April 2012 - Vol. 59

Jesus cleanses the temple, by El Greco
.Godly Zeal
What does it mean to be a zealous Christian?
 by John Keating 
The burning zeal of the Lord 
A key characteristic of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ was his burning zeal for the kingdom of God. His zeal complements his servant-like meekness and humility. One striking example takes place the week before Passover when the Lord Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. His timing is no mere coincidence, for the season of Passover held special significance for the Jews. It was popularly believed that the Mes¬siah would come at Passover time to announce the establishment of his kingdom. And many in Jeru¬salem and throughout Palestine were acquainted with the itinerant preacher from Galilee. There was much speculation and discussion concerning him: Who was he? Could he be the Messiah? Would he come to the feast? When would he make his move?
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast?” (John 11:55-56).
Speculation had intensified recently because of the amazing reports coming from Bethany, a town just over the Mount of Olives to the east. Jesus had miraculously called his friend Lazarus back to life after he had been dead four days. Jerusalem was in a furor, buzzing with speculation over this latest sign, eager to see what Jesus would do when he arrived for Passover. When news came that Jesus had arrived in Bethany to spend the night with Lazarus and his sisters, it evoked an immediate response in Jerusalem. “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” (John 12:9).

The following day, Jesus set out to make his entry into Jerusalem. At Bethphage, the next town after Bethany, he halted. The law required all pilgrims to stay in Jerusalem at Passover. But the city's normal population was around 50,000 and it couldn't accommodate the 100,000 pilgrims that flooded into it during Passover. Therefore, Jerusalem's outer limits were legally expanded, and Bethphage was included. At this point, then, before entering the village, Jesus prepared very deliberately for his entry into the city of Jerusalem. He had already made arrangements for a donkey to be provided, and then he sent two disciples ahead to procure it.

And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immedi¬ately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and he will send them immediately” (Matthew 21:1-3).
To our minds, entering the city on a donkey may seem insignificant, or perhaps even a bit degrading. But at that time in Jerusalem it was a dignified and stately arrival, fitting for a king.

Let us also recall the eager expectations brewing in the minds and hearts of Jesus' followers, as well as in the hearts of many devout Jews. The time is right they think; the stage is set. Now will the kingdom of God be announced; now Jesus is marching triumphantly on Jerusalem, there to set up his royal throne. As Jesus enters the city, his own disciples and the crowd from Jerusalem go wild with exultation, greeting him with the royal title of Son of David, proclaiming him King of Israel, and quoting from the messianic Psalm 118:“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Jesus then enters Jerusalem as the royal son of David. He is very explicit about his manner of entry, for he comes in great dignity, yet not with a vast army to capture the city. Without apology he presents himself to Jerusalem and the leaders of Israel as their King. He refuses to silence the joyful proclamations made by his disciples (see Luke 19:39-40), and yet his entrance is meek and not warlike. All of this is in fulfilment of the prophecy spoken of him by Zechariah (9:9), as Matthew notes: “Tell the daughter of Zion: Behold, your king is coming to you, humble (literally, “meek”) and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:4-5).

In all these events, Jesus was declaring important truths about himself. Truly he was the Christ, the son of David; yet he was not coming in the way the Jews had expected. He would not present himself as a conquering warrior king, come to destroy the hated Roman Empire and to set up a temporal world rule in Jerusalem. Rather, he had come as the meek and humble servant king fore-told by Zechariah – in a spirit of peace. His very next action displays an important aspect of the nature of this meek and peaceful king – a bold and forceful zeal for his Father's house. Jesus enters the temple, the holiest place on the face of the earth, and aggressively drives out the money changers and merchants who have set up shop in the outer court.

And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:12-13).
John describes Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as the fulfilment of the prophetic statement in Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

According to the New Testament, Jesus manifested a strong and godly zeal in this aggressive act. He did not, as some people suggest, lose his cool, fly off the handle, or depart from his normal path of balanced, rational behavior. He was making no embarrassing mistake in a fit of anger, which he would regret later, once he regained self-control. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he chose to act in precisely the manner in which he did. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was humble and meek at the proper time. And at the proper time he was authoritative, forceful, and aggressive. He was, at one and the same time, a man of meekness and a man of zeal.

What is zeal?
As with meekness, many people labor under an inaccurate or insufficient concept of zeal. A lot of Christians tend to equate zeal with enthusiasm. Though these two are related, they are different in many respects. Enthusiasm involves an eagerness or excitement that generally contains a large emotional component. As a result, it usually comes and goes in spurts. It is difficult to sustain a continual high level of enthusiasm without a lot of undue strain and weariness. Unfortunately, those who make the mistake of equating enthusiasm with zeal can feel bound to live at an unreasonable level of emotional intensity. Or else they can feel guilty and less than zealous for failing to maintain such a level.

I've known other Christians who have succeeded in making themselves somewhat obnoxious and difficult to relate to through their misguided efforts to be “zealous.” In order to be a strong and zealous Christian, it is not necessary to wear a perpetual, “joyful,” toothy grin, to speak in pious-sounding Christian jargon, or to unleash a heavy blast of high intensity enthusiasm at everyone we encounter. In fact, it is not only unnecessary, but inadvisable and wearisome for everyone involved.

