This is a follow up to my January 1, 2023 sermon. My opening comments on the passage are not on the audio here (thought you can get them on the YouTube stream of the service here), so I will reproduce those comments here, along with a few other notes.
Today’s sermon builds off of last week’s sermon, though if you did not hear that one, you will understand this one just fine. I think it’s worth camping out on this part of Zephaniah a little longer because this passage is so important.
Zephaniah 3:9 is one of the most important verses in the Bible. It’s the link between Genesis 11 and Acts 2. It’s the link between old covenant and new covenant. It’s the link between Babel and Pentecost. This is one of the key threads that ties the whole Bible together into one story. It’s a key to the unity of Scripture. It’s one of the threads that binds up the whole canon as one book.
In Zephaniah 3:9, God says he will change the speech of the nations. This will be a sovereign act of God’s grace. But this does not mean God will make English speakers, French speakers, and Chinese speakers into Hebrew speakers. The verse goes on to say he will change their speech to a PURE speech. The word for “speech” here (and in Genesis 11) describes not only a language, but a confession, a religious confession. God will not change the language they speak; rather, he will change what they confess in their language. What the nations confess about God will be changed. [For a discussion of the meaning of the Hebrew term here, and it's religious/confessional connotations, see James Jordan's Christendom and the Nations, p. 11.]
After Babel, the languages of the people were confused — not only in that they could not understand one another, but in that they also spoke in a confused way about God. God turned pagans against one another. Paganism was divided up into different denominations, each pagan group with its own false god or gods. What is the true God going to change when he changes their confused speech to a pure speech? He’s going to change what they confess about God. He's going to change their religious confession. Confused speech about God will give way to pure speech about God. So the promise here is that English speakers, French speakers, Chinese speakers, Swahili speakers, and so on will all come to confess the truth about God. They will come to confess, each in their own language, that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” They will all call upon the name of the Lord in their own tongue, with one accord. God desires to be worshipped in every language under heaven. And God will bring this to pass. He says “I will change the speech of the peoples.” And so the curse imposed at Babel will give way to blessing. Confusion will give way to clarity. Division will give way to unity.
Understanding this passage in Zephaniah is crucial to understanding the Bible, our world, the church’s mission, and where history is going. God desires for the many nations of the world to share one religious confession, to be discipled by one church, coming to believe in one gospel, and worshipping the one true God with one accord. The nations will not give up their uniquness; rather each nation will have its uniqueness perfected as it is brought into the one kingdom of Christ. Indeed, this is what Revelation 11 promises: many kingdoms will be absorbed into the one kingdom of Christ -- and yet this one kingdom of Christ will not be a monolith but will contain a great multitude from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5, 7).
James Jordan on the Tower of Babel:
"Ever since this time sinful human beings have tended to view people who speak other languages as inferior, or even as only talking animals.
"The word 'barbarian' comes from the way other languages sound in our ears: 'bar bar,' almost like the barking of dogs. European conquerors treated Africans and Asians as barbarians, seldom bothering to learn their very rich and complex languages, despising the inescapable manifestation of the image of God in these cultures.
"The Christian knows that God has established Christianity to create a true unity of confession … among all nations and peoples, but this unity will not destroy the diversity of languages. Instead, each nation and language will praise Him in its own tongue (Rev. 7:9).
"Enlightened Christians seek to recognize and appreciate the beauty of every language God has put into the human race. Good missionaries do not seek to destroy everything in pagan societies, but rather they bring the Bible to such cultures and let the Bible transform them into true cultures.
"At Pentecost (Acts 2), God sent out the gospel in all languages. While the Bible is the original and pure form of God’s Word in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the fullness of His revelation will not come until every language comes to express biblical truth in its own unique way.
"Every language has a particular set of perspectives on the Word of God, and thus every language is fitted to reveal God and praise Him in a special way. Throughout eternity the saints will delight to learn language after language, learning to praise God in new ways, age after age, forever and ever.”
