TODAY’S READING: ACTS 22-23
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” – Acts 22:3
In the first words of his own defense before the Jews who wanted to do violence to him, Paul said that he zealous for God. But, Paul said that he was zealous for God just as were all the Jews were threatening him at that very moment.
To be zealous is to be filled with or characterized by zeal, which is eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something, or to be marked by fervent partisanship for a person, a cause, or an ideal.
Zeal can be a good thing.
When Jesus drove the animals out of the temple and flipped over the tables of the money changers, he said, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” And, the disciples remember that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17)
Jesus had an eagerness and ardent interest in his Father’s house. He was fervently partisan to his Father and his father’s cause. Jesus’ zeal certainly seems like a good thing.
In Romans 12:8, Paul said that “the one who leads [gives aid], with zeal.”
And, in Romans 12:11, Paul said, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
And, there are other places in the New Testament where we are encouraged to be zealous.
But, is being zealous always a good thing?
Just after he said that he was zealous for God just as the Jews who wanted to do him harm, Paul said, “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women.” (Acts 22:4)
Paul is saying his zeal for God drove him to persecute others just as the zeal for God of the Jews confronting him was driving them to persecute him.
We know our zeal is good based on what it is driving us to do. Zeal is only good if it is driving us to submit to God’s righteousness. Submitting to God’s righteousness is a rather vague notion. What exactly does it mean?
Go back to John 2 and Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. The disciples remembered that according to the scriptures zeal for God’s house would consume Jesus.
What did Jesus’ zeal for God’s house drive Jesus to do?
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) Of course, Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. Jesus was saying that he had to suffer and rise from the dead, which has been our theme for several days now.
Zeal is good when it drives us to suffer and die for others. Zeal is good when it drives us to the cross.
Paul talked about this in Romans 10:1-4.
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
Zeal goes wrong when we are ignorant of the righteousness of God, seek to establish our own righteousness, and do not submit to God’s righteousness.
What is the righteousness of God?
Christ is the end of the law for righteousness. The Greek word for end is telos. It basically means the goal or the fulfillment. Christ is the goal or the fulfillment of the law for righteousness.
The theme that we have been reading about for the last several days – that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead. “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)
Everything in the law pointed to Jesus needing to suffer and rise from the dead. That was the goal, the fulfillment, the end, of the law for righteousness. If you know that, then you are not ignorant of God’s righteousness. If you submit to God’s righteousness – the necessity of suffering, going to the cross, and rising from the dead – then your zeal will lead to good works.
But, if you do not understand that the righteousness of God leads to the necessity of suffering, then you will seek establish a righteousness of your own. You will establish your own righteousness through violence and persecution, verbally and/or physically, of others. This is just what Paul’s zeal drove him to until Jesus shined his light upon him. And, throughout the entire book of Acts, this is what the zeal of the Jews was driving them to do.
Paul says that we can have a zeal for God, but that the zeal we have is not according to knowledge. The Greek word for knowledge here is epiginosko. Ginosko means to know. Epiginosko means a full knowing. It suggests a more special or advanced knowing because of a special participating in or with the thing that is the object of knowing.
Zeal for God that is not according to knowledge leads to persecution because we have not fully known who Christ is – that it was necessary for him to suffer. This zeal is not according to full knowledge because we have not participated with Christ in his suffering.
We have a true zeal for God when that zeal leads us to suffer, to lay down our lives, to go to the cross.
If we, in any way, are persecuting others, doing violence to them, making war, etc., then our zeal is leading us away from God and down a path of destruction.
Look at how Paul addresses zeal and the righteousness of God in Philippians 3:4-11.
“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law; blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
If our zeal is leading us to do any sort of violence at all, without exception, then it is not true zeal for God.
We have a true zeal for God when our zeal leads us to shun every appearance of evil, wickedness, and violence in our lives. We have a true zeal for God when that zeal is driving us to suffer for the sake of others, to lay down our lives for others, to love our enemies.
If we have this true zeal for God, then our zeal is saving us.
This is what Paul means in Titus 2:11-14.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
Go back to Romans 10:1-4. Paul said that his “heart’s desire and prayer to God them [the Jews] is that that may be saved.”
How would they be saved?
Having a zeal for God that was according to knowledge. A zeal for God that drove them to suffer and lay down their lives for others just as their Messiah did.
This is what it means to be saved.
Your zeal for God is saving you when your zeal turns you from persecuting others, from violence toward others, to suffering for others, including loving your enemies.