Big Idea: The God who punishes sin is the God who has taken away your judgments; he lives among you; he loves and delights in you; he gathers all those who are weary and worn out.
Tonight we are covering one of the most important issues we need to settle in our lives. I’d like to say that this is an issue that we settle once, but in my experience it’s an issue we need to return to on a regular basis. I can’t overemphasize how important an issue this is.
The issue is this, and it comes in the form of two questions: What do you think God things about you, and what can you do about it? So first: What do you think God thinks about you? Is he happy with you? Is he disappointed? Does he put up with you? And the second question is equally important: What can you do about it? How can you influence what God thinks about you?
These questions are huge in our lives, because what we think about God determines almost everything about your lives. These questions get at some of the deepest and most significant parts of ourselves, but often they are questions that we return to again and again because they are so significant.
To answer this question, let’s look at the book of Zephaniah, and we’ll look at what someone has called the Gospel of Zephaniah. To begin with, I won’t blame you too much if you’re not familiar with Zephaniah. Zephaniah is what is called a minor prophet in the Bible. Minor doesn’t mean insignificant; minor means that the prophet’s book was a smaller one rather than a larger one like Isaiah or Jeremiah. The problem that we face when we read one of these minor prophets is that the message is sometimes discouraging. The late preacher James Boice said:
I do not know if your experience in studying the Minor Prophets has been the same as mine, but I suspect it has, at least in this respect: the prophets’ reiterated message of coming judgment is oppressive, so that any serious attempt to understand and apply it often leaves a person depressed. I have felt this particularly in my study of Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, and Nahum. I feel it also in the greater part of the Book of Zephaniah.
So we often ignore these prophets, but their message is important.
So who was Zephaniah? Zephaniah was a prophet who served during the reign of Josiah, around 640–609 B.C. If you know anything about Israel and Judah’s history around this time, you could summarize it like this: it was bad, and it kept getting worse. By the time Zephaniah came around, Israel had already been exiled, and Judah wasn’t far behind. But then King Josiah came along and was made king when he was eight years old. And just 18 years later, they found the Scriptures in the Temple, and Josiah led the spiritual renewal of the nation. Zephaniah 1:1 says that this word of the Lord came to Zephaniah in the reign of Josiah, so we know that this was a time of darkness in Judah’s history, but also with some hope that things were going to change for the better.
So what do we learn from Zephaniah? Two things, and here is the first:
God is as angry at sin as we think he is.
If you read the first two-thirds of the book of Zephaniah, you probably wouldn’t like it. Remember what I said about the prophets being depressing? That’s exactly what you find in Zephaniah. It leaves us discouraged.
In fact, here’s what Zephaniah looks like:
- Chapter 1 — God is going to judge the nation of Judah
- 2:1-3 — Repentance is still possible
- The rest of chapter 2 — God is going to judge all the nations around Judah
- 3:1-7 — God is going to judge Jerusalem
Somebody’s summarized the message of most of the book of Zephaniah as this:
One of the most awesome descriptions of the wrath of God in judgment found anywhere in Scripture appears in the opening verses of Zephaniah. The totality of the cosmos shall be consumed in his burning anger. The very order of creation shall be overturned. (O. Palmer Robertson)
So this is bad. The first part of Zephaniah — the majority of the book of Zephaniah — is exactly what we were afraid of: that God is angry at sin, and that we are in his crosshairs because we are sinners, and it’s only a matter of time before we and the rest of the world are in a lot of trouble.
I want to pause here for a minute to consider this, because this is really hard for us to accept. A lot of people today have a hard time accepting that God really could be that harsh. We accept a loving and merciful God, but we hate the idea of a God who could judge and hold us responsible for what we’ve done wrong. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, put it this way:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Dawkins is not one for understatement, but I get his point: we struggle with a God who is angry at sin, and who spends most of this book warning us about the judgment that’s going to come because we are so bad. What do we say to this?
Becky Pippert is an author and teacher, and Nathan and I got to hear her in Toronto this past December. I love how she responds to this issue. She does a great job helping us understand why the wrath of God is not a petty explosion, but an aspect of his who he has to be.
Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it. . . . Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. (Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons)
Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, “Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.”
If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.
I’ll put it this way: I injured my Achilles Tendon two weeks ago. The first physiotherapist I saw told me that it really wasn’t that serious, and that I could continue running, but should just cut back a little. That was what I wanted to hear, because I have a goal, but it just didn’t sound right. I went to someone else yesterday who did a much more thorough job examining me, and he said something different: if I keep running, this temporary injury will become a chronic one. My best hope of recovery is rest, and then I can get back to running in a few weeks.
The same with us. We want to hear that our sin is not that serious, and that God isn’t that concerned with it. The reality is that our sin is far worse than we could imagine, and that God in his holiness and love sees that our sin must be dealt with. We must face the severity of our sin if we have any chance of recovery. And we must see that God is not a sentimental God who thinks that sin is no big deal. As one person puts it:
What we need to make clear with our bumper stickers and culture-current writings is that the love that wins is a holy love. The love that won on the cross and wins the world is a love that is driven, determined, and defined by holiness. It is a love that flows out of the heart of a God who is transcendent, majestic, infinite in righteousness, who loves justice as much as He does mercy; who hates wickedness as much as He loves goodness; who blazes with a fiery, passionate love for Himself above all things. He is Creator, Sustainer, Beginning and End. He is robed in a splendor and eternal purity that is blinding. He rules, He reigns, He rages and roars, then bends down to whisper love songs to His creatures. (Timothy Stoner, The God Who Smokes)
We don’t serve a sentimental God. We can’t domesticate him. We serve a God who “is so full of passion and blazing emotion that He burns—and yes, smokes in the ferocity of His infinite, holy love.” God is as angry at sin as we think he is.
But there’s more:
God is over-the-top in his grace to sinners who deserve only judgment.
A few minutes ago I quoted someone who summarized the message of the first part of the book of Zephaniah:
One of the most awesome descriptions of the wrath of God in judgment found anywhere in Scripture appears in the opening verses of Zephaniah. The totality of the cosmos shall be consumed in his burning anger. The very order of creation shall be overturned.
Here’s what he says about the part that we’re going to focus on (3:9-20) for the rest of this message:
One of the most moving descriptions of the love of God for his people found anywhere in Scripture appears in the closing verses of Zephaniah. God and his people attain heights in the ecstasy of love that are hard to comprehend. (O. Palmer Robertson)
The reason I want to look at this passage tonight is because it gives us the gospel of Jesus Christ. Remember the other week, if you were here, what I said? I want to major this year in being strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1) so we can do what he has called us to do (2 Timothy 2:2). This passage is huge in strengthening us in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. It is the gospel of Zephaniah. We need to know how seriously God takes sin, and then we need to see how God gives his over-the-top grace to weary, worn out, scattered people. We need to see how God overcomes our guilt and shame. We need to revel in this passage. The famous preacher C.H. Spurgeon said, “This passage is like a great sea, while I am as a little child making pools in the sand which skirts its boundless flood.”
So what does this passage say? It tells us to rejoice, and to sing (Zephaniah 3:14). He piles up every available expression to tell us to rejoice. That’s an odd thing to say after reading about God’s judgment. It’s because we see that God is a complex person. He is a God of judgment and wrath, but we also see:
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
Rejoice. Why? Because God has done a litany of things for us. Zephaniah wrote these words over 600 years before the birth of Jesus, but they all point us to what Jesus has accomplished for us. These things can only ultimately be true because Jesus has accomplished them. Hear the good news of Jesus Christ, the gospel of Zephaniah:
He has taken away our judgments and dealt with our enemies (Zephaniah 3:15).
What do you do when you realize that you are a far greater sinner than you had realized, and that God is far more angry at sin than we could dream? Rejoice! Because God has taken away our judgments and dealt with our enemies. He has dealt decisively with both our guilt and our shame. Scotty Smith says that guilt says, “I broke the law,” and shame says, “I am broken.” Guilt says we have done something wrong, and shame says there is something wrong with us. And God has dealt with both.
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.
