God's Great Heart of Love Toward His Own (Zephaniah)

Zephaniah, an OT prophet, warned Judah during the reign of Josiah (637-608 BC) that their final days were near (Zeph 1:7). Their divine judgment will come at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (605-586 BC), who would conquer and exile them about 20 years later (Zeph 1:4-13).

This outline/overview of Zephaniah is from a sermon by Mike Bullmore (senior pastor of CrossWay Community Church, Bristol, Wisconsin), which was delivered at the Gospel Coalition 2011 in Chicago. Watch the video, or listen to the audio of "God's Great Heart Toward His Own" here. Bullmore explained and expounded the message of Zephaniah in 3 steps.

1. There appears to be no hope. (God's judgment is rightly against all mankind.)

2. There is a glimmer of hope. (A word of hope is spoken.)

3. This glimmer bursts into a great and glorious rejoicing of God's people.

Zephaniah, along with all other OT prophets, is pregnant with the message of the Bible, and therefore it is pregnant with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Granted, in the earlier stages of salvation history and of progressive revelation, the shape of, and the specific contours and content of the gospel is harder to detect. But Zephaniah could very well be the entire Bible in miniature (as with all the other books in the OT), for the gospel is present in Zephaniah in utero.

Zephaniah begins with a sober assessment and announcement of the condition of all mankind—sinning against God. He then pronounces God’s righteous judgment on sinful mankind. But in the midst of the pronouncement of judgment, with all of its darkness, gloom, distress and anguish, there comes shining through like a bright ray of light, a word of hope from God. The word of the good news of salvation from God, good news for sinful man under the judgment of God is God’s good news of salvation for man, even while that sure judgment is coming. So despite the coming judgment, there is hope for sinners like us, because of the mercy of God. God has provided salvation not just as an escape from God’s judgment, but as an entrance into God’s very joy.

Step 1: There Appears to be No Hope (Zeph 1:1-18)

Zeph 1:2-3 must be some of the most dramatic and silencing opening verses to any book in the Bible. God will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the world (Zeph 1:7-13). Why? Because of man's posturing and attitude toward God.

The people of Judah became good religious pluralists by trying to cover all the bases (Zeph 1:5). They were succumbing to cultural pressure. They tried very hard not to offend anyone, but God was very offended. God has said clearly, "You shall worship God only" (Deut 6:13). Thus, worshiping God and worshiping something else is not worshiping God at all. They were not worshiping God, but patronizing God. We should involve God and trust God in every area of our life (Prov 3:5-6): marriage, family, career. But they were neglecting God (Zeph 1:6), and not trusting God (Zeph 3:2). They didn't need input from God. They were proud and self-sufficient. God was not taken into consideration in their daily life. They were practical atheists.

Not only were they patronizing and neglecting God, they were also marginalizing and trivializing God, where God was practically not at all a factor in their practical lives (Zeph 1:12). Thus, the great day of the Lord (Zeph 1:14-18), the day of God's wrath and judgment is coming on all unrepentant people. God is absolutely just (Zeph 3:5). So, when God seems blatant idolatry, God is angry, full of wrath, and he will judge. It happened when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, including Solomon's temple. God is holy. In his holiness, God will punish all sin. God will bring justice. God will set all things right. All of this judgment is due to one thing (Zeph 1:17). What is it? "Because they have sinned against the Lord."

This announcement of judgment is in the Bible for a reason. Through out history, the first truth about God to be denied is the doctrine of God's judgment (Gen 3:4). We like to think that our neglect of God or our sin is minor, or that I can do whatever I want. But God's judgment will come (Zeph 3:8). God's judgment applies to everybody. God is the greatest reality in the universe. God is the greatest reality of every man's universe.

Are you patronizing God? (OK, I'll go to church.) Neglecting God? (Trusting yourself.) Trivializing God? (God doesn't care what I do, or how I live, or what I think about.) On that day, there will be nothing that will be able to save you (Zeph 1:18), not your wealth, not your accomplishments. There will be nothing that we can hide behind. There will come a day when you have to stand alone before God. There will be nothing to hide behind. If step 1, God's judgment on sin does not register with you, if it doesn't strike you as true, nothing else will. Then you won't listen to step 2 and 3 and you will be lost forever. You'll just convince yourself that God's judgment will somehow overlook you, or that it won't apply to you, and you won't read the Bible. The Bible is always calling us to remember what we were and what we would be apart from the grace of God: lost and without hope forever. All mankind is under the just and certain judgment of God.

Step 2: There appears a Glimmer of Hope (Zeph 2:1-15; 3:1-8)

Zeph 2:1-3 gives us just a glimmer of hope: "perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord's anger" (Zeph 2:3). After this brief glimmer of hope, it is followed by more pronouncements of judgments (Zeph 2:4-15): on Philistia to the west (Zeph 2:4-7), on Moab and Ammon to the east (Zeph 2:8-11), on Cush or Babylon to the south (Zeph 2:12), and on Assyria to the north (Zeph 2:13-15), in addition to God's opening pronouncement of judgment on the whole earth, focusing on Israel (Zeph 1:2-18) and on Jerusalem (Zeph 3:1-8).

God is saying, “I am the Lord of all nations, and all nations are accountable to me.” God is also saying, "Any way you turn, you will run into judgment. There is no place for you to turn, to flee from safety, except one." The only 1 place to turn for refuge and salvation is turn to God himself (Zeph 2:3).

The glory of the gospel is this: The one from whom we need to be saved is the very one who saves us. It's true. All of us really do stand guilty before the holy and righteous God. When this registers, we may turn to other remedies: I’ll go back to church, I'll stop such and such, I’ll clean up my act, I'll be better, etc. But there is no hope other than to turn to God. All we can say is "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). It is the only plea of a sinner before a holy God. This is not a magic formula, or a special incantation. This is the humbling of your heart, humbly turning to Christ, humbling taking refuge in his death for our sins. It is God's intent to rescue and to redeed for himself a people, a remnant (Zeph 3:12).

Step 3: The Glimmer of Hope Bursts into a Great and Glorious Rejoicing of God's People at the Consummation of the Salvation of God's Own People: God Saves (Zeph 3:9-20)

For those who take refuge in God, God does save. Zeph 3:14-17 is not just an escape from God's judgment, but an entrance into God's joy. These blessings are not just for the people of Israel, but for all the people of God through out the world (Gal 3:29). On that day, those who have received God's salvation, God's redeemed children, are called to "sing, shout aloud, be glad and rejoice with all your heart" (Zeph 3:14). This is not some tame singing. Given what has been done for us, we have every reason to rejoice with all our heart. No experience here on earth that causes us to rejoice can compare with this or come close to this, to those who have put their trust in Christ. When this is brought to full consumation, you will not to be able to not rejoice with all your heart. Yes, in this life, we grasp the significance of our salvation only slightly and partially and vaguely (1 Cor 13:9). One day we will realize it and experience it fully. What is it that we will fully realize? 3 things:

1) There will be no judgment for us at all. God has taken away our judgment/punishment against you (Zeph 3:15; Rom 8:1). What a beautiful statement of the heart of the gospel right here in this obscure OT "minor" prophet (Zeph 3:15). What a beautiful statement of justification. On the cross, Christ drained the cup of God's wrath bone dry. If we are in Christ, there is no judgment left for us. Do the math. The judgment of God's holy law can no longer have anything to do with me. My Savior's obedience and death hides all my sins and transgressions from God's view.

2) We will be God's very presence. God, our Lord and Mighty Warrior, is in our very midst (Zeph 3:15,17).

3) There is no more fear of any kind (Zeph 3:16). Can you imagine what this will be like? No experience of fear. Our King is right in our midst.

But what Zephaniah marvels at is the amazing prospect of God rejoicing in love over us on that day (Zeph 3:17,20). God will not look at us and be disappointed at us. God won't say, "Well, given what I had to work with..." or "Well, it is what it is," or "Well, what do you expect..." No, God will rejoice over us with great gladness. He will exalt over you with loud singing. God would have completed His purpose for us by making us spotless, blameless and without blemish. So, God's rejoicing over God's work in us will be right. There is an unrestraint intensity of passion in God's heart over us. God is not doing this reluctantly. There is no constraint here at all. Isa 62:5 says, "As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you." Hos 2:19 says, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion." If you are in Christ, that's how God feels about you.

All the most moving and thrilling and delightful experiences in this life will seem like nothing, compared to God’s joy and rejoicing over us. Even greater than your joy will be God’s joy. Charles Spurgeon said, "Believer, you are happy when God blesses you but not as happy as God is. You are glad when you are pardoned, but he who pardons you is more glad." The book of Zephaniah lets us know this.

(A footnote of pastoral encouragement: What is the gospel? What must we include when we preach it, share it? Our thoughts/preaching/personal treasuring of the gospel must always include this consummation of God’s joy. This is the end to which it is all moving. This is the whole point: Being with God to God’s great joy. This is the great contribution of Zephaniah: The consummation of the redeeming work of God in Christ. Sometimes we forget to mention this. But it must be spoken. That’s exactly what Zephaniah does here. This may not be left out. Preach it, share it, until it fills our heart and souls with joy. To Christ’s glory.)

John Piper's 2 sermons from Zephaniah are The Pleasure of God in the Good of His People (1987) and The Lord will Rejoice over You (1982). Piper's intro and outline:

According to Zephaniah 1:1, the prophet Zephaniah delivered the Word of the Lord during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah. Josiah reigned from 637 to 608 BC. So his reign came to an end just 20 years before Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and Israel was taken into captivity. Josiah is the king, you recall, who found the long-lost book of the law in the temple and tried to reform the people who had drifted so far into idolatry and wickedness. Zephaniah, then, was a part of this effort to call Judah, and especially Jerusalem, back to God. I think the book falls naturally into 5 parts.

1) Zeph 1:1-18 announces the coming judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem: "I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (Zeph 1:4).

2) Zeph 2:1–3, calls the nation back to God, and specifically to "seek righteousness and seek humility" (Zeph 1:3).

3) Zeph 2:4–15, Zephaniah announces the judgment that is also coming on the lands that surround Judah: the Philistines to the east (Zeph 2:4–7), Moab and Ammon to the west (Zeph 2:8–11), the Ethiopians to the south (Zeph 2:12), and Assyria to the north (Zeph 2:13–15).

4) In Zeph 3:1–7, Zephaniah turns his attention to Jerusalem again and lengthens the catalogue of God's accusations against her.

5) Finally, Zeph 3:8–20, proclaims the conversion of the peoples (Zeph 3:9), the conversion and re-gathering of Israel (Zeph 3:10), and the glorious future of all the godly as God rejoices over them with gladness.

I think the main point is Zeph 2:3, "Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility." The rest of the book is mainly made up of warnings that judgment is coming upon the proud, and promises that the humble and righteous who seek refuge in the Lord will be saved (Zeph 3:12-13). So there are 3 things: commands, warnings, and promises. Obedience to the command in Zeph 2:3 is Zephaniah's main goal, and the warnings and promises are incentives for the people to repent and obey.