When you love people with the love of Jesus (8) you will pray for them. It’s a practical way to express love. It’s not the only way. It shouldn’t be a substitute for other things we obviously ought to do. But it is right to pray for those we love, as Christ Himself did (John 17).
When you are convinced that the good things you see in people (3-5) are the result of a ‘’good work’’ of God in them (6), you will be encouraged to pray for more.
We all need to love more (9); love God more and love people more. When you boil it all down, this life of Christian discipleship is about loving God and loving people, and where love is concerned we have ‘growing room’ in our souls. But love must not be ‘wishy-washy’ or gullible. ‘’So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.’’ The Message.
• There are people who are lovely but they are easily taken in ‘’by every wind of doctrine’’ (Eph.4:14). They are like weather vanes. They easily move in the breeze of the latest fads, fancies, trends and opinions. They lack deep roots. They are short on settled convictions based upon solid Biblical truth. They have a ‘water bed’ beneath them rather than a firm foundation.
• Others claim to be Christians, but they are flexible regarding the truth. Their beliefs have soft edges and they get blurred as they attempt to blend in rather than stand out. They have an ‘anything goes’ attitude.
Loving more doesn’t mean going along with everything others say. Love must have backbone. There is such a thing as tough love. I can love you without agreeing with you or pretending I do. I can be tolerant towards you without having to incorporate your beliefs and practices into mine. Loving discernment is required in this world in which we are surrounded by a toxic atmosphere of error (10). We need to be able to:
• ‘’discern what is best’’ to believe, and
• ‘’discern what is best’’ to do.
We need to be able to think clearly and choose wisely in order to live lives that please God as we look forward to meeting Jesus. I think it was John Wesley who said, ‘’There are only two days on my calendar: today and that day.’’ The Christian life is one of constant movement towards ‘’that day’’ when we see Jesus. We look forward. We anticipate. We live ‘in the future tense.’ We let ‘then’ affect ‘now’. Someone pointed out that whenever the second coming of Jesus is mentioned in the New Testament it is done so without date, to keep us on our toes.
As we grow in love for others, let it be a discriminating affection so that we do not permit another’s bad attitudes, ideas, behaviours become our own. May we so grow in love for God and others that we hate sin and grow in Christlikeness (11; see Gal.5:22, 23; John 15:5). Such growth comes ‘’through Jesus Christ’’ and so is ‘’to the glory and praise of God.’’ (‘’…making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.’’ The Message.)
Prayer: Lord make me like you.
Philippians 1:1-8 (click here for passage)
Paul does not come across as a big shot leader, but as a humble ‘’servant’’ (1). All leaders in Christ’s church should view themselves as servants, and all believers should see themselves as ‘’saints’’.
As the little boy observed, having seen some of the ‘saints’ in stained glass windows in a local church: ‘’A saint is someone the light shines through!’’ One of the ways in which the Philippian Christians shone was in giving practical/material support to Paul (see 5 and chapter 4:10-20). They excelled in ‘’the grace of giving’’ (2 Corinthians 8:7). Although Paul was on the front line of Kingdom advancement (7b), he did not feel superior to them. They were his partners in the gospel. They were the ‘supply lines’ and were making their own essential contribution to the cause. When Paul was in prison, they sent one of their own, ‘’Epaphroditus’’, to be with him; to take care of his needs and cook his meals etc. Paul was aware that he and these Christians in Philippi were sharers in the same ‘’grace’’ (6). They were all, together, fully dependent on the grace of God. They stood on level ground before the cross. They were together in salvation and ministry.
Saints are not ‘extra special’ Christians.
