Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “warning

Never give up!

Runner 1The Jamaican singer Sean Paul said “The whole world is under pressure right now — the financial meltdown, war, terrorism, people are dealing with a lot so I wrote ‘Never Give Up’ about how I felt and how other people are feeling, too”. It’s a powerful song with a message of hope and strength for people who are struggling in Jamaica.

The book of Hebrews was written to Christians who were struggling and were tempted to give up following Jesus. This post addresses the highlights of this book where we see that we can keep following Jesus despite adversity.

Context

Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (12:4-13; 13:3). Because of their hardship and suffering, they were tired and weak (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.

The book is written like a sermon, rather than a letter. It’s a “word of exhortation” and the same phrase is used in Acts to describe a sermon (Acts 13:15; Heb. 13:22). Also “say” and “speak” are used consistently instead of “write” (2:5; 5:11; 6:9; 8:1; 11:32).

Hebrews deals with the struggle of leaving one religious system for another. In this case it was leaving Judaism for Christianity. Leaving the inferior for the superior. It promotes the supremacy of Jesus Christ above all other spiritual teachers. This book also shows how to deal with persecution and keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up. It also stresses the danger of not believing the gospel message.

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.

Hebrews tells them what God wanted them to know and to do. They were to know three things. The first thing they were to know is that Jesus is better than all their Jewish heroes.

Jesus is greater than …. (Ch 1-10)

Jesus is superior to the prophets (1:1-3). The revelation of God’s truth is added progressively in the Bible as we move from Genesis through to Revelation. The Old Testament was written by the prophets. What Jesus taught is summarized in the gospels. His teachings supersede those of the Old Testament prophets. Other reasons why Christ is superior to the prophets are that He made the universe and sustains it. He is the divine God. While the prophets predicted the Messiah (Acts 10:43), Jesus was the Messiah. Through His death, our sins can be forgiven. And after His resurrection and ascension, He now sits on a place of honor and privilege at God’s right hand. So of course He is greater than the prophets. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than experts and scientists.

Jesus is also superior to angels (1:4-14; 2:5). Angels brought messages from God and protected God’s people. As Son of God, Jesus has a close relationship with God the Father. The angels praised God at His birth (Lk. 2:13-14) and will worship Christ when He returns to rule over the earth (1:6). Jesus is in a position of honor and power at God’s right hand, while angels serve God’s people (11:13-14). Jesus did what angels couldn’t do, He became a human being and offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for our sin. So of course He is greater than the angels. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than those promoting spiritual experiences.

Jesus is also superior to Moses and Joshua (3:1-6; 4:6-11). Jesus represents God to us and also represents us before God. He is a mediator or go-between. Moses served the Israelites, but Jesus was equal with God who made them His people. While Joshua was unable to provide rest for the Israelites in the land of Canaan, it is available through Jesus Christ. So of course He is greater than Moses and Joshua. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than the leaders of nations.

high priest 2 cropped 400pxJesus is also superior to the Jewish high priests (4:14 – 5:10; 6:20 – 8:2). He represents God to us like a high priest did for the Jews. But the eternal priesthood of Jesus has replaced the temporary priesthood of Aaron. Because of Jesus, both the Jewish priesthood and the Jewish law have been replaced. When Jesus died this was signified by the tearing apart from top to bottom of the curtain to the Most Holy Place in the temple. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). Jesus didn’t need to offer sacrifices for His own sins because he was sinless. Also, “He offered Himself”, not an animal. So of course He is greater than the Jewish high priests. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than the religious leaders.

Jesus’ sacrifice is also superior to the Jewish sacrifices (8:3 – 10:14). His sacrifice only needed to be offered once, not annually like Yom Kippur. It was “once for all”. It brought in a new covenant that could include all nations, not just Jews. So of course Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices. Today we can say that Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than our good works.

Because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the greatest of all. So let’s follow and live for Him.

After Hebrews 10:18 the book changes from doctrine to practice, and the next two chapters give reasons to keep following Jesus even when we feel like giving up. The second thing they were to know is that following Jesus is like running in a marathon.

Keep on running (Ch 10-12)

The writer says the Christian life is like running a marathon and urges them to endure and persevere. It’s not an easy jog. We must be ready to continue, persist, and keep going. That’s why this blog is titled, “Never give up!”. A key passage of the book is:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (12:1-3NIV)

He gives them three ways to keep following Jesus. First, by focusing on God and Jesus and believing God’s promises given in the Bible. We don’t run in our own strength because Jesus creates and completes our faith. We can “draw near to God” by meditating on God’s word the Bible and praying to Him. Second, by encouraging one another to love and good deeds. This means putting others above ourselves and not giving up meeting together. And third, by removing obstacles that hinder us following Jesus. We can throw them off by establishing boundaries and practicing discipline.

