Does the Bible support genocide, violence and war? In 1 Samuel 15:1-3 God tells the Israelites to destroy the entire Amalekite nation. I have been asked “Does god give us permission to commit genocide in situations where he deems it acceptable? How should this scripture help us find peace and stability for all in this world? What shall we say to the violence and utter destruction this poses should this be a model for us to use in future conflicts? How should one balance this with “thou shall not kill”? Is this what you are talking about when you speak of the bible’s congruency with itself over the time it was written?” That’s a good question!
Another comment was “I did quote you a verse from the Bible that I believe empowers Christianity to wage war and 1 Samuel 15:3 sounds like war to me. And “if” god really did inspire these scriptures then he IS THE PROBLEM. It is also irrelevant what part of the bible this comes from when it is the holy inspired truth. If this scripture is no longer valid or void because it is part of the Old Testament then your argument for the validity, authenticity, or divine authority of the whole bible is very questionable. How does this work? Do we now have Synod of George and those that think like him who now get to say that part of the bible is no longer valid and we like this part instead? If so then Islam seems to have the most uncorrupted book. If Jesus ended the old testament system how did we end up with all the crusades? Perhaps we need some new prophet to come forth again and end all this religious violence we have now. Lord knows we need it because as long as Jews, Muslims, and Christians are fighting none of us will ever know peace. If the bible cannot inspire us to “be peace” then it is no longer relevant to human beings and should be discarded in the anals of history”.
The Bible was written in ancient times. To read it is like visiting those ancient times. We are like tourists travelling to a different place where there is a different language, culture, situation, time in history and maybe a different covenant in God’s dealing with humanity.
We also need to know that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end. So we should also read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation.
Here’s what the Bible says, “Samuel said to Saul, ‘I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over His people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’’” (1 Sam. 15:1-3NIV). So, they were commanded to completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation.
We can understand God’s message in the Bible by finding the original meaning, and then the principles behind this, and updating them according to what has changed since then, and applying these modern principles in our daily lives.
History of the Amalekites
The Hebrews (Israelites) were God’s chosen people in Old Testament times. They originated from Jacob whose name was changed to Israel. They moved from Canaan to Egypt during a drought. Because of Joseph, they were encouraged to settle in Egypt (Gen. 47:5-12). But when the Hebrew population grew in Egypt, the Egyptians used them as save labor and ordered the killing of all Hebrew baby boys (Ex. 1:6-22). But Moses was spared this fate. And God told him that He planned to rescue the Hebrews from slavery. Moses was to lead them out of Egypt towards the north so they could settle in the land of Canaan (Ex. 3:7-10). After ten plagues devastated the land of Egypt, the Egyptians urged the Hebrews to leave Egypt. God led them with pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of for by night. There were many obstacles during their journey. The first was when they miraculously crossed part of the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was drowned. They also experienced a polluted water supply, and lack of food and water. So the Hebrews grumbled against Moses. The next challenge recorded in the Bible is when the Amalekites attacked them just before they reached Mt Sinai.
The Amalekites were a nomadic group that moved around the southern regions of Palestine between Egypt and Edom (see Appendix 1). And at times they occupied the southern portion of the promised land. They were living in the Negev (near the southern border of the Promised Land) when the Hebrews spied out Canaan (Num. 13:29; 14:25, 43, 45). They attacked the Israelites who were travelling from Egypt towards Canaan (Ex. 17:8-16). God helped the Israelites warriors led by Joshua to defeat the Amalekites. And after the battle, God promised Moses, “I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex. 17:14). Even the pagan Balaam repeated this message that the Amalekites were the first nation to attack the Israelites after they left Egypt and oppose God’s purpose for His people and he predicted their destruction (Num. 24:20). The word “first” is also used in this sense in Numbers 15:20, 21; 18:12. And Moses said, “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16).
By the way, the armies of other nations who attacked the Hebrews en route to Canaan (like the Amalekites), the Amorites and the people of Arad and Bashan were also completely destroyed (Num. 21:1-3; 21-35). This pattern of destruction is unique to the nations that opposed Israel’s settlement of Canaan.
After the men who spied Canaan returned with a negative report, the Israelites rebelled against God. So God said they would die in the desert before reaching Canaan. But the Israelites didn’t accept this judgement and decided to disobey God once again by invading Canaan (Num. 14:40-45). God commanded them not to do this. But they persisted and were defeated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites. At this time some Amalekites were living in the hill country near Hebron, which was inside the promised land.
Just before the Israelites entered Canaan they were given laws that included, “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land He is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget” (Dt. 25:17-19)! This is about 40 years after God’s promise to “completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”. The context of this law is teaching on justice (Dt. 25. 1:16). So the destruction of the name of Amalek is a matter of justice.
After the Israelites settled in Canaan, the Amalekites helped the Moabites to capture Jericho from Israel (Jud. 3:12-14). And later they helped the Midianites oppress the Israelites (Jud. 6:3, 33; 7:12). So the Amalekites continued to attack the Israelites.
Then God’s instruction is given to Saul (1 Sam. 15:1-3). This is about 380 years after God’s promise to “completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”. Saul went to destroy the Amalekites, but he disobeyed God by sparing the king and the best livestock (1 Sam. 15:4-26). As a result of this Samuel said that his reign would end and he would be replaced with another king (David). In a summary of Saul’s military victories it says that, “He fought valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, delivering Israel from the hands of those who had plundered them” (1 Sam. 14:48). It is evident that not all the Amalekites were destroyed in this battle because David and his men raided them about 17 years afterwards (1 Sam. 27:8).
When Samuel put king Agag to death Samuel said, “as your sword has made women childless”, which shows that he was punished for his own violence (1 Sam.15:33).
Soon afterwards when David and his men were away from their wives and children, they returned to find they had been kidnapped by the Amalekites who had destroyed the city (Ziklag) with fire (1 Sam. 30:1-31). So David and his men went after the Amalekites and rescued the wives and children. They killed all the Amalekite army except for 400 young men who escaped. About 300 years later, in the days of king Hezekiah, the descendants of Simeon “killed the remaining Amalekites who had escaped” (1 Chron. 4:43). This is about 700 years after God’s promise to “completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”.
The plot to destroy the Jews of Persia in about 470 BC was lead by Haman who may have been an Amalekite (Est. 3:1-6). This was about 970 years after their first attack on the Israelites!
The Amalekites tried to destroy Israel more than any other nation. Their hatred of the Israelites and their repeated attempts to destroy God’s people led to their ultimate doom. Their fate should be a warning to all who oppose God’s purposes.
The original meaning
The books of 1-2 Samuel are a historical narrative of the history of the nation of Israel from the birth of Samuel to near the end of king David’s reign.
The passage (1 Sam. 15:1-3) is a message from God to Saul the first king of Israel. It was given in about 1030 BC. The message was that the Israelites were to totally destroy the Amalekites and all that belonged to them (see Appendix 2). The reason given is because the Amalekites opposed Israel by attacking them when they came from Egypt about 420 years earlier. This was an unprovoked attack. And the Amalekites repeatedly attacked God’s chosen people many times over hundreds of years.
The passage is a command given to Saul and the Israelites. It’s not a model that they were to follow or just a report of events that occurred. The meaning is clear and there seem to be no figures of speech in the passage.
Now we know the original meaning of the passage, what are the principles behind it?
The original principles
A principle is a general truth applicable in a variety of situations. This message to Saul is a command that required obedience. So, one principle is that God’s people should obey God’s commands.
The command was to punish the Amalekites for attacking the Israelites when they were obeying God by travelling from Egypt towards Canaan. In this case the punishment was to be complete destruction (see Appendix 2). So another principle is that God judges (punishes) those who oppose Him or rebel against Him. God punishes the wicked.
In this case the punishment was to be death. So another principle is that death can be a punishment by God for those who oppose Him or rebel against Him. This episode also taught the Israelites that God protects His people.
Does this message justify God’s people retaliating or seeking revenge or warring against their enemies? No, because in this case God issued the command about 420 years after the offense. So, God was deciding the timing and not the Israelites.