They are not a ‘suped up’, turbo-charged variety. They are not an elite squad of believers – a kind of spiritual ‘S.A.S.’ It’s not the case that there are ‘ordinary’ disciples, then a higher tier called ‘saints’. No not at all. The truth is that all Christians are saints, and all saints are a work in progress (6). They are a dish still cooking; they are a painting yet on the easel. Saints are not yet finished, even if they’ve already come along way. (Some, maybe many, haven’t yet travelled a great distance. But they’re on the journey, and the Lord is guiding them to His appointed destination. He will get them there at the end of the day. They may not look impressive as pilgrims, but they have a great Guide.) ‘’There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.’’ The Message
To pray with thankfulness is a key to joy (3, 4). Learn to interlace your requests with thanks. Be thankful for your fellow Christians. Be specifically thankful, as Paul was. Paul could thank God for these Christians he was writing to; they were in his ‘’heart’’ (7). He had a supernatural love for them (8). This is the love that is the ‘’fruit of the Spirit’’ (Galatians 5:22). It is the love of Jesus. ‘’Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does.’’ The Message. One preacher was talking to his congregation, giving them suggestions of things they might consider ‘giving up’ for Lent. One of his points was, ‘Give up looking for people’s bad points. Start noticing their good qualities and give thanks for them!’ Just think what that kind of Lentern ‘fast’ might do for you – and others around you!
Paul proved in his own up and down experience that the ‘’Grace and peace’’ (2) you need to live the Christian life, with its many challenges and trials, is always available. This was his fondest wish for his fellow-believers in the Roman colony of Philippi.
Prayer: Teach me, dear Lord, to always combine thanking with asking.
Zephaniah 3:18-20 (click here for passage)
‘’I will give them praise and honour in every land where they were put to shame.’’(19b).
These verses may have an immediate reference to the return from Babylon following punishment and exile, but they clearly look beyond it to a much greater ingathering of Jews from across the globe.
Verse 18 probably refers to the sorrow the godly captives felt when they could no longer attend the ‘’appointed feasts’’.
There have been repeated and terrible outbreaks of anti-Semitism in history, and we are seeing something of a resurgence now. It is heart-breaking to observe, and any of us who can say something and/or do something to stand with persecuted Jews should do so. Of course, this principle also extends to other oppressed peoples whose rights are trampled on. But it is important to remember that God has a special purpose for the Jews in the story of salvation. They were His chosen instrument to give us Jesus and the Bible. What happens to them is a key to the further fulfilment of prophecy in preparation for the return of Jesus.
We can take heart, then, from the vision in this reading: ‘’In the very countries where they were hated they will be venerated.’’ The Message. Consider too Paul’s teaching in Romans chapters 9-11. What Zephaniah and Paul were writing about may not be identical, but they give us something to joyfully anticipate, and faithfully believe for as we pray. God has a glorious future planned for the Jewish people, and it will mean blessing for the whole world. (See especially Romans 11:11-32).
In our own times we have seen many Jewish people returning to the land of Israel. In the years when this didn’t seem likely (for example, even back in the 19th century) there were Bible students writing books, saying that the Jews must return to the land God gave them in the first place. They said it had to happen because it was in God’s inspired and unbreakable Word. They were right.
All of this reminds us that history is moving towards a God-ordained climax when Jesus Christ will return to this world. Somebody pointed out that a huge proportion of the Bible is prophecy, and the majority of those prophecies have already come to pass – to the letter. The remainder have to do with the end of this world as we know it and the return of Jesus. They will be fulfilled.
Now, are you ready?
Prayer: Thank you for your Word, Lord. It focuses on Jesus. Our hearts burn when we think about Him, and we long for His return to the earth. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We pray for your blessing and protection on all persecuted minorities
Zephaniah 3:14-17 click here for passage)
Zephaniah concludes on a high note of hope.
‘’Raise the rafters, Israel!’’ The Message.
God’s people should be ‘the happiest people on earth’ (14) – a people of unfettered praise; an exuberantly joyful community, praising God from the heart. A friend of mine was going through a tough time. He told me that he wrote to a well-known pastor in America, who, he knew, had been through a similar set of circumstances. This renowned man of God replied, encouraging him to discover the awesome power of spiritual song. My friend not only read the ‘prescription’; he also took the ‘medicine’. He found it had a delightful taste! When I was staying with him, I would hear him get up in the early morning, go downstairs, and pick up his guitar and sing to the Lord.
