The Islamic State is killing minorities in Iraq and Syria who won’t convert to Islam. It’s genocide. Women and children are taken as sexual slaves. People are fleeing to save their lives. How would you feel in the face of this onslaught if you were one of the Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis or Christians? Terrified? Shocked in unbelief?
This article looks at the book of Zephaniah where the Jews are warned of an impending terrible destruction. We will see that, because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.
Zephaniah prophesised “during the reign of Josiah” (Zeph. 1:1NIV), who was king over Judah in 640 – 609 BC. At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. Judah was a vassal state of Assyria during much of the 7th century BC. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Josiah’s father Amon and grandfather Manasseh were wicked kings who spread idolatry across Judah. They worshipped Baal, Asherah, and the stars and planets, with child sacrifice to Molech and ritual prostitution (2 Ki. 21:6-9; 2 Chr. 33:6-9). There was occultism and the righteous were martyred. Josiah turned back to God and repaired the temple, restoring temple worship in 622BC.
Zephaniah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 70 years after Isaiah and Micah and was a contemporary of Nahum and the young Jeremiah. He is recognised as the last pre-exilic prophet.
Before Zephaniah, Isaiah proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He warned that Judah’s wickedness would be punished by the Babylonians. The judgment is called “the day of the Lord”. But they would be restored when the Messiah would reign. Micah also proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He lists their sins, and predicts a ruler from Bethlehem and the restoration of a remnant. The main theme of these prophets was God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. We will see that this is what Zephaniah prophesied as well. So he may have been already familiar with the content of his message from the earlier prophets.
During the time of Zephaniah, Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies. At this time, Jeremiah (Ch. 1-38) denounced the sins of Judah. He predicted that because of these they would be defeated by the Babylonians and be exiled for 70 years. But he also predicted their restoration and life under the Messiah with a new covenant.
So, at the time when Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies. Idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent, they were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Apart from the first verse, the book of Zephaniah is poetry, not prose. It teems with figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, metonymy and synecdoche.
God is the central character. He is a God of action. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end he shows mercy and pardons people. Zephaniah is a humble spokesman: he speaks about God and not himself.
The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. However, this is prevented by their sins.
Through “the day of the Lord”, Judah is restored to serve Him and they are joined by believing Gentiles.
The two main themes of Zephaniah are predictions of God’s judgment and God’s deliverance, which show His justice and mercy. Zephaniah mainly concerns the coming judgment and punishment of Judah and other nations because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is followed by the promised restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance.
Those who “have sinned against the Lord” (1:17) will be judged and those who obey and trust the Lord will be restored (2:3; 3:12). The themes of judgment and restoration are linked by a call to repentance (2:1-3).
Looking at these linkages shown in the schematic diagram, four major themes can be identified: Humanity’s sinfulness, God’s warning, God’s judgment, and God’s deliverance. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Zephaniah shows that human sinfulness is a universal problem; it affected both Judah and the other nations.
The sins of Judah included: idolatry (1:3, 4), syncretism (where the true God is worshipped through or alongside other gods) (1:5; 2 Ki. 17:41), apostasy (1:6), following foreign (pagan) customs and culture, which compromised their identity as God’s special people (1:8-9), violence (1:9), apathy and pride (1:12; 3:11), love of money (1:18), oppression (3:10), rebellion (3:10), self-sufficiency, unruliness and ungodliness (3:2), greedy and corrupt leaders (3:3-4, 7), lying and deceit (1:9; 3:13), and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance (1:12). They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6).
The sins of other nations included: pride (2:10, 15), self-sufficiency (2:15), and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people (2:8, 10).
This sinfulness was the source and reason for God’s judgment. God had given His people standards to live by in the Mosaic law. So they should have known better.
Now we come to God’s response to their sins.
The prophets warned God’s people about the consequences of their sinfulness. They were breaking the covenant with their God. Instead of living like God’s people, they were living like pagans. They were breaking most of the ten commandments. The punishment for disobeying the covenant is given in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 28:15-68). It included being defeated by their enemies, having their cities besieged, plundered and destroyed and their people captured and scattered to other nations.
Zephaniah calls for repentance (2:3). There is deliverance for the humble who trust God. But Jerusalem is unrepentant (3:6-7). They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the northern kingdom about 100 years earlier that lead to them being captured by the Assyrians and destroyed as a nation.
So God is merciful: He warns His people of the consequences of their behavior. And we know that king Josiah did repent.
There are two possible responses to a warning. The first is to ignore it. Now we come to the major theme of God’s judgment.
Judgment is predicted for both Judah and other nations for their ongoing sinfulness.
First for the Jews. The “day of the Lord” is mentioned at least eleven times in the book of Zephaniah (1:7, 8, 9, 10, 14 (twice), 15, 18; 2: 2 (twice), 3). Each occurrence is associated with a message to Judah. According to the NET Bible the concept of “the day of the Lord” may have originated in the ancient Near Eastern idea of the sovereign’s day of conquest, where a king would boast that he had concluded an entire military campaign in a single day. In the Old Testament the phrase first appears in the book of Amos (Amos 5:18-20).
It is a time of great judgement. But when and where will it occur? The book begins with God declaring (1:2-3): “I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.” “When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
At the end of chapter 1, Zephaniah comments (1:18): “In the fire of His jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”
So everything on the ground will be devastated. Where will it occur? It is clear from the next verse that both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). He calls it “the day of the Lord” (1:7, 14) and “the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18; 2:2). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7).
But why does the NIV say the judgment is on “the face of the earth” (1:2, 3), “the whole earth” and “all who live on the earth” (1:18)? It seems to me that these phrases are translated poorly by most modern translations of the Bible. Click the link to see my reasons. A better translation is: “the land (of Judah)” (1:2, 3), “the whole land (of Judah)”, and “all who live on the land (of Judah) (1:18).
The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement, “the day of the Lord”: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18).
As it described total destruction of living things and idols, yet there are survivors (a humble remnant), the description of the judgment seems to include hyperbole (1:2-3, 18b, 2:3; 3:11-13). Some resolve this dilemma by assuming that the verses on deliverance (3:9-20) were written after the time of Zephaniah. But this isn’t necessary because the combination of the themes of judgement, deliverance of a remnant and a new life of blessing for the faithful is an old as Noah’s flood. So the day of the Lord includes both punishment and purification. Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterised by both justice (when he punishes sinners) and mercy (when he restores the repentant).
