Romans Commentary, Romans 15:14-33

This commentary was prepared for Kairos Publications in Buenos Aires. It was composed specifically for the Latin American church. In some cases I have retained the words “Latin America,” at other times I have substituted “the Americas.” The bibliography reflects what is available to the Spanish-speaking church. We will publish it a section at a time, and eventually as an entire pdf file. The reader will notice that its purpose is to explain and apply this wonderful epistle to the church of today. Blessings! Gary Shogren

To download the full commentary as a pdf, click here Shogren_Commentary on Romans

OUTLINE:

VIII. The Priestly Ministry of Paul and his Itinerary (15:14-33)
A. His ministry is centered on evangelizing areas which have no church (15:14-22)
B. He plans on visiting Jerusalem, then Rome, and then on to pioneer territory in Spain
(15:23-33)

VIII. The Priestly Ministry of Paul and his Itinerary (15:14-33)

A. His ministry is centered on evangelizing areas which have no church (15:14-22)

Paul concludes in vv. 14-15a by affirming that the Roman Christians are “full of goodness”. Even if he had to speak strongly about some issues he is not giving them anything new; the epistle was designed to refresh their memories, to “remind you of them again”. No-one could complain that he was introducing some new doctrine.

It is fitting, given the language of worship earlier in this chapter, that he refers in vv. 15b-16 to his holy service as an apostle of Christ. The word he uses (leitourgos) could have a secular sense of “servant” (see Rom 13:6); nevertheless, in this context he is using it in the religious sense of one who enters the temple sanctuary to worship God (as in Heb 8:2). This has nothing to do with the doctrine that the clergy are “priests” who offer the sacrifice of the mass on the Christian altar, the so-called “ministerial priesthood” that is “directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1547). Rather Paul is a sacred worker in the sense that he ministers God’s grace to the nations. By receiving Christ the Gentiles are not only serving God, they themselves are transformed into an acceptable sacrifice (v. 16b). Reading this we return in our minds to 12:1-2, where even Gentile believers can offer sacrifices: not some animal on an altar in Jerusalem, but their very own bodies or persons to the service of God.

It is typical of the apostle to use the term “boast in” or “glory in” or (as the NIV) have pride in (see GNB, REB). It is a word group that when used negatively, sums up all that is wrong with the human race in its arrogance and fondness of creating gods according to its own tastes. It is invalidated by our sin and our utter need of Christ (Rom 2:17, 23; 3:27). On the other hand, it is proper to boast about God, that is, that we draw attention to him and give him glory (Rom 5:11). 1 Corinthians keeps both truths in tension: “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:29 ESV, which improves on the NIV); and then, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:31 ESV; Paul quotes Jer 9:24).

In the mouth of today’s TV evangelists, what Paul says next might be a boast about their own power, anointing, gifts, money, etc. But when Paul talks about his mission, he glorifies God, who empowers him in what he says and does, and performs many miracles through him. The book of Acts mentions relatively few miracles of Paul; we must assume that he did many more than it records. Paul told the Galatians, for example, that the miracles they had seen were a sure proof that salvation comes through faith and not through the works of the Law of Moses (Gal 3:1-6). He probably is referring to miracles in other passages (see especially 1 Thess 1:5; 1 Cor 2:4; 4:20; also 1 Cor 12:10). Of course, someone will observe, and correctly, “Well, the greatest miracle of all is when someone comes to Christ.” But Paul’s language here is visible supernatural signs of God’s presence in healings, exorcisms and other signs. They proved that he was an apostle (2 Cor 12:12), and this verse implies that the false apostles could not do miracles: that is, God would not ratify their gospel by doing miracles through them.

Paul claims to have preached from Jerusalem in a counter-clockwise arc which led through Cyprus and Asia Minor, modern Greece and “all the way around to Illyricum” (v. 19; he does not mention here that he had earlier worked in Arabia, Gal 1:17-18). Illyricum lay at the western end of the Via Egnatia (see our comments on 15:22); it is part of modern Serbia. We have no record in the epistles or in Acts of Paul having traveled that far west. It is possible that the mission to Illyricum was commissioned by Paul but not personally carried out by him. At any rate, he had nowhere to go in those regions where there was not some gospel witness, “where Christ was not known.”

