I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth pointing out once again just how much Paul really loved his brothers according to the flesh. He reasoned with them, he preached to them, he answered their objections, and used every method within his disposal (except sin) to reach them with the Good News about the Messiah. And for the most part, they rejected it. Not just by telling him “No, not interested.” They typically responded with physical violence, and when that didn’t work they resorted to legal persecution and slander. And he certainly had some pretty harsh words for them as recorded in his epistles. But nowhere is it recorded that he wished them ill. On the contrary, as we saw in yesterday’s reading, he loved them with a sacrificial love. In fact, he claimed that if it were possible, he'd gladly give up his own salvation if that meant theirs. That’s love.
Again we see here his claim of that love. He said that it was his heart’s desire and earnest prayer to God that they might be saved. He knew that giving up his own salvation for theirs wasn’t possible, but he did want to see them saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
That word—knowledge—is a great segue into something we need to understand about the Jewish people of Paul’s day. He said that he could easily testify that they had lots of zeal. They earnestly believed in what they were doing. The more devout Jews of his day—who tended to be his worst enemies—were sticklers for the Law. They had a whole set of rules and regulations so that they wouldn’t even come close to breaking God’s law. For instance, they forbade women from looking in a mirror on the Sabbath. If she saw her reflection, she might see a grey hair and be tempted to pluck it out, and thus work on the holy day.
Paul well knew this mindset, since he once shared it. He too had plenty of passion, but he now knew that zeal without knowledge is a deadly combination. It was this that led to the crucifixion of Jesus, and it was behind most of the persecution of the Church in those days.
What was the problem? They'd missed the main point of the Law. Yes, it’s supposed to let us know what God considers important so that we can order our lives according to his priorities. It also sets up a legal system by which to order society. But its main purpose is to show us how far we fall short of his standard. It’s like a mirror that we hold up to our souls. The mirror doesn’t get rid of the pimple or messed-up hair; it only shows you what’s wrong. If we look at the Law and say to ourselves “I guess I’m doing OK,” then we’ve totally missed the main point. It’s there to lead us to complete abandonment of our own righteousness, which will force us to accept the perfect righteousness of Christ.
How can we bring this into today? Is this directly applicable to most Jews today? Not really, at least not in America. Times have changed. Most Jews, quite frankly, don’t really care about their religious heritage and are secular. They might possibly celebrate the holidays and occasionally attend synagogue, but I guarantee you I know more about the Hebrew Scriptures (their term for the Old Testament) than most of them do. So the idea of them being zealous about anything Jewish is not really relevant.
Of course there are some Jewish people who are practicing and take their faith pretty seriously. They go to synagogue every Saturday and follow the dietary laws. They read the Scriptures regularly, and they actually fit into the model that Paul is talking about here—with the obvious difference that virtually none of them want to oppose the Good News through violence or slander or legal means.
But I think that these verses have a much wider relevance than we see at first glance. The paradigm of “zeal without knowledge” is very common today among people of all different faiths and even people who are committed to this or that political or trendy cause. If you ever hear someone say “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere,” then they’ve fallen into this error. No, sincerity without knowledge is not ok. Passion without knowledge is like a loaded gun going off at random; it’s extremely dangerous.
Yes, we need zeal. But that has to be coupled with a passion for the truth. We have to make sure that energy is channeled in the right direction. We can’t afford to settle for anything less.
Father God, I want both. I think I have some knowledge of your word, but sometimes I need your Spirit to rekindle that fire in my bones. Please.