Consider some reasons why we can have unbounded joy:
- The Cross of Jesus and all it means (15a): Here are two aspects of its significance – forgiveness of sins and the conquest of all spiritual foes. (The Lord has ‘’taken away’’ our ‘’punishment’’ because He took our punishment on Calvary.) May we never lose the wonder of the Cross;
- God’s reign over you, and His presence with you and in you (15b, 17a). ‘’From now on, GOD is Israel’s king, in charge at the centre…Your GOD is present among you, a strong Warrior there to save you.’’ The Message.
- There is nothing to fear (15b, 16). When you allow the revelation of who God is and who you are in Him to overwhelm your thinking, you realise that there is nothing to fear and no reason to be discouraged. (You don’t have to ‘’let your hands hang limp’’ 16b). Nothing can happen to you that will ‘’harm’’ There may well be many things that will ‘hurt’ you, but nothing can ‘harm’ you in any ultimate sense. Your God is ‘’mighty to save’’ and you are safe. (Reflect, for example, on Revelation 20:4. Is it not true to say that these faithful ones were hurt but not really harmed? They are eternally safe with God. Revelation gives us the bigger picture.)
- God the Father’s ‘maternal’ characteristics (17b). He loves you so much. He is like a mother doting on her young child. It is a truly beautiful picture.
Today, you have every reason to sing and not be silent, if you are a believer in Jesus. Learn how to be happy (and stay happy) in God! Your circumstances may not tend towards happiness, but you can learn to make yourself (or allow yourself to be) truly happy. The truth will set you free – if you let it!
And don’t forget the awesome power of spiritual song.
Prayer: Lord, you have put a new song in my heart. Don’t let the devil steal it from me. I choose to sing and not be silent, for you are faithful and you are good.
Zephaniah 3:9-13 (click here for todays passage)
God intends to have (9):
- A people with purified speech (Isaiah 6:5; Psalm 141:3. This surely points to purified hearts also: ‘’For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.’’ Matthew 12:34);
- A people of prayer (see 2b);
- A people of unity.
But sometimes God has to take His people through fiery trials in order to purge them (8) and get them to where He wants them to be. So many people have spoken about the transformative power of difficult and chastening experiences. It’s not the case that all trying times are about God’s disciplinary processes. But many may be (Hebrews 12:4-13). Some character growth will only come about painfully.
In the church that Jesus is building, and shaping into His own image, there will be both Gentiles and Jews (9, 10). There is a worldwide vision here, and see how this international worshipping community belongs to God (‘’…my…my…’’ 10).
There are times when church growth can entail church shrinkage! (11, 12). I remember a Pentecostal preacher talking about a certain pastor. Apparently this man had gone to lead a church and he said something like this: ‘’When I went there we had 50 people. Then we grew to around 25! Then we grew to…beyond 50.’’ Now I know that this sort of thing can happen because of pastoral insensitivity; because a leader walks into a church wearing great big heavy boots, and he tramples unnecessarily on people’s corns and bunions. That is not commendable. But there most definitely are occasions, I believe, when God reduces the army (Judges 7). Think about Acts 5: 1-10 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira . There are divine subtractions as well as blessed additions. We live in a day in which many people seem to think that big equals good and successful, and small equals bad and unsuccessful. But ‘it aint necessarily so.’ In a local church there can be seasons of pruning. There can even be times of radical cutting back, but always with a view to greater fruitfulness. Just as God removes sin from people’s lives in a work of purging, so He may also remove people from the church who threaten its purity.