When will the judgment occur? “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly” (1:7, 14). It’s imminent. It describes the desolation after an army invades Judah and Jerusalem (1:4-18a). Nothing will be able to save the Judeans (1:18a). It will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). A time of wailing (1:11). This prediction was probably given at least 30 years before it was fulfilled when Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment was to occur. In the meantime, the purpose of the distress was so Judah would repent.
Secondly, judgment is also predicted as total destruction for nations around Judah. Philistia in the west (2:4-6), Moab and Ammon in the east (2:8-11), Egypt in the south (2:12) and Assyria in the north (2:13-15). As there is judgment in all directions, no one can escape. God also promised to judge all the wicked Gentiles (3:8). This is when other nations experience “the day of the Lord”. It was announced by Zephaniah to call Judah to repentance (3:6-7).
About 50 years later Ezekiel also prophesied the destruction of Ammon, Moab and Philistia (Ch. 25) (Assyria had already been invaded by the Babylonians). Ammon and Moab would be invaded by Babylonia. God would take vengeance on Philistia. Also, Egypt and its allies would be invaded by Babylonia (Ch 29-32). After this it was invaded by the Persians. So all these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions.
God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all.
The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behaviour so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.
Deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.
First for the Jews. Believers would be protected during “the day of the Lord” (2:3). Then God promises to restore a Jewish remnant (2:7; 3:10-13, 18-20). Deliverance and salvation follow judgment. The scattered Jews will return to the land of Judah. They will seek the Lord, trust in Him, obey Him and be humble (2:3; 3:12). They will resume the temple offerings. Their enemies will be punished and there will be peace and honesty in their land. Shame and wickedness will cease (3:11-13). The Jews will be praised and honored around the world – praise and honor has replaced their shame. They will occupy Philistia, Moab and Ammon (2:7, 9c). This leads to joyful celebration in Jerusalem under God’s leadership (3:14-17). Singing has replaced their wailing (3:14), because the punishment has been taken away, the enemies turned back and God is with them (v.15). There is joy and singing in heaven as well (3:17). God “will rejoice over you with singing”.
When will the deliverance occur (Zeph 3:10-20)? A Jewish remnant returned to Judah after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Although Gentiles called “on the name of the Lord” when they became Christians (Zeph 3:9; Rom. 10:13), I don’t think that the deliverance described has been completed yet. Did Judah have peace (3:13)? After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Have the Jews been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20)? It says “never again will you fear any harm” (3:15), yet Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Secondly, redemption is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies (2:11): “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands”. When they realise the awesomeness of God, they will repent and worship Him. They will also seek His help in prayer and serve Him (3:9). This has been fulfilled to some degree in the Christian church.
We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews of the 7th century BC that because of humanity’s sinfulness, God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles in the “day of the Lord”. And God did judge them. But God is merciful. He warns them of their situation and their need to repent.
After this a Jewish remnant will be restored and they will worship Him as King of Israel.
So Zephaniah’s main themes are: Mankind’s sinfulness, God’s warning to repent, God’s judgment (the day of the Lord) for the unrepentant, and God’s deliverance for the repentant (the remnant). This is an example of “the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). These are two aspects of God’s character. The kindness is for those who repent, while the sternness is for the unrepentant.
The Jews should have known about these themes because they come from the Pentateuch. It contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It also says if they confess their sins with humility, then God would remember their covenant (Lev. 26:40-45). So their repentance is the goal of their punishment. God wanted them to turn back to following Him once again.
Zephaniah also implies that God is the God of all nations. In those days each nation had their own gods. People were polytheistic. Here we see that Judah’s God is sovereign and supreme over other nations. He will destroy all the other gods (2:11). Therefore, He was sovereign and supreme over their gods. So the fact of one true God as expressed in the first two commandments is another theme of Zephaniah.
Furthermore, it implies that God intervenes in history (1:12). They thought He wouldn’t intervene, but God says He will search Jerusalem (2:11). So the fact that Judah’s God intervenes in human affairs and history is another theme of Zephaniah.
In order to apply Zephaniah’s prophecy to our modern world, we need to take of account of what God has revealed since then. Today we know that the New Testament teaches that because of humanity’s sinfulness, we all deserve God’s punishment. But God is merciful. In the Bible He warns us of our situation and our need to repent. Jesus took the punishment for us when He was crucified. Those who repent are redeemed to worship Him as their Lord.
When Paul addresses the sins of the self-righteous moralist, he writes “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). So God warns people today of a coming judgment. Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). In the meantime, we are to be faithful followers of Christ (2 Pt. 3:11-14).
Even though it was written over 2,600 years ago, Zephaniah’s book is relevant to our times. We can apply the four main themes to ourselves. What are our sins? What are our gods? Are we apathetic? Are we materialistic? Are we selfish? How loyal are we to God? They had a choice. So do we. Will we confess and repent of our sins in order to maintain our relationship with the Lord? There is deliverance and salvation for the humble who trust in the death of Jesus Christ for their sins. Do we have the hope of heaven? The hope of a better time to come.
Because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming; but deliverance and salvation is promised for the repentant.
Written, November 2014
Someone asked a question about unconfessed trespasses.
Have you seen a sign on a property saying “No trespassing” or “Trespasses will be prosecuted”? This means that unauthorized people are prohibited from being on the property without the owner’s permission. In this case trespassing is disobeying a prohibition.
The Greek word “paraptoma” (Strongs #3900, which is translated “trespass”, is used in Romans 5:15-20 with regard to “the trespass of the one man” (v.15, 17) and “one trespass” (v.18). It is also described as “the disobedience of the one man” (v.19). Obviously the “one man” was Adam who disobeyed the following command, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:16-17NIV). So disobeying a command is trespassing.
The Bible says that “all wrongdoing is sin” (1 Jn. 5:17). “Wrongdoing” or sin means anything that we think, say or do that the Bible says is wrong.
So trespassing is disobeying a known command, law or rule. Because trespasses are a particular type, kind or subset of sins, all trespasses are sins. So whatever is true for sins as a whole is also true for all trespasses. Therefore the conclusions in my post about unconfessed sins also apply to unconfessed transgressions.
