The Gospel According to Zephaniah

Posted: April 27, 2012 in Zephaniah

As we dive into the book of Zephaniah, we find that this minor prophet- minor due to the length of his book, not the importance of his ministry- is a contemporary of Nahum and is ministering during the reign of Josiah, the best king that Judah ever had. Israel had been exiled, or disbanded, you could say, for about 100 years now, and Josiah was attempting to restore what was left of God’s people. He wanted to get back to that heart of worship for their covenant God Yahweh, but we can see that despite even his best efforts and the example he put forth, not everyone in Judah was on board with him.

Now before I even get into the text, I need to slow down a bit to answer a question that many of you may be wondering,  that question being this: what’s this prophecy business really got to do with me? I mean, how does it affect me as a student in school, or as an adult, or as a gentile Christian?

I’ve answered this question somewhat before elsewhere, so I won’t tie up too much time up here, but I do want to introduce you to a concept that I’ve not hit on before, and that’s the idea of dual fulfillment in prophecy. Dual fulfillment. Two fulfilling. Simply put, this means that when something is prophesized to happen, it may be fulfilled in more than one way. Let me show you a quick example.

Back in Isaiah’s ministry during the reign of King Ahaz, Israel and Syria joined forces against the Assyrians, and they were going to intimidate Judah into joining their alliance. And by intimidate, the Bible tells us in Isaiah seven that the armies of Israel and Syria came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it. It was one of those “go to war with us against the Assyrians, or be destroyed by us instead” concepts. This terrified King Ahaz, and God sent Isaiah to comfort him, to tell Ahaz to not worry about it- that God was going to take care of him.

And then something cool happens. Isaiah tells Ahaz that God has given him the right to ask for a confirmation sign from God, a sign that would assure Ahaz of God’s promises. This sign could be absolutely anything conceivable under the sun. Put me to the test, God says. Demand a sign, and it will be given to you.

But Ahaz doesn’t want to do this, and he says, “I will not ask. I will not put the Lord to the test.” And this is God’s response in Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and call his name Immanuel.” Sound familiar? Of course it does- it was the prophecy fulfilled in Matthew by the virgin Mary becoming pregnant with Jesus. So while this prophecy was fulfilled (albeit partially) in Isaiah’s day, it was also intended by God to reach full completion some 700 years later. Likewise, though the Prophets of God often spoke of judgment that has already happened to God’s people within a short time of the prophecy, there is a very real aspect in which the majority of God’s prophesied judgment has not yet occurred, which is why Zephaniah contains the Gospel, the Good News of God’s salvation. I want to share now four things about this Gospel that we need to understand.

The first thing is this: Good news is only good when contrasted against a backdrop of bad news, and the bad news that you have got to believe is that judgment is coming for every single one of us. Listen to God as He speaks through Zephaniah: “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the Earth. I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD (1:2-3).

Do you understand? We will all stand before Jesus, the King, Creator, Judge over all creation, and He owns us. He made us. He made everything, and it obeyed Him. He told the stars where to sit. He told the planets how fast to rotate, at what angle to tilt. He placed the Sun and the Moon exactly where He wanted them, and they stayed. He commanded the oceans, and the wind, and the mountains and trees, and He got perfect obedience, and then He created us and told us to worship Him and we said “NO!

No, I will not obey you! No, I will not live in the reality that you are God- I will be god! I’ll do what I want to do. I’ll do nothing you want me to. I hate you! That’s the attitude that our first father Adam demonstrated, it’s the same attitude that we’re all now born with. It’s the attitude in action every time we choose sin over obedience. It’s the attitude prevalent among what was left of the nation of Israel, it’s the attitude of the entire human race, and don’t be fooled for one moment- judgment is coming.

This is what God says in verses fourteen through eighteen of chapter one of Zephaniah: “The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast. The sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of His jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end He will make all of the inhabitants of the earth. “

You think this is something you can sweet talk your way out of? No way. Maybe your hope is in the fact that you’ve never killed anybody. I mean, you’re basically a good person, right? Wrong. Even at our best, we are offensive to God. James tells us that if we’ve sinned once, we’re guilty of breaking all of the Law, and Paul tells us that every single one of us have sinned, and we have therefore earned for ourselves the end result of Judgment Day, where God will cast rebellious sinners into the Lake of Fire to suffer beneath His holy wrath for an eternity because of our infinite guilt before Him.

We get a glimpse of this judgment day, the ultimate Day of the LORD, which is unlike any other time in human history that mankind has experienced God’s judgment in a more focused, “smaller” day of the LORD. We get a glimpse through the eyes of John the Beloved, one of Jesus’ closest followers.

