My girlfriend knows this girl who, in my opinion, is a total brat. God help her. One night during a painfully selfish episode, I asked her, "If you could be your own god, would you?"
She gave me the Stink-eye and said, "I don't know." Like I was dumb for asking. I kept my mouth shut and nodded my head. She might not have thought of it to know but her answer was the same as "Yes". Every idol and false religion is just a variation of the serpent's lie in Genesis 3, "You will be like God." Either you serve God, or you serve whatever vehicle promises to fulfill your selfish desires. These vehicles, like money or romance or achievement, become idols when we do not submit our hope and trust to God alone.
Even thought this girl goes to a church, I don't know if she is a Christian. I've never asked. But I do know a handful of people who say they're believers while acting like every other idol-worshiper. In conversation with them, I hear them speak of God not as Lord but as a means for wealth, success, perfect fitness, etc. Not that I'm saying God doesn't want this for us, but there's so much more to Him. A.W. Tozer once said that idolatry is worshiping anything less than God, including a reduced version of God. I've heard this reduced version referred to as "Easy Gospel". It doesn't cost you anything and gives you everything in this life. We'll talk more about this later, but for now, let's look at Zephaniah.
In the first verse of Zephaniah's book, a genealogy notes the prophet as a cousin of King Josiah, sharing Hezekiah as a great-grandfather. Josiah was distinguished in the Bible as a good king who pleased God. He removed official places of idol worship and restored the Temple. This reform came after two generations of wicked kings who worshiped Molech and belonged to a cult devoted to "The Army of Heaven". In my Bible, Zephaniah starts at the bottom of the right hand page and only shows the first verse. My surprised at verse two when I turned the page was probably a distant echo of the shock Josiah may have felt. "'I will completely sweep away everything off the face of the land,' says the Lord."
It would seem that, despite Josiah's reforms, idolatry continued throughout the country and held to peoples' hearts. Zephaniah 1:4-6 names the different idols. "I will stretch out my hand over Judah and all those living in Jerusalem. I will wipe every remnant of Baal from this place, the idol-serving priests and even their names, those worshiping heaven's army on the roofs, also those who worship and sear by the Lord but swear by Malkam as well, those who turned away from following the Lord, and those who haven't sought the Lord or consulted Him at all."
If Zephaniah knew about this ongoing practices, the king most likely had knowledge of them as well. Josiah might not have personally worshiped idols or promoted their worship but we can guess he at least demonstrated a tolerance toward idol worship in his kingdom. Instead of giving this a governmental application, I'll compare the average Western church with Judah and modern versions of these idols.
Baal/Asherah worship was a fertility cult. It ultimately had to do with agricultural (financial) prosperity and implemented sexual perversion as a part of their ceremonies. If you look at the history of something like televangelism, it doesn't take long to find stories of greed and sexual perversion. This problem is obviously bigger than TV preachers. Beau Black, writing for the Baptist Standard, cited a statistic saying between 40 and 70 percent of evangelical Christian men struggle with pornography. It wouldn't surprise me if the real number were closer to 70 than 40. It also wouldn't surprise me if this number reflected the percentage of pastors who struggle with porn. And this statistic doesn't even consider the women who also deal with this issue. I would look further into these statistics but I hesitate to run a Google search including the word "porn". I guess for now, the Press will have to suffer some limits of research. When a friend of mine came to visit me in Nashville, he noticed the city's high number of adult stores and strip clubs. He wondered aloud why there were so many. I answered his rhetorical question, "probably because there are so many pastors." I didn't mean to be cynical but I had that 40 to 70 percent statistic in mind.
The people who worshiped Malkam, another name for Molech, would sacrifice their children by fire to this false god. I won't go into the common comparison to abortion here. Instead, I'll focus on what Zephaniah said about people swearing by both God and Molech. Overall, the way Zephaniah puts it, the very thought of someone worshiping God and aligning themselves with something as evil and wicked as Molech downright confuses me. There are some who belong to organizations and societies that make oaths to a vague, catch-all, "god-as-you-know-him" name. Of all these organizations and societies I've read into, at some level below the surface, one realizes they do not at all serve the one, true God. I know of people who belong or once belonged to these societies and the more I learn, the more I wonder whether they were duped or if they ever truly accepted Jesus as their Lord.
The Army of Heaven cult was a weird version of modern day astrology mixed with pseudo-biblical mysticism. 2 Kings 23 tells of Josiah tearing down the altars to the Army of Heaven that his grandfather Manasseh had built in the Temple and removing its priests, but Zephaniah's words make me wonder if the king had succeeded in completely eradicating its practice from his kingdom. I don't know many churches that promote astrology or biblical mysticism, but I have heard a decent number of church-goers discuss these studies. Our society tends to have a casual view on this sort of thing.