Jesus told His disciples, “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt. 6:14-15). This refers to parental (conditional or practical) forgiveness that is necessary to maintain fellowship with God the Father. If Christians are unwilling to forgive someone who has wronged them, how can they expect to be in fellowship with their Father who has forgiven all their wrong-doings? Jesus expects His followers to forgive others (Mt. 6:12).
In this case their eternal salvation is not affected because that is based on the judicial (unconditional or positional) forgiveness from the penalty of sin that is obtained by trusting in Christ as their Savior. Before this time we are spiritually dead because of our sins. This means we are unresponsive to God, separated from God and His enemies (Eph. 2:1, 5; 5:10). But after this time our sins and trespasses are forgiven. So judicial forgiveness has eternal consequences.
It is important to distinguish between judicial and parental forgiveness. Because we can’t have fellowship with God as a Father until we become His child, parental forgiveness is impossible without judicial forgiveness. Judicial forgiveness must precede parental forgiveness.
We are to confess to those we have sinned against and to forgive those who confess to us (Lk. 17:3-4; Jas. 5:16). What about those who have not yet confessed to us? In all cases we are to forgive “just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). This means having a forgiving attitude even if they have not confessed.
How do murder victims’ families ever forgive the murderer? After her husband and two sons were killed in India in 1999, Gladys Stains said, “God enabled me to forgive the killers. Forgiveness allowed the healing to start flowing in my life. Being unwilling to forgive the person who has wronged us in any way, allows bitterness to come into our relationships and we are the ones affected. Forgiveness does not mean that we are free of the consequences of what has happened. Forgiving the murderers of my family has not brought them back, but has given me peace in the midst of sorrow. God gave me the strength to forgive. It was His strength, not mine” (Know your Bible – Celebrate God! Bible Soc. of Australia, 2007).
If forgiving another person takes years, then one’s fellowship with God is broken for those years. This could be caused by bitterness, hate, a victim mentality or vengeance instead of obeying the Biblical command to imitate Christ’s forgiveness. God can give us the power to bear our trials and can provide a way out of them (1 Cor. 10:13).
If a Christian dies with an unresolved trespass this is no longer important because they are forever with the Lord. None of our sins are taken to heaven because “the old (sinful) order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). We are not rejected from heaven for not forgiving someone else.
So unforgiven trespasses are not a barrier to heaven, but they do destroy our relationship with God. It’s our attitude that is important because that is what we are responsible for.
Written, July 2014
A New Zealand prime minister once said, “New Zealanders who emigrate to Australia raise the IQs of both countries”. That’s slander; a false spoken malicious statement that damages someone’s reputation.
After Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who couldn’t see or speak, the common people were astonished and wondered whether He was the Messiah. This enraged the Pharisees who claimed He did it in the power of “Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Mt. 12:24). That’s slander because Beelzebub is another word for Satan (Mt. 12:26) and Jesus said that He drove out demons in the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:28). So they called the Holy Spirit, Satan or a demon! In saying that someone who was good was evil, they were totally wrong. Whereas as Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees knew about the prophecies concerning the Messiah (Lk. 4:16-21; 7:18-22).
Then Jesus told the Pharisees, “blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Mt. 12:31). He repeated, “anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Mt. 12:32). The account is repeated in Mark, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin” (Mk. 3:29). He said that the reason for this was because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit” (Mk. 3:30). Jesus said this because He “knew their thoughts” and their future behavior (Mt. 12:25). He knew they would continue to be hard-hearted, aggressive and persistent in their opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit. They would stubbornly reject all the evidence before them and be blind to the truth. Forgiveness is impossible as long as one continues to reject the work of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. Although the Pharisees observed His powerful miracles, they continued to oppose Christ until they convinced the Romans to crucify Him.
Jesus pointed out the Pharisees inconsistency (Mt. 12:25-29; 33-37). It makes no sense to say He’s a bad tree (demonic) producing good fruit (healings). Using this illustration, blasphemy against the Spirit is saying that Jesus’ good works (by the Spirit) are the fruit of a bad (demonic) tree.
The Greek word translated “blaspheme” (blasphemis, Strong’s #988) means slander; speech that injures another’s good name. The ones who made these accusations were Jewish religious leaders who had travelled all the way from Jerusalem (Mk. 3:22). Because they thought their role was threatened by Jesus, they had plotted how they might kill Him (Mt. 12:14). So they were full of evil intent.
In this context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean swearing or bad language. As the Holy Spirit’s mission was to testify about Christ – “He will testify about Me” (Jn. 15:16), it was saying that Jesus performed miracles by the power of Satan rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit, and continuing to reject Christ as the Messiah throughout their lifetime.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not grieving or quenching the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Th. 5:19). Also, it doesn’t apply to everyone who openly rejects Christ, because Peter and Paul did this but became leaders in the early church (Jn. 18:15-17; Acts 9:1-2). This sin is not based on a single act, but on someone’s spiritual state.
How does it apply today?
Can this unpardonable sin be committed today? There are two main views on this topic. First, it is not possible in the sense of Jesus being physically on earth performing miracles and being accused of being demon-possessed. Also, it is not mentioned in any of the letters in the Bible written to the church. Furthermore, the accusation of demon possession is rare because today many people reject the idea of a spiritual dimension to life.
Second, the outcome of this sin still occurs today. As long as people reject Christ as Savior, their sins cannot be forgiven and pardoned. Today the only sin that is unforgivable is that of not receiving Jesus Christ as Savior. Permanently rejecting Christ is an unforgivable sin (Jn. 3:18, 36). There is no pardon for a person who dies in unbelief. In this sense, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unbelief that persists throughout life. But only God knows in advance if this will be the case.
If a person continues in apostasy (those in the early church who reverted to Judaism; rejection of Christianity by those who had professed to be Christians; false teachers), they are unforgivable – they can’t be brought to repentance while they continue to reject Christ (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 1 Jn. 5:16-17). They continue “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace”. They trample Christ underfoot, say His death was useless and insult the Holy Spirit. Persistent sin against the trinity leads to spiritual death. Such hard-hearted, aggressive and persistent opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit is similar to the behavior of the Pharisees who blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. As they can repent and be forgiven, apostasy is only unpardonable if it continues to death and only God knows this in advance.
