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 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? And how should sinners repent?
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.
Sinners Repent in Submission to the Sovereign Lord
Zechariah opens his prophecy with the anger of the Lord against his people. 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 a lack of 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.[i]” 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 the promise fulfilled 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 salvation through the promised Messiah, the coming Priest-King. And how sweet that promise is!!! God has promised us forgiveness in the Messiah if we repent and 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.
Sinners Repent in Submission 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 how Americans view 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.[ii]
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, Zechariah 8:14-17,
For thus says the Lord of hosts: “As I purposed to bring disaster to you when your fathers provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent, says the Lord of hosts, so again have I purposed in these days to bring good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; fear not. 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…. Therefore, love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:14-17;20)
God’s people are called to live unto Him. Their character reflects the character of God.
The Israelites were sent to exile because of their sin. They did not obey God’s Word, but now as they have returned from exile they were called to remove their former manner of life and live in the Spirit. This is an Old Testament picture of the New Testament principle of “putting off the old and putting on the new.” Paul writes in Ephesians 4:20-25,
But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
The community of believers should always reflect our relationship with Christ. We have put off the old life and on the new. Sinners demonstrate their repentance in pursuing the new life of the Spirit. The new life of the Spirit is a heaven-like community of believers living in and for the glory of the Lord. Our submission to Christ is never only personal, but always corporate.
In the return to Jerusalem, Israel had another opportunity to be a light to the nations. God has now given that opportunity to the church. Beloved, let the world see how we love each other and how we speak the truth in that love to one another so that they may glorify the Father through Son in the power of the Spirit.
Sinners Repent in Submission to the Sovereign Shepherd
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. John 19:33-37,
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.”
God’s Word interprets God’s Word for us. Zechariah was prophesying of the Christ. Now look again at this prophecy and notice the verb tenses, “When they look (present tense), on him whom they have pierced (past tense).” The Messiah was one whom they had pierced implying that He died, but they were looking on Him, after he was pierced, as if he was alive. If we read it carefully, we can see they were looking forward to a day when the Messiah, would be pierced and die, and then rise again. And because the Warrior King would be pierced and raised, God can say in Zechariah 12:7-8,
And the LORD will give salvation to the tents of Judah first, that the glory of the house of David and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may not surpass that of Judah. On that day the LORD will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, going before them.
The Lord will give salvation and that salvation only comes to us through the Christ.
The people of Israel rejected God’s Word, defied his decrees, experienced punishment, and yet, God still saves. He will give salvation to repentant sinners. 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. God wants us. Jesus came for sinners.
The prodigal son was starving and alone sitting in a pig pen when he decided to return to his father. He had squandered his inheritance and turned his back on his father. He committed all sorts of grievous and disgusting sin. He had little hope to be accepted as a servant let alone a son. The Bible says that he “came to himself,” meaning that finally realized how he sinned against God. Imagine that long walk from a foreign land and all the things he ran through his head. I am sure there would have been moments that he wanted to turn around, but he came returning home. And in Luke 15:20, we see the heart of God,
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24)
You, like this sinful son, is never too far gone for the sinless Son has made a way for you to come home. God delights when sinners return to him. All sinners are welcome with the Father, if and only if, the come through the Good Shepherd. Jesus laid down his life for the sheep to show the Father’s heart towards sinners.
Beloved, it is a gracious gift of God that he calls sinners to come to him. We have often turned our back on God, but he calls us 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 finally closed the door?
Return to me, my wayward son
Return to me, thy sin is done.
For my Son was pierced and raised,
The Priest King to be praised.
Do not let the tempter accuse to tears,
The tomb is empty, conquering all fears.
Return to me, my wayward son,
Return to me, thy sin is done.
Be overcome no more with shame,
For Another came to take your blame.
God will freely welcome you back,
Turn to Christ who fills your lack.
Return to me, thy wayward son,
Return to me, thy sin is done.
Repent, return to your Priest King,
Turn from your all sin and sing.
Sing of the Lamb who was slain,
Who was Worthy to take all thy pain.
Return to me thy wayward son,
Return to me, thy sin is done.
Beloved, the cross of Christ shows God’s love for sinners. Let us turn from our sin and live as true, faithful sons and daughters of our Priest-King.
[i] Dever, Mark. Promises Made: The Message of the Old Testament. Pg. 908