Hebrews also gives five reasons to keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up. These are: because Jesus is the greatest example (He is the only way to a relationship with God and has paid the price for access to heaven), because of other people who lived by faith (Hebrews 11 gives many other examples of people who lived by faith in Old Testament times), because of our past experience (they had endured persecution and suffering in the past), because of God’s promises (their spiritual blessings were more valuable than their physical possessions, and they could look forward to the coming resurrection), and because adversity develops our character (God is teaching us, correcting us and transforming us like a parent trains a child).

For these reasons we can keep following Him even when we feel like giving up when facing adversity.

The third thing they were to know is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins.

God’s greatest warning (Ch. 2-12)

Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. While Noah and the Old Testament prophets warned their generations of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pt. 2:5), these warnings apply to us today.

The first warning is against “drifting away” and ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief (2:1-4). The Bible says ignoring the gospel leads to disaster. The second is against “unbelief”, which is dangerous because it leads to missing out on heaven (3:7 – 4:13). This book was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. Some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. The third is against “falling away”: the danger of apostasy, which is hearing the gospel and renouncing it instead of accepting it (6:4-8). In this case, it’s impossible for them to repent. The fourth is against “deliberately sinning after knowing the truth”, because the apostate will be punished severely for rejecting the gospel and opposing Christianity (10:26-31). This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Finally there is a warning against “turning away”, where unbelievers are warned of a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness (12:25-29).

So, unbelief and apostasy are dangerous. God’s greatest warning for us is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. Are we warning unbelievers? In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor or spiritual terrorist who undermines Christianity) is doomed to punishment in hell. You can read all about them in the book of Jude.

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.

Once they knew these truths the final chapter tells them what to do about it.

How to please God (Ch 13)

Hebrews 13 400pxHebrews 13 begins with three outward things (13:1-3). They were to love one another like siblings in a spiritual family, to be hospitable to strangers and to have empathy for Christians who are suffering by sharing their feelings.

It then looks at two inward things (13:4-5). They were to be sexually pure because sexual sin impacts one’s relationships, family and Christian witness. It has more influence on one’s life than other sins (1 Cor. 6:18). They were also to be contented in order to avoid the love of money. This is possible by realizing that the Lord is always with us by His Spirit and can be trusted for our safety, protection and economic welfare.

Hebrews 13 then looks at how we live our spiritual lives, beginning with a source of strength to live a Christian life. They were to respect and follow godly church leaders (13:7-8, 17). The leaders kept following Jesus throughout their lives – they were faithful despite the difficulties, and they finished well. They also cared for their spiritual welfare.

Next they are urged not to return to the false teachings of Jewish legalism (13:9-12). Holiness doesn’t come from following rituals and food laws, which were some of the false teachings they were being tempted to follow. Only God’s love and kindness shown to us by Jesus can empower believers to live holy lives through their relationship with God. It takes inner strength gained by following Jesus to live the Christian life as it is described in Hebrews 13.

Because of Jesus, Christians don’t need to sacrifice animals. Instead they offer different sacrifices, including suffering for Christ, words of praise offered to God through the Lord Jesus, and good works (13:13-16). God is pleased when we live like this, because it shows that He is more valuable than the things of this world.

Then they are urged to keep on praying because prayer is another way to seek God’s help to live a life that pleases Him (13:18-19). Finally they are to recognize God’s work through Jesus Christ, whose death paid the penalty owing for the sin of humanity (13:20-21). His prayer was that God would give them the desire and resources to do His will and the power to carry it out. And that they would let God work through them.

Let’s use this checklist in Hebrews 13 to keep following Jesus and not turning back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.

Lessons for us

Let’s read the book of Hebrews when we are struggling and tempted to give up following Jesus. It reminds us that Jesus is better than all our heroes, that following Jesus is like running in a marathon, the danger of not believing the gospel message, and how to please God.

Do we realize that Jesus is superior to all our heroes? He is greater than all other spiritual teachers. Because He is unique, let’s encourage each other to follow Jesus as Lord. Are we reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture?

Are we encouraged to persevere and keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up? This is evidence of genuine faith in Christ. Let’s encourage one another to keep following Jesus.

Do we know the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins? Have we accepted God’s rescue plan by confessing our sins and trusting that Jesus has paid the penalty for them?

So from the book of Hebrews we see that we can keep following Jesus despite adversity.