As the Holy Spirit’s mission today includes convicting us of our sins (Jn. 16:7-8), is deliberate, hard-hearted, aggressive and persistent rejection of one’s sinfulness equivalent to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
Written, March 2014
Sin is our greatest problem
Our world can be a dangerous place. But sometimes we are unaware and oblivious of the dangers. Using a smart phone can be dangerous if we are not aware of what’s happening around us. After a woman died recently in Sydney when she was run over by a bus, police issued a warning about people using their phones when walking.
Not only are there physical dangers, but there are spiritual dangers. Are we aware of the spiritual dangers we face? Like ignoring the God who made the universe by living as though there is no God? Or are we oblivious of these like someone using a phone when crossing a street? Today in a survey of the first 11 chapters of the Bible we will see that sin against God is our greatest problem, and the source of all our problems.
This passage was compiled and written by Moses 700–2,500 years after the events occurred. Some of this information was passed down from his ancestors and some was revealed to him directly by God. Note that most of this time is covered by two generations – the lifetimes of Adam and Noah cover about 1,900 years. When he wrote it, Moses was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”, so he could write and keep records (Acts 7:22).
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt where people worshiped many pagan gods (Polytheism). In order to understand their situation and their world, they needed to know about the earlier history of the world. This helps us understand our world as well.
Genesis covers the origins of the universe, the earth, humanity, marriage, sin, languages, the nations, and the Israelites as God’s chosen people. The first eleven chapters summarize the highlights of world history up to the time of Abraham. This history includes four crises.
A crisis in the first generation
Chapters 1-2 describe the creation of the universe, the earth, the plants and animals, and Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. God spoke and it happened over a period of six days. They were given one restriction: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17).
The first crisis occurs when Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan to disobey God (Gen. 3:1-5). What will they do: follow God or Satan? This is a unique situation, because they lived in a perfect world and didn’t have a sinful nature. It was an external temptation. After they chose to disobey God and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are banished from the Garden of Eden. This first sin affected the whole creation including child birth, relationships between husband and wife, work and agriculture. Life was now a struggle with conflict, suffering, disease, decay, spiritual death and physical death. They went from a life in paradise to a life of problems. Their problems were a consequence of their sin. Sin was their greatest problem and the source of all their problems.
The Bible teaches that we have all inherited this sinful tendency – “everyone has sinned, we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT). Everyone is guilty; we are all self-centred, and so we were all affected.
However, in the list of God’s punishments there is a promise. He said to Satan “I will put enmity between you and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and hers; he (Eve’s offspring) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15NIV). So there is a hint of good news amidst the bad news. A suggestion of an end to the conflict between people and Satan, when Satan is crushed.
It’s a bit like the old game of “Snakes and Ladders” (“Chutes and Ladders in the US”) where you roll a dice to get a number and move that many spaces along the board. When you land on the head of a snake you slide backwards, and when you land on the bottom of a ladder you jump ahead. The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin hindered their life and moved them away from God, like the snakes hinder a player of snakes and ladders. The sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, and spiritual death. But the promise of victory over Satan is like a ladder to help them and move them towards God.
Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed Satan the snake (Gen. 3:12-13). Like Adam and Eve, we often blame our problems on others or our circumstances. Do we realise that our sin is our greatest problem? Do we ignore God by living as though He doesn’t exist?
A crisis in the second generation
Cain and Able were Adam and Eve’s first two sons. Cain becomes jealous of Abel. The second crisis occurs when this develops into hatred and he is tempted to kill Abel. What will he do; follow God or his anger? His parents would have told him what happened after they disobeyed God. But he murders Abel and is banished to be a nomad and “went out from the Lord’s presence” (Gen. 4:1-16). Cain’s problems were a consequence of his sin. This incident would have devastated Adam and Eve. The first boy to grow from infancy to maturity was a murderer! Their greatest problem as a family was caused by Cain’s sin.
But once again, it’s not all bad news. Because Cain was worried about his safety, “the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (Gen. 4:15). This is a promise of God’s protection. We can see a pattern developing here. God punishes sin, but provides some relief in the form of a promise.
Also, it is an example of the conflict between Satan’s offspring and Eve’s godly offspring (Gen. 3:15). In this case Cain was Satan’s agent who killed Abel, who is commended for his faith in God (Heb. 11:4; 1 Jn. 3:12). But God replaced Abel with Seth and the godly line of descendants was re-established (Gen. 4:25-26).
So in the history of humanity, Cain is like a snake in the game of snakes and ladders and Seth is like a ladder. Cain’s descendants moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there, while Seth’s descendants moved towards God and followed Him. Who are we like; Cain or Seth (Jude 11)? Cain ignored God, but Seth followed God.
According to the Bible, The fool says …, “There is no God”. They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). If we live as though there is no God, then we become god. We claim to know everything everywhere – otherwise God could exist somewhere, but we could be ignorant of Him. The Bible says this is foolish and leads to sinful behavior.
A crisis in the 10th generation
During the 1,600 years after the first crisis, the earth’s population grew, being comprised of cities and societies. We have seen the crises and problems in the early history of our earth for individuals and for a family. Now we will look at society as a whole.
Wickedness increased with time. It became a part of their normal way of life. They were oblivious to its danger. In the days of Noah, society was characterized by violence and corruption (Gen. 6:1-7). “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). It is a crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way. They reject the message of Noah, the “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pt. 2:5). He warned people to turn to God or face God’s judgment. So they had a choice to make.
God’s judgement on their sin was to destroy the original creation with a global flood. The death of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.
But once again, it’s not all bad news. Noah’s godly family was protected on the ark (Gen. 7:1 – 8:19) and given a promise that the earth would never be destroyed again by a flood (Gen. 8:21 – 9:17). Here we see that God punishes sin, but some are rescued.
Noah’s family is like a ladder in the game of snakes and ladders. They followed God. The rest of the people are like a snake. They moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there. Who are we like; Noah’s family or the rest? The rest ignored God, but Noah’s family followed God. Their choice determined their destiny.
A crisis in the 15th generation
In God’s covenant with Noah, He commanded the people to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). They obeyed the first part but not the second. They increased in number and built the city of Babel, but resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). They proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements. This is another crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way.
God’s judgement on their sin was to cause the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Now because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. This would have been a tough time. They lost technology and homes that were in the city, becoming nomads and settling in new areas. Some probably lived in caves at this time. The scattering of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.
