What is “zeal?” We might define zeal off the top of the head as something like enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is very popular in the larger religious world. But a recent assignment caused me to examine the idea of zeal. The results of that examination led me in a bit of a different direction than defining zeal merely in terms of enthusiasm.

     The word translated “zeal” in the New Testament is not really translated at all. It is essentially transliterated. When we look it up in the proper dictionaries we find that the word can be used in a good sense or in a bad sense. In a good sense it means ardor, noble aspiration, and ardent affection. In a bad sense it means jealousy. Indeed, the words jealous and zealous are pretty close. The related verb means to strive toward something and to have strong ardor and affection toward someone or something. This is the word translated “covet earnestly” in 1 Corinthians 12:31. We see it also in Acts 17:5 where men were “moved with envy.”

     So we see that zeal is different from what we understand as enthusiasm. It is a generic orientation of the mind that may be directed positively or negatively. It is something that goes far deeper than emotion. It is an orientation of the heart and mind which describes the deep fervor of commitment one can have toward a person or task.

I suppose that the most famous use of this family of words is in John 2:17 where the disciples remembered Psalm 69:9. They applied it to Jesus as He cleansed the Temple: “And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house has eaten me up.”

     Perhaps the best place to examine the depth of meaning associated with zeal is Romans 10:1-3: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” From this passage we can learn a few things about zeal.

     First, zeal without knowledge is a very bad thing (Romans 10:1-2). Paul wanted salvation for Israel but he knew something about them that could keep them from obtaining that salvation. They had zeal but not according to knowledge. Paul made sure the Romans knew that he knew what he was talking about. He said “For I bear them witness.” Paul knew their spiritual condition because he was one of them. He had been a Pharisee. He had worked hand in hand with the Jewish establishment to do whatever he could to damage the cause of Christ. The men who stoned Stephen laid their coats down at Paul’s (then still Saul of Tarsus) feet. He was consenting to Stephen’s death. There can be no doubt of Paul’s zeal. But it was not according to knowledge. When he came to know better he changed. So when he said he knew about the zeal of those Jews he certainly did. Their zeal was fervent but fervently wrong. Paul’s desire was for Israel to come to know better just as he did.

     Then, there is a zeal that is destructive (Romans 10:3). The people Paul wrote about here were self-righteous. They thought that being right about some things made them righteous within themselves. The sad thing is that they just thought they were “right” about things and these thoughts allowed a negative zeal to rise up within them. The “righteousness of God” in this passage refers to the gospel of Christ which these Jews had rejected. They could not see the truth that could save them because their self-righteous zeal blinded them. They needed to temper their zeal with humility.

     But if we can manage to put together zeal, knowledge and humility we have a combination that will let us grow and please God. Consider this from Paul who spoke of Christ, “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify unto Himself His own special people, zealous for good works’ (Titus 2:14).