It was a fundamental part of his self-consciousness as an apostle that he was to evangelize Gentiles in faraway places and in areas where the gospel had not yet reached. In some cases, there were a handful of Christians already waiting when Paul arrived (for example, Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, Acts 18:2; see also Acts 18:24-19:7). But Paul’s work was not to evangelize random individuals but to lay the foundation of a witnessing church (1 Cor 3:10). It was that task that he had already performed in the northeast quadrant of the empire. His visit to Rome probably was in order to give an apostolic foundation to the church that already dwelled there. Paul quotes (v. 21) what for us is a messianic passage, Isaiah 52:15, where the Servant of Yahweh is manifested by peoples who do not know him, to the extent that “kings will shut their mouths because of him” (see other Isaianic language in Acts 26:18, 23).

Practical Thought: A missionary comes to your church to speak, and he tells you to go to Acts 1:8 – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

He goes on to say:

Jerusalem was their own city, and they were supposed to evangelize there first. Judea was their home region. Now, Samaria was like but not identical with Judea, but next in line since it was a nearby mission field. And of course, “the end of the earth” means any foreign country.

In conclusion, the preacher asks: What is your Jerusalem and Judea? What is your Samaria? What is the uttermost part of your earth? He may add that, You shouldn’t go to the ends of the earth until your Jerusalem is evangelized.

This is not the principal meaning of Acts 1:8 in its context, nor in the context of Paul’s words in Romans 15. We are helped by Luke 24. Since Luke and Acts are two volumes by the same author, the last chapter of Luke and the first of Acts overlap. In Luke 24:44-49 Jesus talks about the mission, in different terms and with more detail, including the statement that the gospel will go forth, specifically from Jerusalem, to all nations. The important new datum from Luke is that this program comes from “the Scriptures” – in other words, the Bible predicted not only the death and resurrection of Jesus; it also foretold that the Spirit would come (as in Joel 2:28-32); and that the gospel would go forth from the city of Jerusalem. Most commentators have pointed to Isaiah 2:3 – “For the LORD’s teaching will go out from Zion; his word will go out from Jerusalem” (NLT, which is preferable for its translation of “teaching” rather than “law”).

So, “beginning in Jerusalem” was a once-and-for-all first act in the gospel’s advance: from Zion to whatever nation may be named, God made the gospel go forth by centrifugal force. As Jesus had said in Mark 13:10, before the end of the age “the gospel must first be preached to all nations”; he and the disciples were on the Mount of Olives at the time, facing the Holy City.

Another observation: until the day of Pentecost, Jerusalem was never the “home town” of the apostles. With the likely exception of Judas Iscariot, the apostles all came from Galilee in the north. When Jesus was raised, they were staying in borrowed quarters. They continued in the city and there receive the Spirit and first preach the gospel. In Acts 2-9 the Twelve are living and working in Jerusalem, their new adoptive town.

Many of the converts on the Day of Pentecost were Diaspora Jews, who later returned from Jerusalem to other nations in their world, taking the gospel to them, from Zion. Due to the persecution, believers moved to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).

From Jerusalem, Phillip went to evangelize Samaria, followed by John and Peter (Acts 8). Peter evangelized the Mediterranean coastline and made the first Gentile converts (Acts 10-11). According to tradition, the apostles then went out to many nations.

B. He plans on visiting Jerusalem, then Rome, and then on to pioneer territory in Spain (15:23-33)

Letters from the first century sometimes included an itinerary, in which the writer would announce his travel plans. Paul traveled far and wide, planting churches and later revisiting them, and sending deputies such as Timothy or Titus with specific tasks to perform. This made it a natural step to include descriptions of his plans for the near future (see for example 1 Cor 16:1-12; 2 Cor 1:12-2:4; similarly, Phil 2:19-30; Philemon 22). From Rome he would move westward to Spain, skipping over Alpine Italy and Gaul (France) in his most ambitious journey to date – he would have gone from the eastern frontier of the empire (Jerusalem) to the western (Spain, and from there the Atlantic Ocean). The province Hispania had been a major trading region with the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Phoenicians for centuries before the Romans arrived. With regard to a Jewish presence in Spain, one might think of Spain as having a huge population, up until their expulsion in 1492; nevertheless, it is not certain that there was any Jewish settlement as early as AD 58; it would have been relatively easy for Paul to make inquiries about colonies of Jews already living there.

