Summary: "Backsliders" are believers who needs some encouragement. But those who claim to be believers and who forsake God simply never had authentic faith in the first place.

“Return to Shelter” (Zephaniah)

Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts

A young boy was sitting in the corner of the kitchen looking unhappy. He’d just been given a “time out”. When his discipline was over, he asked his mother, “God can do anything He wants, can’t He?” His mother answered, “Of course.” The boy then reflected, “God doesn’t have any parents, does He?”

We’ve all experienced some parent-to-child conflict. Even if we’ve had the best of parents we’ve at times felt restricted, like prisoners. I heard Billy Graham’s son Franklin interviewed on NPR last week, telling how his parents had to discipline him. “I deserved it”, he admitted, “but at the time, I didn’t think so.” We need our parents, but we also want to be freed from them. When we look back on our childhood we have to admit we weren’t ready for complete freedom—we needed discipline and instruction. Yet we resist parental control, and we may feel the same way about God at times. We know our Heavenly Father loves us, but we don’t always appreciate His tough love. God loves us just as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way! So He works with us, guiding us and at times chastening us. This we learn from the prophet Zephaniah

The Jewish nation has been compared to a person who made a fortune, lost it, and then regained prosperity. God’s chosen people have known both blessing and discipline. At the time of this brief prophetic book, King Josiah (640-609 BC) came to the throne of Judah (also known as the Southern Kingdom). Josiah instituted several religious reforms, particularly the removal of idols and pagan shrines. Perhaps the preaching of Zephaniah had some influence over this revival. His prophecy foretells God’s wrath and restoration.

God’s people were backslidden. They had turned back to their old ways and had grown indifferent to spiritual things. Unbelief and apathy were prevalent. Artists have pictured the prophet Zephaniah as holding a lantern because of 1:12, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent”. We cannot afford to be indifferent about God. When God sees His people becoming complacent, He sometimes sends trials to wake us up. The people Zephaniah preached to for the most part shrugged off his warnings, disregarding His message. Zephaniah describes the complacent as “wine left on its dregs”. In making quality wine, the liquid was refined by pouring it from one container to another, separating the wine from the dregs, keeping it from thickening and becoming bitter. (Still in vs. 12) These people “think, ‘The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad’.” They saw God as a kindly, remote, ineffectual Grandfather who wouldn’t punish them. Apparently they didn’t think much of Zephaniah either, even though he was the great-great grandson of King Hezekiah. How would we live if we truly believed God was upset with sin?

Backsliding is hard to define. Does it describe believers who’ve slipped in their devotion to God, or does the word represent those who’ve made an outward profession of faith, but lack true commitment to Christ? The Apostle John portrays those who leave the church as people who “never truly belonged to us” (I Jn 2:19). In other words, their leaving revealed their true colors. They have no intention of obeying God; their priorities are fixed with stubborn willfulness. Having a living faith means loyalty to God, actively sticking with Him, in spite of some ups and downs. I see a backslider as a believer who needs some encouragement. But those who claim to be believers and who forsake God simply never had authentic faith in the first place. They do not lose their salvation because they never possessed genuine faith. They have not received “Jesus as Lord” (Rom 10:9). They are characterized by unbelief and disobedience.

Zephaniah talks of the coming Day of the Lord. There’s a great difference between the Lord’s Day and the Day of the Lord. The Lord’s Day is Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, our Sabbath day of worship. The Day of the Lord is a time of severe wrath and judgment. Zephaniah’s warnings are apocalyptic—a sober, fearful message.

A Sunday School teacher asked his 4th grade class what they wanted to study. Several requested the book of Revelation. After a few weeks one of the boys told the teacher, “I’m scared of this book we’re studying.” It is frightening if we lack an understanding of God’s purpose. He has not destined believers for wrath (I Thes 5:9).

While I was in a convenience store this past week I noticed one of those tabloid newspapers with this bold headline: “Bible Prophecies the US Government Doesn’t Want You To Know”. You don’t need a Top-Secret security clearance to read God’s word—it’s no secret. Zephaniah’s problem had nothing to do with leaking divine secrets; his problem was getting people to care about his message and their sinful condition.

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