Zechariah 1:3-6 - Return to Me (Rev. Erik Veerman)
Return to Me
Our Scripture reading this morning is from Zechariah chapter 1, found on page 943. Our focus this morning will be on verses 3-6, but I’ll be reading starting at verse 1.
Reading of Zechariah 1:3-6
In the year 383 AD something happened that has had lasting but unfortunate impact in the church. What happened? Well, a new version of the Bible was published. But wait, how can a new version of the Scriptures cause an unfortunate result? It started with the good intentions to write a new more accurate version translated into Latin. A well-educated scholar, St. Jerome, took the best-known manuscripts at the time and began the task. But because of the difficult task of translation and the differences in how Greek and Latin are structured, a couple of key Bible verses were mis-translated.
One of those verses is Matthew 4:17 – Jesus’ first words as part of his public ministry. Our translations say this: “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”
But the new Latin translation at the time essentially said this: “do repentance, for the kingdom of God is at hand” or “do penance.” You see, it attached an outward activity to the inward call of repentance. And over the ensuing centuries, the church sadly took and ran with it. The church began requiring people do things like going to a priest in a confessional, or saying things like the rosary (a prayer to Mary), you could even pay money as part of your penance. Really, it suppressed the Gospel. It made faith and repentance works oriented.
But in the year 1517, a young boisterous monk had had enough. Martin Luther, the great reformer, posted his famous 95 theses against the abuses of the Roman Catholic church. And his first four theses focused on repentance.
In other words, Luther saw the false teaching about repentance as the center of the problem. Luther wrote that the entire life of believers should be one of inner repentance. And not the false teaching of doing penance. Luther referenced Matthew 4:17 in his very first theses. And he went on to explain what the word “repentance” means and what it doesn’t mean.
There is no “do” in repentance. Rather, it’s a heart felt turning from your sin and to God.
And as we come to these few verses at the beginning of Zechariah, that’s exactly what we learn. Our text this morning focuses in on repentance. It teaches us what repentance is. And it helps us to understand the need for repentance. And let me say, repentance applies to everyone, everywhere. God calls each and every one of us to repentance. Along with faith, repentance is foundational to life. They go hand in hand.
Now, you may be thinking, “but wait, why are you saying that these verses focus on repentance? I only see that word one time down in verse 6” Well, I’m glad you asked! That root word for “repentance” used in verse 6 is actually used 4 times in these verses. It’s the same word translated as “return” used twice in verse 3 and once in verse 4. So, repentance is the focus of these verses. Once we get into it, that will become more apparent.
But before we dig in, let me start with some quick reminders about Zechariah and who God was speaking to through him.
First, if you remember from last week, the Babylonians had overthrown Judah and Jerusalem. They destroyed almost everything, killed many of the people, and dragged many of the remaining inhabitants to Babylon. That’s known as the Babylonian exile or captivity. When Zechariah came on the scene, it had been almost 70 years since that started. Zechariah and his generation were born in Babylon. So it was their father’s generation whom God was punishing, but they experienced that punishment as exiles.
The Persians now controlled the region. They actually helped the Jews to return to Jerusalem. And Zechariah was one of the remnant of God’s people who returned. He was a young man at the time. And he was prophesying to his generation who had recently returned from Babylon. That pretty much summarizes the historical context from last week.
But let me also add something. This morning we read from Haggai chapter 1. Haggai’s prophecy was only 2 months earlier than Zechariah’s prophecy. And it gives us very helpful insight into what was going on with the people who returned. God said to them “my house lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.” The Lord was speaking about his temple. The foundations had been laid, but then the work stopped. And part of what happened was the people turned inward. They started working on their own houses without care for God’s house.
That’s one reason God called them to return to him. He wanted their hearts and minds to return to the one true living God.
Really, that’s the purpose of the entire book of Zechariah. Its focus is spiritual rebuilding. That’s different from the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra focuses on physically rebuilding the temple. Nehemiah focuses on God’s call to physically rebuild the walls of the Jerusalem. But these verses at the beginning of Zechariah show us the need for God’s people to be spiritually built up and renewed.
God wants his relationship with them to be restored. It’s why, as we’ll see over the next weeks and months, Zechariah emphasizes God’s salvation, his sovereignty, and his presence. He’s calling them and he’s calling us to be built up as a people who know the Lord, who trust in him, who give him glory, and who receive his mercy.
And the starting place for that spiritual rebuilding is repentance.
And let me say, these are helpful and powerful verses about repentance. They hit the very center of what repentance is.
1. What are we turning to
This morning, we’re going to start with what we are turning to in repentance before what we are turning from. I know that sounds backwards, but the emphasis on what we are turning to is so prevalent in these verses, that I think we should begin there. Then we will consider why we need to repent.