Paul wants to enjoy the company of the Romans for a time (vv. 24, 28-29), but he hints at a deeper commitment: he wants the church to “have you assist me on my journey”; this is a helpful expansion of the verb “aid” or “send on one’s way” (propempō is also used in 1 Cor 16:6; 16:11; Tit 3:13 and elsewhere). It is stronger in meaning than simply “see off”; it implies that the host has the duty to supply whatever the traveler needs to get to his next stop. This short statement by Paul is a sudden revelation, since it answers some of the questions of why he wrote Romans:

  • I want you to support my missionary work in Spain.
  • Thus, you will have to be firmly convinced that this is a necessary work.
  • Thus, I will go over the entire gospel message to show why the gospel must go forth to this faraway land (Spain was as far from Rome, as Rome was from Corinth).
  • In particular, you need to know that Spanish Jews and Gentiles both need the gospel.
  • And even more, you Christians in Rome, Jew and Gentile, must be united together in the gospel if you are going to do something as costly as underwriting a mission to Spain.
  • And though Paul does not mention it, perhaps he hopes to encounter another young assistant in the church of Rome, a new Timothy.

But for now, Paul was about to make a trip eastward to Jerusalem, to carry out a charitable work for the poor saints there. Poverty and famine seem to have been chronic during these decades (see Acts 11:27-30). He borders on sounding casual: “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem.” In fact, Paul had been planning this project for years (see Gal 2:10). The church in each city would appoint “trustees” to carry the gift (1 Cor 16:3-4; 2 Cor 8:18-21; Acts 20:4).

In v. 27 Paul shows that the Gentile Christians owed the saints in Judea for sharing the gospel with the nations. This is an extension of the duty all Christians have toward one another: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need” (12:13). The irony is that now the Gentiles can send material blessings, sacred offerings, to Israel (see too 1 Cor 9:11; Gal 6:6). Behind this offering lies the prophetic promise that booty will flow from the nations to Zion. But now the apostle can see with greater precision what that meant: the nations are not paying tribute to their conquerors, but willingly blessing their Jewish brothers in Christ. But Paul already foresees that “the unbelievers in Judea” (v. 31) might cause him harm, even though he is doing much good for Jewish Christians there. As it turns out his fears will be confirmed, and he would face the threat of death.

While Paul is usually pictured as praying for his disciples, he is not shy about asking them to pray for him in turn: in fact, he seems to have held it as a principle that those he leads to Christ should “send” him in prayer to his next stop and to ask God that he have a safe and fruitful time (vv. 30-33; also, the very similar 2 Thess 3:1-4).

What happened to Paul’s plans?

First, Paul planned to sail from Corinth to Syria (Acts 20:3) and from there to Jerusalem. But this is not what happened: there was a plot against him in Corinth, and so he traveled northward through Macedonia, retracing his steps, celebrating Passover in Philippi, then sailing past Ephesus to Miletus (Acts 20:13-16). Since Paul had missed the chance to get to Jerusalem for Passover, he wanted at least to arrive there for Pentecost – the Feast of First Fruits would in fact provide a neat symbol for his gift to the Christians there. He delivered the gift to the church, as he notes later in Acts 24:17 – “I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.”

Second, he had hoped to go directly from Jerusalem to Rome. This did not take place, at least, not in any way that he had imagined. After two years in prison he appealed to Caesar and was taken as prisoner to put forward his case in the capital. After he arrived he spent two further years under house arrest (Acts 28:30). He interacted with the Jewish leadership in Rome, which claimed to know nothing of Christianity except for second-hand information (Acts 28:21-22).

