Having a Zeal for God


After Paul obeyed the gospel and went about preaching to the Gentiles, he was viewed by many of his Jewish brethren as a traitor. When he came back to Jerusalem, a group of Jews stirred up the crowds against him, intending to kill him. He had to be rescued by the Roman cohort that was present in the city. Before being led away, he was given opportunity to make a brief defense for himself before the Jews. As he began, he started by highlighting what they had in common.

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today” (Acts 22:3).

Zeal for God – the eager and intense interest in pursuing Him – was a characteristic that Paul had in common with the Jews. It is important that we, as Christians, also have a zeal for God and the things of God. But zeal alone is not enough. That is plainly seen in this passage. Both Paul and the Jews were zealous, even sharing the same object of their zeal – God. But the Jews viewed Paul as an enemy. So intense was the division between them that the Jews were beating Paul, intending to kill him, when the Roman soldiers arrived (Acts 21:31-32). When Paul reached the point in his defense where he talked about his work in preaching to the Gentiles, they cried out, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!” (Acts 22:22). Both were zealous for God, yet they were on opposite sides of this conflict. How?

We must have zeal and the correct object for our zeal. But there is another essential element – our zeal must be based in the truth. This was the Jews’ problem. Paul told the Romans, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them [the Jews] is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:1-3). The Jews that Paul mentioned here did not know God’s word as they should. Therefore, they established their own way which put them in a lost condition.

Paul was once in this same state. Before becoming a disciple of Christ, he persecuted the church in his zeal for God (Philippians 3:6). This zeal, however, was “not in accordance with knowledge.” He did not know God’s word as he should, otherwise it would have already led him to Christ (Galatians 3:24). He was then following a different path, trying to please God according to the Law of Moses (Philippians 3:5-6) after Jesus had already nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:14) and established a new covenant (Hebrews 8:8-9). In this condition, he was lost. This is why Ananias had to tell him in Damascus, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).

Many today have a zeal for God that is “not in accordance with knowledge.” While they are eager to serve God, they are ignorant of His word. So they establish their own path which puts them in a lost condition. It is as Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23). No matter how zealous one is, if he is not doing the things that God wants us to do, his labor and zeal will be in vain.

There are certain ways in which zeal is seen in one’s life. In each of these, our zeal must always be directed toward God and be founded in the truth.

  • If we are zealous for something, we will make it a priority. We are told to put God first (Matthew 6:33) and to seek the things above (Colossians 3:2). Our lives should reflect this priority.
  • Zeal affects our actions. Jesus expects us to be “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
  • Zeal will lead us to speak out. When we find it easier to remain silent than to talk to others about God’s word, it means we need a stronger zeal for God. We should be like Jeremiah who said, “But if I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20:9).
  • If we are zealous, we will hold fast our convictions. Paul told Timothy, “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me” (2 Timothy 1:13). Zeal leaves no room for compromise on something as important as our service to God.

Let us develop and demonstrate a zeal for God that is in accordance with the knowledge we find in the Scriptures so that we may please Him in all that we do.

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