Written, December 2015

Also see:
Jesus is greater than … – Heb. Ch 1-10
Keep on running – Heb. Ch 10-12
God’s greatest warning to us – Heb. Ch 2-12
How to please God – Heb. Ch 13


Jeremiah’s prophecies fulfilled

Melb cup 2015 400pxThe Melbourne Cup, a popular Australian horse race, was held today. Just before the race, the news media showed predictions of the first five horses, which were based on betting information. But these horses came 13th, 20th, 4th, 22nd and 11th respectively, and the race was won by an outsider! So the predictions were wrong! This shows how difficult it is to predict the future. In this post we see that Jeremiah was a prophet to whom God revealed the future.

Jeremiah was an Israelite prophet who was born about 650 BC and preached for about 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC). God used prophets to send messages to the Israelites and many of these messages are included in the Old Testament of the Bible. In this article we are looking at the final chapter of the book of Jeremiah, chapter 52.

Context

The previous 51 chapters have described Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet (Ch 1), his messages to Judah (Ch 2-35), his sufferings and persecution (Ch. 36-38), the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath (Ch. 39-45) and his messages to other nations (Ch 46-51).

Jeremiah warning 400pxHis messages are mainly about four topics (see diagram): people’s sinfulness; God’s punishment for this sinfulness; and two responses. Firstly, if people repent, the punishment is delayed and deliverance/restoration is possible. And secondly, if people don’t repent, then punishment is inevitable. In particular, he reminds Judah of their disobedience and rebellion demonstrated by their ongoing idolatry.

Chapter 52 follows a message to Babylon in chapters 50-51, which was read out aloud to the inhabitants of Babylon. It predicted the invasion of Babylon by an army, which was fulfilled in 539 BC by the Medes and Persians.

What more can Jeremiah say? Nothing! At the end of Chapter 51 it says “The words of Jeremiah end here” (NIV). This looks like a scribal note saying that chapter 52 was written or compiled by someone else. No one knows exactly who. Was it Baruch? Was it Ezra? Or another compiler of the book of Jeremiah?

Jeremiah isn’t mentioned in chapter 52. Instead the focus in on the fate of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Also, it includes an event in Babylon that Jeremiah wouldn’t have been aware of because he would have either been elderly (almost 90 years of age) or dead, and well away in Egypt.

Content

There are two main sections in chapter 52: the fall of Jerusalem (v.1-30), and Jehoiachin released (v.31-34).

There are 5 paragraphs about the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath: Zedekiah captured (v.1-11), Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16), temple articles taken (v.17-23), execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a), and Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30).

The fall of Jerusalem isn’t in chronological order. The most likely sequence of events is: city walls breached (v.7), prisoners taken (v.8-11, 15-16, 24-27a), plunder removed (v.17-23), and city destroyed (v.12-14).

Most of the content in chapter 52 isn’t unique; it’s repeated elsewhere in the Bible. Verses 4-27 are summarised in 39:1-10. Why is it repeated with more detail? The extra information is: the Babylonians took all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple; and the execution of 74 senior officials. It seems to show the fulfilment of the many predictions made by Jeremiah.

Verses 1-27, 31-34 are virtually the same as 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:21, 27-30. So Jeremiah has the same ending as 2 Kings! Again, this material is probably included here because it is a record of the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophesies. There are many references in Jeremiah 52 to earlier passages of the book that confirm the prophet’s predictions. It enables one to read his prophecies and their fulfilment in the same scroll or book.

The writers of 2 Kings and Jeremiah 52 probably had access to the same written sources. According to the NIV Study Bible, it’s unlikely they copied from each other since each has peculiarities characteristic of the book they conclude. In a few passages, Jeremiah is fuller than Kings. The minor differences in the two accounts may be due to either copy errors (v.12, 22, 25) or to different ways of reckoning (counting or measuring). As this chapter is much closer to the 2 Kings account than to Jeremiah 39, this is consistent with it being added by an editor or compiler and not written by Jeremiah.

Zedekiah captured (v.1-11)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:7. King Zedekiah was another wicked king. After he rebelled against the king of Babylon, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem for 18 months from 588 BC. When the food ran out the city wall was breached, and the Judean army escaped. But Zedekiah was captured and taken to king Nebuchadnezzar. They killed his sons and then put out his eyes and took him to Babylon where he was a prisoner until he died. So Zedekiah was punished when Jerusalem was destroyed. Note that Zedekiah could have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem if he had listened to Jeremiah (Jer. 38:14-28).

Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:8-12. The Babylonians burned all the houses in Jerusalem including the temple, which was about 424 years old. They pulled down the city walls and took more prisoners, leaving only the poorest to work the vineyards and fields. The upper class had been taken into exile with king Jehoiachin in 597 BC. They destroyed the city to make it beyond repair.