And I think you already know the answer to what or who we need to turn to. It’s pretty obvious, here. We need to turn to the Lord. We’re to return to him. The turning is focused on God and our relationship with him.
Look at verse 3. Let’s count together the number of times that the Lord is referenced including pronouns. “Thus declares the Lord of hosts (first), return to me (second), says the Lord of Hosts (third), and I (fourth), will return to you, says the Lord of Hosts (fifth).” That’s five times in just that 1 verse. And in the first 6 verses there are a total of 15 direct and indirect references to the Lord. These verses overwhelmingly reference the Lord
And did you notice that the word Lord is all capitalized. That is God’s covenant name. Yahweh. It’s a name that references the covenant relationship that God has with his people. And added to the word Lord is the phrase “of hosts.” That expands the meaning here to include God’s heavenly army. His spiritual army. Some translations actually say, “the Lord of armies.” He is the Lord of hosts. The sovereign covenant keeping God with a vast army of angels.
And our Lord wants you. He wants your heart. I’m using “heart” in a biblical sense. He wants your deepest beliefs, your identity… the very center of who you are is to be about him. When God says, “Return to me,” he wants to be in a relationship with you or a restored relationship with you… He wants to be the center of your life.
And the foundation to repentance is returning to him – to God, in a restored relationship with him.
That idea is also captured in God’s response, here. He says, “return to me” …and if you do, he then says, “I will return to you!” Even though that is the same word as repentance, God is not saying he is repenting. No, his return to them is about his presence. He will again be with his people. And to say it again, “do” is not a part of repentance. This is not a transactional kind of relationship where if you do these things, then God will reciprocate. No, this springs from God’s very nature. His desire to know you and to be known. He wants your heart.
Our primary call in repentance is to turn our lives to God – to the Lord of Hosts. If you don’t remember anything else from this sermon, I want you to remember this. God wants you. Repentance is turning your life to him.
2. What are we turning from
Let’s continue on, though. Let’s now ask, what are we turning from? The short answer is, we are to turn from our sin, away from our sin. You see that right there in verse 4. “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.” The Lord was talking about their father’s generation there. And it’s good summary of sin – evil ways and evil deeds. We’ll take a moment to work that out. But first I want to point out that when we sin, we separate ourselves from God. The sin of their father’s generation, mentioned here, caused them to be separated from God. That’s the effect of sin. It says there at the end of verse 4, “they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the Lord.” Their sin separated them from God, and he called them to turn from it and back to him. That’s the very straightforward definition of repentance - turning away from our sin, and turning back to God.
But I think we don’t often consider all the ways we sin. The different categories of sin. So let’s think of what “evil ways” and “evil deeds” refers to.
Think about this. When you think of your sin, I’m guessing you usually think of the things that you do, which break God’s commands. Right? Like a lustful thought or action to repent of. Or kids, anger against your brother or sister or classmate. Those are “evil deeds.” The things we think, say, or do that go against what God’s tells us not to do. But that’s only one category of sin. The other category of sin are the things we don’t do that God calls us to do. That would be the “evil ways.” We take our own path. We’re not following God’s path. For example, God calls us to worship him, to pray to him, to trust him. He calls us to make disciples. When we don’t do those things, we’re also in sin. We’re not following God’s way.
Both of those avenues of sin, move us away from God, away from his presence, and not towards him.
Let’s go back to the temptations of Zechariah and his generation. Even though they were back in Jerusalem, it didn’t bring them closer to God. They mistakenly thought that by returning to the city, they were returning to God. That certainly wasn’t the case for their forefathers. Who were, after all, in Jerusalem. They had the temple, but they rejected God. And so Zechariah’s generation returned, but their excitement turned to disappointment and frustration. They didn’t feel settled. And they began working on their own homes. They weren’t following God’s ways. Instead, they began to focus on themselves. And that’s when God called them to return to him.
Now, we’d be here all day if we were to work through all of our “evil ways” and “evil deeds.” So rather than think of specific sins. Let me give you some categories. And I want you to think about your own life and areas that need repentance. Here’s the list:
•Things or people you worship above God or alongside God
•Times or situations when you are anxious and not trusting in him
•Not coming into God’s presence in prayer
•Fear of man – of what other people think of you and not what God thinks
•Sinful reactions when you are sinned against. Or other relational sins that you commit against one another
•The big category of coveting and lust – wanting something that is not yours, or sexual desires that you act on in your thoughts or actions
•Ways in which you are not loving your neighbor – like things we talked about in Sunday school this morning – that includes prejudice or injustice.
•Laziness or slothfulness spent through hours and hours of wasted time. Let me get specific on this one… on games, watching sports, or shows
•And last, one for the kids – ways in which you are not honoring your parents or loving your siblings
There are many more.