Once again we see that God punishes sin, but where is the promise? It’s like a game of snakes and ladders without the ladders. The promise is given to Abraham in the next section of the book of Genesis.
Are we alert or oblivious?
What can we learn from these four crises in early history involving Adam, Cain, the flood and Babel?
At each crisis the people had a choice, but the choice wasn’t unlimited. Because we are finite, we are only free to make decisions within God’s limits and boundaries. God is the only one without boundaries – He is infinite. He gave us a free will and choice, but within certain boundaries. God sets the standard for human behaviour. It is a sin to cross those boundaries.
At each crisis the people had a choice to follow God or Satan. And their choice determined what their life was like afterwards. Likewise, our choices have physical and spiritual consequences. They determine our destiny in many ways.
But in each crisis people acted as though God wasn’t there; they ignored the possibility that they would be punished for disobeying God. They were unaware and oblivious of this danger. It’s like they were asleep or unconscious or there’s a malfunction of the brain and nervous system. My nephew is in a hospital brain injury unit. He can see and hear and is starting to speak a little, but he can’t respond with the rest of his body. If there is danger, he can’t react to it. For our safety, let’s be alert and aware of spiritual dangers instead of being oblivious. The dangerous sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, spiritual death, physical death, and eternal death in hell. It’s the snake to hell that Satan promotes. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation. Here death is the door to hell.
God made us with a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). It’s like an alarm to remind us when something is wrong. It worked for Adam and Eve when they felt guilty and hid from God after they sinned. Then they confessed their sin. Is your conscience working or broken?
Our greatest danger is spiritual death, which leads to eternal punishment in hell. This is the consequence of our sin if we don’t accept God’s promise of eternal life with Him in heaven (Jn. 3:16). That life is possible because Jesus took the punishment that we deserve when He died on the cross. It is ours if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God. Have you done that?
This salvation is like the promises that we found in the passage. It is an example of God’s grace and mercy and like the ladders in snakes and ladders, which move us closer to God. The salvation sequence is: Conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, followed by confession, and repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, spiritual life, physical death, and eternal life in heaven. It’s the ladder to heaven that Jesus Christ provides. It’s the choice of those alert to temptation. Here death is the door to heaven.
According to the Bible, there are no other chances to follow God after we die. We only live once, and die once. We only have one life to follow Jesus and then the opportunity will end. There is no reincarnation. Also, the way of salvation is not through good works, or superior knowledge, or acts of worship or devotion. We can’t get to heaven by being good. It’s not through what we do, but accepting what Jesus has already done for us.
But sin has consequences for Christians as well. We can also be oblivious and live as though God isn’t there. This destroys our fellowship with God. It can be restored if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God once again (1 Jn. 1:9). This pattern is like snakes and ladders, with sin being a snake that moves us away from God and restoration a ladder that moves us towards God. The sequence is: Temptation, followed by sin, loss of fellowship with God, conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, confession, repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, and the restoration of fellowship with God. It’s the snake and ladder of daily Christian living. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation, but whose conscience alarms later.
Of course it is better if our conscience alarms at the stage of temptation than that at the stage of conviction. So temptation is a critical stage. A healthy alert conscience short circuits the cycle and saves a lot of anguish.
Christians still experience the conflict between Satan and humanity (Gen. 3:15). When we pray it’s good to include spiritual concerns like temptation, sin, conviction, confession, repentance, and salvation, not just physical concerns.
Because we are all sinful, there will be crises in our life. There will be choices to make. In this respect, life is different to the game of snakes and ladders: it’s about choice, not chance. When facing a crisis, we need to realise that sin is our greatest problem. The first step in dealing with a problem or an addiction is to acknowledge that we have a problem. Then we can deal with the sin and get right with God.
Some say Genesis chapters 1-11 is just a story to illustrate that God made the world. It really took billions of years, not six days. It’s not real history. It’s a different genre. Adam and Eve didn’t exist, there was no global flood. The genealogies aren’t true. It’s an ancient myth. But such a viewpoint undermines the whole Bible. This part of Genesis is quoted extensively by both Jesus and Paul. Adam and Noah are both mentioned 8 times in the New Testament. They were real people.
So let’s remember these lessons from the early chapters of Genesis. Let’s be alert and aware of our sinfulness and not oblivious like someone using a smart phone when crossing a street. We ignore it at our peril because God punishes sinners. But it’s not all bad news, the good news is that God promised to help sinners like us and the rest of the Bible describes how He did it.
Let’s be like Noah’s family and make good choices and follow the God who made the universe, instead of living like He isn’t there. Realizing that sin is our greatest problem and Jesus is God’s solution.
Written, February 2104
A few years ago we made a photo collage of all the members of our church. Everyone’s face was in it. For various reasons some of these people no longer come to our church. More would be missing if we had photos taken 10, 20, or 30 years ago. I wonder how many of these are still following Jesus today. Unfortunately some people who seem to start well in the Christian faith, don’t finish well. There is a danger of turning away from God. Today we are looking at two life lessons from king Saul. One is an example to follow and the other is an example to avoid.
Saul followed God
Until he met Samuel the prophet, Saul was an ordinary guy who worked for his father by doing jobs, like searching for lost donkeys. This changed when Samuel told Saul that he was chosen to be the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 9:27 – 10:1). Saul changed to follow God. The Bible says that he was changed into a different person because he received power from God; God was with him and changed his heart (1 Sam.10:6, 7, 9). He was now up with the prophets instead of down with the donkeys. The people were so amazed when he prophesied with the prophets, they exclaimed “Is Saul among the prophets” (1 Sam. 10:10).
After Saul was declared to be their king, the people celebrated and shouted, “Long live the king” (1 Sam. 10:17-24). Saul had many military victories. After they defeated the Ammonites, there was a great celebration and the people renewed their allegiance to God and confirmed Saul as their king (1 Sam. 11:14-15).
So Saul was called by God and he followed God’s leading. What a great example for those who have been called to trust in the salvation provided by Jesus Christ. The Bible says “each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them” (1 Cor. 7:17). We are not kings, but God has placed us in situations where we can serve Him daily.
God used Samuel to call Saul and He uses the Holy Spirit and the gospel message to call us to follow Him today (1 Th. 1:5; 2 Th. 2:14). During this period of his reign he served God faithfully. And faithfulness characterises those who follow the Lord as it is listed in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
All is going well so far for Saul. But life is a marathon, not a sprint. We now turn to the next stage of Saul’s life.
