As we have seen in Parts One and Two, Christian zeal is an interest, an earnest desire, and a pursuit of all that pertains to God, His way, and His Kingdom. It begins with being interested in the things of God, rises to a desire to know and understand them better, and results in pursuing them with fervor. Zeal is not just a feeling, an emotion, about God and godliness; it must work together with understanding and motivation to take action. By itself, feeling is just not enough.
True zeal, then, is a complete process from emotion to action. If it stops at any point in the process, it will fail. It will not be real, godly zeal. It must contain emotion, drive, and action. It is the very opposite of the complacency of the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:14-22).
Laodiceans have zeal, but they express it toward things, not toward God. He can see their works, and they are all done to benefit themselves. Perhaps they have feelings for Him, but their emotions fail to motivate them to any action. In their lukewarm state, they do not respond to Christ in any meaningful way, never being "hot" enough to build up sufficient steam to do anything profitable.
We can think of zeal as a flame that brings a pot of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, it can be used to do good things, good works. Recall that zeal is for what we love and against what we hate. True zeal causes our love and conviction for God to heat up so that we pursue what pleases Him, but it also helps us fight what is sinful and ungodly. Zeal is a kind of spiritual energy that motivates Christians to do God's will.
Notice in Galatians 5:22-23 that the apostle Paul does not list zeal among the fruit of the Spirit. We could conclude from this that zeal is not a virtue on its own, and frankly, outside the constraints of God's way of life, zeal can be highly suspect. However, godly zeal is a quality that can have a profound, additive effect on each of the Christian virtues. It adds value and intensity to our love, joy, peace, patience, faith, etc.
For instance, we can express agape love toward others in an almost cold way: Without feeling, we do what is right for others just because it needs doing. But if we add zeal to our love, what results is a compassionate love, the kind Christ showed toward those He served. The gospel writers frequently mention that He felt for the people in their lack of knowledge or their pitiable condition (see Matthew 9:36; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13). His compassion for them affected how He acted toward them—He healed them, taught them, worked with them. Whatever He did, He did in love, and His zeal provided the value-added aspect that attracted people to Him and fulfilled God's will.
As followers of Christ, we want to show love for the brethren and live joyously before God. We desire peace within our families and among members of the church. We like to be patient when we deal with one another and to be gentle toward those who have stumbled or are suffering. We earnestly desire to display each of the fruit of God's Spirit in our interactions with others, but it is zeal for doing God's will that provides the impetus to move from desire to action—and then adds heat to make those actions special. True zeal can improve any virtue through its fervor to do for others what is right and good.
John 2:13-17 contains the only recorded example in Jesus' life that specifically mentions zeal (Greek zēlos). It occurs early in His ministry, right after He turns water into wine:
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers' money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, "Take these things away! Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!" Then His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up."
In this scene, we see Christ's zeal exploding for what He loves and against what He hates. In His words and actions, He displays His love for God and His honor, dignity, and holiness, and conversely, rains violence on those who defiled and degraded the House that represented God's presence among His people, and who defrauded those who came to worship. His zeal—for what is godly and against what is evil—motivated Him to take direct action.
Note that Jesus took the time to make a whip of cords, which indicates that His zealous exploit was not a spur-of-the-moment reaction. Without doubt, He acted in righteous and passionate indignation; He was angry and justifiably so. Yet, His taking time to weave a whip of cords signals that He thought about what He was about to do. He probably considered the consequences of upsetting the moneychangers, knowing that the religious leaders—scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees—would likely respond with hatred and violence of their own.
When the disciples, steeped in the Old Testament, saw what He was doing, Psalm 69:9 sprang immediately to mind: "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up." They saw Jesus' zeal for God completely consume Him. He had blocked all else from His mind, and with single-minded intensity, He would uphold the honor of God and the Temple.
The quotation that the disciples remembered can be understood in two different ways, and both of them apply. The first may be the easiest to understand. "Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up" could mean that Christ's zeal would ultimately lead to His death. He would suffer crucifixion because His zeal would push matters to a crisis point, forcing the Jews to act. And so it did. At the beginning of His ministry, His zeal set Him up as an enemy of the Sadducees especially, as they controlled the Temple. This act foreshadowed His later cleansing of the Temple just days before His crucifixion, which acted as a final straw (Mark 11:15-18).
The second interpretation of this quotation from Psalm 69:9 emerges if we paraphrase it as "My zeal for God has consumed My life." In other words, since doing God's will was His chief desire, He would spend every ounce of His strength in that pursuit—He would pour His entire life into fulfilling His mission from the Father. The author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40:6-8 to this effect: "Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. . . . Then I said, "Behold, I have come . . . to do Your will, O God'" (Hebrews 10:5, 7).
In John 2, Jesus exemplified that He would throw Himself into performing the works of God—preaching the gospel and doing good to all He met—until His final breath. The fire of His zeal for God and His way would consume all His time and energy. How do we measure up?
- Richard T. Ritenbaugh
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