In essence, true zeal consists of a determined, aggressive dedication to something or someone. It should not come and go in a Christian's life, because it is not subject to the vagaries of the more emotion-based enthusiasm. Christian zeal is a constant feature of a strong Christian life, because it is a dedication to God founded on a fundamental decision. It's not affected by how we're feeling, what day it is, how we slept last night, or whether things are going our way. It is certainly true that enthusiasm supports our zeal for God and his kingdom, making our determined, aggressive actions easier to sustain. But our zeal should last through thick and thin, long after enthusiasm has waxed and waned, and waxed and waned again.

In scripture, both the Hebrew word qinah and the Greek word zelos can be translated into English in two related ways: “zeal” and “jealousy.” For example, in the Old Testament God's qinah is at times translated as God's zeal – “The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this” (Isaiah 9:7), and at other times translated as his jealousy – “I will make you stop playing the harlot, and you shall also give hire no more, so I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you” (Ezekiel 16:41-42). Furthermore, the scripture regards zeal as a potentially good or bad thing, depending on how it is exercised and where it is directed. For instance, Paul speaks of the Jewish opponents of Christianity as possessing a zeal which misses the mark.

I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness (Romans 10:2-3).
In this past century, we could certainly say that communists exhibited an impressive measure of zeal, which was seriously misdirected, thereby making them dangerous enemies of the gospel.

Examples of Godly zeal
On the other hand, true godly zeal is an attribute of all the great heroes of the faith. We have already noted the example of the Lord Jesus. Let us take a brief 1ook at the zeal of a few other great men and women of God. 

Earlier we noted the “hot arrogance” of Goliath of Gath. His opponent on the field of battle, the youthful David, gives us a prime example of zeal for God. Righteously angered by the boasts, threats, and blasphemies of the Philistine champion, who had dared to defy the Lord, David courageously confronted Goliath on God’s behalf.
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord's and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.

- 1 Samuel 17:45-49

Burning zeal for God is not an attribute solely of men who served and fought for God. The same zealous spirit is to be seen in Deborah, who roused the faltering Barak into action to defeat the enemies of Israel (Judges 4:4-10), and Judith, whose zeal for God and her people led her to courageous action and a single-handed victory over Israel's Assyrian persecutor.
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, `Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'" Barak said to her, "If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go." And she said, "I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Then Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak summoned Zeb'ulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Deborah went up with him.

One of the greatest examples of godly zeal is the apostle Paul. From his early years, Paul was a man of great zeal, as he himself describes in Galatians 1:13-14:

For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God vio¬lently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
Yet this zeal for the law, for the “traditions of his fathers,” for God, was unenlightened as was that of many of his compatriots. For a time it led him to zealously persecute Christians. When he was struck down on the Damascus road, the course of his life was radically changed. But his zeal for God flamed on – now not only burning hotly, but enlightened by the light of Christ.

For the remainder of his life, Paul's consuming zeal for God would lead him on, constantly and unfalteringly. It was no smooth, easy path he walked, but one fraught with toil and trouble, with untold hardship and grief. Paul himself tells us how rough things were for him:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Here is a man motivated by more than mere enthusiasm. Paul's was a relentless, determined dedication of himself to God, which withstood unwaveringly all the ups and downs, the victories and defeats of the life God assigned to him.

How do we express zeal?
Zeal is a characteristic of a loyal and true servant. A faithful vassal in the service of a great king will be zealous for the king's honor and glory, and for the accomplishment of the king’s plans and wishes. So it is with us and our great King. Our Christian zeal can and should find concrete expression in daily life. Scripture gives us pointers concerning where and how this zeal might be displayed. Let us look briefly at several of them.

Zeal for God himself
Paul tells the Jews of Jerusalem in Acts 22:3 that from his youth he has been “zealous for God.” For a Jew, this zeal would be especially focused on God's law, that gracious and priceless gift given to Israel on Mount Sinai. Zeal for God includes much more, however. In our daily lives, it involves our dedication to grow in the knowledge and love of God, to draw near to him regularly in prayer, to seek out his will and do it, and to bring him glory by the way we live. In all of these things, enthusiasm and desire can play a useful part, but it is especially our zeal for God, our consistent and determined dedication to him, that will see us through – faithful to the end. Here is the starting point for zeal. Before expressing it in other ways, let us be sure that our zeal, first and foremost, is for God himself.

Zeal for the Gospel
We have already noted the zeal of the Lord Jesus and Paul in this regard. In the New Testament, Paul also uses the term explicitly in reference to one of his fellow workers, Epaphras: “For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you (literally, “that he has great zeal for you”) and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis (Colssians 4:13).