Now we know the ancient principles behind the passage. But what about us today living about three thousand years later? We need to update the principle.
What has changed since then?
Our time in history, situation, and culture are different to then. Today God’s people are Christians from all nations, and not just Israelites (Jews) as was the case in the Old Testament. We have the whole book of the Bible and not just the Pentateuch. We know God’s whole program of salvation and not just the beginning of it. We are under a different covenant and no longer under the Old Testament law. We haven’t been given the commands of Moses to follow. We are not Israelites living in Canaan with God living in a tent; we are Christians with God living in us as the Holy Spirit. We are not Israelites living in a theocracy that was meant to drive out or destroy the previous inhabitants of Canaan.
Jesus told His followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). But this thought is already in the laws of Moses (Ex. 22:4-5). Jesus was talking about people like the Romans who hated and threatened to harm Jews. Also, He treated the Samaritan woman (who Jews despised) with kindness (Jn. 4). When Jesus was arrested unjustly by men carrying weapons, Peter cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant (Malchus) with a sword (Lk. 22:49-51; Jn. 18:2-11). But Jesus said, “no more of this!”. And He touched the man’s ear and healed him. And Jesus prayed for those who crucified Him to be forgiven of their sins.
Paul said, “bless those who persecute you” (Rom. 12:14). And don’t retaliate or seek revenge (Rom. 12:17-21). We are not the ones to take revenge. Instead we should leave that up to God.
Paul also said that our main enemies are spiritual and not physical (Eph. 6:10-20). He also said that Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt. 5:8). This is a figure of speech that illustrates how we can be unaware of Satan, but he can devastate our lives. And our main weapons against these spiritual enemies are the truth, God’s righteousness, the good news (gospel) about Jesus Christ, salvation, the word of God (Bible), and prayer.
As Christians are under the new covenant and not the old one, God doesn’t promise to keep them from all physical harm. Instead He promises to protect them spiritually. Their salvation is assured. And nothing can separate them from God’s love.
Now we know what’s changed since the time of king Saul, what are the principles behind the passage for us today?
The modern principles
This is where we use the original principles and what has changed since then to develop equivalent principles for us today. We can also ask, what does the passage teach us about God and humanity?
The first principle for Christians today is that they should obey God’s commands to them. These commands are found in the New Testament (although we need to realize that the gospels describe a period that was under the old covenant). The commands in the New Testament were addressed to Christians living in the first century AD. Although we live in a different time in history, we still live in the church era where the Holy Spirit indwells all true Christians. So, these commands should still apply to us in some way. And any commands in the Old Testament (who weren’t given specifically to Christians) must be viewed through the insight of later revelation in the Bible.
The second principle for today is that God punishes sinners (those who rebel against Him). The New Testament says that we are all sinners and death is a consequence of our sin (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). This is bad news!
The third principle for today is that our main enemies are spiritual and not physical (Eph. 6:10-18).
The fourth principle for today is that God protects His people spiritually and not necessarily physically.
The fifth principle for today is to not retaliate when provoked and leave revenge up to God.
Now we know the modern principles, how can we put them into practice today?
The modern applications
How should we apply these universal principles? Each principle has many applications according to the different situations people can be in. What do we need to know and do?
We are to obey God’s commands to us. Those for the church are given in the New Testament. We need to read this portion of the Bible often in order to know what God’s commands are. Once we know and understand them, then we should put them into practice. For example, do we bless or curse those who oppose us (Rom. 12:14-21)? Do we love or hate them? Do we empathize with others?
What about the Old Testament? We can also read it and use the method used in this post to determine the principles and applications for us today.
We are to recognize that because we are all sinners who have disobeyed God, we are separated from God and deserve to be punished by Him. But Jesus came to earth to take this punishment. The good news (gospel message) is that we can avoid this punishment by confessing and turning away from (repenting of) our sins and trusting in Jesus’ work of salvation. Are we aware of our sinfulness? Do we have a guilty conscience? Has this led us to repent and turn to God for forgiveness and salvation?
As Christians we have accepted that Christ’s sacrificial death was for our sins, and so the penalty for these has already been paid. But sin breaks our fellowship with God. This can only be restored by confessing the sin to God – “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). Do we confess our sins to God?
As our main enemies are spiritual and not physical, we need to be empowered by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit using weapons such as prayer and the truth revealed in the Bible. How often do we read the Bible? Do we memorize scripture? How often do we pray?
God protects us spiritually when we are in a church fellowship, when we have joy in the Lord, when we practice the truths in the Bible, when we watch out for false teachers, and when we develop assurance of salvation (Phil. 3:1-3). Who holds us accountable? Do we have joy on the Lord? Do we use scripture to counter temptations? Are we aware of the major errors being promoted amongst Christians? And does our behavior show that we have changed to follow Christ?
As we are not to retaliate when provoked and leave revenge up to God, we should respect and pray for those who attack and oppose us. How do we treat those who oppose us? Do we pray for them?
This exegesis of 1 Samuel 15:1-3 shows that this passage doesn’t make genocide or war acceptable today. The command was justified in its original context, but it doesn’t apply to other situations. Furthermore, there are no commands given to Christians in the New Testament that are similar to 1 Samuel 15:1-3. So the ideas of genocide and physical warfare against other nations aren’t commanded or modelled in the New Testament.
But the New Testament does acknowledge that there will be wars between nations (Mk. 13:7-8). And wars are predicted in Revelation (Rev. 6:3-4; 8:7; 9:17-19; 12:14, 17; 13:7-9), culminating in wars against God and His people (Rev. 19:19; 20:7-9).
Also, the New Testament repeats the sixth commandment by saying “You shall not murder” (Rom. 13:9; Jas. 2:11). Murder is prohibited because people are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5-6).
How can a loving God command a genocide? The Amalekites repeatedly tried to destroy Israel (God’s people on earth). This happened over a period of 400 years. God records these episodes to show how they opposed the Israelites from generation to generation. But the Israelites were chosen to bring blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3). If God was going to keep on blessing the world, he needed to stop the Amalekites. God knew that the Amalekites would always oppose Israel. Moses said, “The Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16). Without total destruction of the Amalekite nation, they were going to keep on coming back, and God’s plan would not be safe. Women and children were included, because otherwise the pagan attacks on the Israelites would continue.
God is also holy, righteous and just. This means that God judges all rebellion against Him. What about God’s mercy? Before the Israelites attacked the Amalekites, king Saul told the Kenites, “Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them” (1 Sam. 15:5). The Amalekites had a way out, if they were willing to deny their identity as Amalekites and live with another nation. The purpose was to destroy Amalek as a nation. So it is genocide (elimination) of a nation and not necessarily genocide of all the people of that nation. When the Amalekites became aware of the imminent attack they could chose to flee with the Kenites or stay with their people and oppose the Israelites. Those who fled lived and most of those who stayed died.
For those who seek “some new prophet to come forth again and end all this religious violence we have now”, in future Satan will provide a counterfeit Messiah (Rev. 13:1-18). But Jesus brings peace (Rev. 21:1-4). At the end of history He will bring in a kingdom of peace. So, violence and war are not models for us to follow.
Those who question the ethics and morality of the command in 1 Samuel 15:1-3 often don’t believe in the existence of God. But this is a contradiction. How can there be absolute morals without God? That’s impossible. Our society has no basis for morality at all. Democratic morality changes from time to time (for example it can approve of sexual immorality).
We have investigated the original meaning, the original principles, what’s changed since then, equivalent modern principles and modern applications of 1 Samuel 15:1-3. The original meaning given in about 1030 BC was that the Israelites were to totally destroy the Amalekite nation. But the modern application of this passage relates to obeying God’s commands to us in the New Testament, and realizing that we are all sinners who deserve God’s judgement, and realizing that our main enemies are spiritual and not physical, and not retaliating when provoked but leaving revenge up to God, So 1 Samuel 15:1-3 doesn’t make genocide or war acceptable today.
Appendix 1: Where did the Amalekites live?
From ancient times the Amalekites lived in the land extending to Shur and Egypt (1 Sam. 27:8). Shur was a desert between Egypt and Philistia. It was north-east of Egypt and west of the Negev. And “Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt” (1 Sam. 15:7). So Shur was outside the southern boundary of the promised land.
