Does God Want Sinners Back? (A study of the Prophet Zechariah)


           
On June 14, 2013 the US Department of Justice charged Edward Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act and for stealing classified documents.  Snowden took thousands of classified documents while working for an NSA contract and leaked those documents to various media outlets.  Some have viewed his theft and leaking classified documents as heroically exposing the reach of the United States government.  While some praise him for his exposure, others view him as a traitor who should be punished up to the full extent of the law.  Snowden has been given asylum by Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.  As of today, he is not welcomed to return to the United States without facing severe criminal charges. 

            Edward Snowden’s case has sparked national and worldwide debate on mass surveillance and government secrecy, but it has also sparked a worldwide debate of forgiveness. Should Edward Snowden be pardoned for his crimes? Should he be allowed to return to the United States? Or are his crimes so egregious and such a violation of the US government that he should be banned for life?  It is easy for us to debate Snowden’s case, because we are detached from his crimes.  It would be harder to discuss with any sort of objectivity if someone’s crimes were against us.  When my wife reported for jury duty, she was asked if she or if anyone she knew had been a victim of a crime. She answered yes and was immediately dismissed from the jury.  The lawyers did not feel that she would have been able to have been objective in trying the case. 

            When others sin against us, it is hard to keep our objectivity. We are embodied souls so our emotions affect our judgment. When we experience awful sin against us, it is very difficult to forgive. And usually when we are sinned against, the last thing we want to do is to be around the person who has hurt us.  We do not want them to return to us, but we want them to be punished.  It is much easier to break the relationship and move on, than to open one’s arms and to invite them to return to us. But what if you are the sinner? What if you are the one who has wronged someone else? Maybe you are the person who feels that your sin is so bad that no one could love you and no one would want you back? Maybe you have felt that way in regards to your relationship with God?

            We know from the Bible that all sin is ultimately against God.  David says after he sinned with Bathsheba and against Uriah,

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. (Psalm 51:3-4)

Our sin is ultimately against God. And maybe we feel that our sin is so bad in the eyes of God that He doesn’t want us. And maybe this is how Christians feel after falling back into certain sins that they thought they had long conquered.  Do we ever get to a point when God no longer wants us back? 

            We turn to answer this question from the longest Minor Prophet Zechariah.  Zechariah is not only the longest Minor Prophet, but is probably the most difficult one to easily comprehend.  Zechariah began his prophecy in the fall of 520 B.C. Zechariah 1:1, “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo.” As we have seen in all these Minor Prophets, Zechariah was the spokesman, but the prophetic word came from the Lord. The Lord gives a very sweet and precious word to His people.

God wants you to return to the Sovereign Lord

Zechariah 1:2-6,
“The LORD was very angry with your fathers. Therefore say to them, Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented and said, ‘As the LORD of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.’”

The Lord looks at His sinful and rebellious people and says, “Return to me.”  Think of how encouraging it was to hear those precious words from God. They had rejected God and lost their homeland in Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed and they were carried into exile. How many times did they think sitting in pagan Babylon that they were too far gone?  God would never want us back.  And yet, God said, “Return to me.”

            We should follow the Lord’s example in calling sinners back to God and to His people.  There are some people who believe that because of their past sins that they will never be welcomed back into the body of Christ.  They feel that no one would want them to be part of the community.  And we as God’s people must say to them “Return to us.”  All repentant sinners are welcome in the body of Christ. We all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God . God has called to us return to Him, but that does not mean He expects us to stay the same.  He expects us to return to Him and in our returning to Him we will be turning away from other things.  The call of God is leave everything and follow Him.  The only thing that excludes us from the body of Christ is no repentance.  Repentance is the road that should always lead to restoration and reconciliation to God and His people.

            After this first invitation, Zechariah shares 8 different visions. The ESV breaks down these visions as follows:

A Vision of a Horseman 1:7-17, A Vision of Horns and Craftsman 1:18-21, A Vision of a Man with a Measuring Unit 2:1-13, A Vision of Joshua and the High Priest 3:1-10, A Vision of the Golden Lampstand 4:1-14, A Vision of the Flying Scroll 5:1-4, A Vision of a Woman in a Basket 5:5-11, A Vision of Four Chariots 6:1-8

The visions can be confusing, but all of them point to the peaceful rule of the Messiah. As Mark Dever notes, “The eight visions present a picture of the whole world at peace under the rule of God’s anointed priest and king.[1]” It is looking ahead to the worldwide peace that will come ultimately through Christ.

            We know from the book of Hebrews that Jesus Christ is both the King coming from the tribe of Judah and the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek was both king and priest providing a shadow to the reality of the future Messianic King and Priest. Jesus Christ became our high priest through His own blood and was crowned with honor and majesty seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High.  The only way that people would be able to return to God is on the basis of the promise realized in Christ.  He has made peace with God through His blood for all that would repent of their sin and trust in God. 

