True zeal is exemplified in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John chapter 2, we see Him entering Jerusalem and attending the feast in a public capacity. He comes to the temple and is confronted with a veritable street market of stallholders and money-changers. Birds and animals were needed for the temple sacrifices. He drives away the animals and overturns the tables of the merchants and money-changers. “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.” His actions remind the disciples of the words from Psalm 69:9: “For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen on me.” Here is holy indignation. Zeal caused Christ so to spend Himself that it was wearing Him out.
What is zeal?
Zeal is not mentioned among the fruits of the Spirit. Zeal is the word which describes the whole temperature or tone of our spirit. The New Testament words, zeo and zelos express the idea of things becoming heated until they boil or seethe and are used metaphorically for spiritual fervour. Romans 12:11 commands us to be “fervent in spirit”, which literally means to be “burning, seething hot”.
The whole object of redemption is to restore us to the knowledge and likeness of God and thus to love him with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. (Mark 12:30) Where the Spirit of God creates life, He imparts warmth. A Christian is one whose affections have begun to burn for God. Thomas Watson declares: “Zeal is the flame of the affections”. Samuel Ward says: “It is a spiritual heat wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit”. The Puritans understood zeal to be the ardour and eagerness of the soul towards God.
It is good to have zeal:
1) For the glory and honour of God
We read in Numbers chapter 25 that the children of Israel joined themselves to Baal-peor and the anger of the Lord was kindled against them. A man brought a Midianitish woman into his tent in the camp. Phineas, the son of Eleazar, took a spear and thrust it into the pair. So the plague was stayed in Israel. Then it is recorded: “And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel” (Num. 25:10-13).
We must be concerned by the dishonour done to God. David says in Psalm 119:139: “My zeal hath consumed me because mine enemies have forgotten thy words”. He is so moved at the dishonour which men do to God by ignoring His word that the intensity of feeling has the effect of wearing out his very life.
2) For repentance
Paul indicates to us the elements of true repentance in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” The Lord Jesus Christ says in Revelation 3:19: “As many as I love I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore and repent.”
The false professor rests satisfied with as much religion as he thinks will save his soul. The true Christian sees conversion as only the starting point, while for the mere professor it is the point where he stands still. For the true believer there will be impatience with present attainments. “Not as although I had already attained, either were already perfect but I follow after, if I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3.12)
3) For good works
Good works is another area where zeal is to be manifested. “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works”. (Tit. 2:14) “Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit; serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). “But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you.” (Gal. 4:18)
4) For earnestly contending for the faith
We have the eternal truth of the eternal God. “Thy word is true from the beginning” (Psa. 119.160). The Lord Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6). On this depends the welfare of the souls of men and women for time and eternity. “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
5) For the good of the saint and for provoking others
John declares “That he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 John 4:21). We see examples of this in the New Testament: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, labouring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him record, that he has a great zeal for you, and them that are in Laodicea, and them in Hierapolis.” (Col. 4:12-13); “For I know the forwardness of your mind, for which I boast of you to them of Macedonia, that Achaia was ready a year ago; and your zeal hath provoked very many”. (2 Cor. 9:2)
1) Zeal is a test of our standing before God
Richard Baxter reminds us that “to love God without zeal is not to love him, because he is not loving him as God”. “No people under heaven are truly zealous of good works, but only his people”, says William Fenner, “This is peculiar to Christ to have such people; because zeal is peculiarly due to him”.
2) The world and the nominal professor cannot understand the zealous Christian
Worldly professing Christians will assert that that zeal is no essential part of Christianity. We read in Mark 3:20-21 of the occasion when the multitude came together again so that the disciples could not so much as eat bread: “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.” Again we find Festus saying to Paul, “Thou art beside thyself, much learning doth make thee mad.” (Acts 26:24)
3) Let us keep ourselves in the love of God
We need to take heed to the New Testament warnings against lukewarmness and backsliding. “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). Love is essential for continuance in the faith: “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). The Church at Laodicea had become lukewarm. It can happen in the church and in the nation. “Because iniquity shall abound the love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12). Paul exhorts Timothy to “stir up the gift” which was in him (2 Tim. 1:6): the idea is that of keeping a fire blazing. Prayer, hearing the Word and meditation are what Gurnall calls “bellows to the fire” and the promise is that “while thou art musing the fire will burn”.
4) Let us pray for the raising up of ministers zealous for God
Puritan ministers are examples of men who preached with urgency, passion and directness. The sermon, not the sacrament, was the climax of public worship. Why were they so concerned about church order, church worship and church membership? What motivated the movements of the 1580s and 1640s in England? The real aim was to save for eternity, to prepare men for heaven; but also to bring them into ordered church life on earth. Baxter put it in this way: “All churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall (not in riches or worldly grandeur) but in knowledge, zeal and ability for their work”. It is said that the Puritans wanted more than anything else, to see the Church in England rise spiritually, and they saw that this could not be without a renewed ministry.
After the Puritans there was a period of coldness. That zeal was rekindled in George Whitefield. It was said of him: “He appears to me to be full of love to God, and to be fired with an extraordinary zeal for the cause of Christ.” Of ‘Mad Grimshaw’ John Wesley said: “A few such as him would make a nation tremble. He carries fire wherever he goes”. At the time of the Revival of the 18th century, there is a striking letter from Lord Bolingbroke to the Countess of Huntingdon. He wrote of George Whitefield that “his zeal is unquenchable… the bishops and clergy are very angry with him”. And then Bolingbroke goes on to tell the Countess that the King has represented to his Grace of Canterbury that Whitefield should be advanced to the bench (of bishops) as the only means of putting an end to his preaching. In other words, change Whitefield’s friends, put him into the company of “those mitered lords”, and he would soon be brought down to their temperature. We are thankful that he and others since then were not. Let us follow them in their zeal for the Lord.
George Whitefield preaching
By Belcher, Joseph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons