Some time ago a man on the Internet used his blog to berate two parties that were warring within a particular church organization. In his writing about the two parties, he often spread rumors and revealed secrets about both sides. In doing such, he claimed that he was being zealous for the Lord and that he was calling on both parties to repent. Others--in the comments field--claimed that he was self-righteous. In the end, the man's actions helped to further division within the church organization, which eventually split. People were offended; relationships were severed.
Was this zeal for the Lord, as the man claimed? After all, both parties probably were in the wrong on some level and needed to repent, if there was to be any reconciliation--even if the result of the actions by the man did not lead to such. Or was this, as I thought at the time, overzealousness--a desire to do good that was so intense that it actually created more trouble than it helped quell? Is there such a thing as being overzealous? Does the Bible condemn people for such? A search of the scriptures showed that I was wrong. The Bible appears to speak only positively of the passion and fervor that make up what is zeal; the problem in a case such as the one just mentioned, as the Bible shows, is not overzealousness but zeal for the wrong thing.
Examples of zeal carried to the furthest ends abound in the scripture. In most if not all, such passion is commended--both in the Old Testament and in the New, both as humans show it and as God does. Two of the best examples in the Old Testament revolve around men purging the nation of Israel of a sin that it had committed. One is the example of Phinehas, the grandson of the high priest, who in his zeal killed a couple whose shameful act was consummated in the midst of all the nation. We read about this in Numbers 25:6-13:
And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Phinehas, 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.
Another Old Testament example is that of Jehu, who carried out God's will with regard to how he dealt with the family of one of the wicked kings of Israel and was rewarded accordingly. Note what he said with regard to his intent early on in his reign: "Know now that there shall fall unto the earth nothing of the word of the Lord, which the Lord spake concerning the house of Ahab: for the Lord hath done that which he spake by his servant Elijah" (2 Kings 10:10). Jehu, in this regard, intended to do just as he had been instructed. And he did just that:
And when he was departed thence, He lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. If it be, give me thine hand. And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot. And he said, Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord. So they made him ride in his chariot. And when he came to Samaria, he slew all that remained unto Ahab in Samaria, till he had destroyed him, according to the saying of the Lord, which he spake to Elijah. (2 Kings 2:15-17)
The New Testament also features examples of extreme zeal. One of these regards God's son specifically and, by implication, such zeal can be said to be commended. I refer to Jesus's clearing of the temple of the moneychangers, which is described in John 2:13-17:
And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an home of merchandise. And his disciples remembered what was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.
Much like the actions of Jesus the man, the actions of God the spirit being are often described as related to zeal. Note how, for example, God says his zeal shall cause Israel to be restored to its former glory, as in 2 Kings 19:31: "For out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and they that escape out of mount Zion: the zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this." So adamant is God that the notion of this scripture is repeated nearly verbatim in Isaiah 37:32. God notes that he is zealous in the punishment he metes out to Israel as well, as in Ezekiel 5:12-13:
A third part of thee shall die with the pestilence, and with famine shall they be consumed in the midst of thee: and a third part shall fall by the sword round about thee; and I will scatter a third part into all the winds, and I will draw out a sword after them. Thus shall mine anger be accomplished, and I will cause my fury to rest upon them, and I will be comforted: and they shall know that I the Lord have spoken it in my zeal, when I have accomplished my fury in them.
These positive examples of the zeal of God, of Jesus, and of the followers of God are backed up by teachings on zeal in the New Testament. Throughout the apostle Paul's writings, for example, Christians are encouraged to be zealous with regard to various aspects of their spiritual lives. They are, for one, told to be zealous in good works, as in Paul's letter to Titus. Here, Paul tells the church that Christ "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). Christians are also told, in relation to good works, to be "zealous of spiritual gifts . . . to the edifying of the church" (1 Cor. 14:12). They are told to be zealous in encouraging others to pursue good works as they do: "For as touching the ministering to the saints," Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:1-2, "it is superfluous for me to write to you: 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."
Likewise, not only are Christians to be zealous in works and in edifying and encouraging others, they are to be zealous in repentance. "Now I rejoice," Paul tells the believers in Corinth, who he had earlier chastised for their many shortcomings,
not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorry 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. (2 Cor. 7:9-11)But not only are believers to be zealous when repenting, they are to repent by being zealous. That is, they are to be zealous in repenting from fleshly ways to do good works and to encourage others, but they are also to do these things zealously. The zeal leads to repentance, and it leads to living with zeal, as is noted in the letter to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3. The Laodiceans are noted as having a problem: "I know thy works, that thou are neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot" (Rev. 3:15). Because they lack an intense passion in the work that they do for God, they are told: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent" (Rev. 3:19).