            The visions may be confusing, but their aim is clear. Their aim is to give the people hope that God wants them to return to Him as they await His promised deliverance through the promised Messiah.  And how sweet that promise is!!! God has promised us forgiveness in the Messiah if we return to Him. So whoever returns to God in faith receives the blessing of the promise: forgiveness from sin and full redemption into God’s family as adopted sons and daughters of God.

God wants you to return to the Sovereign  Word

            After the visions, Zechariah gives two sermons to the people. The first sermon is a reflection and interpretation on why the Jews were brought into exile and the second sermon looks ahead to the future deliverance that God will give His people.  The reason God sent the people into exile was they rejected His Word.  Zechariah 7:8-13,

And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts. “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the LORD of hosts, (Zechariah 7:8-13)

They refused to pay attention to God’s Word, but chose to live their own way. And because they did not listen to God when He called, He did not listen to them when they called.

            A new study conducted by lifeway research discovered this in regards to Americans view of the Bible:

About half of Americans (48 percent) believe the Bible is the Word of God. Four in 10 (43 percent) say the Bible is 100 percent accurate, while a similar share of Americans (41 percent) say it’s helpful but not literally true. Evangelicals (76 percent) and Black Protestants (67 percent) are most likely to say the Bible is accurate. Mainline Protestants (50 percent) and Catholics (49 percent) lean toward the Bible being helpful but not literally true.[2]

One out of two people do not believe the Bible is the Word of God.  People may believe it is helpful, but not completely true. If people do not believe the Bible to be true, they why would they want to follow it? And if they do not want to follow it, they may end up under the condemnation of God like the Jews who refused to pay attention to His Word.  How are you hearing and responding to God’s Word? Are you refusing to pay attention to God?  Do you believe it is true or only helpful for life? God wants us to return to Him through His Word.

            The second sermon is how God plans to deal with his people as they move back from exile and to give them a glimpse of his coming peace. Zechariah 8:11-13,

But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, declares the LORD of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace. The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong.” (Zechariah 8:11-13).

The people were not too far gone. God will make His people who had become a curse word among the nations, a blessing to all the nations of the earth.  God promises that He will save them and He will make them a blessing.  And yet, He still expects them to live differently than before,

These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the LORD.” (Zechariah 8:16-17)

God’s people will always be held to a higher standard. 

God wants you to return to the Sovereign  Savior

            The last 5 chapters of Zechariah (9-14) speak about the promised Warrior King who was coming to deliver His people. We see this King will enter Jerusalem mounted on a donkey,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

This prophecy is clearly fulfilled as Jesus triumphantly enters into Jerusalem as the Blessed King who comes in the name of the Lord. 

            We also see Jesus fulfilling another prophecy from Zechariah. This one is not of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but of His triumphal victory over death. Zechariah 12:10,

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)

The Apostle John quotes this passage at the end of the crucifixion of Jesus.

But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:33-37)

God’s Word interprets God’s Word for us. 

The prophecy in Zechariah is a clear reference to Christ. Now look again at this prophecy and notice the verb tenses, “When they look on me (present tense), on him whom they have pierced (past tense).” He was one whom they have pierced implying that He died, but they were looking on Him as if he was alive.  If we read it carefully, we can see they were looking forward to a day when Jesus would be pierced and die, and then rise again.  And because the Warrior King would be pierced and raised, God can say in Zechariah 12:6, “The Lord will give salvation.” Salvation for us only comes through Christ. 

            The people of Israel rejected God’s Word, defied his decrees, experienced punishment, and yet, God still saves He will give salvation.  He can give salvation because He sent His Son to be pierced and rise again.  The cross answers our question.  We are never too far gone. God always wants us back. He wants us so much that He was willing to die for us.  Let me close with a poem reminding us of God’s gracious gift to return to Him.

Return to Me
Do you feel the weight of sin,
Guilt loaded down within?
Do you think I want you no more,
That your sin has closed the door?
Return to me, my wayward son
Return to me, thy sin is done.

For the Son was pierced and was raised,
The Blessed King has come to be praised.
Do not let the tempter weaken thy faith with tears,
The tomb is empty, victorious over all thy fears.
Return to me, my wayward son,
Return to me, thy sin is done.

Be overcome not with shame,
For another has come to take your blame.
God will freely welcome you back,
For Christ has fulfilled all your lack.
Return to me, thy wayward son,
Return to me, thy sin is done.









[1] Dever, Mark. Promises Made: The Message of the Old Testament. Pg. 908
[2] http://www.lifewayresearch.com/2014/10/28/americans-believe-in-heaven-hell-and-a-little-bit-of-heresy/ accessed on 10.29.14
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Steven Brazzell

Charlotte, NC