Saul turned away from God
Samuel told Saul to wait for him at Gilgal and Samuel would come and offer sacrifices to God (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:7-15). When Saul became impatient, he disobeyed Samuel and God by offering the sacrifices himself and Samuel rebuked him. Only Levites were allowed to offer sacrifices and Saul was a Benjamite. It was the first of several sins that resulted in him being replaced by David as king of Israel.
Next Saul disobeyed God again by keeping the best animals and sparing the king when they defeated the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3, 9, 20). Then he proudly set up a monument in his own honor instead of acknowledging God (1 Sam. 15:12). The Bible says that he turned away from God (1 Sam. 15:10). He reverted. Instead of being up with the prophets, he was back down with the donkeys. Because he rejected God, God rejected him as king (1 Sam. 15:23).
After David defeated Goliath, Saul became extremely jealous of David and tried to kill him several times (1 Sam, 18:8-11, 28-29; 19:9-24). Then Saul chased him all around the land of Israel (1 Sam 18-26). During this time he had 85 priests killed, including the high Priest, because they helped David to escape (1 Sam. 22:6-23).
So Saul went from bad to worse. When he was afraid of the Philistines, he consulted the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:3-20). Finally when Saul was critically injured in battle he killed himself (1 Sam. 31:1-4). Saul didn’t finish well.
What does the Bible say about those who turn away from God?
The Galatians turned against the gospel by following Jewish legalism (Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11). They deserted God to follow a false gospel. False teaching and false teachers can deceive us. The Ephesians stopped loving the Lord and were told to repent and do the things they did at first (Rev. 2:4-5). The Corinthians tolerated sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). They were not concerned and carried on as though it didn’t matter. The churches at Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea were urged to repent and turn around to follow God once again (Rev. 2:16, 21; 3:3, 19).
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Ti. 4:9-10). It looks like Demas deserted Paul because he feared imprisonment and he loved this sinful world more.
The Bible says sin is the source of turning away from God. And the cure is confession of the sin and turning back towards God in repentance. David and Hezekiah and good examples of this.
Lessons for us
The two life lessons from king Saul correspond to the two stages of his reign. The first was faithful and fruitful, but the second was unfaithful and unfruitful. In the first he was godly and obedient, but in the second he was ungodly and wicked. In the first he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but in the second he did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. Although Saul’s reign started well, it didn’t finish well. Solomon followed the same pattern.
Let’s follow Saul’s good example. Let’s follow God faithfully like the first period of his reign. Let’s serve the Lord in the daily circumstances that He has given to us.
Also let’s choose to not follow his bad example. Don’t turn away from God like the second period of Saul’s reign. Keep living up here, not down there because turning away from God ruins our Christian testimony. If we have wandered from the Lord, it’s good to know there is a way back. We can always turn around to follow the Lord once again. We can be restored like the prodigal son.
When we sin we don’t have to turn away from God because He has provided a way to turn back to Him. Let’s be loyal to the Lord and finish well.
Written, September 2013
How many people continue to follow Jesus as their life progresses? Unfortunately some people who seem to start well in the Christian faith don’t finish well. What does the Bible say about those who turn away from God?
A backslider stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life. They desert the Christian faith and are unfaithful and unfruitful. It’s the opposite of repentance and conversion which is turning towards God. It’s also different to apostasy, which is when unbelievers become enemies of Christ after they were associated with the Christian faith (1 Tim. 2:19; 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Pt. 2:20-22).
Let’s look at how we can avoid backsliding and recover from backsliding in our Christian life.
King Saul had some natural advantages in life: he was handsome and a head taller than anyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). When Saul was looking for his father’s lost donkeys, he met Samuel the prophet. At this time Samuel privately anointed Saul as king of Israel (1 Sam. 10:1). After this he received power from God and prophesised – He gave God’s message to the people (1 Sam. 10:6, 9-11). Then Samuel summoned the nation and went through a selection process until Saul was publicly declared to be the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 10:17-24). The people celebrated and shouted, “Long live the king”.
When Saul heard that the Ammonites had besieged the city of Jabesh Gilead, he organised an army of 330,000 men and defeated them (1 Sam. 11:1-11). Then the Israelites celebrated again and renewed their allegiance to God and confirmed Saul as their king (1 Sam. 11:14-15). This was the pinnacle of Saul’s life.
Samuel told Saul to wait for him at Gilgal and Samuel would come and offer sacrifices to God (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:7-15). When Saul became impatient, he disobeyed Samuel and God by offering the sacrifices himself and Samuel rebuked him. Only Levites were allowed to offer sacrifices and Saul was a Benjamite. That was the beginning of his backsliding. It was the first of several sins that resulted in him being replaced by David as king of Israel.
Saul had many military victories, but when he foolishly told his troops not to eat food, the enemy Philistines escaped (1 Sam. 14:24, 26, 47-48). Then Saul disobeyed God again by keeping the best animals and sparing the king when they defeated the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3, 9, 20). Then he proudly set up a monument in his own honor instead of acknowledging God (1 Sam. 15:12). The Bible says that he turned away from God (1 Sam. 15:10). Because he rejected God, God rejected him as king (1 Sam. 15:23).
After David defeated Goliath, Saul became extremely jealous of David and tried to kill him several times (1 Sam, 18:8-11, 28-29; 19:9-24). Then Saul chased him all around the land of Israel (1 Sam 18-26). During this time he had 85 priests killed, including the high Priest, because they helped David to escape (1 Sam. 22:6-23).
When he was afraid of the Philistines, Saul consulted the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:3-20). Finally when Saul was critically injured in battle he killed himself (1 Sam. 31:1-4).
So we have seen the rise and fall of king Saul because he turned away from God.
The same happened to king Solomon who turned away from God to idolatry after he married foreign women (1 Ki. 11:1-13). It says “Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and “The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord”. Both kings started well, but didn’t finish well. And this is shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time.
Kings of Judah
Some of the kings of Judah also began well, but didn’t finish well.
