing that is contrary to God's Word written [the Bible or the Scripture], neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
But throughout the history of the church you have had teachers who are, as Zephaniah says, "arrogant". They prefer their own ideas to God's ideas, and they are "treacherous". They deceive people, some being "liberal" by subtracting from God's word; others being more traditional by adding to it. You tell a false prophet, therefore, by checking whether they are faithful to the Bible. So be like the early Christians in Berea. The Bereans, we read,...
"... were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17.11).
That's what you and I still need to do. And remember, no one is perfect. So check against the Scriptures the teaching of every teacher, however famous. It was old Bishop Ryle who said,
"The Reformers [the 16th century Reformers of the Protestant Reformation] were honoured instruments in the hand of God for reviving the cause of truth on earth. Yet hardly one of them can be named who did not make some great mistake."
Nor was it just the prophets who were failing. So were the Priests. They, says verse 4, "profane the sanctuary" - they treated the Temple with contempt. They possibly were using for the sacrifices second (or zero) rate animals - useless and diseased animals In the prophet Malachi's time, God said, "would you offer that junk outside the Temple, outside the church - to your boss at work? [or words to that effect]" Actually he said,
"When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor" (Mal 1.7-8).
Who needs to hear that tonight? Does anyone in this church have a lower standard for Jesus Christ and their church activities than they have for their work or pleasure activities? Do you give God the loose change, so to speak, of your time and energy and money while your work and your home have priority? When I first went to Jesmond Parish Church people used to say to me, "we are getting rid of our carpet and having a new one; would the church like our old carpet?" My reaction was, "No! God's house ought to have the best; so you keep the old one, the church should have the new one - or buy two new ones!" Do you see the issue? Don't get me wrong. JPC has been very grateful for some good quality second hand gifts. And all this is only symbolism - for God is everywhere in the city (as we are about to learn). He is not just where the priests are in the Temple or the religious building. But symbolism in human society is very important. The priests profaning the sanctuary (by offering God the rejects) would have spoken volumes. So leadership, civic and religious was failing - and does still fail. How, therefore, you need to pray for leaders today, both in the world and the church.
Now, up to this point, the people of Judah and Jerusalem had probably been going along with Zephaniah. Forgetting some of his introductory remarks in chapter 1, they were applauding, no doubt, the prediction of God's judgment against other pagan nations. They would have thought, "how they all need to hear this!" Does that sometimes happen to you? You are sitting in church and during a sermon you hear something and think, "that is just what so and so needs to hear." Well, be careful. You probably need to hear it, too. So the people of Jerusalem would have thought the "city" of chapter 3 verse 1 is Ninevah, the wicked capital city of Assyria. But then Zephaniah utters verse 5 and says these words:
"The LORD within her [the city being referred to] is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail, yet the unrighteous know no shame."
That was the bombshell. The city is not Ninevah; it is Jerusalem. It is the city of the Lord, the one true God, where he especially resides. The Lord is "within her". At that time there was only one city of which it could be said, "the Lord is within her" and that was Jerusalem. So these false prophets and priests were not Assyrian prophets and priests but prophets and priests claiming to be speaking for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - the true God. And what about us?
When we hear and think about what Zephaniah is saying, do we think it is all for someone else - those primitive folk in the Ancient Near East in the 7th century BC? Or is it for us here at Jesmond tonight? What about our "collapsing society"? There was a report last summer entitled, "Breakdown Britain". Bishop Lesslie Newbigin has written of the breakdown caused by "intertwined and mutually reinforcing factors in society - family disintegration, alienation, drugs and crime." How much of this social collapse is due to our Godlessness - perhaps not our sins of commission but in what we have omitted to do or say - our sins of omission? That is the challenge to us. Well, that brings us...
Thirdly, to GOD ACTING and in judgment and verses 6 to 8:
The Bible is clear that our God is both a God of love and of justice, of mercy and of punishment. But that punishment the modern world finds difficult to take. It wants what I call, a "Father Christmas" God and little punishment, or if any, it has be "humanitarian". That is when you don't punish a person for what they deserve - for that, it is said, would be revenge. Rather the only punishment you can allow is to deter or reform someone. So what do you say? Let me try to give an answer. You will have to concentrate and listen carefully.
First, I want to say that to have no concept of what a person deserves means no limit to punishment as deterrence or reform. Let me repeat that:
“to have no concept of what a person deserves means no limit to punishment as deterrence or reform.”