The Bible then, it appears, generally speaks of zeal as a good thing, something we should aim to have more of, not less--however, as certain examples show, it can be misplaced. When one's zeal or fervor goes against God or his law, trouble is a natural result, as can be seen in instances both in the Old Testament and in the New. Back in the days before Christ, one man who showed zeal in one aspect in regard to how he defended Israel was Saul. Years before his reign, Israel made treaty with a people called the Gibeonites, a treaty that was the result of deceit on the part of these people, who feared that they would be wiped out like their neighbors had been and, in fact, were supposed to have been according to God's commandment to his nation. The people of Israel were irate when it came to light that the Gibeonites were not a far-off people but people of the very land where Israel was to dwell. And yet, Joshua and the leaders of Israel held to their word, saying: "We have sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them" (Josh. 9:19). Instead, the Gibeonites became slaves to the Israelites--"hewers of wood and drawers of water" (Josh. 9:21)--and remained among them even into the time of Saul.
Saul, the Bible notes, "in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah" (2 Sam. 21:2), decided to rid the land of these interlopers. The result, however, was not a good one. Israel had sworn by God to let these people live, and God did not take kindly to the breaking of a promise made in his name, even if it was a treaty that should not have been made in the first place. Here is what happened:
Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites. And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.) Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord? . . . And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose. (2 Sam. 21:1-3, 5-6)David followed suit, and rain returned to the land, but at what cost? For three years, Israel was punished for a zeal that was against the will of God, and ultimately Saul's own family suffered seven deaths for the same.
The New Testament also provides us a glimpse into a man who had a zeal for God and his law but whose zeal caused much suffering to the people of God, because the man's understanding of both was incomplete. This man was another Saul, one who would become known as Paul after his conversion. Paul spoke frequently of this zeal that he had once had, as in this passage in Galatians: "For ye have heard of my conversion in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" (Gal. 1:13-14). This zeal, as Paul notes here led to his persecuting the very people of God. In Acts 22:3-4, Paul tells us exactly the kinds of persecution in which he engaged in his zeal: "I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day. And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women." But Paul himself came to see that his zeal was misplaced, as he notes in Philippians 3:
For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith . . . If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (Phil. 3:3-9, 11)He trusted, as he notes here, in the flesh, in his own ability to redeem himself, rather than in the spirit, in the necessity that God redeem him, and in doing so he caused much pain to those of the faith.
The Bible provides not only examples of zeal that is misplaced but also discusses such misplaced zeal in relation to some of its various teachings. Paul discusses one such instance in Romans, an instance that mirrors his own misplaced zeal. Some believers of Jewish extraction continued to think their own works could make them righteous, and they followed this dictum with zeal, but, as Paul notes here, that zeal was vain, for it was focused on the wrong thing:
What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; As it is written, Behold, I lay in Zion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (Rom. 9:30-33, 10:1-4)In other words, the Jews in remaining faithful to the law had missed its whole purpose--namely that it pointed toward Christ. They misunderstood and thought that a sacrificial system centered around the blood of bulls and goats could cleanse them of their wrong deeds, when in fact that system was merely a foreshadowing of the very sacrifice that could cleanse them from their wrongdoing (Heb. 10:1-4). All the zeal in the world for animal sacrifices and other rituals was not going to do anything for them if they failed to understand the necessity of faith in the one whom God sent to be their offering.
Another set of teachings that we read of people having a useless zeal for in the New Testament are those based in certain pagan customs. One place we find this discussed is in Galatians 4, where Paul writes to the believers:
Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and time, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain. . . . They [false teachings/teachers] zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them. But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you. (Gal. 4:8-11, 17-18)In other words, Paul notes, if we show zeal toward things like astrology, looking for special signs in the sky to run our lives, we gain nothing; our zeal must be for God and his way, not for superstitious practices.
Another case where Paul notes the necessity for zeal in a correct teaching rather than for zeal in one that does not lead toward our edification relates to the gift of tongues. Indeed, in the early New Testament church, the gift of tongues could be a great instrument, if used properly, but if used only to show off one's own self, it had little value and was, in fact, possibly more damaging to the spread of the gospel than it was helpful. Here's what Paul had to say about it in 1 Corinthians 14:
I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying. Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me. Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. . . . If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth (1 Cor. 14:5-12, 23-25)Many in this area, apparently, had a desire to have and to show that they had a gift that no doubt God had given them. But Paul notes that such a desire was fruitless because it was based in self-gratification rather than in helping others. Rather, prophesying, while not as showy, was something that would benefit a greater number of others and was therefore a gift to desire even more fervently.
So then, the scriptures show us that aiming our zeal toward the wrong things--be it false teaching, things that go against God's will, things that pump up our own ego--will only lead us away from the most important things in life and, in turn, could lead to our ultimate downfall. But should we aim to be zealous in what we do, or are we to hold back a bit for safety? To this, the scriptural answer seems to be the more zealous we are for the right things, the better. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest," Ecclesiastes 9:10 says. We have only this life in which to prove ourselves, so we should live it to the fullest. "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might," Deuteronomy 6:5 says, showing us that our devotion to God should know no limits save those that are placed on us because of our physical bodies. It does not seem then that the scripture asks us to hold back our zeal but rather to nourish it and to direct it toward the proper things.