Temple articles taken (v.17-23)

This is a similar account to 2 Kings 25:13-17, but with more detail of the pillars. The Babylonians took to Babylon all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple as plunder. The items taken are listed and described. It was robbery of valuable items. But in the mind of the Babylonians, it also signified a victory of the Babylonian gods over the God of Israel.

Execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:18-21a. 74 senior officials and “people of the land” (probably the landed gentry) are taken to king Nebuchadnezzar and executed. The Babylonians ruthlessly destroy the influential people and potential leaders.

Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30)

This account isn’t matched in 2 Kings, but some numbers are given there of the people deported. There were four main phases of deportation of prisoners of war to Babylon (605 BC, 598 BC, 587 BC, and 582 BC). The Hebrew word heglah (Strongs #1540), translated “exile”, is mentioned twice (v.28, 30). It says that 4,600 people went into exile as prisoners. This is different to the 10,000 mentioned in 2 Kings 24:14. Maybe the lower number is male adults.

So because they continually disobeyed God, the kingdom of Judah was destroyed. The land was conquered and the people killed or deported to Babylon. Perhaps 20,000 Jews were taken into captivity. This is the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s predictions.

Jehoiachin released (v.31-34)

This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:27-30. King Jehoiachin was exiled in 597 BC and released in 561 BC when Awel-Marduk replaced Nebuchadnezzar as king of Babylon. So, after 37 years in prison, Jehoiachin was released to live in Babylon. He was given a position of honor above the other vassal kings in Babylon. Apparently it was a common practice for a victorious king to keep captive kings at his court as a reminder of his victories and as a warning to the subjects of that king not to rebel.

As it includes this incident in 561 AD, the book of Jeremiah must have been finalised after this date. But Jeremiah would have finished his part when he was taken to Egypt 20-25 years before this date (Ch 44).

The endings of 2 Kings (25:27-30) and Jeremiah 52:31-34) are the same! They have a happy ending! Jehoiachin was released to eat at the king’s table. The Jews aren’t destroyed or the line of David. And Jehoiachin is included in Joseph’s genealogy (Mt. 1:11-12).

Why was it written?

Why is this chapter in the book of Jeremiah? It serves the following three purposes.

First to show that Jeremiah’s predictions were fulfilled. Nearly every verse in this chapter is a fulfilled prophecy. Jeremiah was vindicated. He was right and the false prophets were wrong. It proves that he was a true prophet of God (Dt. 18:21-22).

Second it contrasts the fate of king Zedekiah and his nephew king Jehoiachin. Zedekiah died in prison (v.11), while Jehoaichin was released and ate regularly with the king of Babylon. So all wasn’t lost.

Third it provides a glimmer of hope at the end. Some were saved in captivity, including the line of David. Is this a hint of better days ahead?

Themes

Three themes can be identified in chapter 52.

The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. It happened like Jeremiah predicted.

God punishes sinfulness. Continual sin by the people of Judah led to the destruction of their civilization and their deportation to a foreign land. “It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end He thrust them from His presence” (v.3). The sin led to God’s anger, which was expressed in the punishment. That’s what Jeremiah was warning them about.

God always offers hope. Although it looked like the end, they weren’t obliterated. Because they weren’t all destroyed, and the line of David was preserved, there was a glimmer of hope for the future. It would have helped the exiles believe Jeremiah’s prediction that they would be able to return after 70 years of captivity (25:11; 29:10-14).

Questions that arise

Jehoiachin seems to be criticized in Chapter 22, which is headed “Judgment against wicked kings”, but he is rewarded in Chapter 52. This doesn’t seem to be consistent. As Jeremiah predicted, Jehoiachin died in Babylon without going back to Judah (22:24-27). But who does 22:30 apply to? It says, “none of his offspring will prosper; none will sit on the throne of David, or rule anymore in Judah”. It follows a paragraph on Jehoiachin (22:24-28), but seems to be part of an address to Zedekiah (Ch 21-22 and maybe further). One commentator thinks that along with 22:1-9 it applies to Zedekiah. But maybe it can apply to either.

Is there a glimmer of hope in chapter 52 or not? The future seems uncertain. Will the glimmer of hope come to anything? Immigrants are usually assimilated into their new nation within a few generations by intermarriage. In Ezra and Nehemiah we see how some returned to their homeland 70 years later.

Application

What does it mean to us today? Let’s look at each of the themes.

The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. Because Jeremiah’s predictions about the Babylonian conquest were fulfilled, those that haven’t yet been fulfilled will be fulfilled in future. So the predictions of national unity and restoration for Israel will be fulfilled in a coming day (Rom. 11).