Verse 13 shows the result of God’s cleansing work, with a group of holy, honest and fearless people left. ‘’I’ll leave a core of people among you who are poor in spirit – What’s left of Israel that’s really Israel. They’ll make their home in GOD. This core holy people will not do wrong. They won’t lie, won’t use words to flatter or seduce. Content with who they are and where they are, unanxious, they’ll live at peace.’’ The Message.
When God cleanses your heart and makes you fully His, you find you are at peace and without fear. You’ve stopped fighting the Lord, and all is well.
The words in this passage may well refer to something that will happen at the close of the age; but we also see the principles being worked out again and again in church history.
Prayer: Lord, thank you for the times of trial you have brought me through. Although I wouldn’t have chosen to face them, you have taught and changed me so much in them. I am grateful
Zephaniah 3:6-8 (click here for passage)
In an episode of ‘Christianity Explored’, Rico Tice tells a story about being on a beach in Australia. He removed his shirt and was about to dive into the water, when someone came running up to him and frantically proceeded to point out warning signs that clearly said, ‘No swimming’. There were sharks in the water. When Rico demurred, the man walked away saying, ‘It’s up to you mate. You’ve seen the signs. You’re big enough and old enough to look after yourself. You decide what to do!’
God’s judgment on the nations (2:4-15) should have been a warning sign to Judah. And here’s the question for us: ‘Will we learn from God’s many judgments in history?’ (6) He has erected numerous warning notices for our protection. This sixth verse tells us that the (apparently) strong things people put their trust in will not support them ultimately. All we put pride and confidence in, apart from God, will prove unreliable. If we don’t build on the rock that is Christ’s Word we are actually trying to construct something on sand (Matthew 7:24-27).
Like Rico’s friend, the Lord pointed to the warning sign and underlined the message. But ‘’the city’’ still opted to swim in ‘shark infested waters’. The inhabitants of Jerusalem preferred the ‘pleasures of sin for a season’ to repentance and holiness (7b). You would imagine that no-one would choose to go and swim with the sharks!
Did Jerusalem learn?
No! They were guiltier than the Gentile nations because they were the recipients of a greater revelation and more blessing. As someone said, they were sinning against ‘’a flood of light’’. They forgot that covenant privileges also brought covenant responsibilities.
Will the world learn?
There is a clear line of teaching in the Bible that there is going to be a judgment poured out on the whole earth. If (8) refers to God using the Babylonian Empire to judge His people, it also looks beyond it to the greater judgment yet to come. We may not grasp the full picture; we may not possess all the details, but it is going to happen. Will we learn from what God has done previously? We have watched cities and nations ignore the warning signs and get eaten by sharks. Do we think we can dive into the ocean and come out unscathed?
‘’Well, if that’s what you want, stick around.’’ GOD’s Decree. ‘’Your day in court is coming, but remember I’ll be there to bring evidence. I’ll bring all the nations to the courtroom, round up all the kingdoms, And let them feel the brunt of my anger, my raging wrath. My zeal is a fire that will purge and purify the earth.’’ The Message.
There must be a purging with fire before a brand new sin-free universe can be born (2 Peter 3:10-13).
Prayer: Lord God, please help me to see and hear all your warnings and never ignore them. Thank you that you warn us out of love to save us from terrible danger.
The people of Jerusalem should have set an example to their near neighbour nations (2:4-15), but they had been just as bad as them. Straight away (3:1) you see, by contrast, some qualities of godly people. They include:
- Prayerfulness (see the promise in James 4:8);
- Trust in God
- Humility – expressed in submission and teachability;
- Kindness and fairness in the treatment of others. (See also verse 3. God does not appreciate leadership that ravages people. There is such a thing in the church as ‘spiritual abuse.’ It happens when shepherds turn themselves into dictators, and try to dominate and control people. They become ‘’oppressors’’, whether or not they realise or intend it. ‘’Her very own leaders are rapacious lions, Her judges are rapacious timber wolves out every morning prowling for a fresh kill.’’ The Message. )
In (1) God was speaking about ‘’the city’’ of Jerusalem, but he clearly wasn’t referring to the stones and buildings that made up the place. This was what the general populace were like. ‘’Sewer City!’’ The Message.