Third, he had wanted to go to Spain. There is no firm evidence that he ever arrived there, and I am inclined to believe that he did not. Clement of Rome spoke of Paul “having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place” (1 Clem 5.7 [Holmes]). This may mean that Clement thought that he had gone to Spain, but a better interpretation is that the “west” is Rome, the place where he testified before the emperor and was executed.

Practical Thought: What may be learned from all this? To begin with, Paul made plans. He prayed, he strategized, and then he moved ahead. But just as striking is the fact that he could and did change plans. He wanted to go from Corinth to Jerusalem but changed his plans. He wanted to go from Jerusalem to Rome but could not. He wanted to go from Rome to Spain and perhaps he was not able. This shows us that not even the great apostle knew his own future, as if God had revealed his destiny ahead of time. Even Paul had to deal with the unknown; frightening changes of circumstance; people reacting badly when they had little cause to. Like Paul we must be people of faith, that is, we rely on God’s care for us and pray for his strength and direction, leaving to him the hidden possibilities.

Study Questions:

  1. We might fall into the trap of honoring the gospel mission with our words but forgetting to support our people who have gone to evangelize the world. According to Romans, what kinds of help can be given to missionaries are sent out from a church?
  2. What do you think of this statement: “We have so many needs right here (in your own town) that we cannot be investing in Christian work in other places”?

“Romans Commentary, 15:14-33,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

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“Return to Me”

Commentary through Zechariah

Zechariah 1:1-6
Dr Steve Orr

I don’t know how well you know the Old Testament book of Zechariah or what comes to your mind if you hear it mentioned but I’ve had it in mind for some time to attempt a series on Zechariah and now that series is beginning. When I started preparing, I turned to James Montgomery Boice’s little commentary on Zechariah and was dismayed to read his opening sentence: “Zechariah is one of the most difficult books in the Old Testament”. However, as I read a bit more widely I came across plenty of encouraging comments such as: “Zechariah is the most Messianic of all the writings of the Old Testament”. Or: “The key to unlocking the truth contained in Zechariah is the Messiah, Jesus”. Someone else said: “At least 33 portions of Zechariah are quoted in about 50 different places in the New Testament. Many of these are in connection with the Lord Jesus Christ”. So, the consensus is that the book of Zechariah is full of Christ! Therefore, it is also full of encouragement. In fact, one writer said: “Zechariah is the Barnabas of the Old Testament – a true son of encouragement”.

So, Boice might be right in saying that Zechariah is a difficult book but I reckon it should be well worth the effort of trying to understand it and we should expect to find plenty of encouragement in doing so. With no more ado, let’s turn to Zechariah 1v1 where we read; “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”. There we find some answers to the obvious introductory questions: “When?”, “Who?” and What?”.

When?

We see that it was “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius”. Now, Darius reigned as emperor of Persia from 522 BC until 486 BC so the book begins in the 8th month of the year 520 BC. That’s very precise but you’re probably not much the wiser for knowing it. To flesh out the historical context, you’ll remember that way back in Israel’s history the kingdom was split in two. That happened in 930 BC when 10 tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel and 2 tribes formed the southern kingdom of Judah. In 723 BC the northern kingdom was taken into captivity by Assyria and never returned. Judah continued but was eventually taken into captivity in Babylon in 586 BC. That captivity began to come to an end when Babylon was captured by the Persians in 539 BC. The Persian king was Cyrus and, in 538 BC, he decreed that the captives could return to Jerusalem to re-build the temple. One group of them returned immediately under the leadership of Zerubbabel.

King Cyrus was succeeded by Darius in 522 BC so the book of Zechariah begins about 16 years after the first exiles had set off to return to Jerusalem. However, plenty of them still remained in Babylon under Persian rule.

Who?

That seems obvious. We’re told that the Word of the Lord came to Zechariah. However, there are 27 different Zechariahs mentioned in the scriptures! So, it’s a good job that we’re told that he was “Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo”. In Nehemiah 12v16 we read the peculiar words: “of Iddo, Zechariah; of Ginnethon, Meshullam”. What’s that talking about? It becomes clear if you look at Nehemiah 12v.12 where we read: “And in the days of Joiakim were priests, heads of fathers’ houses: of Seraiah, Meraiah; of Jeremiah, Hananiah”. So, those words “of Iddo, Zechariah; of Ginnethon, Meshullam” appear in a list of the heads of the priestly families. That tells us that Iddo’s family was a priestly family and, at that time, his grandson, Zechariah, was the head of the family. So, Zechariah wasn’t only a prophet – he was also a priest.

