In Search of Real Zeal

“Zeal” is an interesting word denoting intensity or fervor. To be zealous for something is good, but to be overzealous is obviously not good. In the Bible, some people are said to have zeal without knowledge, which is not good, but others are encouraged to show their zeal.

So what has me thinking about zeal? Well, I heard a sermon on zeal today, and it set me to thinking: according to the message, we must show zeal for God by being bold, tenacious, and uncompromising, among a number of other points. All of these may be fine in their own way. But that sort of zeal for God can really take a bad turn. People can turn “bold” into “brash” without even thinking hard about it. “Uncompromising” may become “unyielding” to the point that we are unwilling to listen to alternative views and become unwilling to be corrected if we should be found to be in error.

When I think of zeal, one of the first things that comes to mind is found in Titus 2.11-14:

“11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Paul says that Jesus sacrificed his own earthly life to redeem the lost and establish his community of believers for what purpose? He wanted them to be zealous for good works. This echoes the comment in Ephesians 2.10:

“10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

For those predisposed to limiting their view of works to those things necessary to become a Christian—especially focusing on baptism—perhaps this means to them that Jesus’ followers must be unrelenting in the pursuit of baptism. But once that is accomplished, what then?

I realize that may be too simplistic a view. But I have heard too many discussions of James 2 that focus completely erroneously on “faith without works” as being the expectation of salvation without completing the 5 point plan.

In my reading of all three passages, the focus is on exactly what it says: good works, which we will do because we are being molded into the likeness of Jesus. No, not the physical likeness, but in manner of life. Luke records in Acts 10.38 that “…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Certainly, we cannot heal those oppressed by the devil. But we can be Jesus’ instruments to help the oppressed to find healing.

The real test of one who is zealous for God is in what he or she does, not in the fact that they can out-yell an opponent. Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the earth. There, “meekness” denotes a quiet strength, which Easton describes as a calmness of mind such that one is not easily provoked. This is in rather pointed contradiction to the easily abused bold and uncompromising terms. Boldness is good, as long as it is grounded in grace. To be uncompromising is commendable, as long as we understand the difference between dogma and true doctrine. Too often, those who are the most uncompromising have the most dogma to defend.

Returning to Paul’s comment in Titus 2, being zealous for good works is one of those positive feedback sorts of affairs: the more good you accomplish, the more you want to do. The zeal fuels itself. It defies physical law because it is borne of spirit. In other places, Paul tells his readers not to grow weary in doing good, that a harvest of goodness and blessing will ripen if we don’t give up. That side of “unyielding” works, and quite well at that.

Zeal is good. Zeal without mercy is oppressive. Zeal without knowledge is misguided. Zeal without grace is cold, and doomed to fail. Modeling zeal for God by being the embodiment of good works can go a long way. Actions speak louder than words and a life guided by God’s light and directed by God’s love will go a lot farther than threats. That is the zeal Jesus lived. And he is the example I choose to follow.


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