Because God’s prophets in the Old Testament were true prophets, the writers of the New Testament were also true prophets and all they wrote is true. So the promises made to Christians in the New Testament will be fulfilled. They are reliable. They can be trusted.

God punishes sinfulness. The conquest of Jerusalem and the Jewish exile were God’s punishment for their sinfulness. This truth still applies today. God still punishes sinfulness: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23NLT). Sin has consequences in this life and afterwards if we haven’t accepted God’s gift of salvation. We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). We harvest what we plant. But the outcome isn’t always bad because a major loss can shock people into returning to the Lord.

God always offers hope. Even though it seems that ungodliness is prevalent, some are still faithful to God. After facing opposition in Corinth, Paul was told “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). There are always some people who are faithful to God.

Looking ahead. Although life was difficult after the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews who knew Scripture could look forward to the coming of their Messiah. Likewise, although life is difficult for Christians today, we who know Scripture can look forward to the Lord’s second coming.

Written, November 2015


God’s greatest warning for us

The danger of unbelief

Titanic 6 400pxIn 1912 the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs and kept sailing through the night at near full speed. When they saw an iceberg it was too late to avoid the impact and the ship sank within three hours. This shows it is dangerous to ignore warnings.

In the book of Hebrews we see that God’s greatest warning to us 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.

Context

Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). They were spiritually weak and being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs.

Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. The first 9.5 chapters show that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests and Christ’s sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices.

Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. The next two chapters tell us what to do. 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.

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. While Noah and the Old Testament prophets warned their generations of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pt. 2:5), these warnings apply to us today.

1. Warning against drifting away (Heb. 2:1-4)

“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. Don’t be like a boat drifting past its destination or moving away from its anchorage/mooring because it’s being pushed along by the current and it’s drifting towards danger.

They had heard the gospel message. The danger is not paying attention and letting the words flow by while our minds are occupied elsewhere. It’s a warning against ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief.

“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 and there was punishment for disobedience (Deut. 17:2-6; Heb. 10:28).

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).

Costa concordia 5 400pxWhen the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs it hit an iceberg and sank within three hours. Likewise, in 2012 when the Costa Concordia sailed too close to an island near Italy it hit rocks and capsized. In these cases, ignoring warnings and dangerous behaviour resulted in shipwreck. The Bible says ignoring the gospel (by unbelief) also leads to disaster.

“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 apostles who were eyewitnesses who heard the original message (Lk. 1:2; 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 speak in other languages (Acts 2:4-12).

These witnesses demonstrate that God’s great salvation is true, reliable, dependable and trustworthy.

2. Warning against unbelief (Heb. 3:7 – 4:13)

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 “faith” of those who remained unbelievers and didn’t “come to share in Christ” (Heb. 3:14) doesn’t endure.

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).
It says, “They were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Heb. 3:19).
Unbelief (hardening the heart) excluded them from Canaan. They had seen many miracles including the 10 plagues in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, eaten manna and quail provided by God, drank water provided by God, defeated the Amalekites, saw God’s glory and received the law at Mt Sinai and heard God’s promises. But they rebelled, sinned and disobeyed (Heb. 3:16-19). Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to hardening of the heart and unbelief. Persistent sin is a sign of unbelief. 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 (in unbelief)” (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.

The message given by God’s voice was the “good news” that was proclaimed in the first century that included “the promise of entering His (God’s) rest” (Heb. 3:15; 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.

3. Warning against falling away (Heb. 6:4-8)

“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 opposes Christianity. 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 to 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 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 the 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”.

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.

Apostates are not only traitors, they are also like terrorists. Terrorists wreck havoc with bombs and guns to undermine their enemies. Apostates are spiritual terrorists who undermine Christianity. You can read all about them in the book of Jude.

Next there is another warning for these spiritual terrorists.

4. Warning against deliberately sinning after knowing the truth (Heb. 10:26-31)

This passage warns those who profess to be Christians and go to church about the terrible consequences of rejecting Christ (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 is no sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26). There are two possibilities, either a fearful judgment or a sacrifice for sins. Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us is the only way to escape God’s anger and punishment. That’s the gospel. God’s loving 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 their Leader.
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 (spiritual terrorist) will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31).

Next they are warned once again.

5. Warning against turning away (Heb. 12:25-29)

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 (Ex. 23:20-33). 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 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. They experienced great miracles, but still didn’t trust in God. Likewise, no matter what our spiritual experiences may be, including miracles, it doesn’t guarantee our salvation. Have we confessed and repented of our sin and trusted in Christ as our Savior and Leader? Are we warning unbelievers of the danger of unbelief? Are we encouraging one another to accept God’s gift of salvation and to continue meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25)?

