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Zeal in the Christian Life

In the advent season, as we review the great promises of the coming Messiah, we confess God’s jealousy. In Isaiah 9, after Isaiah declares that a son will be given to Israel and describes this unique Son, he concludes, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isa 9:7 ESV). It is quite fitting for that great prophecy of the birth of Christ to end with the zealousness of God because the end result of this prophecy will bring glory to God as his people are redeemed from their sin. Thus, it is God’s intense desire for his own glory and the good of his people that causes this son to be born and effects the salvation of his people.

That God is zealous should prompt us to consider our own affections since we are made in the image of God. God’s passion for his glory rules out fence sitting or dispassionate engagement with God. The prophet Elijah memorably rebukes Israel for fence sitting: “And Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." And the people did not answer him a word.” (1 Kings 18:21 ESV). Simply put, we can’t have a wait-and-see mentality about the Christian life if—since—the Lord is God.

Related to this, the Lord Jesus rebukes a lukewarm spirit toward him. To the church of the Laodiceans, he said, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15 ESV). To possess a fervency for Christ is part and parcel of the Christian life.

So, then, we need to appreciate that zeal is a good thing because it is a characteristic of our great God and a necessary possession of the Christian. But zeal needs to be rightly directed. Besides the fact that zeal, wrongly directed, is the basis for the tenth commandment, there are examples and teaching in Scripture that reinforce the necessity of focusing zeal properly. For example, Jehu, in 2 Kings 10, is quite zealous in slaughtering the descendants of Ahab, even describing his own actions as “zeal for the Lord” (2 Kgs 10:16). However, the author of Kings points out in his evaluation of Jehu that his zeal was not really rightly directed: “But Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the LORD, the God of Israel, with all his heart. He did not turn from the sins of Jeroboam, which he made Israel to sin” (2 Kgs 10:31 ESV).

Paul picks up on the theme of misguided zeal in his letter to the Romans. As he engages with the question of ethnic Israel in the plan of God, he credits his own people with “a zeal for God” but critiques that zeal because it is “not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2). Their zeal for God lacked true knowledge of the righteousness of God, which is why so many in Jesus’ day, and especially the Pharisees, had sought to establish their righteousness on the basis of their own works. Their zeal was misguided because it missed the Christ.

But, there is always hope that zeal can be rightly directed because Paul describes himself, before his conversion, as one with great zeal. He tells the Philippian church that he was, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:6 ESV). But when he encounters the Lord Jesus Christ, his zeal was turned toward God’s glory, and he became a potent promoter of the gospel.

So, then, zeal is a good thing when it is rightly directed, but we must finally acknowledge that zeal for the Lord is not welcome in the world. I once heard someone say that they chose a particular preschool because the church to which the preschool was attached was not very religious. Our zeal may “consume” us, just as John applies Psalm 69 to Jesus. What John doesn’t quote, though it is part of the broader context of Jesus’ ministry, is the second half of Psa 69:9 (ESV): “and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.” For his zeal, Christ was crucified. We, then, should not be surprised when having zeal for the Lord makes us unpopular and outcasts in the world. The world is often fine with a little bit of religion, but zeal is too much because zeal for the Lord demands our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength to be directed toward loving and serving him. Knowing this, may we nevertheless kindle zeal for the Lord that he might be glorified in us.

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