I have repeatedly made the point that Zephaniah is a book about nations. Yes, it has implications for our personal lives, but the focus is much larger and broader. We need to understand the role of nations in God’s purposes. Jordan’s book Christendom and the Nations is a good biblical-theology of nations, even if one does not agree with all of his arguments about tariffs, immigration, foreign policy, etc. Jordan draws on the work of Eliot, Dawson, Chilton, Rushdoony, and others in a wide ranging but compact discussion of issues related to nations, national sovereignty, the consent of the governed, the purpose of foreign policy and national borders, and so on. Jordan argues that a Christian nation is not only a possibility, but that the goal of the church’s mission is a world full of discipled nations. Pietists who want to limit the lordship of Christ to the heart of the individual fail to see how Christ desires to manifest his kingship in every sphere and every area of life. Jordan explores the biblical features of nations, the origin of nations, and the relationship of nations to ethnicities and to the state. He demonstrates that God desires the unity-and-diversity of Christianized nations to image the unity-in-diversity of the Trinity. He demonstrates the problems with both secular globalism and secular nationalism, as both counterfeit the true purposes of God in history. He argues for limited and localized government, based on biblical principle and precedent.
Jordan’s book is based on essays originally written in the early 1990s, so it does not engage with more recent conservative critiques of the free market, but Jordan still makes a compelling case for the free market ideal, based on biblical law and the pragmatic reality that nations benefit from free mutual exchange of goods and ideas. Interestingly, Jordan, like Stephen Wolfe in his recent book on Christian nationalism, argues that in an unfallen world, various nations would have developed. But unlike Wolfe, he sees no reason why these nations could not live in perfect and close harmony with one another. In other words, he rejects Wolfe’s prelapsarian kinism model and instead provides a model much closer to the redemptive goal of the Scriptures (Rev. 5:9, 7:9; Gal. 3:28). Jordan actually embodies the slogan "grace restores nature" in a much fuller way than Wolfe. For Jordan, redemption does not negate ethnicity or national character, but it does transform and sanctify it so that many nations, having been discipled by one church, can unite together in forming a godly world order. While Wolfe argues that the universalism inherent in Western thought is rooted in a move towards abstractionism, Jordan shows that Western universalism actually grew out of the gospel (even if it has now been corrupted and secularized). Following Dawson, Jordan points to medieval Europe: the creation of Europe as a coherent civilization and common culture, out of many disparate ethnicities that, frankly, hated each other previously, is proof of the gospel’s power to transform and unite various people groups. Jordan quotes Dawson: “The formal principle of European unity is not physical but spiritual. Europe was Christendom. It was the society of Christian peoples which for a thousand years more or less, had been molded by the same religious and intellectual influence until it possessed a consciousness of spiritual community which transcended political and racial limits.” Dawson and Eliot both pointed out that attempts to keep the fruit of Christendom — nations united together and peacefully cooperating while maintaining their national uniqueness — without the root of the gospel will be in vain. Modern man wants global unity without a Christian foundation and this is impossible. There is no secular way to unite the nations (and note that Jordan's critique of the UN is trenchant and devastating). Further, Jordan, following Eliot, warns that if we completely jettison Christendom, we will not be able to get it back quickly: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism.” If only we in the West would heed this warning before it is too late! Alas, it appears God is giving us over to judgment.
In short, I highly recommend Jordan’s book. It's a great companion to Zephaniah.
In the sermon, I had to cut short my discussion of nations and nationhood. Here are a few additional thoughts:
God’s division of humanity into nations post-Babel is not fixed in the way his design for the sexes is fixed. God making us male and female is rooted in creation; God making us American, English, French, etc. is not. The division of humanity into two sexes is creational; God’s division of humanity into 70+ nations (now 200+ nations) is providential. There have been two sexes from the beginning, there are two sexes today, and there will be two sexes for all eternity. Not so with nations. The number of nations in the world is not fixed but fluid. Nations can come and go from the stage of history. Nations arise (and sometimes disappear) in God’s providence, in history. There were approximately 70 nations that came out of Babel (Genesis 10). Some of those nations no longer exist. Others have further subdivided into a couple hundred distinct people groups. Think about: The Moabites no longer exist; they were all either destroyed or assimilated into other people groups. A few centuries ago, there was no such thing as an “American” because the United Sates of America did not exist. Now there are over 300 million of us.
