Regarding the day of the Lord, when Jesus returns to establish His kingdom, the prophet Joel tells us, “The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord (Joel 2:31). Notice that he refers to the day of the Lord as both great and terrible – great for those alive in Christ, terrible for those living in rebellion to God.
Those born again will enter the glorious presence of the Lord at that time, while for those who reject Jesus the day of the Lord will be “a day when the Lord’s anger is poured out – a day of terrible distress and anguish, a day of ruin and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom (Zephaniah 1:13, NLT). On that day eternal life begins for those who have placed their faith in Christ, while eternal suffering begins for those who placed their faith in idols and themselves.
In the Old Testament the prophet Zephaniah identifies five specific groups subject to God’s wrath on the day of the Lord. Since each of those groups flourishes inside the church today, Christians would do well to examine their hearts and lives for any evidence that their faith is compromised or corrupted in a similar manner.
Idolatrous Priests. Nearly every Old Testament prophet identified worthless priests as a contributing factor to God’s punishment of Israel throughout its history. Instead of living holy and obedient lives, and faithfully sharing God’s message with His people, they often pursued carnal lusts and committed spiritual adultery with the world. Whether motivated by greed or glory, these shepherds led their flocks to follow false teachings and practice idolatry.
Similarly, many of America’s pastors and priests preach a false gospel and “teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:9, NLT). Driven by selfish ambition and worldly wealth, they tailor their sermons to reinforce what their congregations want to hear. They have traded truth for treasure, faithfulness for acclaim. Beware their satisfying sermons that feed the flesh but starve the soul.
False Followers. These are those who “claim to follow the Lord, but then they worship Molech, too” (Zephaniah 1:5b, NLT). False followers practice a false faith. They worship God with their lips but refuse to give Him their hearts (See Matthew 15:8). For them “a show of godliness is just a means to get wealthy” (1 Timothy 6:5, NLT). They love fellowshipping with friends at church but have no interest in a genuine, consecrated commitment to Christ – especially if that entails sacrifice and surrender. They profess faith as long as the benefits appeal to them, but in their heart they worship the world – their one true love.
Backsliders. Zephaniah describes backsliders as “those who used to worship the Lord but now no longer do. They no longer ask for the Lord’s guidance or seek His blessings” (1:6). At one time these individuals professed faith in Jesus but now they reject Him. They have renounced Him as Lord and rekindled their love for selfish lusts and worldly pleasures. They have exchanged their souls for satiating sins.
Indifferent Sinners. We all sin. Scripture could not be clearer on that point. In fact, the prophet Isaiah tells us that “we are all infected and impure with sin. And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). At our very best, we fall far short of God’s standard of holiness. But as Christians, God calls us to pursue holiness and righteousness throughout our lives, drawing close to Him when we do.
In contrast, Zephaniah identifies those who “sit complacent in their sins” and “think the Lord will do nothing to them, good or bad” (1:12). They wallow in sin like a pig bathes in mud. They have no interest in leaving the comfort of their circumstances, or considering the consequences of staying in sin. They reject the possibility that God might hold them accountable for their thoughts and actions. And therefore, they believe, holiness is wholly unnecessary.
Practitioners of Paganism. Zephaniah warns us that God will punish “all those who follow pagan customs (and) participate in pagan worship ceremonies” (1.8b-9a). In America those pagan customs include enjoying a life of excess and extravagance, and doing whatever it takes to achieve it: deceit, violence, theft, and ruthlessness. And our pagan worship does not involve small idols carved from wood that we place on a mantel or hang from a wall. They involve massive idols constructed from steel and concrete: sport stadiums, shopping malls, and concert halls. Our pagan worship is revealed by whatever consumes our time, energy, and income. Whatever distracts us from the Lord and His will.
Fortunately, Zephaniah also gives us guidance for avoiding God’s judgment on the day of the Lord. In verse 3 of chapter 2 he outlines four steps we should take.
1) Seek the Lord. Genuine faith only exists in a real and personal relationship with God. So do whatever it takes to prioritize this in your life. Talk to the Lord in prayer on a regular basis. Express your gratitude for His work in your life. Praise and worship Him in song. Seek His guidance in decisions big and small.
Study the Scriptures as often as you can – more so, in fact. Learn more about the character of Christ. How does a verse or chapter point to Him and reveal His nature? Learn what makes Him worthy of our adoration and fidelity. Identify the expectations the Lord has for those who surrender their lives to Him. Ask the Holy Spirit for the power and self-discipline to meet those expectations (see 2 Timothy 1:7).
2) Follow His commands. Obedience is an integral part of the Christian faith. It draws us closer to God and makes us more Christ-like in our thoughts, speech, and behavior. Disobedience, on the other hand, drives a wedge between us and God, and corrodes our faith. As you read the Bible, capture thoughts on post-it notes about commands you want to do a better job obeying, and put those notes on your bathroom mirror or next to your coffee-maker.
3) Do what is right. In this age of moral relativity, it is increasingly difficult to do the right thing. Society often disapproves of doing right and at times even condemns it. You will lose friends and make enemies doing the right thing. And it may cost you time, money, your job, and even your freedom. Do the right thing anyway. In doing so, you will be that beacon of light for Christ in a dark and evil world. Doing right will point people to your source of strength and integrity, and show them a better way of life exists in this world – and an eternal life awaits for those in Christ.
4) Live humbly. God loves the humble. He calls us to conduct ourselves with humility. We are not to call attention to our achievements, our abilities, or our importance. We should esteem others better than ourselves, and continually look for opportunities to serve others, especially the meek, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. Few things reveal the character of God more than the humility of His people. Genuine humility is evidenced when no one is watching and the beneficiary of your humble act or words can never reciprocate or return the favor.
Take some time to reflect on the fact that the day of the Lord is drawing near. Not tomorrow or next year, perhaps, but near nevertheless. Are you ready for the Lord’s return?
Let’s close with this last piece of advice from the prophet Zephaniah:
“Act Now, before the fierce fury of the Lord falls and the terrible day of the Lord’s anger begins” (Zephaniah 2:2b, NLT).