Why did Nehemiah give this list of the heads of the priestly families? Well, if we look at Nehemiah 12v.1-4 we read: “These are the priests and the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Amariah, Malluch, Hattush, Shecaniah, Rehum, Meremoth, Iddo, Ginnethoi, Abijah”. That tells us that Iddo was one of the priests who had returned with Zerubbabel and it seems that Zechariah, probably as quite a young man, had done so too. He’d have seen the work of re-building the temple begin. He’d have seen the opposition to that re-building arise. He’d have seen the re-building eventually grind to a halt. In Ezra 4v.24 we read: “Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia”. So, the work remained at a standstill until the 2nd year of the reign of Darius. That was in 520 which, as we’ve already seen, was when the Word of the Lord first came to Zechariah.

In Ezra 5v.1-2 we read: “Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them”. So, Zechariah and Haggai were contemporaries. They both prophesied at the same time and place and spoke to the same situation. But, it’s worth noting that their prophecies were very different in style and character. Haggai was down to earth and practical. Zechariah was much more of a visionary. So, they complemented one another. There’s an important lesson there. That is that the Lord uses all sorts of people. He uses people with different personalities, different temperaments, different ways of looking at things. Imagine how dull it would be if we were all Haggais – all “facts and figures” people? You can imagine him with his clipboard in hand and consulting his spreadsheets. But then, imagine how frustrating it would be if we were all Zechariahs – all dreamers and visionaries? You can imagine Zechariah dozing on his beanbag humming the Beach boys “Wouldn’t it be nice” to himself! Wouldn’t it be nice if the temple was built! But, having Haggais and Zechariahs working together as directed by the Lord is powerful and effective.

What?

We’ve been told that “the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah”. God had something to say and He spoke it to Zechariah. Zechariah, in turn, told the people. He emphasised that it was God’s Word that was being spoken. Verse 3 says: “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”. He said “declares the Lord” and “says the Lord”. This wasn’t just emphasised here at the outset. You’ll find it throughout the whole book. Time and time again God spoke and Zechariah was very conscious of the fact that it was the Lord who was speaking. Sometimes, He spoke in strange visions that are difficult to understand. Sometimes, He spoke in prophetic language that can also be difficult to understand. But the first thing He spoke through Zechariah was abundantly clear as we see in chapter 1v2-6. In this first Word of the Lord to Zechariah we see that it included:

A word of Announcement
A word of Appeal
A word of Assurance
A word of Advice

A word of Announcement

In verse 2 we read: “The Lord was very angry with your fathers”. We often read in the Old Testament that God is slow to anger and abounding in love. Jonah, for instance, knew that to be true. Thank God that it is true! But we mustn’t think that that means that God is never angry. This prophecy of encouragement begins with the announcement that God had been “very angry” with the forefathers of Zechariah and his contemporaries. What had they done that had made the Lord who is “slow to anger” to be so “very angry” with them? We find the answer if we look, for example, at II Chronicles 36v14-16: “All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem. The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy”. The Lord had “persistently” sent His messengers to them. He was slow to anger. He had “compassion” on His people. He was abounding in love. But, they had mocked God’s messengers, despised God’s words and scoffed at His prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against them.

We speak of some people as having “short fuses” don’t we? The tiniest thing that displeases them makes them react angrily. God isn’t like that. But, if He is continually mocked and despised and ignored, His anger grows until His wrath is poured out. Well, His wrath had been poured out on their forefathers in the mass slaughter at the hands of the Babylonians and the survivors being taken into captivity. Now, God was speaking to a new generation that was making a new beginning. They were pioneers and would have been full of enthusiasm and optimism. What did He announce to them through Zechariah? He told them that, right from the outset, they needed to keep in mind what had happened to their forefathers.