There is nothing wrong with nations intermixing. For example: inter-ethnic and inter-racial marriages are not forbidden in Scripture (Zephaniah himself was the product of an inter-ethnic, inter-racial marriage.) The only requirement in Scripture is that the man and the woman share the same religious faith. Obviously, there are practical and prudential considerations that come into play in determining who one should marry, but there is no law requiring that one only marry within one’s nationality or ethnicity. This makes good sense. Every marriage requires a family “boundary” to be broken. We marry outside the immediate circle of our family. Families have to be permeable and open to other families or the family line will end. While it not necessary to break a national or ethnic boundary in marriage, the way a family boundary is broken, doing so is not forbidden.
Further, nations can benefit a great deal from interacting with one, e.g., freely trading with one another. The exchange of goods, ideas, and so forth can be mutually enriching. Again, we see plenty examples of this in Scripture. The building of the tabernacle and temple relied, at least in part, on Gentile “sponsors” who helped provide materials Israel did not have immediate access to on her own. There is no question the world as a whole has benefitted from the friendly competition and the free exchange of goods and ideas in a trans-national marketplace. While conservatives mock the woke use of the slogan "our diversity is our strength," there is a sense in which the slogan can express a truth.
At the same time, we have to admit that nations are not obligated to interact with other nations, beyond what is required to fulfill the Great Commission. There have been times in history when a policy of isolation has served a particular nation well. But this usually not the best state of permanent affairs. Nations, like neighbors, can form alliances, friendships, etc. that serve the good of all. And note: The Great Comission requires at least some level of opennes and permeability amongst nations since missionaries have to be able to move from one nation to another.
There can be downsides to national intermixing. Empires often take advantage of this fact: After conquering various people groups, they intermix them in hopes of lessening their patriotism and ethnic identity, so they will more easily assimilate to (or at least submit to) the ways of the empire. What are potential downsides to nations intermixing? Nations can start to lose their uniqueness. Nations can lose their culture and customs. This is a real problem with today’s globalism: the entire world is being homogenized, so that we all like the same entertainment, shop at the same online stores, and so on. It is the ultimate form of the “geography of nowhere.” While nations should be compassionate towards immigrants in need of a better home and refuge, there are limits to national hospitality. A lifeboat can only take on so many before it starts to sink and all are lost. While some fears about immigration are overblown, it is certainly an issue that requires prudence. A host nation is fully within its right to expect immigrants to assimilate before enjoying the privileges of citizenship (the Torah models this).
Finally, consider this reality: Paul says in Acts 17 that God made every ethnicity from one man (Adam) and has determined the times and boundaries of our national existence. If God has assigned nations borders, those borders can certainly be policed and defended. Enforcing and defending borders is a common sense notion in virtually every nation in the world except our own, and that should be a concern.
One of the best book on the Great Commission is Iain Murray’s work The Puritan Hope. Murray demonstrates the modern missionary movement was inspired by a postmillennial vision — an optimistic eschatology that did not put off Christ’s victory to the very last day of history, but believed it would unfold progressively over the centuries and millennia before his final coming. Murray shows that the rise of short term, pessimistic eschatology, mainly due to the novelty of dispensational theology, forbade the working towards any object distant in time. That meant the Great Commission had to be truncated; it could no longer be about discipling the nations, transforming the entirety of their character and culture (since that takes time we do not have), but about merely bearing witness to the gospel with or (as would more likely be the case) without results.