(Zephaniah 3:15 ESV)
The astounding thing is that God did not compromise his holiness in order to deal with our sin and our guilt. God is both holy and merciful at the same time. Jesus doesn’t only judge evil, but he also takes the hell and judgment himself for us on the cross. Because Jesus bore our sins, there is no longer any judgment against the person who trusts in him. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Our sins, past, present, and future, have been dealt with at the cross. Sing aloud, and rejoice! The God of holiness has dealt with our sins, and he has taken away the judgments against us.
He is in our midst, so we no longer have to fear (Zephaniah 3:15).
Not only has God taken away our judgment, but God is now with us.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
On several occasions, King Abdullah II of Jordan has disguised himself and mingled with his subjects. His rationale for this unorthodox approach is to better understand and serve his people. Taking the character of an ordinary old Arab man, he has appeared in public with a fake white beard, wearing the traditional Jordanian kufiah, and the Arabic white dress. While so disguised, the king walked around two government buildings without security and was not noticed. While waiting in a long line, he engaged people in conversation and listened to their point of view.
Such incognito appearances have marked the 42-year-old monarch's reign since he assumed the throne in 1999. He disguised himself as an old man previously while visiting a hospital. Another time, he circulated around Amman behind the wheel of a taxicab. Still another time, he passed himself off as a television reporter trying to cover a story at a duty-free shop.
Jesus does even better than King Abdullah. He didn’t just visit us; he became one of us. He understands everything we go through. He has also promised that he is always with us. He is with us. We never have to fear any evil.
He loves and delights in his people (Zephaniah 3:17).
This is the part that gets me the most.
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
I heard the story of a wedding in a very formal church. The bride began to walk down the aisle. The groom was supposed to wait beside the minister for the bride to arrive at the front. Instead, the groom broke all decorum and went running down the aisle to meet his bride. He was so full of joy, but the minister thought that he was going to get fired. That is a good picture of God’s joy in saving us. “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). John Piper says:
We must banish from our minds forever any thought that God admits us begrudgingly into his kingdom, as though Christ found a loophole in the law, did some fancy plea-bargaining, and squeaked us by the Judge. No way! God himself, the Judge, put Christ forward as our substitutionary sacrifice, and when we trust him, God welcomes us with bells on. He puts a ring on our finger, kills the fatted calf, throws a party, shouts a shout that shakes the ends of creation, and leads in the festal dance. (John Piper)
God rejoices over us; he exults over us with loud singing.
He will gather all of us who are weary and worn out (Zephaniah 3:18-20).
I think I’ve told you before about the way Ray Ortlund opens services at Immanuel Nashville. He says something like this:
To all who are weary and need rest;
To all who mourn and long for comfort;
To all who feel worthless and wonder if God even cares;
To all who are weak and fail and desire strength;
To all who sin and need a Savior —
This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus,
the mighty friend of sinners,
the ally of his enemies,
the defender of the indefensible,
the justifier of those who have no excuses left…
I have a friend who started attending Immanuel Nashville after being really beat up. He was hurting and jaded. As Ray spoke these words, he leaned over to his wife and said, “Bull.” They couldn’t even make it through the first service without leaving for a while. But they came back, and they stuck around, and they discovered that this church had a place for hurting people like them. They learned the importance of what Ray Ortlund teaches: that we all need Gospel + safety + time. A lot of gospel, a lot of safety, and a lot of time.
Zephaniah ends with a note of hope for the hurting, for the weary, for the hurting.
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the LORD.
I asked you at the beginning, “What do you think God things about you, and what can you do about it?” Here’s the answer: God rejoices in saving you. He delights in saving you. And what can you do about it? You can receive it. You can rejoice in it. You can let that reality change everything about you.
We’re going to spend time thinking about what God has called us to do. We’re going to spend lots of time doing this. But as I heard someone say this week, “Being more accomplishes more than doing more” (Will Mancini). Today we’re beginning by doing what Paul commanded Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:1: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus…”
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
For your holy God, the God who punishes sin, has taken away your judgments; he lives among you; he loves and delights in you; he gathers all those who are weary and worn out.