In fact, it removes punishment altogether from the realm of justice. Justice goes out the window. It is only as it is deserved or undeserved that a judicial sentence is just or unjust. In earlier centuries you could be hung for stealing a sheep. That may deter others. But we say it is unjust because undeserved. It is not like for like, or measure for measure. It is not fair. Equally, totalitarian States like the former Soviet Union can sentence people for a minor offence to correction and reform in mental hospitals for years. But we say that is unjust because it is undeserved and unfair, even if it works. It is not like for like.
You see, the question you ask of deterrence or reform is not "is it just?" but "is it successful?" For justice, you must have punishment being "like for like". That is what "retributive" means. Only punishment as retribution treats a person as a responsible human being. And only when punishment is retributive does mercy have a meaning. Mercy pardons, and pardoning involves recognizing that someone is suffering a punishment they deserve. Yes, punishment should deter; it should, if at all possible, help reform. But it cannot avoid being in some measure retributive if it is going to be just. And all this is what you have in verses 6-8 - God seeking to deter, God seeking to reform, and God being retributive. In verse 6 God is seeking to deter the people of Jerusalem from acting like other nations, who have rejected God and so have suffered. He does this by threatening punishment:
"I have cut off nations; their strongholds are demolished. I have left their streets deserted, with no one passing through. Their cities are destroyed; no one will be left - no one at all."
In verse 7 God is seeking to correct and reform his people:
"I said to the city [Jerusalem], 'Surely you will fear me and accept correction!' Then her dwelling would not be cut off, nor all my punishments come upon her."
But there was no reformation. The idolatry with all its brutal violence and sexual immorality continued - and with shameless abandon. Verse 7 continues:
"they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did."
At that point comes God's word of ultimate judgment or retribution. God will testify and bring evidence to show that his punishment is just and fair. For God is just and fair. As we have seen in verse 5,
"morning by morning he dispenses his justice".
So his punishment will be what is deserved. Verse 8 says:
"Therefore wait for me," declares the LORD, "for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them - all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger."
Note that little word, "wait." It's very important:
"'Wait for me,' declares the Lord, 'for the day I will stand up to testify.'"
You see, in his grace, God has given us a "waiting" period before this day of wrath and judgment. It is this period between Christ's first and second comings. One day Jesus Christ will return, not this time as Saviour but as Judge. And God, says the Apostle Paul ...
"... has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17.31).
There is hard evidence in his resurrection on that first Easter Day for Jesus being not only the divine Son of the Father (the second person of the Holy Trinity), but also for his coming again to judge the world. So one day the world will see the reality of God's wrath. Yes, this is the reality of "hell" that Jesus spoke about. And you ought to take it from Jesus even if from no one else, for Jesus was so obviously full of love and care for people. And this is what is so vital. You can only begin to understand something of the wonder of God's love, when you believe in this terrifying reality of the day of God's wrath or judgment. Let me explain as I conclude. Perhaps the greatest verse in the Bible is John 3.16:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
You see, the measure of God's love is that retributively we all deserve to perish. We have all broken God's laws and have committed an infinite number of sins, certainly sins of omission (those good things we have failed to do). But God so loved the world, including you and me, that we need not perish but find in Jesus Christ, God's son, eternal life. God sees all of us naturally going down that broad road that leads to destruction. In his love he puts various road blocks to try to stop us driving on. There are the Bible, Christian friends, Christian Churches and above all Jesus Christ on the Cross, dying to take the punishment that you and I deserve, in our place.
If you choose to drive past (or through) all those road blocks, then you alone are responsible for the consequences. And God's love means he will not force you, if you want to reject his love. Hell is total proof that God respects your freedom. But inevitably and quite justly, if you refuse to allow Christ to bear your punishment - the punishment you deserve - by refusing to accept his pardon (as Zephaniah and Jesus teach) you will experience God’s wrath and punishment.
The choice is yours - to believe or not to believe in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. If you have never done so yet, why not? Why not believe in Jesus Christ and accept his forgiveness and his Holy Spirit? The evidence is there. You can then be "salt and light", helping to stop society collapsing and leadership failing. And you will escape, on the one hand, God acting in punishment and, on the other hand, you will receive new life by his Holy Spirit both for now and for eternity. You "shall not perish [says Jesus] but have eternal life".