And God says to each of us, turn from those things and return to me. If you’ve walked away from God in some area of your life or if you’ve never come to him. He wants you to be grieved about those sins. He wants you to turn from them and to him.
3. Why should we turn
And this brings us to the third point. Why. Why should we turn from our sin?
In some way, that question has already been answered. Our sin separates us from God. It’s one reason why God calls us to return to him. But the why is also deeper and harder than that.
Let’s go back up to verse 2. “The Lord was very angry with your fathers.” He was angry at their fathers because of their sin. Because of their evil ways and evil deeds. Because God hates sin. Sin is so contrary to God’s holiness and righteousness. And that holiness evokes in him a righteous justice at the presence of sin. The punishment on their fathers was a result of their sin. Exile. Using a worldly kingdom to overthrow them. And God says to Zechariah’s generation “Do not be like your fathers”. He was telling them that the call to repentance, turning from sin and to God, included the warning of God’s judgment.
And we even see here a jab of sorts from God to Zechariah’s generation… Verse 5. “Your fathers, where are they?” God was not only saying, don’t be like them, he was telling them why. Because they received the just punishment of their sin. God was warning them that he will follow through. And look at that last part of verse 8. Zechariah’s generation realized that. Realized that God will follow through. See what they said, “As the Lord of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.” The “us” meaning God’s people, they and their fathers. This was a recognition that God will do what he says. Sin will be punished.
And this goes all the way back to Genesis chapter 2 and 3. Genesis is the first book of the Bible. When God created man and woman, he gave them one prohibition. Not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And if they did, God promised that they would die. And when they ate of it, God fulfilled his promise. They didn’t immediately die, no, God was gracious. But they spiritually died, they were banished from the presence of God, and they would begin the process of physically dying.
You see, God will follow through. There’s no escaping punishment for sin.
If you’ve been reading along in our “Gentle & Lowly” book study, the chapter this week, chapter 15, focuses in on God’s wrath. It’s an unavoidable topic in Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Pastor Ortlund, the author, works through the books of Lamentations and Hosea, and then he quotes Thomas Goodwin, who he has gone to many times before. Goodwin wrote, “God’s wrath and his word do torment men forever…” and Ortlund clarifies, “those who persist in sin and do not repent.”
So why repent? Because God is a holy and just God, who will punish sin and the sinner.
But beloved, there’s another reason why we should repent.
And that is because God is merciful. Yes, God hates sin, but he also is merciful to those who repent. It’s right there in verse 3. We’ve already looked at it. “Return to me… and I will return to you.” God’s warning of his anger is matched by his offer of mercy. It’s a promise. “I will return to you.” I will relent. I will stay my hand. I will be in your presence again. Turn back to me, from your sin, and I will return to you. And his mercy should invoke in us a desire, a heart-felt desire, to return to him.
And there’s an amazing thing that happened in verse 6. “They repented.” This is most likely referring to Zechariah’s generation. A reference back to verse 3. “Say to them” meaning say to Zechariah’s generation. And verse 6 is their response. Repentance. In other words, they were not like their fathers, no, instead they repented. We have record in other books that these remnant and their leaders in Jerusalem repented. They turned from their sin to God, and God turned from his anger and back to them.
Let’s go back to Gentle & Lowly chapter 15. As much as that chapter is about God’s wrath, the chapter is even more so about God’s mercy. You see, God is just, yet that doesn’t diminish his mercy in any way. No. As Ortlund writes, “God’s attributes are not pieces of a pie making a whole pie,” rather “God is every attribute perfectly.”
You see, we repent to God because of both his wrath and his mercy. But it’s not like when we repent that all of a sudden God switches gears from wrath to mercy. No, that would be moving the pieces of the pie around and that is not how God’s attributes work.
Rather, God receives our repentance through the very act that both upholds his perfect wrath against sin and his perfect mercy to the repentant sinner. That is the cross of Christ. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God’s perfect justice and mercy were both satisfied through his perfect sacrifice.
God received their repentance through Christ who was to come, and he receives our repentance through Christ who has come.
I think the Westminster Catechism summarizes repentance so well. Look back at it again in your bulletin. “Repentance unto life is a saving grace,” yes it is, God’s work in us! “whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” A heart turning from our sin because of the God’s mercy in Christ... and a new desire to follow him and his ways.
Let me end where we began. Jesus words. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The warning is there, but so is the mercy.
The Lord of armies is calling you to turn to him. If you have never repented and turned to the Lord. This is where it all begins. Turning from your sin and coming to the Lord by faith in Jesus. Turn to him and he will turn to you.
And if you have already repented and turned to the Lord. That day that you turned to him… it’s not the end of your repentance. No, it should be the first day of an ongoing life of renewed faith and renewed repentance…. In the presence of our holy, covenant keeping merciful God. Let’s pray to him.