Sin deceives and leads to unbelief. What sins are hindering us from accepting God’s invitation? Are we tempted to continue in our sinful ways?

Are we encouraging one another 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 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; spiritual terrorism) is dangerous, because it is an eternal sin. Remember what happened to Judas Iscariot. It occurred in the first century and it happens 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?

Conclusion

God’s warnings to professing Christians were to not drift away, turn away, or fall away into ongoing unbelief, and not become a traitor by rejecting and criticizing Christ after knowing the truth.

We have seen from Hebrews that God’s greatest warning for us 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 or spiritual terrorist) 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, March 2015

Also see the next article in this series:
How to please God – Heb. Ch 13

Also see summary of the book of Hebrews:
Never give up!


God’s greatest warning

Jihadi John 312px5 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.

Context

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?

Conclusion

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


What is God warning us about?

Cliff warning 2 croppedA 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.

Context

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.

Zephaniah diagramBefore 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.

Zephaniah’s themes

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.

Zephaniah diagram resizedThe 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.

Humanity’s sinfulness

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.

God’s warning

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.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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


God’s warning

Zephaniah’s themes

The Islamic State is killing minorities in Iraq and Syria who won’t convert to Islam. It’s genocide. Women and children are taken as sexual slaves. People are fleeing to save their lives. How would you feel in the face of this onslaught if you were one of the Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis or Christians? Terrified? Shocked in unbelief? Wanting to escape?

This article looks at the book of Zephaniah where the Jews are warned of an impending terrible destruction. We will see that, because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.

Context

Zephaniah prophesised “during the reign of Josiah” (Zeph. 1:1NIV), who was king over Judah in 640 – 609 BC. At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. Judah was a vassal state of Assyria during much of the 7th century BC. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.

Zephaniah time line resizedJosiah’s father Amon and grandfather Manasseh were wicked kings who spread idolatry across Judah. They worshipped Baal, Asherah, and the stars and planets, with child sacrifice to Molech and ritual prostitution (2 Ki. 21:6-9; 2 Chr. 33:6-9). There was occultism and the righteous were martyred. Josiah turned back to God and repaired the temple, restoring temple worship in 622BC.

Zephaniah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 70 years after Isaiah and Micah and was a contemporary of Nahum and the young Jeremiah. He is recognised as the last pre-exilic prophet.

Before Zephaniah, Isaiah proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He warned that Judah’s wickedness would be punished by the Babylonians. The judgment is called “the day of the Lord”. But they would be restored when the Messiah would reign. Micah also proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He lists their sins, and predicts a ruler from Bethlehem and the restoration of a remnant. The main theme of these prophets was God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. We will see that this is what Zephaniah prophesied as well. So he may have been already familiar with the content of his message from the earlier prophets.

During the time of Zephaniah, Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies. At this time, Jeremiah (Ch. 1-38) denounced the sins of Judah. He predicted that because of these they would be defeated by the Babylonians and be exiled for 70 years. But he also predicted their restoration and life under the Messiah with a new covenant.

So, at the time when Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies. Idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent; they were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.

Literary structure

Apart from the first verse, the book of Zephaniah is poetry, not prose. It teems with figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, metonymy and synecdoche.

God is the central character. He is a God of action. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end he shows mercy and pardons people. Zephaniah is a humble spokesman: he speaks about God and not himself.

The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. However, this is prevented by their sins.
Through “the day of the Lord”, Judah is restored to serve Him and they are joined by believing Gentiles.

Zephaniah’s themes

The two main themes of Zephaniah are predictions of God’s judgment and God’s deliverance, which show His justice and mercy. Zephaniah mainly concerns the coming judgment and punishment of Judah and other nations because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is followed by the promised restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance.

Zephaniah diagram resizedThose who “have sinned against the Lord” (1:17) will be judged and those who obey and trust the Lord will be restored (2:3; 3:12). The themes of judgment and restoration are linked by a call to repentance (2:1-3).

Looking at these linkages shown in the schematic diagram, four major themes can be identified: Humanity’s sinfulness, God’s warning, God’s judgment, and God’s deliverance. We will now look at each of these in turn.

Humanity’s sinfulness

Zephaniah shows that human sinfulness is a universal problem; it affected both Judah and the other nations.

The sins of Judah included: idolatry (1:3, 4), syncretism (where the true God is worshipped through or alongside other gods) (1:5; 2 Ki. 17:41), apostasy (1:6), following foreign (pagan) customs and culture, which compromised their identity as God’s special people (1:8-9), violence (1:9), apathy and pride (1:12; 3:11), love of money (1:18), oppression (3:10), rebellion (3:10), self-sufficiency, unruliness and ungodliness (3:2), greedy and corrupt leaders (3:3-4, 7), lying and deceit (1:9; 3:13), and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance (1:12). They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6).