The Hebrew spies reported that “The Amalekites live in the Negev”, the desert between Egypt and Canaan (Num. 13:29). This is consistent with an earlier statement that they lived at En Mishpat (Kadesh) (Gen 14:7). And at this time the Amalekites and Canaanites were living in the valleys between Kadesh and the promised land (Num. 14:25). When the Israelites tried to enter Canaan from Kadesh, “the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah” (Num. 14:45). Hormah is east of Beersheba. This implies that some Amalekites were living in the hill country near Hebron, which was inside the promised land.
Later the Amalekites are associated with the Midianites and “other eastern peoples” (Jud. 6:3). Even later some Amalekites resettled in the hill country of Ephraim, which was inside the promised land (Jud. 12:15).
At the last mention in the Bible of the Amalekites they were living in the hill country of Seir (1 Chron. 4:42-43). Seir (Edom) was south and south-east of the Dead Sea. It was outside the southern boundary of the promised land.
So although the Amalekites are not listed among the nations who occupied Canaan before the Israelites settled there (Ge. 15:19-21; Ex. 3:8; Dt. 7:1; 20:17; Jud. 3:3-5), and they are not mentioned in the Book of Joshua, which describes battles between the Israelites and the Canaanite tribes, at times they did occupy the promised land.
It seems as though the Amalekites were a nomadic group that moved around the southern regions of Palestine between Egypt and Edom. And at times they occupied the southern portion of the promised land.
Appendix 2: “Charam”
According to Brown-Driver-Briggs, in 1 Samuel 15:3, the Hebrew verb charam (Strongs #2763) means “exterminating inhabitants, and destroying or appropriating their possessions”. It is used in the Old Testament for the destruction of the cities of Canaanites and other neighbors of Israel. The most well know example is the city of Jericho (Josh. 6:17). The related noun is cherem (Strongs #2764).
In the case of the Canaanites, God waited about 400 years until the sin of the Amorites “reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). Then God dispossessed the Amorites of their territory because of their sinful behavior. Those who practice gross sin and idolatry come under God’s judgement. And God decides when this punishment is administered. Later the kingdoms of Israel and Judah experienced the same punishment because of their sinful behavior and disregarding their covenant commitments to God.
We expect serious sin to be punished and have laws to administer this. But in God’s sight we are all sinners.
As these instances of cities and nations being “devoted to destruction” were specific to the settling of Israel in Canaan, this practice is not applicable today. So, its occurrence in the Old Testament shouldn’t be used to justify warfare today.
So what should the Christians attitude be to warfare? Some Christians are pacifists. Others would say that warfare is justified for self-defence and for supporting the defenceless against attacks.
Written, December 2017
There is no such thing as sin. It’s an outmoded religious idea. Sin is an illusion. A perception. A mental creation. It is not real outside of your head. Morals are evolved responses. Humans are hardwired by evolution to behave the way they do. That’s what some people think about sin. Another idea is that some people are sinless.
The Shia branch of Islam says that prophets of Allah (God) are infallible. They claim that “All the prophets and messengers of Allah, with no exception, are sinless and infallible”, while some others say they were protected from major sins but not from minor ones. What does the Bible say on this topic?
In the Bible, a prophet (nabi in Hebrew, Strongs #5030) is one who speaks on behalf of someone else. For example, Aaron was Moses’ spokesman (Ex. 7:1). So he was a prophet of Moses. The word is usually used in the Old testament for a spokesman for God, a person chosen by God to speak to people on His behalf. God’s prophets brought messages from God. They were God’s messengers to humanity who were enabled by the Holy Spirit (2 Chr. 15:1; Neh. 9:30; Mic. 3:8). They guided the nation of Israel spiritually and wrote the Old Testament. In this post, we list some of their sins and shortcomings which are mentioned in the Bible. Sin is rebellion against God which is a part of human nature that’s inherited from Adam and Eve (Dt. 9:7; Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3).
Abraham is the first man to be given the title “prophet” in the Bible (Gen. 20:7). During his life, he deceived both Pharaoh and King Abimelek by saying that his wife was his sister instead of saying that she was his wife (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-13). On both of these occasions, which were 20 years apart, he didn’t trust God’s promise that he would have a son (Isaac). Instead he thought that they would kill him to take his beautiful wife for their harems.
God spoke indirectly to prophets by visions and dreams, but He spoke to Moses directly, face to face (Num. 12:4-8; Dt. 34:10). Also, “No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Dt. 34:12NIV). That’s why Moses has been called the greatest prophet. He also complied and wrote most of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). By the way, John the Baptist was the prophet with the greatest privilege because he announced the arrival of the Messiah (Mt 11:9-11).
God commissioned Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery in Egypt northwards to Canaan (Ex. 3:1-22). Previously God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would occupy Canaan (Ex. 6:8). But Moses died before Israel reached Canaan. This was God’s judgment because he “broke faith with me (God) in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the desert of Zin and because you (Moses) did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites” (Dt. 32:51NIV). This occurred when there was no water for the Israelites and their livestock and they complained to Moses and Aaron (Num. 20:1-13). God told Moses to take his staff and gather the people together and speak to a rock and water would pour out of it. But Moses didn’t obey God. Instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it twice with his staff. Because of this sin, God told him “you will not bring this community into the land (Canaan) I give them”.
A prophet from Judah
After King Jeroboam set up an idolatrous system of worship in the kingdom of Israel, God sent a prophet from Judah to denounce their idolatry (1 Ki. 13:1-32). Because of God’s judgement of their apostate worship, the prophet was commanded not to eat or drink while he was in Israel. But when an old man said, “I too am a prophet, as you are. And an angel said to me by the word of the Lord: ‘Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.’ (But he was lying to him.) So the man of God (prophet) returned with him and ate and drank in his house” (1 Ki. 13:18-19). This was a lie because although the old man may have been a true prophet in his younger days, he was now living in Bethel where there was a golden calf idol. While they were eating together, the old man from Bethel received a message from God saying that because of his disobedience, the prophet would die and would not be buried with his family. On his way home, the prophet was killed by a lion and buried in Bethel.
Peter said that David was a prophet (Acts 2:30). King David wrote many of the psalms. But he exploited his positional power in adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the killing of Uriah her husband (2 Sam. 11:1-27).
When God told Jonah to preach to the Assyrians in Nineveh, he disobeyed by boarding a ship travelling in the opposite direction (Jon. 1:1-3; 4:1)!
Jeremiah predicted the Babylonian invasion of the kingdom of Judah and demise of the Babylonian empire about 70 years later and the return of the Jews to their homeland. He also wrote the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. But at times Jeremiah regretted his unpopular ministry. This led to depression and suicidal thoughts (Jer. 20:14-18).
What about Enoch and Elijah?
The Bible says that sin leads to death (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, people die because of sin. Did any prophets not die? Yes, Enoch and Elijah (Gen. 5:24; Heb. 11:5). Does this mean that they never sinned?
James used Elijah to illustrate the prayer of a righteous person. He emphasized that Elijah had the same human nature as us:
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are” (Jas. 5:17NIV).
“Elijah was a human being like us” (Jas.5:17NET).
“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17ESV, HCSB)
So Elijah had a sinful nature like us: He wasn’t infallible and sinless.
For example, after he was threatened by Queen Jezebel, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life”. He ran from Jezebel travelling at least 160 km (100 miles) to Beersheba! Then he was depressed and suicidal (1 Ki. 19:1-14). So Elijah was like us when he experienced fear, discouragement and dismay.
We know very little about Enoch, except that his father was Jared and Methuselah was one of his sons (Gen. 5:18-24). “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Gen. 5:24). And Jude records a prophesy by Enoch (Jude 14-15). As Enoch had two human parents; according to Romans 5:12 he inherited the sin of Adam. This is a characteristic of humanity. The only exception is Jesus, who didn’t have a human father (Joseph was His step-father).
