“Z” is for Zeal. Here we are, the last letter of the English alphabet and the last “A to Z Theology” blog (for now). Webster defines zeal in this way, “In general, zeal is an eagerness of desire to accomplish or obtain some object” (1828 Dictionary). A more comprehensive definition is given at the end of this newsletter so continue reading. Zeal when misdirected or grounded in some false beliefs or assumptions can have devastating effects. In the case of many dictators or rulers throughout the history of the world their zeal to eliminate or exterminate whole people groups is wicked and sinful, a greatly misdirected zeal you could say. Zeal can be found in virtually every arena of life: religion, politics, science, academia, sports, and many other areas as well. We will not explore zeal in all these areas rather we will begin by taking a look at the zeal of our Lord and then see how His followers are to have such zeal.
During the course of Jesus’ ministry our Lord cleansed the temple twice. Once at the beginning of His public ministry (John 2:13-22) and once during passion week shortly before His crucifixion, the end of His public ministry (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48). Only John records this first temple cleansing. We read in John 2, “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (vv. 15-17).
Jesus enters the temple and observes the marketplace it has become. And this all taking place in the court of the Gentiles. The only place permitted for the Gentiles to worship God was instead a house of trade. In the second instance of the temple cleansing Jesus speaks of the temple as being a house of prayer yet they made it a den of robbers (Matt. 21:13). The disciples recalled here in John that it is written in Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17b). The zeal, or passion, Jesus had in seeing to it that His Father’s house not be treated as “a house of trade” (or a “den of robbers”) is seen when He makes a whip of cords and drives merchants and buyers out of the temple, out of the court of the Gentiles. Jesus’ zeal was so great that it would “consume” Him. Jesus displays a righteous zeal both times as He cleanses the temple. Certainly our Lord was also zealous to do His Father’s will and be obedient to God’s commands.
What of our zeal? Paul writes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). The picture Paul paints is great. Zeal is a passionate burning desire, and here Paul speaks about not being slothful, or lazy, in our zeal. Rather we are to be fervent, enthusiastic or zealous you could say, in spirit while serving the Lord.
Earlier Paul speaks about not having a zeal for God without knowledge (Rom. 10:2). One could understand how this could be taken to an extreme. Paul said of himself before his conversion to Christ, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Phil. 3:6a). Paul sought vehemently to stop this Christian sect from advancing further. His zeal to destroy followers of Jesus was extremely high. After the Lord met with Paul on the Damascus Road he still had a great zeal but the direction and focus of that zeal was forever changed. Paul would proclaim Christ crucified too much of the known world at that time. He was zealous for the glory of God (see also Num. 25:10-18) and the salvation of sinners.
When Paul’s zeal was being directed by false knowledge it equated to persecution of the church. RC Sproul Jr. said, “We don’t increase in our knowledge by decreasing in our zeal. Neither do we increase in our zeal by decreasing our knowledge. Rather, the two are supposed to feed and encourage each other” (Article: Knowledge Without Zeal). May we have a burning desire to understand the truth of God according to Scripture that our zeal to make Christ known would be like that of our Lord Himself.
In case you have any question about what zeal in religion looks like I close with this quote from J.C. Ryle. He said, “Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire which no man feels by nature—which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted—but which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called ‘zealous’ men” (Practical Religion, 1959 ed., 130). Do you have a burning desire to please God in all arenas of your life? Do you have a burning desire to do His will when it is hard and opposite of what many around you are doing? Do you have a burning desire to advance God’s glory in every possible way? May we have such a zeal for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!