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by Al Maxey

Issue #767 ------- March 4, 2019
There have been periods in the history of
the various cultures, when the language of
spirituality was clear, accurate and exhaustive.
At the present time it is muddled, inadequate
to the fact and dangerously equivocal.

Aldous Huxley [1894-1963]

A People of Purified Lips
Zephaniah's Babel-Reversal Prophecy

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), in his treatise on "Language," was correct in his assessment that "The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language." Jesus expressed this principle thusly: "The things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart" (Matthew 15:18). He listed such things as "bearing false witness and slander" against others (vs. 19). When our hearts are corrupt it is inevitable that the language we use will reflect this reality. I like the way The Message paraphrases the words of Jesus here: "What comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It's from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing." Our words possess great power, both for good and evil, thus we must ever be on guard against allowing our baser nature to govern our speech. James, the brother of our Lord, spoke at length on this (James 3:1-12), and we would all do well to follow his advice, for much harm, both to ourselves and to others, has come from those who gave voice to the corruption dwelling within their hearts. The prophet Isaiah understood this reality of his human nature only too well, and when he beheld, in a vision, the glory of the Lord, he cried out, "Woe is me; I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6:5).

Language is a powerful tool; it is a vehicle for carrying our thoughts and longings into the hearts and minds of those around us, and if our thoughts are ungodly, this can prove to be deadly. In the time prior to the great flood, God "saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). Imagine these thoughts being voiced aloud and abroad. Imagine if these evil thoughts could be heard and understood by everyone around us! If there were no language barriers, just imagine the potential for facilitating godless deeds. That was the case, by the way, following the great flood. "Now the whole earth had one language and the same words" (Genesis 11:1 - literally, the Hebrew reads: "they were of one lip"). As they began to communicate with one another, they gave voice to the evil intent of their hearts, seeking to elevate themselves to "god status." They also began constructing a great tower designed to reach into the heavens. God saw what they were doing, and He said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down there and confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech" (Genesis 11:6-7). The Lord did just that, thus ending the building of this great tower and the city within which it was being constructed. "Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth" (vs. 9).

The Lord God knew only too well the power of a people to plot and perpetrate evil when they were all "of one lip." On the other hand, God also was equally aware of the power of a people to promote and perpetuate good when they were all "of one lip." Language is largely neutral in this equation; it is the nature of a people's heart that truly defines whether their language is a force for good or evil. Ideally, it will be the former; in reality, however, it is far too often the latter. The Lord has therefore placed limits on language, and with good reason. Nevertheless, He longs for that day when He will bring to pass once again a people of "one lip." That glorious transformation was hinted at in divine prophecy, and a foretaste has been provided for us in our present dispensation, but it will one day become the universal reality when all evil intent is forever destroyed and righteousness alone fills the new heavens and earth. In this anticipated new reality His people will not only be a people of "one lip," but they will also be a people of "purified lip," for hearts filled with evil intent will be no more! This is expressed beautifully by the prophet Zephaniah: "For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder" (Zephaniah 3:9, New American Standard Bible). After Isaiah had bemoaned the fact that he was a man of unclean lips, living in the midst of a people of unclean lips, he received a practical display of God's grace, mercy and love: "Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth with it and said, 'Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven'" (Isaiah 6:6-7). Zephaniah gives us assurance in his prophecy that the day will come when we all, both Jew and Gentile, will be one people of purified lips, and we will all, side-by-side, together as one people with one lip (voice, language), serve Him and praise Him.

Before we delve too deeply into this prophetic promise, it would probably be helpful to provide a bit of background information so that we may read these words in their context. Zephaniah was evidently born during the latter part of King Manasseh's reign (695-642 B.C.), and we learn from the very first verse of this OT book that he was the great-great-grandson of a man named Hezekiah, who many scholars feel was the good King Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.). If this is the case, then this prophet was of royal blood. Zephaniah 1:4 ("this place") suggests he was a resident of Jerusalem. He was active as a prophet of God during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.), and based on internal evidence we may narrow that prophetic ministry to the years 630-625 B.C. If we narrow it even more, to 626 B.C., then the ministries of Jeremiah and Zephaniah began at the very same time. The southern kingdom of Judah, where Zephaniah lived, had deteriorated morally and spiritually, and they were facing a time of great judgment. This was the "Day of the Lord," which this prophet warned the people was soon to come upon them. Zephaniah 3:9-20, however, gives a ray of hope to God's people (and indeed to all peoples - cf. Zephaniah 3:10), for it gives them a glimpse of the blessings that will come following their day of judgment. A righteous remnant will arise, and this body of believers will be made up of both Jew and Gentile (i.e., all people). Some of these great blessings would be experienced after their return from the Babylonian captivity. The full realization of these promises, though, would not be experienced until after the coming of the Messiah (Matthew quotes Zephaniah twice, both times in connection with the second coming of Christ Jesus). NOTE: For those who might like more background information about Zephaniah and the times in which he lived and ministered, Click Here for my in-depth study on this.