After Jesus miraculously fed over 5,000 people and taught at the festival of tabernacles, they thought He was the prophet who was promised in the Old Testament (Jn. 6:14; 7:40). The Samaritan woman, the blind man, and those who saw Him raise the widow’s son thought that Jesus was a prophet (Jn. 4:19; 9:17; Lk. 7:16). So some people thought He was a prophet (Mk. 6:15; 8:28). When some Pharisees advised Jesus to escape from Jerusalem, He said “no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (Lk. 13:33). When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people said He was “Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (Mt. 21:11). And the two travelling to Emmaus after Christ’s death called Him a prophet (Lk. 24:19). God had promised Moses “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him” (Dt. 18:18). This prophet would be a mediator between God and people. In the context of Christ’s coming reign on earth, Peter said that Jesus would be a prophet like Moses (Acts 3:21-23). The similarity is that both are raised up by God (Dt. 18:15, 18).
But Jesus was unique. He didn’t have a biological (human) father like all other people. And He is the only sinless infallible person to have lived on earth. The Bible says “He committed no sin”; He “had no sin”; and “in Him is no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pt. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). He made no mistakes or errors. He was greater than Moss (Heb. 3:1-6). Also see, “Ten reasons Jesus was more than a prophet”. These reasons are all consistent with Jesus being the divine Son of God who is equal with God and is alive today.
All the Old Testament prophets were sinners because they had a sinful nature (being born of human parents) and so they weren’t infallible. Likewise, people like Mary the mother of Jesus, the Pope, and Muhammad are sinners and so they weren’t (or aren’t) infallible. Also, the originators and leaders of all religions (except for Jesus Christ) are sinners and so they weren’t (or aren’t) infallible.
However, a biblical prophet’s revelations were divinely authoritative and infallible. David wrote, “the Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; His word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). Peter said that a prophetic message is “completely reliable” and “prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Pt. 1:19-21). A prophet’s words were God’s words. What a prophet said, God said.
What about prophets who lived after 33 AD? Those whose message is not consistent with Jesus being the Son of God and the only mediator between God and humanity are false prophets: because “In the past God spoke to our (Jews) ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son (Jesus), whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe” (Heb. 1:1-2). In fact, “many false prophets have gone out into the world” and they can be recognized by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3).
What about Christians today? The Bible says, “If we claim to be without sin (a sinful nature), we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins (individual sins), He (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned (individual sins), we make Him (God) out to be a liar and His word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8-10). Conversion doesn’t eradicate our sinful nature. But it gives us a new divine nature with power to live victoriously over the sinful nature. One of the ways to do this is to confess our individual sins and through God’s parental forgiveness (based on Christ paying the penalty for us) our fellowship with God and each other is restored. If anyone claims to be sinless, they make God out to be a liar and deny the reason Jesus come to earth to die. This applies to both the Gnostics of John’s era and todays atheists who deny that immoral actions are sinful.
The Bible shows that prophets like Abraham, Moses, a prophet from Judah, David, Jonah, Jeremiah were sinners and so they aren’t infallible. Even a prophet who didn’t die (Elijah) was a sinner. In fact, all the descendants of Adam and Eve were sinners except for Jesus Christ who wasn’t conceived in the usual way. He is the only infallible person.
So the Shia Islamic view that prophets of Allah (God) are infallible isn’t consistent with the Bible. Also, the atheist and Buddhist view that there is no such thing as sin isn’t consistent with the Bible. This means that they are human ideas that don’t come from God.
Written, November 2016
According to Listovative.com the greatest leaders of all time were Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Franklin D Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill, Asoka, Alexander The Great, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro.
But the Bible says that Adam and Jesus Christ are the greatest leaders of humanity. In this post we look at the contrast between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21, where it is evident that Adam is the leader of sinful humanity and Christ the leader of forgiven humanity. And Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin.
The theme of the book of Romans is the good news (gospel) that God has intervened in our history so that through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death we can be reconciled with God. It describes the universal need for this reconciliation (Rom. 1:18 – 3:20), how it can be obtained through faith in Christ (3:21-31), an example of similar faith in Old Testament times (4:1-25), and the benefits of such faith (5:1-11). Then the good news is summarized by contrasting Adam and Jesus (5:12-21), which is followed by a description of the process by which believers grow to maturity (sanctification) (6:1-23).
The state and destiny of humanity is pictured in two men: Adam and Jesus. Adam trespassed by disobeying God (when he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). This resulted in humanity becoming sinful and God’s punishment was the death penalty (physical death and eternal spiritual death). That’s why people die. On the other hand, Jesus obeyed God (when He allowed men to execute Him). This resulted in humanity being freely offered to have the penalty of eternal spiritual death cancelled and replaced with eternal life. So Adam is the source of all our problems, suffering, pain, and God’s judgment; while Jesus is the source of our reconciliation with God and the promises this brings. Adam brought death and Christ brought life.
The major difference between Adam and Christ was their disobedience and obedience to God. This has a dramatic impact on our world and our destiny.
Adam and Jesus were both unique. Adam was the first man. Jesus was both human (a man) and divine (the Son of God). They were similar as men, but different because Adam wasn’t divine. They were also similar in that a single act (Adam eating the fruit and Jesus dying) impacted all humanity.
Romans 5:12-21 teaches that Adam is the leader of sinful humanity.
“just as sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people (everyone), because all sinned” (5:12NIV).
“death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam” (5:14)
“many (everyone) died by the trespass of the one man (Adam)” (5:15).
“the result of one man’s (Adam’s) sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation” (5:16).
“by the trespass of the one man (Adam), death reigned through that one man” (5:17).
“one trespass (Adam’s) resulted in condemnation for all people (everyone)” (5:18).
“through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many (everyone) were made sinners” (5:19).
“sin reigned in death” (5:21).
As a result of Adam’s disobedience, sin and death passed to all his descendants. Through Adam’s sin all were condemned as sinners. Death is the penalty for sin. Death shows our sinfulness. The proof that Adam’s sin affected the entire human race is that death is universal. So because of Adam all people are sinful in their nature and in their behavior. Adam’s sin altered our human nature so that it’s corrupt and rebellious. That’s the condition of humanity for you, me and everyone else. We’re habitual sinners because of Adam’s original sin. It’s the greatest problem of the human race and it’s the source of the evil in our world. That’s why the world is as it is.
This passage also teaches that Jesus Christ is the leader of forgiven humanity.
“how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many (believers)!” (5:15).
“the gift of God … the gift (of Christ’s righteousness, v.17) followed many trespasses and brought justification (to believers)” (5:16).
“how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness (believers) reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (5:17).
“one righteous act (Christ’s) resulted in justification and life for all people (believers)” (5:18).
“through the obedience of the one man (Christ) the many (believers) will be made righteous” (5:19).
“grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:21).
What a contrast between Adam’s sin and Christ’s gift! Condemnation came to us through Adam’s sin, while justification comes to us through Christ’s gift of righteousness. The good news is that Christ’s gift paid the penalty for Adam’s sin, and we can be reconciled with God if we accept this gift. There’s no other way to get right with God.
Clearly Christ’s gift of salvation is superior to Adam’s sin and the judgment we deserve. It’s “much more” (5:15, 17) and is sufficient for “many trespasses” (5:16) because Christ takes our judgement and we are seen in His righteousness. Instead of being ruled by death, in a coming day we will reign with Christ (5:17; Rev. 3:21). While Adam brought eternal death, Christ brings eternal life (1 Cor. 13:19-23).
Paul also says that Adam “is a pattern of the one to come (Jesus)” (5:14). How is Jesus like Adam? He explains this:
“Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God (Adam), many became sinners. But because one other person (Christ) obeyed God, many (believers) will be made righteous” (5:18-19NLT).
As Adam’s sin is imputed to everyone (5:12), Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who trust in Him (1 Cor. 15:21-22). So, both judgment and salvation come from one man.
Adam and Jesus had a great influence on the human race. Adam is the leader of sinful humanity and Christ the leader of forgiven humanity. But Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin.
The universal problem of the human race is sin and the universal solution is the gospel. All people, no matter what they have done, can get right with God because of Christ’s obedience and His righteousness. That’s the most important thing that we can do. But like any gift, it belongs only to those who accept it. Only those who by faith receive God’s gift of justification will enjoy the benefits of Christ’s obedience (5:17). Our eternal destiny depends on which humanity we choose: that of Adam or that of Christ.
Because of our humanity, we all begin life “in Adam”. A Christian changes their allegiance from Adam to Jesus. This means they are positioned “in Christ”. If we are in Christ, our salvation is secure not because of anything in us, but because we’re in Him.
Christians have accepted Christ’s gift, but they are still influenced by Adam’s sin. They have a new identity in Christ and an old identity in Adam. Whether our new identity is shown in our everyday life depends on whether we obey God’s instructions for us in the parts of the Bible written to the church (Acts to Revelation). Do we live like Adam (who disobeyed God) or like Jesus (who obeyed God)? Let’s be like Paul and follow the example of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
Written, February 2016
Sin is serious and dangerous
A warning was given last month in Washington USA when arsonists lit several fires during a period of high fire danger. Some of the fires were started by fireworks. Authorities stressed that fires have a cost and sometimes they costs lives.
Today we look at how Jeremiah gave the Jews a wake-up call by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. We will see from Jeremiah 2-6 that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him.
The Israelites were God’s special people whom He rescued from Egypt so they could live in Canaan. The laws He gave them to follow through Moses are given in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy of the Bible. After peaking in the days of King Solomon, their land was divided into two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, so only Judah was left.
Jeremiah preached for 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC) to those living in Judah during the reign of their last five kings about 600BC. At this time Judah was a weak nation; surrounded by many enemies including the superpowers of Egypt to the south, and Assyria and Babylonia to the north.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 100 years after Isaiah and Micah and at the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The main theme of these prophets was predictions of God’s punishment and God’s restoration of His people. We will see that this is what Jeremiah prophesied as well.
At this time, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies and idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent. They were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Jeremiah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Will Judah past the test?
Prophets like Jeremiah spoke God’s words to His people. They were like watchmen up on a city wall who see a threat and sound a trumpet to warn of danger (Jer. 6:17; 2 Ki. 17:13). Jeremiah often says: “The word of the Lord came to me”; “The Lord said to me”; and “This is what the Lord says”. That’s the sign of a prophet. These messages would have been given many times, to many people. They are important pleas, commands and predictions from God, and not just a report of historical events. They demanded a response by the people of Judah.
There are three main themes in this passage: Judah’s sin, their need for repentance, and God’s punishment. The relationship between these themes is shown in the schematic diagram which shows that because of their sin, God gives them a wake-up call (a warning) through Jeremiah. There are two possible responses. One is to take notice and repent, which leads to restoration. The other is to ignore and not repent, which leads to punishment.
What is sin? The two main Hebrew words that are translated “sin” occur at least 30 times in the book of Jeremiah (Strongs #2398 and #2403). In these verses they mean not obeying God and rebelling against God (by breaking the covenant, by worshipping idols and by rejecting Jeremiah’s messages). They are associated with wickedness, wrongdoings, crimes, and guilt. And they lead to punishment. So sin is rebellion against God (Dt. 9:7; Josh. 1:18). It’s when we prefer anything or anyone above God (Rom. 1:18-32). It’s not being God-centred. And the Bible says when we ignore God, we have a depraved mind.
What is repentance? The main Hebrew word translated “repent” (#5162) means a change of mind, particularly turning from sinfulness to follow God. It’s a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. It’s a change of attitude towards God. Another Hebrew word that means “turn back or return” (#7725) is also translated “repent” (5:3; 15:19; 34:15). So repentance is a U-turn; a change of direction.
In this passage God is testing the people of Judah like a metallurgist tests ore that has been mined (Jer. 6:27-30). How will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning? Will they pass like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore?
We will look at each of these themes in turn starting with Judah’s ongoing sinfulness.
Judah’s sin (2:1-3:10)
In a criminal court a person is charged with a crime. If they are proven guilty of the offense, a judgement is issued as punishment. In this passage Jeremiah gives God’s case against His people Judah (Jer. 2:9). Because God knows and sees everything, they are guilty of these charges.
He lists their sins (2:1-13; 20-36; 3:1-10; 5:1-5, 12-13, 20-31; 6:10-21). He says that everyone rebelled against God; the leaders, the priests and the prophets (2:8, 26). All ages were involved, including grandchildren (2:9). It happened everywhere across the land (2:20; 3:2). Instead of following the God who brought them to Canaan, they followed worthless idols (2:5, 8, 11). The term “worthless idols” is mentioned 8 times in Jeremiah. They are shonky – they can’t deliver what they promise.
It was shocking. They abandoned and ignored God and ran after worthless idols (2:12, 13, 25). So Jeremiah says, “My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols” (2:11NIV). They broke off their covenant with God (2:20). The covenant was like a marriage covenant – God was like the husband and they were like the bride (2:2). It was also like a Suzerain-Vassal covenant or treaty – God was like the great king and they were like one of his subject kings. But they loved idols instead of loving God (2:25). So they forgot God (2:32).
But they ask God to rescue them from trouble (2:27)! And they blame Him for their troubles (2:29)!
They didn’t learn anything from what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel (3:6-10). About 100 years earlier Israel was conquered and captured by the Assyrians as punishment for their idolatry, but now Judah was practicing the same idolatry. They should have known that God doesn’t tolerate continual sin.
People claimed to follow God, but kept on being unfaithful and wicked (3:4-5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 22). And they had no sense of guilt or shame (3:3; 6:15; Prov. 3:20). It was like leaving their spouse and committing adultery and prostitution (3:1-3). It was spiritual adultery.
They were all greedy (6:13). They oppressed the poor and needy, but say they’ve done nothing wrong (2:34-35; 5:28). No one was honest (5:1-2). They were deceitful and didn’t respect God (5:22-24, 27). Also, instead of trusting in God’s protection, they formed alliances with Egypt and Assyria (2:18, 36).
Jeremiah said, “The prophets prophesy lies (false prophets), the priests rule by their own authority (not God’s), and my people love it this way” (5:31). The false prophets predicted peace while God predicted their defeat and captivity (5:12-13; 6:14).
They ignored Jeremiah’s warning. “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (6:10). It was a sad state of affairs.
In 2009, Britain’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson said he was not ashamed about his past. He has spent 35 years in prison due to violent attacks on prison staff and other prisoners. Like the people of Judah he continued to offend and had no desire to change his ways.
What about us? Do we realise that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT)? Are we aware of our sins and shortcomings? Have we trusted in Jesus as the Savior who took the punishment for these? Sin is serious because it leads to God’s punishment.
The Bible says that Christians are the bride of Christ (1 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:24-27). Are we faithful to the Lord, or are we guilty of spiritual adultery? How much time do we spend on worthless activities or on worthless idols? Is our conscience working? Or do we keep giving in to sinful desires and let sin control the way we live (Rom. 6:12-14)? Have we stored God’s word in our mind so we mightn’t sin against Him (Ps. 119:11)?
Jeremiah spoke to wake up the people of Judah to their sin and its consequences in order to move them to repent and change their behavior. The second theme is Judah’s ongoing need for repentance.
Judah’s need for repentance (3:11-4:4)
First God pleads for the people of Israel who had gone into Assyrian captivity to acknowledge and confess their guilt and change direction to follow the Lord (3:12-14, 22:4:1). He says “return faithless people, for I am your husband” (3:14). God is willing to forgive His people, but they are unrepentant (3:19-20). They need to repent by turning away from idol worship to worshipping the God who created the universe and gave them wonderful promises (4:1-4). Up to now God thought they would return to Him, but they didn’t (3:7, 10, 19).
If they repent while in exile, God says that He will not be angry forever and will bring them back to Jerusalem (3:12, 15). So repentance leads to restoration. This is consistent with the covenant which says that after they have paid for their sins, confessed their sins and their hearts are humbled, God will remember the covenant and restore them back to their homeland (Lev. 26:40-45).
Although the people of Judah heard this message, they didn’t repent by responding to God’s messages and punishments (5:3). Instead they hardened their hearts “and refused to repent”. But if they didn’t repent, then they too faced certain punishment (18:7-11).