It is interesting to note that many evangelical heroes were animated by a hopeful optimistic, long term eschatological vision, including the likes of William Carey, David Livingstone, and Charles Spurgeon. This point has largely been forgotten. Murray demonstrates that the shift in eschatology that took place in the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening not only eclipsed the “Puritan hope,” replacing postmillennialism with an eschatology of historical despair, it also changed missionary strategy. A. A. Hodge had been a missionary to India in the ninetieth century before becoming a professor of theology at Princeton (back when Princeton was still trustworthy). Hodge was one of the last to still cling to the comprehensive eschatological hope of the earlier Puritans that Murray chronicles. Hodge explains that the new method of doing evangelism focused exclusively on converting individuals, without also building institutions, was doomed to fail:
“Millenarian missionaries have a style of their own. Their theory affects their work in the way of making them seek exclusively, or chiefly, the conversion of individual souls. The true and efficient missionary method is, to aim, directly, indeed, at soul winning, but at the same time to plant Christian institutions in heathen lands, which will in time, develop according to the genius of the nationalities. English missionaries can never hope to convert the world directly by units.”
Murray goes on to show how the new missionary methods had a tendency to belittle the visible church by focusing on emotional, experiential ministries over and above the ordinary means of grace. The church was regarded as institution without a future and so para-church organizations became the focal point of missionary work. Murray quotes Gerhard Ulhorn on the overall impact of the new missionary practices:
“The coming of the Lord was believed to be quite near, and this hope dominated the whole of life. No provision was made for a long continuance of the church in earth, and all efforts were directed exclusively towards remaining in the world without spot, til the day of Christ’s coming. The mission of Christianity to conquer the world, to permeate it with the Christian spirit, and thereby shape it anew, had scarcely received any attention.”
In my sermon from December 25, I made reference to several Advent and Christmas hymns that celebrate Christ’s coming to be the Savior of the nations. Christmas is a divine invasion. It was a declaration of war. And God is determined to win that war in history. The OT set up the dominoes; at Christmas, God begins to knock them down, as Christ fulfills all that God has covenanted to do. Basically, the gist of my Christmas Day sermon was this: We need to believe what we sing in our Christmas hymns year-round. I cannot recall all the examples I used in the sermon, but here are a few more:
From “It came Upon a Midnight Clear”:
For lo, the days are hast’ning on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of Gold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendor fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
From “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace On Earth, Good Will To Man.
From “Hark the Herald”:
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
R. J. Rushdoony pointed that in the modern world, evangelicals tend to believe in God but not history, while humanists tend to believe in history but not God. The biblical solution to believe in God as the Lord of history, who has promised to shape history towards the growth of his kingdom. This is Zephaniah’s message: While the prophet announces great and terrible judgments coming in history, he announces an even greater and more glorious salvation that will be accomplished and spread to the nations in history. While we can rejoice in this salvation that has come (that’s what the Christmas season is all about!), we should not just celebrate, we should do something. We should seek to play our part in working out the implications of the incarnation and salvation in our own lives and in the world.
I saw where someone asked the other day why evangelical Christians get so upset about same-sex “marriage,” abortion, and other so-called culture war issues. We are not being forced to sin in these ways so why do we care? But this misunderstands the Christian motivation to address these issues. We are not driven to reform our society solely for our own benefit (though it is good for us and our children to live in a society shaped by righteousness). Nor is our motivation even the good of our neighbor, principally (though again, even non-Christians benefit from living in a society that is governed by the principles of Scripture and natural law, so we can say that seeking to conform society to God’s standards for social righteousness is a form of neighbor love). Our ultimate reason for wanting to drive these evils out of society is that we want to see God honored and we do not want to be a part of offending him. We want to please him. We want to see his design for creation fulfilled and his glory put on display. We want to remove all that detracts from the wisdom and righteousness of God. We want the splendor of God to be revealed. We want God to be served everywhere by everyone because he is worthy. Why do we seek to change the world? We are not trying to protect out own comfort. We are not trying to win a “culture war.” We are seeking the glory of God. That is the ultimate aim, and the primary reason we want to disciple the nations.