Most of all, in this first chapter of Zephaniah, I can see how much God hated the attitude of false religion masquerading as what I know call Christianity - those who worshiped the Lord and had hope in Jesus, the coming Messiah. Why is it that so many Unitarian churches appear to promote Christian tendencies on the surface when their very message is "god-as-you-know-him"? I've seen the West support a belief in "God", but discourage belief in Jesus. It's culturally acceptable to use what Francis Shaeffer called "the word 'God'" and go to church. This reminds me of Keith Green's story. He used to believe in something he called "God" and looked to Jesus more like a spiritual teacher or guru. Then he came to saving faith, became a genuine Christian, and went on to say convicting things like, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian the same way going to McDonald's doesn't make you a hamburger."
This brings me back to the topic of Easy Gospel and Tozer's definition of idolatry. The Bible teaches that God is holy. Wayne Grudem defines holy as something special and set apart form common or ordinary things, clean as opposed to defiled. The beings who surround God and praise Him in Revelation 4 call Him, "Holy, Holy, Holy." Using the word three times was a Hebrew literary device to describe its perfection. God isn't just holy, He's perfectly holy. In the Temple, there was the Holy Place and then the Most Holy Place. God dwelt in the Most Holy Place. The Holy of Holies. What we see in Zephaniah 1 is an attitude that seeks to reduce God and put Him on the same level of importance as the false religions of the surrounding nations. I think they intended to make God more culturally appealing so they wouldn't look like the weird, backwater country with the un-hip religion. In chapter 2 and 3:1-4, it looks like they succeeded when God angrily compares them to other nations.
God also felt grief for His people. I mean, they were pissing Him off, but it still pained Him. When He took Israel out of Egypt in Exodus, He called them "His people". In Leviticus, He gave the blessing for them to be holy as He is holy. They were supposed to be special as a nation, set apart from the others, dedicated to God and God alone. I know that this essay may sound like I'm grinding and axe for the church. Please don't mistake me. I love the church. I don't intend to make blanket statements. But I do live in the West, see what our culture calls Christianity, and I see many who fit the comparison.
Like that girl I mentioned at the beginning, there are people who may say they're Christians while displaying an exhausting kind of selfishness. Like Zephaniah's Jerusalem, they want all the grace but none of the conviction, salvation but not the life of repentance. There are churches that would are willing to accept sin and ignore God's call to holiness and their responsibility to biblical church discipline. Josiah's family had a history of worshiping both Molech and the Army of Heaven. I wonder if he turned a blind eye to their continued existence (at any level) because of something like family feelings. That's speculation, of course, but I do wonder. The people of Judah might have called themselves holy, but God through Zephaniah exposed their hearts.
Thankfully, the third and final chapter of Zephaniah offers hope. The first reference to Jesus occurs in 3:5. "The Lord, who is righteous, is there among them." The idea of God dwelling with His people first appears in Genesis when He walked with man in the Garden of Eden. Despite the separation caused by sin, God again expressed His desire to dwell among His people when He ordered the Tabernacle (an early form of the Temple) built. The name given for Jesus in the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7 is "Immanuel", translated "God with us".
In Zephaniah 3:9, God promises, "For then I will change the peoples, so that they will have pure lips, to call on the name of the Lord, all of them, and serve Him with one accord." This is a picture of cleansing, of salvation, of God Himself changing our hearts. The part about pure lips reminds me of Isaiah 6. There, Isaiah sees God and cries out, "Woe to me! I [too] am doomed! Because I, a man with unclean lips, living among a people with unclean lips, have seen with my own eyes the King, the Lord of Hosts!" Then one of the angels takes a glowing coal from the Temple altar and touches it to Isaiah's lips. The angel says, "Here! This has touched your lips. Your iniquity is gone, your sin atoned for."
We can read books like Zephaniah, think about its application to our lives, and wonder like Isaiah if we too are doomed. But God the Son, Jesus, came to live among His people as a man, died to take our punishment, and rose again to offer us new life. Before He returned to Heaven, Jesus told His disciples in Acts 1 to wait in Jerusalem. Again, He promised, God would come among His people in the form of the Holy Spirit. Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit then indwells those who accept Jesus as God. Our bodies become a temple of the Holy Spirit, something like the Most Holy Place.
This should cause some sort of heart change in a person! Paul explains in Galatians that the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control as "fruit" in the life of a believer. Of course one quick prayer doesn't make us immediately awesome and none of us ever reach perfection. The process God uses to make us more holy is called "sanctification". Like God says in Zephaniah's prophecy, this change of heart comes by His power alone.
This raises a few questions. Have you seen this sanctifying work in your life, where by the Spirit's enabling you become more like the holy, set-apart person God desires? Do you see more of the fruit He produces in your life now than in the past? If your answer is yes, God be praised. We can high five and continue to encourage each other. If you see your Christian brothers or sisters struggling , then talk with them, pray for them. Don't be like Jerusalem and tolerate them with an attitude of "I'm okay/you're okay". If your answer is no, please take a moment to pray and ask God to reveal idols you may have in your heart. Open yourself to the Holy Spirit's conviction. Be willing to receive His correction and change.