Then there is a vision of the coming time when the Jews will repent (3:21-25). There will be weeping as they confess their sins and disobedience. They will feel shame and disgrace and turn to follow God once again. There is also a vision of the coming time called the Millennium when they will have a change of heart and Israel and Judah will be reunited and restored (3:15-18).
Recently Special Operations Commander Craig Smith was in the middle of teaching a swift-water rescue class on Texas’ Comal River, when he spotted a child who had been swept out of his inner tube by a fierce current and dragged under the water. So he jumped in with a line and pulled the boy to safety. He said the near-drowning served to show how dangerous the water can be. Likewise sin is dangerous unless we are rescued by confessing our sins.
Paul told people to repent and turn to God by trusting that Jesus paid the punishment for our sins (Acts 20:21; 26:20). They needed to change their minds about Jesus. When we confess our sins in this way we are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins – past, present and future. Our destiny changes from hell to heaven and we can enjoy daily fellowship with God. Have we told God we are sorry for our sins in this way? Many of those who believed in Ephesus showed their repentance by publicly burning their sorcery scrolls (Acts 19:17-19). Is our new allegiance obvious to others?
Sin spoils a Christian’s fellowship with God. When we confess our sins they are forgiven by God and our daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. “If we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 Jn. 1:9NLT). Do we tell God we are sorry for our sins in this way (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2)?
The third theme is Judah’s punishment if they are unrepentant.
Judah’s coming punishment (4:5-6:30)
One of God’s tests is to send a drought to see if they will turn away from their unfaithfulness (3:3; 5:24-25). Drought was one of the punishments for disobeying the covenant (Lev. 26:19-20; Dt. 28:22-24). They should’ve known this, but they continued in their wicked ways. As they continually refused to repent, the time came when punishment was inevitable.
So Jeremiah predicts that the Babylonians will come from the north and conquer Jerusalem after a siege and take them into exile as slaves (2:14-19, 37; 4:5-31; 5:6-11; 14-19; 6:1-9, 12, 22-26). It will be a terrible time and they are told to “mourn with bitter wailing”. Towns will be destroyed and the land ruined in this disaster. They would lose their houses, fields, wives and children. But a remnant would survive (5:10, 18). The Babylonians are God’s instrument of punishment. It’s punishment for their disobedience as promised in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:31-35; Dt. 28:32-37, 49-68). This happened near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry.
As mentioned earlier, how will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning (6:27-30)? Will they pass the test like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore? They fail because they “rejected the word of the Lord”, which came through Jeremiah (Jer. 8:9).
In July 2015 the annual pilgrimage to the mountain of Croagh Patrick in Ireland was cancelled due to treacherous weather conditions. Powerful winds, heavy rain and thick fog reduced visibility to less than 3 meters. However, several hundred people, including families with young children, ignored the warnings and attempted to set out from the base at Murrisk. Some people were treated by medical volunteers, including a 14-year-old girl suffering from hypothermia. So, people ignore warnings today, just like the people of Judah ignored Jeremiah’s warnings.
What about us? The Bible says, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding (the Mosaic covenant was given by angels; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19), and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (Heb. 2:1-3). If the Jews disobedience was punished, as it was, then disregard for the good news about Jesus will bring greater punishment. Do we pay careful attention or ignore this great salvation?
We have seen that Jeremiah warned the Jews by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. Continual sin is serious and dangerous. Jeremiah’s message was that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him. And the punishment is that the nation was conquered and the people were taken as salves to Babylon. But those who repented were able to return to restore the nation 70 years later.
Today God also says that we are in a dangerous situation. Sin is serious and dangerous. Unless we follow Jesus, we face God’s punishment. Because we’re all sinners, we’ll all die unless Christ returns beforehand. What happens after death depends on whether we have decided to follow Jesus or not. Those who don’t repent face eternal torment, while those who do repent face eternity with our creator and redeemer.
Let’s spread the message about the seriousness of sin and ignoring what God has done for us. We need to recognise our sinfulness and repent by turning around and accepting that Jesus took our` punishment.
Written, October 2015
5 warnings in Hebrews
“Jihadi John” is the English man associated with the Islamic State beheadings released on video over the past 18 months. Those beheaded were journalists and aid workers who had been kidnapped and held as hostages and Syrian soldiers who had been captured. He is a traitor who is the subject of a manhunt by the FBI, MI5 and Scotland Yard. There is a $US10 million bounty for information that leads to his capture. They say he will be hunted down like Osama Bin-Laden.
In the book of Hebrews we see that God’s greatest warning is the danger of not believing the gospel message. This excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor) is doomed to punishment in hell.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). Because of their hardship and suffering, they were tired and weak (Heb. 12:3, 12-13). This also impacted their spiritual lives. They were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs. They were spiritually weak.
Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. The first 9.5 chapters show that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes, whoever they may be, including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, the leaders of nations and religions. It finishes with showing how Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices, greater than any good works we might think help us get to heaven.
Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. The next two chapters tell us what to do in view of the fact that Jesus is greater than all our heroes and that His sacrifice is greater than any of ours. It says that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race. As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us. The reasons we can keep following Jesus through adversity include: the examples of the heroes of the Bible, particularly Jesus; our past experience; God’s promises; and the fact that adversity develops our character. So because of the benefits of Jesus’ death and His promised coming again, we can keep following Him even when we are tempted to give up.
Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. We will look at each of these in turn. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.
Warning against drifting away
“We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1NIV).
This command is a warning against drifting away from the message of the gospel. The Greek word pararreó (Strongs #3901) means “to drift away from”. This is its only occurrence in the Bible where it refers to going spiritually adrift. The image is of a boat drifting past a destination or moving away from its anchorage/mooring because it’s being pushed along by the current. Instead it’s drifting towards danger.
The message they had heard was the gospel. The danger is not paying attention and letting the words flow by while their minds are occupied elsewhere. It’s a warning against ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief or drifting into apostasy (committing treason against the Christian faith)—the sin for which there is no repentance.
“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:2-3a)
This explains why drifting away is so dangerous. The message spoken through angels was the law given on Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19). The Israelites were commanded to keep these laws. For example, when a person was proven to be an idolater, they were put to death (Deut. 17:2-6; Heb. 10:28). Also, because the Jews rebelled and disobeyed God’s laws, they were punished and lost their favoured status and the gospel was preached to the Gentiles instead.
The writer says that the gospel is greater than the law. He assumes that a greater message demands a greater punishment for those who rebel against it. If disregard for the law brought punishment, then disregard for the gospel will bring even greater punishment. If we ignore the gospel message, we can’t escape God’s punishment (1 Th. 5:3; Heb. 12:25). We will not inherit eternal life, but perish in hell.
“This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (Heb. 2:3b-4).
Here we see that the message of our great salvation has been confirmed by reliable witnesses. While the law was given by God through angels to Moses and then to the people, the gospel was spoken directly by the Lord Jesus. It was confirmed to the writer’s generation by the eyewitnesses who heard the message (Lk. 1:2). The apostles were the main eyewitnesses (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Jn. 1:1-3; 2 Pt. 1:16). The testimony of the apostles and their delegates was supported by miracles, such as the healing of the sick (Acts 3:7-12, 16; 5:12-16; 9:32-41; 14:3, 8-10; 19:11-12; 28:8-9). This is because at that time Jews wanted to see a miracle before they would believe that a message was from God (Jn. 4:48; 1 Cor. 1:21-22). The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles and their delegates miraculous abilities, such as the ability to communicate in other languages (Acts 2:4-12).
These witnesses demonstrate the truth of God’s great salvation. This shows why it is unreasonable to ignore this great salvation.
Warning against unbelief
The book of Hebrews was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. The writer says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). So some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. This passage is a warning to them (Heb. 3:7 – 4:3). On the other hand, perseverance in the Christian faith is evidence of a true believer (Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11; Mt. 10:22; 24:13; Mk. 13:13). True faith endures and is shown by ongoing hope in God. God gives believers the strength to persevere (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 13:21). But the kind of faith that doesn’t endure is associated with those who remained unbelievers and didn’t “come to share in Christ” (Heb. 3:14).