Joash ruled for 40 years from the age of seven years. While his uncle the High Priest was alive, he followed God (2 Chron. 24:1-16). During this time he repaired the temple. But after Jehoiada died Joash forsook God and worshipped idols (2 Chron. 24:17-27). When they were rebuked by the new High Priest, Joash had him killed. Then they were defeated by their enemies and Joash was assassinated. So his reign had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness. And this is shown in the graph of his spiritual state against time.
His son Amaziah who reigned for 29 years followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chron. 25:1-13). During this period he obeyed God by dismissing the troops he had hired from the kingdom of Israel and defeated his enemies. But then he “turned away from following the Lord” and worshipped idols, attacked Israel and was defeated, and was assassinated (2 Chron. 25:14-24). So his reign had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
His son Uzziah who reigned for 52 years also followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chron. 26:1-15). But afterwards “his pride led to his downfall” and he disobeyed God by taking a priestly role and was punished with leprosy and was banished from the palace for the rest of his life (2 Chron. 26:16-21). So his reign also had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
Asa who ruled earlier for 41 years also followed this pattern. In the good years “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Ki. 15:11-15). Later he relied on a foreign king instead of on God, he imprisoned the prophet who rebuked him and he oppressed the people (2 Chron. 16:2-12). So his reign also had two periods, one of godliness, followed by one of wickedness.
All these kings of Judah started well, but didn’t finish well as shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time. They turned away from following the Lord.
Backsliding also occurred in New Testament times. The Galatians turned against the gospel by following Jewish legalism (Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11). They deserted God to follow a false gospel. False teaching and false teachers can deceive us. The Corinthians tolerated sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). They were not concerned and carried on as though it didn’t matter.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Ti. 4:9-10). It looks like Demas deserted Paul because he feared imprisonment and he loved this sinful world.
The cause of backsliding
Backsliding is when we stop following Christ. In this world, we’re all prone to failure. We all sin. Saul’s sin of disobedience was the beginning of his turning away from God. Sin is the source of backsliding. Sin is attractive, but it separates us from God.
Backsliding is a gradual process (a sliding back to a previous sinful condition). Remember Lot liked the fertile plain, then he settled near the city of Sodom, but he eventually moved into the city and became a city councillor. It was a gradual process.
The consequences of backsliding
Backsliding has a great impact on people’s lives and their family. Compare the lives of Lot and Abraham. God used Abraham and his descendants greatly, whereas Lot’s family were doomed. If we turn away from God we lose our personal relationship with the Lord (1 Jn. 1:6) and peace and joy and the assurance of God’s presence and His answer to our prayers (Ps. 66:18). It can also result in sickness and death (1 Cor. 11:30-32). There can be severe ongoing consequences even though a sin has been forgiven. For example, David’s grief with the death of Bathsheba’s baby son. And when we get to heaven we miss out on being rewarded by the Lord for our faithfulness (1 Cor. 3:15; 2 Jn 8).
Jesus said, “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn. 15:6). The sin of backsliding ruins a person’s Christian testimony and witness. Instead of remaining in touch with the Lord and demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit and bearing fruit, there is sinfulness and people ridicule them and their God.
These consequences are the dangers of backsliding.
The cure of backsliding
Like Saul, David failed when he sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11). But he did something about it. Not all sin leads to backsliding and turning against God for an appreciable period of time. David confessed and repented (Ps. 32:1-5; 40:1-8; 51:1-19). He called out to God, acknowledged all the wrong things that he had done and turned around to follow God once again.
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:1-5). David experienced God’s mercy of forgiveness (v.1-2). He suffered when he refused to acknowledge his sin (v.3-4). But there was relief when he confessed his sin (v.5).
Likewise king Hezekiah repented of the sin of pride (2 Ch. 32:25-26). This contrast between Saul who backslid and David and Hezekiah who repented is shown in shown in the graph of their spiritual state against time. David and Hezekiah were restored to fellowship once again. Saul was not.
David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:1-3). “I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8). His path was corrected and his relationship with God was restored. What a contrast to Saul who turned far away from God.
We will now look at the steps in the process of restoration, which will be illustrated in a diagram.
Conviction. The first step is to admit our sins instead of excusing them. Peter was convicted after he denied the Lord three times. The Bible says he wept bitterly (Mt. 26:75).
Confession. The next step is to confess our sin (1 Jn. 1:9). David said “I have sinned against the Lord” (12 Sam. 12:13).
Repentance. The next step is to change direction and turn around to follow God one again. It involves completely changed attitudes and behaviour. It is more than confessions or remorse. The Bible says it’s having a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 18:30-32). The churches in Revelation were urged to repent (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3, 19).
Forgiveness. After we are convicted and confess and repent, God offers forgiveness. He has great mercy. David was told “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13). There are three kinds of forgiveness mentioned in the Bible.
God’s judicial forgiveness. God is a judge of all those who have never trusted in Him. This forgiveness removes the barrier to heaven. It is when an unbeliever comes to faith in Christ. If we acknowledge our sinfulness and believe that Jesus paid the penalty for us, then we are viewed as God’s children. Have you experienced this kind of forgiveness? If not, why not start following the Lord by confessing your sins and trusting Christ as Savior?
God’s parental forgiveness. God is a father of all those who have trusted in Him. This forgiveness restores a believer’s fellowship with God after it has been severed by sin. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
Christians need to do this regularly. For example, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11: 28-29). This says we need to examine ourselves before participating in the Lord’s supper. It means admitting our sins and confessing them so our relationships can be restored with each other and with God. When they came together in Corinth, they were being selfish by discriminating against the poor (1 Cor. 11:20-21, 30-32). Their judgment was sickness and premature death, which was the Lord’s discipline. If we examine ourselves and get right with God, we will not come under His discipline. That’s why the Christian life should be full of confession. So our relationship with the Lord can be restored. The Christian life is full of restarts. Each of these involves conviction of sin, confession of sin and repentance to put things right.
Forgiving one another. This restores fellowship between believers. God cannot forgive us when we are unwilling to forgive one another (Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37). We are to forgive others when they acknowledge their wrongs (Mt. 18:15-17; Lk. 17:1-10).
After a backslider has been sorry for their sins and repented, then as God has forgiven them they should be forgiven and restored to Christian fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11).
Restoration. Once we are forgiven, we are restored to following Christ once again. This should be a time for celebration, like when the prodigal son returned home (Lk. 15:22-24).
Lessons for us
We have seen how to get right with God and how to stay right with God. How to draw near to God. How to be close to the Lord. And they are the same!
