Last Shabbat, the Rabbi in my local Messianic congregation gave a message on zeal. One of the last things he said in the message was, “Christ is not coming back for a bride who has no fire.” We want to much to be the kind of people Christ will be looking for at His return, so if this is the case we do well to take heed, and learn what it means to be on fire, or have fire, for the Lord.
What is Zeal?
The Hebrew words translated “zeal” and “zealous” are qana (H7065), qanna (H7067), and qin’a (H7068). They can all be translated “jealous” as well. Both qana and qin’a can be used in a good or a bad sense, but qanna is exclusively used as a title or attribute of God. Exodus 34:14 even says the Lord’s “name is Jealous.”
In the positive connotations, these words express a strong emotion one person has for another person, or on behalf of someone else. It is “an intense furor, passion, and emotion that is greater than a person’s wrath or anger” (Baker and Carpenter’s WordStudy Dictionary of the Old Testament). Zeal is one of the strongest emotions there is.
When God tells us He is a “jealous God,” He is saying that He does not tolerate any competition for our adoration (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 4:24; Josh 24:19). In all three of these verses, the context is talking about the evils of being unfaithful to the Lord by worshiping idols and turning away to other religions. God has invested His strongest emotions and passions in us, and He expects us to be “on fire” for Him in return.
They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; they have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols. But I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation; I will move them to anger by a foolish nation. (Deut. 32:21)
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. … As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. (Rev. 3:15-16, 19)
The Greek words for “zeal” and “zealous” are zelos (G2205), zeloo (G2206), and zelotes (G2207). Like the Hebrew, these can have a positive or negative meaning. We actually discussed the negative side of zeloo last week, in connection with 1 Corinthians 13:4.
I think perhaps the best example of how this trait can be good or bad is the apostle Paul. Before his conversion, he persecuted Christ’s church out of zeal for the Jewish faith (Phil. 3:6). But after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he turned that zeal to preaching the true gospel.
In the Greek, zelos is derived form the word zeo (G2204), which means to be hot, either in the sense of fervency or actual warmth, so all the zeal-words carry this idea of heat. Focusing on the positive sides of the definitions, Zodhiates says, “zelos signifies the honorable emulation with the consequent imitation of that which presents itself to the mind’s eye as excellent.” When zeal sees good, it strives to become good. The next word, zeloo, means to be filled with zeal, jealousy, or love. Zelotes refers to a person who is “zealous for or eagerly desirous of something.”
We just mentioned the relationship between zeal and love in defining the word zeloo. It seems fitting, then, to focus on that next. If God did not love His people so much, He would not be so jealous of our affection. Our God is described as “a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24). How could we expect His love to lack zeal? He does not passively love us from some cold, aloof position. His love is active, and emotional.
So the angel who spoke with me said to me, “Proclaim, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: “I am zealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with great zeal. …” ‘Therefore thus says the Lord: “I am returning to Jerusalem with mercy; My house shall be built in it,” says the Lord of hosts, “And a surveyor’s line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.”’ (Zech. 1:14, 16)
Notice that in connection with His zeal for His people, the Lord says, “My house shall be built.” This is not the only place where the Lord demonstrates a zeal for His house.
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” (John 2:13-17)
The people Christ threw out of the temple were making a mockery of worship. They had turned God’s house into a place of business. From what I’ve heard, they had probably set up a system where people had to purchase a sacrificial animal from them before going into the temple, rather than bringing a sacrifice of their own. The sellers were putting themselves in a position where the people had to deal with them before they could approach God, and Jesus did not approve. It was unacceptable in the physical temple, and such things are unacceptable in God’s church today.
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)
Sounds a lot like what we just read in the gospel of John, doesn’t it? We are “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), and Jesus has the same zeal for us today that He had for His Father’s house back then. He won’t tolerate impure worship practices, or those who try to get between Him and His church. He wants a bride whose heart is fully His, and who is eager for Him to come back and claim her.
What Will He Find In Us?
For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (2 Cor. 11:2-3)
It is possible to let our love for and commitment to Christ wane, and we must be on guard against such a thing. Paul was filled with zeal about the church not loosing their commitment to Christ. In a very real way, he was zealous for His Father’s house. We should also be zealous about guarding our hearts and keeping them fixed on Christ, and on helping our brethren toward a passionate relationship with God as well.
Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Rev. 2:4)
This is part of the letter to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2. Christ commends this church for their works, labor, patience, and their diligence to root-out evil. But even with all those good things, He says that if they do not “repent and do the first works” He will “remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:1-7). Just like in 1 Corinthians 13 where gifts, knowledge, and other spectacular things are described as nothing without love, so is the faith and works of this church empty without their first passion for following God.
When we talk about this Greek word for love, agape (G26), we often bring out that agape doesn’t necessarily involve the emotions we typically think of as love. Thus the command “love your enemies” is more about active goodwill toward them than having “warm fuzzy feelings” about those who hate you. But this is the word used to say “God is love,” and we’ve seen that God’s love toward His people does contain strong emotions. Agape can, and in relation to God should, involve strong feelings. To truly love God, we need to learn to reciprocate the kind of love He has toward us.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. (Mark 12:30)
Jesus gave the perfect example of what it looks like to love God this way. On His last Passover, Jesus said His obedience to the Father’s commandments demonstrated to the world that He loves the Father (John 14:31). He tells us, “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:9-10).
I think this willing obedience and sacrifice prompted by love is what Jesus was referring to when He told the Ephesian church to “do the first works.” Recapture the zeal you felt when you first started serving God. The relationship Christ modeled with the Father was close, personal, and sustained by frequent communication. He was perfectly obedient to His Father’s will, and was willing to give up His life because He loved God and He loved His friends (John 15:13-15). Now, He looks for us to have that kind of love for Him, for our Father, and for our brethren.
And it shall be, in that day,” says the Lord, “That you will call Me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer call Me ‘My Master’ …. I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.” (Hos. 2:16, 19-20)
How can we respond to this Being with anything other than a zealous love? Our Savior “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14). He wants His bride to be zealous about the things He cares about, to be faithful to Him because we owe Him our lives, and to love Him as He loves us.
Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)
It is so sad after all Christ has done for us, given to us, and offered us in the future that He has to ask this question: “When I come back, is anyone who loves Me going to be waiting?”
When we see Jesus in the future, will He find faith in us? If we could talk to Him now about the state of our faith today, would He tells us “you are not far from the kingdom of God,” as He did to the man who recognized loving God and his neighbor was the key to religion (Mark 12:32-34)? or would He say, as He did to the church in Sardis, “be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2)?