What do you think of when I describe someone as “zealous”? Is it a mostly positive or negative image? Today we’re going to take a look at Paul’s admonition to “never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” It’s a short verse, but the subject of zeal is one that’s worth examining on its own.
I guess it’s not a word we use very much nowadays, but a rough equivalent that people do use would be “passion.” Like “tradition,” your reaction to that word would tell me a lot about you, and I could make a reasonably good guess about how old you are. If you instinctively react positively to the word “passion,” then you’re probably 40 or under. If you react to “passion” with suspicion, then you’re probably over 40, or possibly were raised in a more politically conservative household.
The word “passion” in this and in most Pauline contexts is zelon or some permutation thereof. Literally it’s “boiling,” used either literally or figuratively. Paul uses the word, by my count, 6 times: Romans 10:2, here, Galatians 1:14; 4:17 and 18, and Phil. 3:6. If you look at the references, you’ll see that most of the time, he’s talking about Jewish legalists, either the ones he was fighting throughout his ministry over the purity of the message about salvation in Christ, or the one he used to be before he encountered Jesus. Galatians 4:17-18 are particularly interesting, in that he uses it in a bad context in vs. 17 in talking about the legalists (being zealous in their perversion of the Message), but in the very next verse he says that “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.”
“Provided the purpose is good”: I think that’s the key. Another clue is found in Romans 10:2: Paul says that Jews of his day were “zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Zeal, or passion if you prefer, is fine—actually it’s necessary--provided it’s pointed in the right direction. Boiling is great, but it’s like fire in general: Within the proper confines, channeled into the right direction, it’s absolutely necessary for our walk with Christ. Outside its proper confines, given free rein to do as it pleases, it’s an incredibly destructive force.
Your zeal has to be based on knowledge. Knowledge of what? Knowledge of the truth found in God’s word, of course. I’ve talked about this before, so please forgive me for repeating myself some, but this is something this generation has got to hear. Your passion needs to be based upon the truth as found in the Bible. That means intensive study of the Scriptures has to be the foundation of your zeal, the boiling in your bones. If you’ve ever heard someone say “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere,” then they’ve fallen into a trap.
“Zeal without knowledge” is the root of much evil in this world, and it was behind the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus, and according to the book of Acts it was behind most of the persecution of the early church. It was what motivated Saul of Tarsus to go from house to house to round up Christians.
But it was this same zeal which led Saul to go to Damascus to arrest more Christians, and when he met the Lord Jesus on that road and became a believer, then an interesting thing happened. When the Lord grabbed ahold of his heart, did he (the Lord) mitigate or lessen in any way that same zeal? Absolutely not! No, the Lord turned him in the right direction and set that zeal loose. The same passion which led Saul to arrest believers in the Way now led him to preach that same Way on street corners and in synagogues and on Mars Hill and in prison to his jailers.
If you’re like me, your main danger is not so much passion in the wrong direction; it’s apathy in going in the right one. Way too many of us, especially after we’ve been believers for a while, tend to let our passion for our Savior to cool. We’re not hot for him, and we’re not cold (in opposition). No, we’re lukewarm. And that’s not good. Not at all.
Father God, I see the need. I need so desperately to reclaim that “boiling” I once had for you. By your Spirit, set my heart aflame with passion for you. Please, please, please.