This danger is illustrated by the Israelites. Although God miraculously helped them escape from slavery in Egypt and travel to Canaan, because they rebelled they died in the desert before reaching the Promised Land (Num. 14:21-35; Ps. 95:7-11; Heb. 3:7-11). “They were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). Unbelief (hardening the heart) excluded them from Canaan. They had heard God’s promise but they rebelled, sinned and disobeyed (Heb. 3:16-19). Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb believed and obeyed God and entered Canaan. So the warning is to beware of unbelief. Don’t be like the Israelites!
The main message is given three times “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:7-8, 15, 4:7). It says, don’t do what they did! The remedy is to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). To persevere in the faith we need to “encourage one another daily” in our families, churches and communities.
Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to hardening of the heart and unbelief. Persistent sin is a sign of unbelief. The psalmist applied this message to the people of his day, saying “Today, if only you would hear His (God’s) voice” (Ps. 95:7; Heb. 4:7). The writer of Hebrews applies the message to unbeliever in the first century (Heb. 4:1-3). And we can apply it to unbelievers today.
So what is the message given by God’s voice? It is the “good news” that was proclaimed in the first century that included “the promise of entering His (God’s) rest” (Heb. 4:1-2). The Israelites heard good news about the Promised Land, but it was of no value to them because instead of having faith and belief, they disobeyed and didn’t believe. Here’s the warning. God has also given us a message of good news in the gospel of salvation – forgiveness of our sin and eternal life in heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. But this is of no value to us if we ignore it and reject it. As unbelief excluded the Israelites from Canaan, it also excludes us from heaven (also called God’s “rest” and a “Sabbath-rest”, Heb. 4:1-11). It’s only entered through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:3). “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest (by faith), so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). Unbelief is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven.
Unbelief never goes undetected because the Bible “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” and “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12-13).
Warning against falling away
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away (committed apostasy), to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace” (Heb. 6:4-6).
An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but turns against the Lord and abandons the Christian faith and speaks against Christianity. They become an enemy of Christ (1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Pt. 2:20-22; 1 Jn. 5:16-17). They are traitors like Judas Iscariot who betrayed the Lord after being one of His disciples for three years. Apostates are unbelievers without salvation, in contrast believers who have salvation (Heb. 6:9).
An apostate isn’t someone who hears the gospel and does nothing about it. Such an unbeliever may have another opportunity to become a believer. Also they aren’t a backslider who stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11; 2 Ti. 4:9-10). Backsliders are Christians who are unfaithful and unfruitful.
Apostates had “once been enlightened”, which means they had heard the gospel message. Like Judas Iscariot they knew the way of salvation, but hadn’t accepted it. They had “tasted the heavenly gift” of Jesus Christ, but hadn’t accepted Him by faith as Savior. They had “shared in the Holy Spirit” even though they weren’t indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts unbelievers of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (Jn. 16:8). They had “tasted the goodness of the word of God”, which means that they responded to the gospel message, but didn’t repent. In this respect, they were like the seed that fell on rocky ground and had no root and died when trouble or persecution came (Mt. 13:20-21). They had also experienced “the powers of the coming age”, which means they had seen the miracles associated with the preaching of the gospel by apostles and their delegates (Heb. 2:4). But although they had experienced some of the benefits and privileges of Christianity, after they had “fallen away” (committed apostasy), it’s impossible for them to repent. They deliberately turn against and renounce Christianity and ridicule Christ, “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace”. They are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18). They are like the false teachers who John said “went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 Jn. 2:19).
The warning is repeated in a parable, which is consistent with the parable of the sower.
“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned” (Heb. 6:7-8).
The first land is an illustration of believers, while the second land is an illustration of apostates. The first is fruitful, but in the second the seed sprouts but because it has no root, some of it dies and the thorns and thistles take over and choke out the rest. The lesson is that God blesses the fruitful believer and punishes the apostate.
Warning against deliberately sinning after knowing the truth
This passage warns those who profess to be Christians and go to church about the terrible consequences of rejecting Christ and deserting the church (Heb. 10:26-31). It says that God is angry about sin. God will judge and punish sinners. This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Hebrews constantly warns about this danger. It is mentioned three times in this passage.
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:26-27).
“How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Heb. 10:29).
“‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30-31).
In this warning, apostasy is called deliberate sinning after knowing the truth, being part of God’s people and sanctified and is associated with deserting the church (Heb. 10:25-26, 29-30). Because the apostate has rejected Christ, and there is no other sacrifice for sins, they will be punished for their sins. They are called “enemies of God” meaning that they actively oppose Christianity (Heb. 10:26-27).
Note that God’s judgment occurs when there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26). There are two possibilities, either a fearful expectation of judgment or a sacrifice for sins. Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners is the only way to escape God’s anger and punishment. That’s the gospel. God’s love in providing the sacrifice enables us to escape His judgment.
Once again a comparison is made with the law of Moses (Heb. 10:28-29). Under the law a person who was proven to be an idolater was put to death (Dt. 17:2-7). The apostate will be punished more severely than this because they have:
Trampled the Son of God underfoot. After professing to be a follower of Jesus, they now deny any need for Christ as Savior and reject Him as Lord.
Treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them. They think the death of Christ which ratified the New Covenant is useless and unholy. Through their association with Christian people, they had been sanctified (set apart), just as an unbelieving husband is sanctified by his believing wife (1 Cor. 7:14). But that does not mean that they were saved because it is a different sanctification to that of believers (Heb. 10:14).
Insulted the Spirit of grace. Although the Holy Spirit had convicted them of sin, and pointed them to Christ as Savior, they despised Him and the salvation He offered and “deliberately keep on sinning”.
The rejection of Jesus as Son of God is a serious sin (Heb. 10:30-31). The Bible says that God will judge such people: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” for judgment. The apostate will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31).
Warning against turning away
After contrasting the old covenant (where God and humanity were separated because of sin) and the new covenant (where God and humanity are reconciled by Jesus Christ), the writer warns “See to it that you do not refuse Him (God) who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused Him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from Him who warns us from heaven?” (Heb. 12:25). God warned the Israelites at Mount Sinai. When they refused to obey Him during the exodus towards Canaan, they didn’t escape God’s punishment and so they perished. But Jesus is both from and in heaven and His revelation is greater than that at Mount Sinai. Consequently, if we fail to heed His invitation and warning by turning away from Him in unbelief, then we can’t escape a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness. After all, “God is a consuming fire” of judgment to all sin and all who refuse to listen to Him (Heb. 10:27; 12:29).
What are the lessons for us today?
Unbelief and apostasy (treason) are dangerous. That’s why there are five warnings against them in the book of Hebrews.
Unbelief (ignoring God’s gift of salvation) is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven. Remember what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. Are we warning unbelievers? Are we encouraging one another to accept God’s gift and to continue meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25)?
Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to unbelief. What sins are hindering us from accepting God’s invitation? Are we tempted to continue in our sinful ways, which are popular and followed by the majority?
Are we encouraging one another daily in the Christian faith (Heb. 3:13)? Reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture. Helping each other to not be deceived by the apparent attractiveness of sin. Encouraging people’s faith and discouraging their unbelief. Are we doing this daily? In our families? In our church family? In our small groups?
Apostasy (committing treason against the Christian faith; betraying Christ) is dangerous, because it is an eternal sin. Remember what happened to Judas Iscariot. It occurred in the first century and is prevalent today (1 Tim. 4:1). If the sin of apostasy doesn’t apply to believers, to whom then does it apply? It could apply to someone who makes a profession of faith in Christ and seems to go on brightly for a while, but then something happens in their life. Perhaps they experience persecution or tragedy, or fall into immorality, or are convinced by the arguments of atheistic commentators or academics. With full knowledge of the truth, they deliberately turn away from it, completely renouncing Christianity. As the Bible says it is impossible to bring apostates to repentance, are we encouraging those at risk of apostasy?
God’s warnings to professing Christians were to not drift away, turn away, or fall away into ongoing unbelief, and not become a traitor (an apostate) by rejecting and criticizing Christ after knowing the truth.