But we cannot expect a people to be living right when the ministry they sit under is all wrong (4). The spiritual leaders in Zephaniah’s day had strayed from God’s truth in proclamation, and from God’s character in their conduct. A preaching ministry that dilutes or twists the Bible; or leaves important (and unpalatable) bits out, may make you popular (with some), but it will not make the people pure. It is an awesome responsibility to speak from a church pulpit. Here were spiritual leaders who dishonoured God’s Word and were marked by sinful characteristics. It is a serious crime in the eyes of heaven to ‘’do violence’’ to the Bible. It is still being done today – with the same catastrophic results (2 Peter 3:16). As a general principle, I believe it is true to say that a quality ministry will produce a quality people. We need leaders in the church who have integrity written through their core, like the words ‘Blackpool’ or ‘Scarborough’ in a stick of rock. The city of Jerusalem was as it was in those times because the leaders were as they were; and especially because the spiritual leaders were what they were: wide of the mark. They were (blind) guides carrying wilfully damaged road maps. As church leaders, our authority lies in God’s Word. If we move away from this we’re in serious trouble, and we endanger everyone under our care and influence.
What a contrast with ‘’The LORD within her…’’ (5).
‘’Yet GOD remains righteous in her midst, untouched by the evil. He stays at it, day after day, meting out justice. At evening he’s still at it, strong as ever. But evil men and women, without conscience and without shame, persist in evil.’’ The Message.
God remains unchanged by all this evil around Him, even though He is close to it. That is the challenge for disciples of Christ, called to be ‘’the salt of the earth’’ and ‘’the light of the world’’ (Matthew 5: 13, 14) We have to live in the polluted city and influence it for good, whilst remaining clean. God Himself will teach us and help us do this.
Prayer: I pray today for all who preach your Word, that they will speak your Word, and not their own.
‘’God’s judgment begins in the house of the Lord (1 Peter 4:17), which explains why Zephaniah started with the people of Judah; but now he explains how the day of the Lord will affect the Gentile nations surrounding Judah. Though they were never given God’s law as were the Jews (Ps.147:19-20), the Gentiles are still responsible before God; for God has revealed Himself to them in creation and conscience (Rom.1:18ff.). Furthermore, these nations had not always treated the Jews kindly and now the time had arrived for God to judge them. The nations named may represent all the Gentiles, since these nations correspond to the four points of the compass: Assyria (north), Cush (south), Moab and Ammon (east), and Philistia (west). During the great day of the Lord, all the nations of the earth will taste the judgment of God.’’ Warren W. Wiersbe: The Wiersbe Bible Commentary (Old Testament), p.1484.
Wiersbe also says: ‘’…God’s promise to Abraham still stands: Those who bless Israel, God will bless; those who curse Israel, God will curse (Gen.12:1-3). The nations that have sinned against God by mistreating the Jews can expect Him to judge them.’’
Assyria comes last in the list in chapter 2. (Before the Assyrians, mention is made of the ‘’Cushites’’ in verse 12. They lived in the southern part of Egypt and Sudan. They ruled Egypt for many years, so it’s likely that the Egyptians were included in this judgment.)
The Assyrians are a prime example of pride going before a fall. If people set themselves up as if they were God (or gods) they will be brought down (15). Those who follow Jesus will want to copy His humble example. If you lift yourself up (as the Assyrians did) God will pull you down. But if you humble yourself, as Jesus did, God will lift you up. There is also a dangerous complacency that goes hand in hand with pride. The people of Nineveh thought their city was impregnable: ‘’This is the carefree city that lived in safety.’’