New starts, new beginnings can be very dangerous times because people are swept along on a tide of optimism and euphoria. Things seem so good. The world’s your oyster! But, however exciting and exhilarating the circumstances, those caught up in it still have sinful natures so things can go very badly wrong very quickly. Imagine the excitement of the Children of Israel as they left Egypt. They’d seen God’s power as He made Pharaoh relent and let them go. They’d seen Him part the waters of the Red Sea for them to pass through and then drown the pursuing Egyptians. What a thrilling adventure! Yet, how quickly they were grumbling and wanting to go back! Remember the early settlers in America. They were so optimistic and idealistic in setting about building their “New World”. But, how quickly it was beset with all the failings of the “Old World”. The very evils they thought they’d left behind they found they’d carried there with them in their very own hearts! Well, these Jewish settlers had returned full of enthusiasm. Then they’d met opposition and run out of steam and ground to a halt but now things were looking up again. And, at that point Zechariah comes along and begins by bringing them back to earth with a bump by saying: “The Lord was very angry with your fathers”. It’s as though he’s saying: “Remember – you’re no different from your forefathers and the Lord is no different than He was then either. History will repeat itself if you ignore and reject the Lord as your forefathers did”.

Exactly the same is true today. Those who persistently ignore and reject the Lord Jesus Christ will eventually know the anger of God in Hell.

At the beginning of verse 3 the Lord says to Zechariah: “Therefore say to them”. Since the Lord had been so angry with their forefathers, this was what they needed to be told. The first part of what Zechariah was to say was:

A word of Appeal

What was the appeal? We see it as we continue in verse 3: “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts”. The word translated as “return” really means “turn back”. The Lord was saying: “Turn back to Me. He was saying “you’ve come back to the land, you’ve come back to Jerusalem but that isn’t enough. You must come back to Me”. The appeal isn’t to just return to settle the land or to rebuild the temple or to conduct religious ceremonies. The appeal is for a personal return to the Lord Himself.

It’s very informative to note the point in the proceedings at which this appeal came through Zechariah. Remember that it came in the 8th month of the 2nd year of Darius. We read in Haggai 1v1: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest”. So, Haggai had already been prophesying for at least 2 months before this appeal came through Zechariah. Haggai had given a word of rebuke that was intended to shake them out of their ease and preoccupation with their own comfort and they were greatly stirred by that message as we see from Haggai 1v.14b-15 where we read: “And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people. And they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month, in the second year of Darius the king”. So, Haggai’s message had had an immediate effect. They’d returned to the work of rebuilding the temple. Things were moving again. They were busy again. Now, they were on their way! Then look at Haggai 2v1: “In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet”. That was one month later and he went on to prophecy concerning the future glory of the temple that they were building. That would have been a great encouragement for them to keep on building. However, that was still before Zechariah started prophesying. It was after that encouraging prophecy from Haggai that Zechariah chimed in with his reminder of the Lord’s anger with their forefathers and his appeal that they should return to the Lord.

You see the point? They’d heard the word of the Lord through Haggai. They’d heeded it. They were building the temple again and that was good. They’d been enthused by the word of the Lord. BUT, none of that activity and enthusiasm meant that their hearts were right with God. They still needed to return to the Lord. Activity isn’t enough. Being stirred by rousing words isn’t enough. We must come to the Lord Himself. That’s the appeal or invitation that the Lord gives: “Return to Me. Come back to Me”. In fact, it’s much stronger than a mere invitation. The translation of verse 3 quite rightly reflects the fact that two different Hebrew words are being used. You’ll notice the words “declares” and “says”. The word translated as “declares” has the urgency of being a challenge or a charge or a command. It’s not like an invitation to a birthday party which really is saying: “Please come if you can. I hope you’ll be able to make it”. The word “declares” is saying “This is what you must do. This is important”.

It’s exactly what Jesus Himself said in Matthew 11v28 where we read: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. In saying that He wasn’t competing with the Father’s appeal to “Return to Me”. It’s not an alternative. We read in John 14v6 that Jesus also said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. Coming to Jesus is the way to obey the Father’s command to “Return to Me”. So, the word of appeal was an urgent command from the Lord to return to Him.