What does the graph of our spiritual state against time look like? Have we started by following Jesus in the first place? If yes, have we turned away from Him? Have we responded by taking the steps to restoration?
James encourages us to pray for backsliders like Elijah prayed for the kingdom of Israel who worshipped idols (Jas. 5:16-20). Such people wander from the truth and commit many sins. If someone helps them to confess their sins and repent by turning around to follow the Lord once again, then their sins will be forgiven and they will be saved from dying prematurely under God’s judgment. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. Paul also urged us to help restore a believer “caught in a sin” (Gal. 6:1-2).
Let’s be aware of our sinfulness. The Israelites were warned that when they became prosperous they would become proud and forget the Lord (Dt. 8:10-14). That is a big risk for most of us because we have food, houses, money and possessions. We are well off compared to most people in the world.
Saul’s backsliding began with an act of disobedience which led to a life of sinful behaviour. Sin is dangerous. It grows. Let’s respond to sin like David and practice conviction, confession and repentance. If we have wandered from the Lord, it’s good to know there is a way back. We can always turn around to follow the Lord once again. We can be restored like the prodigal son.
When we sin we don’t have to backslide because God has provided a way to turn back to Him.
Let’s be loyal to the Lord and finish well.
Written, Sep 2013
As there will be people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven, it seems that some of these would not have heard about Jesus before they died (Rev. 5:9-10). I believe that infants go to heaven when they die because they are not accountable for their sin. We will look at other people in two categories, those who lived before and after Christ.
The Bible says that those who trusted God in Old Testament times go to heaven. Although most of the promises they were given were physical, they also had a heavenly hope. They realised that this earth was not their final home: “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Heb. 11:13NIV). Instead they were looking towards heaven: “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16a). We are told that God “has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16b). In particular, Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
These people are commended in Hebrews as those who lived by faith. The Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Jews were told, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). This faith was based on a revelation from God.
“Enoch walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24). So did Noah (Gen. 6:9). This means they obeyed God. “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Job repented after God revealed His power through nature (Job 38-41; 42:6).
So those who trusted in God’s revelation to them before the formation of the Israelite nation go to heaven. In their case, God usually spoke directly to them.
God spoke to the Israelites “at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). It is stated that Moses accepted “disgrace for the sake of Christ” (Heb. 11:26). But as Moses lived about 1,450 years before Christ, this seems to be a figure of speech. It means that Moses choose to be loyal to God and to associate with his fellow Israelites. The reason given is that “he was looking ahead to his reward”. As Hebrews was probably written about 65AD, the writer knew that the Messiah was the one through whom God guaranteed their promised future.
So the Israelites who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. In their case, the revelation was usually miracles and the law given through Moses.
We know God revealed Himself to the Israelites as they were His people during this period of time. But what about the Gentiles? The Israelites were told to follow the laws that God gave them through Moses so that other nations would come to know God: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Dt. 4:6-8).
Rahab is a Gentile who trusted God (Heb. 11:31). She told the Israelite spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land … for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:9-11). Because of what she had heard of the Exodus and the defeat of the Amorites, she realised that the God of the Israelites was greater than the Canaanite gods. So she rejected the Canaanite gods to follow the God of the Israelites.
Also Ruth the Moabite told her Israelite mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Likewise, she rejected the gods of the Moabites to follow the God of the Israelites. God’s interest in the Gentiles is shown in the book of Jonah where Jonah was sent to Nineveh with a message of God’s judgment and the people repented of their sin (Jon. 3:1-10).
So the Gentiles who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. God revealed Himself to them through the Israelites when they heard about their law and the miraculous preservation of their nation.
All the above are examples of people who go to heaven without hearing about Jesus. But the Bible says the following about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12NLT). And Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This means that the only way to get into heaven is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Christ’s death people were saved according to their acceptance of God’s revelation to them. It was based on the future work of Christ. So those who trusted in God’s revelation in Old Testament times go to heaven because their faith in God was equivalent to faith in Jesus Christ. They were saved on credit. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). In this way God overlooked the sins of those who trusted in Him before Christ’s death and resurrection.
In Romans, God reveals that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) and we can only get to heaven through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice for us (Rom. 3:22-26). But it also says that people are judged according to God’s revelation to them: “All who sin apart from the law (Gentiles) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law (Jews) will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). The two main ways that God reveals himself to people who haven’t heard about Jesus are creation and conscience.
Firstly, the physical world demands a Creator. Its design requires a Designer. The laws of nature require a Lawmaker. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). Enough of God is revealed in His creation that there is no excuse for not believing in Him. Those who reject this revelation follow idols and practice sinful behaviour and suffer God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-32).
Nature is a testimony of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4). Also, Paul said “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17).
So if people haven’t heard about Jesus, they can be judged according to their response to the revelation of God in creation. If they turn from idolatry and seek the true God, then God may give them additional revelation. For example, Cornelius was a Gentile who sought God. So God sent Peter to tell him about Jesus and salvation (Acts 11:14). God can appear to people in many ways throughout their lives. He can send people to inform them (Rom. 10:14-15). Because God doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell and wants everyone to repent of their sin, we must trust that He has made a way for those people (2 Pt. 3:9).
Secondly, everyone is born with a conscience. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. God will say, “What did you think was right and wrong?” The next question is, “Did you always do the right and not the wrong?” By that standard, of course, everyone fails. The conscience proves that we are sinners like the law does for the Jew.
The issue is their response to a guilty conscience. If they were sorry for their behavior and would repent then they would probably go to heaven. This reasoning is based on the fact that God is just and wants all to be saved. He has made a way for all, but few accept it.
Like those who lived before Christ, the issue is whether they responded to God’s revelation to them. So through the creation and our conscience, God gives everyone the opportunity to turn to Him and be saved from the penalty of their sinfulness and go to heaven.
Lessons for us
Like the Israelites, a Christian’s behaviour can influence an unbeliever to repent and follow God and go to heaven. “Live such good lives among the pagans (your unbelieving neighbors, NLT) that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pt. 2:12).
Although people can to be saved without hearing about Jesus, it isn’t likely to occur in very many instances. The usual way to go to heaven is to respond to hearing about Jesus. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14). That’s why it’s important to tell people about Jesus as much as possible and support others in this work.