The sins of other nations included: pride (2:10, 15), self-sufficiency (2:15), and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people (2:8, 10).

This sinfulness was the source and reason for God’s judgment. God had given His people standards to live by in the Mosaic law. So they should have known better.

Now we come to God’s response to their sins.

God’s warning

The prophets warned God’s people about the consequences of their sinfulness. They were breaking the covenant with their God. Instead of living like God’s people, they were living like pagans. They were breaking most of the ten commandments. The punishment for disobeying the covenant is given in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 28:15-68). It included being defeated by their enemies, having their cities besieged, plundered and destroyed and their people captured and scattered to other nations.

Zephaniah calls for repentance (2:3). There is deliverance for the humble who trust God. But Jerusalem is unrepentant (3:6-7). They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the northern kingdom about 100 years earlier that lead to them being captured by the Assyrians and destroyed as a nation.

So God is merciful: He warns His people of the consequences of their behavior. And we know that king Josiah did repent.

There are two possible responses to a warning. The first is to ignore it. Now we come to the major theme of God’s judgment.

God’s judgment

Judgment is predicted for both Judah and other nations for their ongoing sinfulness.

First for the Jews. The “day of the Lord” is mentioned at least eleven times in the book of Zephaniah (1:7, 8, 9, 10, 14 (twice), 15, 18; 2: 2 (twice), 3). Each occurrence is associated with a message to Judah. According to the NET Bible the concept of “the day of the Lord” may have originated in the ancient Near Eastern idea of the sovereign’s day of conquest, where a king would boast that he had concluded an entire military campaign in a single day. In the Old Testament the phrase first appears in the book of Amos (Amos 5:18-20).

It is a time of great judgement. But when and where will it occur? The book begins with God declaring (1:2-3): “I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.” “When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.

At the end of chapter 1, Zephaniah comments (1:18): “In the fire of His jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”

So everything on the ground will be devastated. Where will it occur? It is clear from the next verse that both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). He calls it “the day of the Lord” (1:7, 14) and “the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18; 2:2). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7).

But why does the NIV say the judgment is on “the face of the earth” (1:2, 3), “the whole earth” and “all who live on the earth” (1:18)? It seems to me that these phrases are translated poorly by most modern translations of the Bible. Click the link to see my reasons. A better translation is: “the land (of Judah)” (1:2, 3), “the whole land (of Judah)”, and “all who live on the land (of Judah) (1:18).

The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement, “the day of the Lord”: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18).

As it described total destruction of living things and idols, yet there are survivors (a humble remnant), the description of the judgment seems to include hyperbole (1:2-3, 18b, 2:3; 3:11-13). Some resolve this dilemma by assuming that the verses on deliverance (3:9-20) were written after the time of Zephaniah. But this isn’t necessary because the combination of the themes of judgement, deliverance of a remnant and a new life of blessing for the faithful is an old as Noah’s flood. So the day of the Lord includes both punishment and purification. Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterised by both justice (when he punishes sinners) and mercy (when he restores the repentant).

When will the judgment occur? “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly” (1:7, 14). It’s imminent. It describes the desolation after an army invades Judah and Jerusalem (1:4-18a). Nothing will be able to save the Judeans (1:18a). It will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). A time of wailing (1:11). This prediction was probably given at least 30 years before it was fulfilled when Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment was to occur. In the meantime, the purpose of the distress was so Judah would repent.

Secondly, judgment is also predicted as total destruction for nations around Judah. Philistia in the west (2:4-6), Moab and Ammon in the east (2:8-11), Egypt in the south (2:12) and Assyria in the north (2:13-15). As there is judgment in all directions, no one can escape. God also promised to judge all the wicked Gentiles (3:8). This is when other nations experience “the day of the Lord”. It was announced by Zephaniah to call Judah to repentance (3:6-7).

About 50 years later Ezekiel also prophesied the destruction of Ammon, Moab and Philistia (Ch. 25) (Assyria had already been invaded by the Babylonians). Ammon and Moab would be invaded by Babylonia. God would take vengeance on Philistia. Also, Egypt and its allies would be invaded by Babylonia (Ch 29-32). After this it was invaded by the Persians. So all these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions.

God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all.

The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behavior so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.

God’s deliverance

Deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.