Zeal in spreading the gospel of Christ has always characterized the church's apostolic workers and missionaries, from New Testament times to the present. For instance, in the early frontier days of the United States, the Methodist circuit riders displayed remarkable zeal in their preaching of the gospel. These men often chose to remain single for the sake of their service to God, enduring such tremendous hardship and deprivation on their preaching circuits through the American wilderness that they seldom lived to be middle-aged. Their sacrificial dedication typifies the zeal of Christian missionaries down through the centuries. While few of us may be called to such radical expression of zeal for the gospel, our dedication to aid in communicating the truths of our faith to those who do not know them is a normal expression of Christian zeal. It may take the form of financially supporting those who are called to be missionaries or of extending Christian love to people at work, in our neighborhood, or in the classroom. Much of my own work with university students concerns bringing the life of Christ to young men and women who do not have it or who have lost it. Time and again the uncomplicated love of a Christian friend, reaching out in word and action, has been the key to the conversion of such a student. Many of my Christian friends have been instrumental, at work or in their neighbourhoods, in bringing others to faith – not through eloquent preaching but through consistent Christian love and the sharing of a single truth at the right time. “Normal” Christians can have a tre¬mendous impact on friends and acquaintances when their zeal is channelled in this direction.

Zeal for good works
Paul writes to Titus that the Lord Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). What kind of good deeds should we be zealous for? The range is very broad. It involves being of service “to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). In 1 Timothy 5:10, Paul describes the following good deeds of a godly widow: “one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” Giving generously to supply the needs of others is another important good deed. Paul commends the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 9:2) for its zeal in collecting money to go to the aid of the church in Jerusalem, who were in great need.

Like the New Testament Christians, we should be zealous for every good work: generous with our time, energy, goods, and money, not so that we can feel good about ourselves or so that others will think we're wonderful, but so that we will please God and obey his commandments. A zeal for good works is not the special property of certain unusual Christians; it is not outside the scope of a normal Christian life. I can point to many Christian families that have successfully integrated this willing generosity into a very busy schedule.

For instance, one friend of mine, a prosperous Christian businessman, has raised a fine family, shown gracious hospitality in his home, had a marked impact on the lives of many around him, and given freely of his time and money to Christian work, while effectively heading his own business. His demanding daily routine has in no way extinguished his zeal for good works.

Zeal in defence of the faith
Zeal in defence of the faith – of righteousness and truth – has characterized God's people since the first days of their covenant relationship with him. In Exodus 32:25-29, just after Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets of stone, the zeal of the sons of Levi broke out upon those worshipping the golden calf, cutting off idolatry – perhaps the greatest threat to the faith of Israel. Later, when idolatry, this time to the Baal of Peor, again threatened Israel, the zeal of Aaron's grandson Phinehas in punishing the guilty won him God's favor and averted the plague which was sweeping through the people due to God's wrath (Nm 25:6-13). David's zeal in his battle with Goliath and the zeal of Deborah – examples noted earlier – were expressions of godly zeal in defence of the faith, too. This type of zeal is carried over into the New Testament – in the Lord Jesus himself, then in Peter, John, Paul, Stephen, and others. 

Our challenge today
Zeal should characterize us, also. As Peter says: “Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). As we noted earlier, this defence of the faith, zealous as it is, must also be blended with meekness, if we are to act in the spirit of the Lord. But true meekness will not prevent us from taking a firm stand for the truth and against wrongdoing. It will not keep us from speaking out in protest when the Christian faith is mocked and derided. At times, such a stand may be unappreciated and unwelcome, and it may cost us – in popularity, position, or even health and safety. Whatever the cost, it is a price worth paying for so great a treasure as the truth of Christ.

One friend of mine recently faced an occasion for expressing his zeal for Christian righteousness. His boss presented him with new profit-making policies that clearly required dishonest and decep-tive dealings with others. “We can't do this,” said my friend. “This is just plain wrong.” His boss warned him that failure to comply could cost him his job. My friend's rejoinder was that some things were more important to him than his job. As a Christian, he would not be party to underhand and unethical business dealings. Because my friend was such a good manager, his boss decided to reverse the new policies in order to keep him. Many times, however, taking a stand for the truth is a much more expensive proposition. Christian zeal counts the cost and takes the stand.

Christian zeal has many facets. While we have looked at several major ones, the possibilities have by no means been exhausted. However, we have seen enough to recognize that the quality of zeal, which Scripture so often attributes to God, is essential equipment for those who would be like him. Zeal should epitomize the character of a Christian servant as does meekness and humility, and it is vital to the full expression of servanthood in the Christian life. It adds an important dimension to our character, one that is so apparent in the life of Jesus. Our aim should be that the words of Psalm 69 will apply to us as they did to Jesus himself: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

[This article is adapted from the book Strength Under Control: Meekness and Zeal, by John Keating, first edition by Servant Publications in 1981, second edition by Kairos Publications 2011. Used with permission.]
John Keating is Vice-President of the Sword of the Spirit and a frequent speaker for Kairos and Sword of the Spirit conferences and seminars. He is an elder in the Servants of the Word, a missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He currently lives in Manila, Philippines.
See previous articles
by John Keating
> Going Against the Tide: Lessons in Faith and Courage from the Book of Daniel, Part 1
> God’s Servants in the Fiery Furnace – Lessons from the Book of Daniel, Part 2
> Joshua Takes the Lead: "Be Strong and of Good Courage," Part 3
> Taking On God's Character A Case for Christian Character

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