We have seen from Hebrews that God’s greatest warning is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor) is doomed to punishment in hell.
The only way to escape God’s anger, judgment and punishment is to accept Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us. Let’s do this and turn around (repent) and persevere by trusting God day by day.
Written, February 2015
Andy, our new grandson, arrived recently. Here are a few things that I am reminded of at a time like this.
Just like you and I, Andy is unique. There is no one else on earth (past, present and future) who is exactly like him. He has a unique genome, which is comprised of about 3 billion DNA base pairs in each cell of his body. He grew from a single cell itself.
God designed and created our world so that, over a period of nine months, the genetic information in a single cell can develop into a child that is ready to be born. It takes a lot of design to build a genome; it’s amazingly complex.
The Bible says that the development of a baby in the womb is an example of God’s power (omnipotence) and skill. King David wrote, “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born” (Ps. 139:13-16NLT). And another psalm says of God the Creator, “You made me; you created me” (Ps. 119:73). Of course God knows all about a baby as it’s growing in the womb (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15).
I think another example of God’s power and skill is life itself. Can anyone explain the origin of life, without referring to God? We see that life always comes from life. Andy’s family tree goes back to Adam and Eve. How did Adam and Eve become alive? The Bible says their life came from God (Gen. 2:7, 22). Only God can create life; scientists can’t manufacture it, they just use it.
Is Andy perfect?
Although Andy is perfect in the eyes of his parents, in two ways he isn’t perfect.
Firstly, just like you and I, Andy’s genome contains mutations inherited from his parents. When parents reproduce, they make a copy of their genome and pass this to their child. From time to time, mistakes occur (called “mutations”), and the next generation does not have a perfect copy of the original genome. Each new generation carries all the mutations of previous generations plus their own. So the mutations accumulate from generation to generation. This means that the human genome is degenerating genetically with time due to the accumulation of mutations. In order to minimize the risk of deformed offspring that can result from shared mutations between genetically close parents, marriage is usually prohibited between close relatives. In fact, such limitations needed to be imposed after about 26 copies of the human genome, which was in the times of Moses’ children (Lev. 18:6-16; 20:11, 17, Dt. 27:22).
Secondly, just like you and I, Andy has a sinful nature. This means that he will have a natural tendency to misbehave. The Bible says that we are all sinners by nature (Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:1-3). Even when Andy tries to do the right thing, it will be elusive (Rom. 7:14-20). This attitude affects our mind, will and emotions in particular (Jer. 17:9). But according to Andy’s “Beginner’s Bible”, “Jesus knew that he had to die for the sins of all people. It was part of God’s plan. When it was time, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.”
Now we can look forward to seeing Andy grow and develop from a baby to a child, to an adolescent, and then to a man, the way God has planned.
Written, February 2015
A few weeks ago a Victorian woman died when she fell down a cliff in the Blue Mountains. She had ignored the warning signs and climbed over the safety fence. The police said it was a tragic warning for people to obey warning signs. Last week a British man also fell to his death off a cliff in Sydney after climbing a fence. It’s dangerous to ignore warnings.
In this article we are looking 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.
The Israelites were God’s special people who He rescued from Egypt so they could live in Canaan. The laws He gave them to follow are given in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy of the Bible. After peaking in the days of King Solomon, their land was divided into Israel and Judah. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel.
Zephaniah was written about 630 BC during the reign of king Josiah (Zeph. 1:1). At this time Judah was a weak nation; surrounded by many enemies including the superpowers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia.
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) 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 prophet before the exile.
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 these earlier prophets.
When Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies and idolatry and sinfulness was prevalent. They were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
God is the central character of the book of Zephaniah. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end He shows mercy and pardons people. The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. But this is prevented by their sins. Through the judgment of “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. Judah and other nations are to be judged and punished because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is to be followed by the restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance. 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, syncretism (where God is worshipped through or alongside other gods), apostasy, violence, apathy, pride, love of money, oppression, rebellion, self-sufficiency, unruliness, ungodliness, greedy and corrupt leaders, lying, deceit, and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance. They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6). The sins of other nations included: pride, self-sufficiency, and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people.
This sinfulness was the 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). “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what He commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” There is deliverance for the repentant 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 behaviour. 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 a time of great judgement for Judah. The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18). Everything on the ground will be devastated (1:2-3, 18). But, where will it occur? Both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7). It was a judgement of the land of Judah.
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 Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment occurred. 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 (2:4-6, 8-11, 12, 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). All these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions. They have already been fulfilled.
God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all. Today we don’t see God’s justice and likewise in Zephaniah’s day he didn’t see God’s justice, but it did eventually come to all.
The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behavior so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.
Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterized by both justice (when He punishes sinners) and mercy (when He restores the repentant). God’s judgment and His deliverance 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. So deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.
First for the Jews. Jewish 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. 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. God “will rejoice over you with singing” (3:17).
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)? No! 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. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by other nations and the Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Also the Jews have not yet been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20).
Secondly, deliverance is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies: “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands” (2:11) . 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, but it seems as though the full deliverance is yet to come.
God’s warning today
Just as God used Zephaniah to warn the Jews of his day, He uses the Bible and godly people to warn us today. Our warnings are different because we live in a different era to Zephaniah. Since Zephaniah wrote his book, Jesus came and died for our sins, the New Testament has been written and the good news of deliverance has gone out to all nations across the world. We aren’t God’s nation living in the promised land. Today, God’s people are those who have confessed their sins and chosen to follow Jesus Christ. They comprise the global church.
What is God warning us about today? As the Bible is God’s main warning sign to us, we will take some examples from Paul’s letters to various churches.
First, what did he warn unbelievers about? Paul preached about the need to repent and turn to God so we will not spend eternity in hell. We are all sinners (Rom. 3:23). Because of this we all deserve God’s punishment and God is going to judge everyone (Acts 17:31; Rom. 6:23). But forgiveness of sins and eternal life is available through Jesus (Acts 13:38; Rom. 6:23). When we confess our sins, God provides His unconditional forgiveness. So 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.
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). Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). So God warns people today of a coming judgment.
Some people ignore tornado warnings in the US because they may wait until they can see or hear it coming. Or they may think the probability of it affecting them is very small. Or they aren’t paying attention. Or they don’t realize the devastation it can cause. They don’t realize how serious it is. Do we realize the importance of God’s warnings?
Second, what did Paul warn believers about? Believers are those who have repented of their sin, whose sins are forgiven and they are redeemed to worship Christ as their Lord. Christians will not be judged for our sins because Jesus paid that judgment price on the cross for us when He died in our place. But we will be judged on the basis of how faithfully we have served God since we became Christians—and be rewarded accordingly at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). God wants us to serve Him. But this is hindered by our sins. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul gives a warning from Israel’s history. He describes their sins (v.6-10) and the fact that they were punished for these (v.5). Then he makes the application to us: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Cor. 10:11-12).
It’s a warning to the self-confident. We can also be tempted like they were. They failed and sinned. We can also fail and sin. But a remnant repented. Let’s be a part of that remnant today.
Unconfessed sin hinders our daily fellowship with God. When we confess our sins they are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for all our sins and our daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. This confession should occur regularly in a believer’s life so we can experience God’s conditional forgiveness (Mt. 6:12, 14-15; 1 Jn. 1:5-2:2).
Of course Paul gives other warnings to believers in his letters. He warned against things like false teachers, false teaching, syncretism (mixing Christianity with other ideas and ways of living), factions, divisive people, misusing wealth, immorality, legalism, liberalism, pride, and giving up the faith.
We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews 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.
The Jews should have known about this because the Pentateuch contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. God wanted them to repent – to turn back to following Him once again.
God still warns us today. Examples like this from the Old Testament warn us that we face the choice of whether to obey or disobey the Lord. Unbelievers are warned of the need to confess and repent of their sins in order to be delivered from God’s judgment. Whereas believers need to keep confessing their sins in order to maintain their daily fellowship with the Lord.
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? There is deliverance and salvation for the repentant 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.
So because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.
Written, December 2014