Zealotry in the Bible: A Biblical Perspective On Passion And Devotion

Zealotry in the Bible: A Biblical Perspective On Passion And Devotion

Saturday’s Column: Brent’s Bent

Look up “zealotry” on Google. What do you see? Google mainly presents definitions from different dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster and Oxford. In a nutshell, these trusted sources say that zealotry is the same thing as fanaticism. It’s concerning. It was fanaticism that resulted in the Holocaust. It does not always follow that zealotry does so. Even though zealotry may be passionate, moral principles still drive it.

To an outsider, zealotry may appear to drive one to extremes. As an example, consider Phineas. When the daughters of Moab enticed the sons of Israel to “play the harlot” with their god, Baal Peor (Numbers 25.1ff), God sent a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites. Phineas taking a spear and driving it through Zimri the Simeonite and Cozbi the Midianite in flagrante delicto is the only thing that calms God’s rage.

What about our example, Jesus? According to John 2.13–17, Jesus made a scourge of cords, flipped tables, and drove the money changers out of the Temple on His first Passover of His public ministry. The followers of Jesus recalled Psalm 69.9, which begins, “For zeal for Your house has consumed me” (NASB1995). Would we accuse our Lord of fanaticism?

Zeal is an intense devotion to a cause or belief, but it doesn’t always mean acting excessively or fanatically. On the other hand, fanaticism is an extreme or irrational devotion to a cause or belief, often to the point of being unable to tolerate different points of view or being willing to do harmful or violent things to promote their ideas.

Zealots can often keep a balanced and nuanced view of their cause or belief, recognizing that there are other valid points of view and that their beliefs are not the only truth. On the other hand, fanatics tend to think that you cannot question their beliefs, and they may not want to or be able to see different points of view.

Zealots may go to extreme lengths to further their cause or belief, but they do so with a sense of moral and ethical responsibility. On the other hand, fanatics may be willing to act unethically or immorally or use violence or fear to get their point across. 

But it’s also important to know that zealotry, like any strong belief, can be harmful when used without knowledge. When someone is passionate about their ignorance, bad things can happen. Think about Saul of Tarsus. Before he became the apostle Paul, he was a zealous church persecutor (Philippians 3.6). So you need a balance of passion and moderation to make positive changes and show agape love.

We must be zealous for the gospel. Peter stated that we must obey God rather than man (Acts 5.29). Do we have the guts to take decisive action when the situation demands it? Our zeal does not cause us to behave as Phineas since we live under the New Covenant. God is reserving His wrath for the sinner (Romans 2.5). God also gave the civil government the sword to punish the evildoer (Romans 13.4). Our mission is to rescue people from the fire (Jude 1.23).

Jesus rebuked the church in Laodicea for not being “hot” or “cold” in their faith. Because they were not fully committed to Him, Jesus said He would reject them. Jesus tells these lukewarm brothers and sisters, “Therefore, be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3.19 NASB1995). If you need to rekindle your zeal, listen to our Lord’s advice and repent your apathy and indifference.

If, on the other hand, you are afraid of being labeled a zealot, remember that you are in good company since Jesus’ contemporaries recognized His zeal. You don’t have to worry about your zeal becoming misplaced fanaticism as long as your diligence allows you to use God’s word competently (2 Timothy 2.15). If you are steadfast in your fellowship with other brethren, they will stir you up to love and good works (Hebrews 10.24–25). And for lingering concerns, God tasks us with casting all our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5.7).

Brent Pollard

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