Until the rise of Babylon, the Assyrians were the superpower in the world. They were a ruthless people, infamous for their pride and terrible cruelty to enemies. You may recall that there was a remarkable ‘revival’ in Nineveh, following the preaching of Jonah. But then successive generations fell back into their old ways, and Nineveh was destroyed in 612 B.C. Within a few years the once mighty Assyrian empire disappeared from the face of the earth, and Zephaniah saw it coming.
‘’The ghost town of a city, the haunt of wild animals, Nineveh will become home to raccoons and coyotes – they’ll bed down in its ruins. Owls will hoot in the windows, ravens will croak in the doorways – all that fancy woodwork now a perch for birds. Can this be the famous Fun City that had it made, That boasted, ‘’I’m the Number-One City! I’m King of the Mountain!’’ So why is the place deserted, a lair for wild animals? Passersby hardly give it a look; they dismiss it with a gesture.’’ The Message.
There is no city in the world today that should not look and learn. Pride, arrogance, complacency, and persistence in sin still bring human greatness down to the ground.
Prayer: Lord God, I tremble at your Word and honour your Name. May all the peoples of the world turn to you while there is still time.
Zephaniah 2:9-11 (click here for todays passage)
God is in control. Nothing happens behind His back.
God sees the plight of His persecuted people. He hears the ‘’…insults…taunts…threats…’’ (8). Even if your experience of persecution has not got physical; even if it is no more than verbal, He knows and understands. He is aware that words can hurt. Jesus knows it full well (Matthew 27:27-31; 1 Peter 2:23). Ultimately God is going to deal with all persecution and persecutors (10, 11). The opposition is truly against Him, even though His people get in the way of it. But finally, every knee will bow to Him (11b; Philippians 2:5-11). God is going to show that He is God to all who mock Him and poke fun at His family. Take the long view. The book of ‘Revelation’ helps us do this, and says that in the end, Jesus wins. In fact, He’s already won, and one great day the world will be forced to see the score line.
Persecution will have unwanted and unintended consequences for the persecutors (9). It may not happen quickly, but it will happen. There will be a reversal of fortunes and God’s people will gain the upper hand. The ‘team’ that seems to be taking a beating at the moment will lift the ‘trophy’ in the end.
Persecution is born of pride (10); a sense of superiority to God and the church. There is a belief that ‘our gods are better’ and ‘we are greater with our gods. What we’ve got is above what they’ve got, and our gods will protect us.’ Of course, in some cases, those ‘gods’ are no more than political philosophies and raw power. But the opponents are ‘believers’ in their religion. Yet we can say that in the final analysis God will expose the folly, the vanity, the emptiness of all false beliefs, and He will glorify His own Name (11). ‘’GOD will be seen as truly terrible – a Holy Terror’’ (The Message) to all who terrorize His church. ‘’All earth-made gods will shrivel up and blow away.’’ When God shows people the nothingness of their idols, He is preparing them to ‘’worship him’’ (11). By the way, you will always get what you don’t want ‘’in return for’’ pride (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).
Today you may be afraid to show your true colours, as a Christian, because of concerns about mockery. It’s never going to be easy to endure, but this oracle should help us see that it’s not something to fear. God is with and for His people. He is the living God and ‘’Almighty’’ (9a). These enemies of Israel were placing their trust in lifeless deities.
Persecution never hurts more than when you experience it in your own family. That is likely to happen (Matthew 10:21, 34-39). The Moabites and Ammonites were related to the Israelites (Genesis 19:36-38), but they acted as enemies throughout most of Israel’s history (Numbers 22; Judges 3 and 10; 1 Samuel 11:1-5; 2 Samuel 12: 26ff). ‘’Notice once again that the Lord’s judgment on the nations is influenced by their treatment of His chosen people Israel (verse 10).’’ Tom Hale: ‘The Applied Old Testament Commentary’, p.1284. (See also Amos 1:13-2:3 and Ezekiel 25:1-11.)
Prayer: Lord God, I look forward to the day when everyone will acknowledge that you are Lord.