Again, notice the words of Zephaniah 3:9 - "For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder." The first clause of this passage, referring to "purified lips," has been "explained in different ways" by the biblical scholars and commentators [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 10, pt. 2, p. 155]. Some see this phrase as a divine expectation of a purified people (both in heart and outward expression) resulting from the punishment of "the day of the Lord" that was soon to come upon them. With purified lips they would then express purified thoughts. "The reference to lips, the organ of speech, includes the heart behind the language; purity of the lips involves or presupposes the purification of the heart" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 560]. Previously, the people's lips had been polluted and profane, both with slanders of others and worship of false deities. With a purified heart, however, would come purified language. "It is moral purity of language that is wanted in the world, and that is here promised. A 'pure' moral language implies two things: 1) that the state of the heart should be in accord with Divine reality, and 2) that the words of the lips should be in accord with the state of the heart" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 14, p. 69]. The Lord promises a time when all that is perverse will be made pure, both inwardly and outwardly. Although this is sometimes realized to a limited extent at various times in human history, yet its ultimate realization will not be seen until the Parousia, when all that is impure will be forever destroyed, and only righteousness will reign.

The above is the more spiritual fulfillment view of this prophecy, placing it primarily in the distant future when Jesus returns to claim His bride. Others suggest that Zephaniah is looking to a time when various peoples of the earth (Jew and Gentile) will "speak as one" in their praise and worship of the one true God, as well as speaking well of one another. This does not mean that they speak only one language (like Hebrew, for example), but that they are of one heart, and by extension one expression of that heart: love for others and love for God, in both word and deed. This is most certainly a desire of our Father for His children throughout the earth. Within the Messianic dispensation, of which we are a part, this is certainly our goal, just as it was the prayer of our Lord (John 17). "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:5-7).

Being united in purpose will ideally result in being united in service. Notice again Zephaniah 3:9 - "For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder." It is to one Father we all belong, and to whom we lift our voices in both praise and prayer, and thus, as one people, we should cast aside our divisions and "serve Him shoulder to shoulder." This prophecy is looking to that time when men put aside their differences and personal/party desires and come together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, and labor together in service to the Lord and one another. It is a view to the unity, harmony and oneness for which Jesus prayed in John 17, and which is truly only realized when people purify their hearts IN HIM. God's people, regardless of time or place, are all those who call upon the Lord in simple, trusting faith; who visibly and vocally express their love for Him and one another with the heart of a servant. It is a prophetic vision of the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer for the oneness of believers. Together they will all (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, rich/poor, male/female, rich/poor, etc.), with common love and purpose, serve the Lord, His other children, and His cause.

"Before the scattering of the people at the tower of Babel, the world was unified by one language; but it was a world of rebellious people" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 560]. God confused their language so that their effectiveness in the service of evil might be diminished. But, when men cast aside such service to evil, and when they embrace service to the Lord, and when they do so with pure hearts, they become a people "of one lip/of purified lips" in their service to a righteous cause. "Yoked together in the Lord (shoulder to shoulder) they strive together in one great objective of service. This is the Messianic hope!" [Homer Hailey, A Commentary on the Minor Prophets, p. 243]. "The discord of Babel shall, as it were, give place to unity of language, when the worship of 'gods many' shall yield to the pure service of Jehovah, whom men shall 'with one mind and one mouth' glorify" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 5, p. 542]. "Through proud men tongues were divided" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Let us therefore humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord; let our hearts be purified, as well as our lips; let us stand shoulder to shoulder with all who call upon the Lord in faith; and let us thereby usher in ever more fully the realization of our Lord's prayer in John 17 for unity, harmony and oneness among all believers. Dear Father, help us all to be a people of purified hearts and lips!!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Alabama:

Okay, Al, I'll try again with a preterist perspective on 1 Peter 1:7. You are correct in pointing out to your readers ("The Outcome of Your Faith: Simon Peter's Salvation Perspective" - Reflections #766) the relevance of his audience in the interpretation of this passage: i.e., that what Peter says to them during their suffering has to apply directly to them. Notice that "in a little while" (vs. 6) they would receive the outcome of their faith, the salvation of their souls (vs. 9). When? "At the revelation of Jesus Christ" (vs. 7) - i.e., at the second coming. Already they are saved, but they have not yet received the fullness of their salvation. Al, the only way that could be fulfilled "in a little while" is for this to refer to the second coming of Jesus in 70 A.D., at which time the "last enemy" (death) would be defeated (1 Corinthians 15:26), thus completing the full salvation process for them. Their suffering and the outcome of their faith both have to occur in "a little while." The only explanation that doesn't make Peter a false prophet is the preterist view: i.e., that the outcome of their faith came at the revelation of Jesus when He came in 70 A.D. I haven't tried to convert you in a while, so when I saw your most recent Reflections article, I just had to write this! I appreciate all your articles, brother. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Texas:

In the world of religion there is a love-hate relationship with signs. This is especially true when the Baptists say that baptism in water is a "sign," and then we (those in Churches of Christ) say, "No, it is not a sign at all," and neither one of us truly understands what we are talking about. Well, baptism is a sign, and signs are very important. Many in the religious world will say it is a sign to others that we are saved; then we, in our attempt to swing the other way, say that it is not a sign at all, but that it is what saves us! It is ironic that we use 1 Peter 3:21, where it says "baptism now saves us," but we don't really focus on the next part: "not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God." Let's not cheapen what signs are on either side. Baptism in water is a sign of faith/obedience to the One who calls us: God. Baptism is a sign to God of our faith/acceptance/obedience, etc. That is its form and function. We need to come to terms with this. God bless you!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Your article "The Outcome of Your Faith: Simon Peter's Salvation Perspective" is excellent, as usual, Al. Isn't it ironic that those who are so big on Peter's words in Acts 2:38 are not very interested in Peter's words later in Acts about the salvation we receive simply by believing?! Over the last 19 years I have again and again asked Church of Christ brothers why they don't just take Peter at his word in these passages just as literally as they do in Acts 2:38. Those who do answer (most refuse to answer) say that God "made an exception" just for Cornelius; this man and his household were not "the norm," they say. Amazingly, almost to the very last one, died-in-the-wool Restorationists insist that in spite of what Peter clearly has taught in his sermons and in his epistles, the only message he conveys, according to them, is that baptism in water is what saves a person.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Wow! I could hardly get past the topical quote you provided in your last Reflections from N. T. Wright: "The work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us." As you know, my wife and I are in the health and wellness business (ministering to the whole man, not just souls), and to date we have helped nearly 32,000 become more healthy. I couldn't agree more that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly NOW!! -- and that includes a healthy body as well as soul. I have never understood how the Good News (Gospel) could be that we have now exchanged one set of totally undoable laws and regulations for another set of totally undoable laws and regulations. The Good News (Gospel) just can NOT be that we are saved if we: get dunked and stay away from the "slippery slope." Blessings, Al.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, your last Reflections ("The Outcome of Your Faith") could not have come at a better time! I have been a Church of Christ member in -------, Texas for 64 years. Thanks to you, my eyes have been opened. Finally I realized that I am not alone in feeling that something is just not right in regard to my Church of Christ beliefs. After church this past Sunday, I asked a member if he thought Cornelius would have been saved before his baptism. I was pleasantly surprised that he quickly said, "Of course he was saved!" I then asked some other members the same question over lunch. Guess what the response was? "Don't you know what Acts 2:38 says?!" In other words, "No. He was not saved because he was not baptized!" Later one of them handed me a copy of The Spiritual Sword [vol. 50, January 2019]; an issue on the topic of "The Sin of Denominationalism." The basic message of the articles inside was: Unless you are a member of the Churches of Christ, you are doomed to Hell. Okay, here's where it gets even better. I asked him which one of the many factions of the Churches of Christ would I have to be a member of to be saved? Is it just ours, or would a "one cup" group save me too? What about one that uses instruments? After all, they all have "Church of Christ" on the sign above the door! It frustrates me that so many "just don't get it." I left them with a plea to study Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50. Brother Al, please do NOT stop writing! I check my emails mainly to see if I have another Reflections in my inbox. Also, thanks for serving Christ and our country as a combat veteran. May God continue to bless you!

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