The second part of what Zechariah was to say was:

A word of Assurance

Having said “Return to Me”, he goes on to say: “and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts”. Now, the word translated as “says” means just that. This is a simple statement of fact. If you return to the Lord, you have His word that He will return to you. We find much the same thing in James 4v8a where we read: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you”. Then James continues through to verse 10 by saying: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you”. You see, God won’t come near to you if you attempt to come to Him lightly – in a presumptuous or self-righteous way. You must come in repentance and recognising your need of Him. If you come with that humility, He will lift you up. Why? Because He’s slow to anger and abounding in love. Return to the Lord in repentance and He will return to you with spiritual blessing.

That’s what Jesus illustrated so clearly and powerfully in what we tend to refer to as the parable of the prodigal son. It’s really the parable of the loving father. The son had left his father and struck out on his own. He was determined that he would do exactly what he wanted to do. And, where did that lead him? He ended up all alone and reduced to eating pig food. That eloquently pictures what it is like living away from God. Then, he came to his senses and remembered that even his father’s servants were in a far better condition than he was. So, he decided to return; not saying “I’m your son and I demand that you take me back” but saying, “I’ve sinned against you. I was wrong. I’m no longer worthy to be your son but perhaps you’ll be willing to give me a job as a servant”. He returned with repentance, humility and no presumption. That’s a picture of someone returning to the Lord in the right way. What happened next in Jesus’ story? While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him, was filled with compassion, ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you”. The son said he’d sinned and wasn’t worthy to be his son. He really meant it and it was true wasn’t it? And what did the father do? He gave him the best robe. He put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. The one who wasn’t worthy to be a son was received as a son and treated as a son. Why was that? It was because he’d returned in humility and his father was gracious and compassionate.

We’re not worthy to be God’s sons. We’ve been far away from Him. We’ve sinned against Him. But He says: “Return to Me and I will return to you”. He gives that word of assurance.

The last part of what Zechariah was to say was:

A word of Advice

Moving to Zechariah 1v4 we read: “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”. Here we see the message that the Lord had given the forefathers through the earlier prophets. It had been: “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds”. The message Zechariah was now bringing was “Return to Me”. It is essentially the same message again! The Lord’s message is always the same because the problem is always the same, the need is always the same and the Lord’s solution is always the same. Jesus said “Come to Me”. The apostles said “Repent and believe” The message is always the same, the appeal and promise are always the same but the response isn’t. The word of advice given through Zechariah was to heed the lesson of history and not make the fatal mistake that their forefathers had made.

Their forefathers had heard the same message. How had they responded? We read “But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord”. And, what was the result of that? They were taken into captivity and died in captivity. That was exactly what the Lord had warned them would happen if they continued to turn away from Him. We read in Zechariah 1v5-6a: “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?” And, when it eventually did happen, they had to admit that God was just in doing so. Continuing in verse 6b we read: “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”. They deserved it. They’d been given every opportunity to return to the Lord. He was slow to anger and abounding in love but they had spurned Him and His anger had eventually come upon them. It will be exactly the same for every sinner in hell. None will be able to say: “It isn’t fair. I don’t deserve it”.

So, what is the word of advice? It’s there in verse 4a: “Do not be like your fathers”. Of course, in many respects, they were inevitably like their forefathers – same race, same nationality, same religion, same sinful nature. There was nothing they could do about any of that. But, there was one way in which they could “not be like their forefathers”. What had their forefathers been like? They would not listen or pay attention when the Lord told them to turn from their evil ways. We see it in verse 4b: “But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord”. Zechariah’s advice was: “don’t be like that! Don’t repeat their mistake but heed the Lord when He says “Return to Me”. If you do, He promises “and I will return to you” If you don’t, His words and decrees will overtake you as surely as they overtook their forefathers.

I said at the beginning that the book of Zechariah is a message of encouragement. You might think that being urged to repent and humble yourself doesn’t sound very encouraging but this opening message is vitally important. The fact is that there can be no real encouragement unless you first come to the Lord in repentance and humble faith.