First for the Jews. Believers would be protected during “the day of the Lord” (2:3). Then God promises to restore a Jewish remnant (2:7; 3:10-13, 18-20). Deliverance and salvation follow judgment. The scattered Jews will return to the land of Judah. They will seek the Lord, trust in Him, obey Him and be humble (2:3; 3:12). They will resume the temple offerings. Their enemies will be punished and there will be peace and honesty in their land. Shame and wickedness will cease (3:11-13). The Jews will be praised and honored around the world – praise and honor has replaced their shame. They will occupy Philistia, Moab and Ammon (2:7, 9c). This leads to joyful celebration in Jerusalem under God’s leadership (3:14-17). Singing has replaced their wailing (3:14), because the punishment has been taken away, the enemies turned back and God is with them (v.15). There is joy and singing in heaven as well (3:17). God “will rejoice over you with singing”.

When will the deliverance occur (Zeph. 3:10-20)? A Jewish remnant returned to Judah after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Although Gentiles called “on the name of the Lord” when they became Christians (Zeph. 3:9; Rom. 10:13), I don’t think that the deliverance described has been completed yet. Did Judah have peace (3:13)? After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Have the Jews been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20)? It says “never again will you fear any harm” (3:15), yet Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

Secondly, redemption is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies (2:11): “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands”. When they realise the awesomeness of God, they will repent and worship Him. They will also seek His help in prayer and serve Him (3:9). This has been fulfilled to some degree in the Christian church.

Conclusion

We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews of the 7th century BC that because of humanity’s sinfulness, God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles in the “day of the Lord”. And God did judge them. But God is merciful. He warns them of their situation and their need to repent.
After this a Jewish remnant will be restored and they will worship Him as King of Israel.

So Zephaniah’s main themes are: Mankind’s sinfulness, God’s warning to repent, God’s judgment (the day of the Lord) for the unrepentant, and God’s deliverance for the repentant (the remnant). This is an example of “the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). These are two aspects of God’s character. The kindness is for those who repent, while the sternness is for the unrepentant.

The Jews should have known about these themes because they come from the Pentateuch. It contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It also says if they confess their sins with humility, then God would remember their covenant (Lev. 26:40-45). So their repentance is the goal of their punishment. God wanted them to turn back to following Him once again.

Zephaniah also implies that God is the God of all nations. In those days each nation had their own gods. People were polytheistic. Here we see that Judah’s God is sovereign and supreme over other nations. He will destroy all the other gods (2:11). Therefore, He was sovereign and supreme over their gods. So the fact of one true God as expressed in the first two commandments is another theme of Zephaniah.

Furthermore, it implies that God intervenes in history (1:12). They thought He wouldn’t intervene, but God says He will search Jerusalem (2:11). So the fact that Judah’s God intervenes in human affairs and history is another theme of Zephaniah.

In order to apply Zephaniah’s prophecy to our modern world, we need to take of account of what God has revealed since then. Today we know that the New Testament teaches that because of humanity’s sinfulness, we all deserve God’s punishment. But God is merciful. In the Bible He warns us of our situation and our need to repent. Jesus took the punishment for us when He was crucified. Those who repent are redeemed to worship Him as their Lord.

When Paul addresses the sins of the self-righteous moralist, he writes “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). So God warns people today of a coming judgment. Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). In the meantime, we are to be faithful followers of Christ (2 Pt. 3:11-14).

Even though it was written over 2,600 years ago, Zephaniah’s book is relevant to our times. We can apply the four main themes to ourselves. What are our sins? What are our gods? Are we apathetic? Are we materialistic? Are we selfish? How loyal are we to God? They had a choice. So do we. Will we confess and repent of our sins in order to maintain our relationship with the Lord? There is deliverance and salvation for the humble who trust in the death of Jesus Christ for their sins. Do we have the hope of heaven? The hope of a better time to come.

Because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming; but deliverance and salvation is promised for the repentant.

Written, November 2014

Also see: What is the meaning of adamah and erets in Zephaniah?


Why didn’t God warn Adam and Eve about Satan?

We know very little about what was said to Adam and Eve before the fall into sin, but Scripture contains what we need to know about the past. God commanded Adam and Eve, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:16-17NIV). With this choice, there is a consequence: disobedience leads to death. We know that Eve was aware of the command and the consequence because she repeated it to the serpent (Gen. 3:2-3). “When you eat from it you will certainly die” is a warning. She knew that it was something to be avoided. It was not trivial but important – a life and death matter. Obviously the disadvantages and impact of spiritual and physical death must have been explained to Adam and Eve at the time.

God gave them enough information so that they could make an informed choice, although we have no evidence that Satan was mentioned. If the warning had been more explicit, then their free will may have been eroded.

So God did warn them about not eating the fruit. He said, don’t do it!

Written, January 2012