For the last several years, Christians in America have, in general, enjoyed material prosperity with the absence of persecution. Good times, however, can have negative spiritual effects. The Lord’s disciples can grow soft and lazy while they are “at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1). Sermons to rouse people from their indifference do not always work; often they fall on deaf ears. Painful circumstances, however, can make people wake up and listen.
The book of Zephaniah is dated during the reign of Josiah (Zeph. 1:1), leading up to his reforms. God promised to bring punishment on those who had grown stagnant in their spiritual service, saying, “And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil” (Zech. 1:12). The complacent are said to be “settled on their lees,” a word picture taken from handling wine. The term lees (or dregs) refers to the solid sediment that settles at the bottom of the container over time. If wine is allowed to settle too long, it thickens and is ruined. God said He would visit in punishment the men who were thickening upon their dregs. These men were so complacent that they thought God would be too. In effect, they had made a god in their own image who was indifferent, who will not do good, nor evil. But God assures them He will bring His penalty upon them at a time referred to as “the day of the Lord” (Zeph. 1:7).
We strive to be the church revealed in the New Testament. The book of Acts tells us about the persecutions against the early followers of Jesus. The spiritual dangers that come to Christians when their environment is unfriendly to them are plain. The pages of Scripture and uninspired history are filled with examples of such. However, persecution also causes disciples to bind together and become active and sacrificial in giving to each other. I don’t know the future; the Lord alone knows whether a period of persecution is on the horizon for His church and what the particulars of it would be. However, times of persecution do have a way of showing one’s true colors. If we’ll let it, pain can cause us to get serious about what’s really valuable.
Compare what Jesus said about lukewarm Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) with persecuted Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) and Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13). It would not be surprising if Laodicea had a nice, comfortable building in which to meet, but what about their hearts? The persecuted church does not have all the nice material possessions the world offers, but it also does not have members who are disinterested in spiritual activities because they’re too busy entertaining, going on vacation, going to ball games, golfing, et cetera. God disciplines His children; pain in the present can cause us to make spiritual reforms and have better priorities in the future (Heb. 12:5-11).
In Zephaniah’s day, God could not rouse people from complacency for very long by merely sending someone to speak to them. He had to send foreign people in to take away their goods, their houses, and their lands (Zeph. 1:13). What does He have planned for the complacent today?