Some 700 years after Zephaniah’s ministry John shares with us the Revelation of Jesus Christ, a prophetical vision- experience, even- of the future. In chapter twenty, beginning in verse eleven, John says “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was open, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death, the Lake of Fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the Lake of Fire. “

In the middle of this darkest of all portions of Scripture we see a ray of hope. A book of life, a book containing names of individuals who will be spared from God’s eternal wrath against their sins. A book that means, if your name is not written in it, that there is no hope for you. The existence of this book hints at the Good News, the second truth you need to know, which is this: God saves sinners. He saves sinners. Not because He’s obligated to, because He isn’t. Not because some people are better than others, because we are all wicked in His sight. But because He has lovingly chosen to demonstrate mercy and kindness to an undeserving people. Not everyone. Just some.

We see this echoed in the pages of the Old Testament as well, as God has continually promised covenant blessings to His people, and He has always promised to spare a remnant of Israel for Himself. And then in Romans nine Paul tells us that simply being born Jewish doesn’t make you one of God’s covenant people, but that God’s people, those to whom He promised salvation, is comprised now both of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, or non-Jews. Zephaniah knew this- he had to! Look at what God says in chapter three: “I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD, those who are left in Israel. They shall do no injustice, and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.”

How? How can this be? How can God simply go “Nevermind! Psych! Fooled you, haha! Just kidding about that damnation part- we’re cool, bro!” How can He do that? How can God forgive wicked people when Zephaniah tells us that God “is righteous, he does no injustice” (3:5)? How can God clear the guilty when Nahum tells us that “God will by no means clear the guilty”? How can God justify a wicked sinner when Proverbs 17:15 tells us that “whoever justifies a wicked man is an abomination to God”? He can’t! God cannot simply forgive sinners. It’s against His character.

And it’s because of this that we turn to the third thing you need to know – the greatest scandal in human history. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, the creator of the Universe, puts on human skin and steps into our story. Jesus tells us, “you cannot live up to my Father’s standards…but I can.” And for the next thirty-three years he did just that. He lived a perfect life. He loved people. He healed people. He raised them from the dead. He taught them about the Kingdom of God. But it was all winding down to one event, the event that has split history wide open. ‘Cause see…the only way our Judge could forgive us is by taking upon Himself our punishment, and this is what the Son of God did for His people. Theologians call it the “Great Exchange.” Paul explains it like this: “he became sin, who knew no sin.”

When Jesus was arrested, falsely accused, and crucified by the Roman government at the behest of the Pharisees, he did so much more than die wrongly as an innocent man. When Jesus was on the Cross He stepped into the place of law breakers and bore the punishment for their guilt. Do you understand that? The only way the Father could be reconciled to sinful people, the only way that Jesus could be given a bride, the only way that God could spare any of mankind, the only way that a remnant of Israel could be delivered, was by the Son of God redeeming them, purchasing them, paying their debt to God while suffering in their place. It’s the only way for anyone to be forgiven by God. And through His death, burial, and resurrection, John tells us, again in Revelation, that Jesus “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

It was because of the coming Messiah that God can say through Zephaniah, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.”

But here’s the thing…the fourth thing you need to understand tonight is going to be the hardest, and that is this: the Messiah did not come to save the entire human race. You heard me right. The Son of God did not come to earth determined to save every last man, woman, and child. If that was Jesus’ intention on the Cross, then He failed. Miserably.  Nor did Jesus come simply to make people savable. If all He did was make people savable, and left the rest up to us, then grace just went out the window and we are saved by our own will or actions. No- Matthew tells us in Matthew 1:21 that Jesus came to save His people from their sins. In His death, burial, and resurrection He purchased, secured, and guaranteed the salvation of people from every people group in the world. You may be one of them. You may not.

You say, “How do I know, Richard? How can I know whether or not God has saved me?” Great question- here’s a simple answer by way of a promise of God: “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Jesus told us all to see our sin for the evilness, and rebellion, and wickedness that it is, and to trust in Him as our savior, to have full confidence in His death, burial, and resurrection as the means for our salvation as He bore our punishment in our place.

It’s not about being good, it’s not about attending church, it’s not about asking Jesus into your heart. Let’s wrap up by looking at one final verse, John 3:18. Jesus said, talking about himself: “Whoever believe in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

There are two types of people reading this right now- those who believe in Jesus and those who do not. Those who believe will be saved, those that refuse to believe the truth of who Jesus is will remain in their sins and be thrown into Hell for their continued rebellion against God. Maybe today the light bulb came on for you and you now truly see yourself for who you are, Jesus for who He is, and you’re ready to trust Him with your soul. Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering if you were really one of His and now you know beyond any doubt that He has saved you. Maybe you’re still not sure and you have questions that you need answers to. Whatever the need, whatever is going on with you right now, I encourage you to talk with God right now and let the truths of His Word transform your life.

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