People are zealous about many things in their lives: sports teams, business, politics, family, hobbies, and a whole host of other things. We live in a culture that would have us hide our Christianity, or at least put it on the back burner until Sunday, and in church only. This is not what the Lord wants or expects from us. Zeal is sometimes associated with being zealous or being a zealot. Usually that connotation is tied to being over the top or extreme. The word fan (as in sports fan) is a shortened version of the word fanatic, which is defined by Webster as “excessive enthusiasm and often intense, uncritical devotion.”
In the passage above, Paul had been addressing the Galatians concerning their fears, most likely because of the pressure that the Judaizers had been putting on them to return to their old religious ways. The Judaizers had been zealous in their cause to convince the Galatian Christians to return to Judaism. Paul had to get the Galatians’ attention by questioning whether he had become their enemy. He was, in a sense, reminding them of Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” The Galatian Christians need to be zealous for the cause of Christ, not just when Paul is there with them but always.
Christian zeal is “a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world” (J. C. Ryle, Walking With God, 56). The reason why the world wants us to put our Christianity on the back burner is that it has no desire to please God. Pleasing God is not in the nature of sinful people at all. It is only because we are converted by God’s Holy Spirit and changed by Him that we can even think in these terms. We should not be surprised. In fact, we should expect others to not want us to show our Christian zeal. Why? Because it pricks the conscience of unbelievers, and they must either submit to King Jesus or attack Him. Unfortunately, Christians sometimes feel uncomfortable with those who show more zeal for Christian service than we do. There could be a variety of reasons for this, but it probably stems from some feeling of guilt for a lack of zeal. This should not be confused with being boisterous or loud; it is about our desire to advance God’s glory, which will be tied to our emotions.
If we have a desire to please God, it will come with consequences. The question is, Are we willing to live with the consequences? Most “great” people in history will put aside everything to accomplish their goal. What is our great goal? Is our goal to be like the apostles, the early church fathers, the Reformers, or missionaries? Many of these people sacrificed their lives, and all sacrificed personal comfort to please God. The world didn’t like what they had to say and how they lived. Some throughout history have used Christian zeal as an excuse to do terrible things, so we need to know what true Christian zeal looks like.
True Christian zeal has to be according to God’s Word. Even Peter, when he was a disciple, had zeal on a few occasions that was not according to God’s will and Word. We must have a true knowledge of God’s Word and study it so we know how to serve Him. We need to examine the motives for our service. If the motives are self-serving, our works of service lose their power. We can look at the Pharisees as an example of this; they had no humility. If you are looking for the praise of men, you have lost your power to please God.
Remember, God looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). Christian zeal has to be concerned with what God is concerned with, intertwined with love (1 Cor. 13). What God is concerned with is the salvation of the lost (1 Cor. 9:22), the holiness of His people (1 Peter 1:16), the keeping of pure doctrine (Titus 2:1), and so on.
Christian zeal will come with benefits as well. The Christian will be blessed spiritually. He or she will know God’s Word more thoroughly, which will give peace, comfort, joy, and true happiness. If your goal is to strive for God’s glory, how can that not benefit you as a Christian? A Christian’s zeal can have an effect on the church. A truly zealous person can achieve much, and that zeal is often contagious for the good of God’s people and the gospel ministry. Our culture and society benefit from Christian zeal. Evangelism and Christian service are inspired by it, Christian ministries are started and continued because of it, and the world dies without it.
What kills Christian zeal? The status quo. If we don’t do anything to serve the Lord, what will happen? Nothing! During the Great Awakening, George Whitefield was not allowed to preach in some churches in England and America. Why, you may ask? His preaching wasn’t about the status quo but to stir the hearts of men for salvation and the service of God. J. C. Ryle spoke of this attitude this way: “If you are a Christian, be careful not to quench Christian zeal. Try to stir it up within yourself, and be careful not to oppose it in others. Zealous people sometimes make mistakes, but it is far worse to be without zeal” (Walking with God, 59).
We are all called to use our Christian zeal, but not all in the same area of Christian service. We each have been gifted differently, have different callings, and have hearts for different ministries. The world is zealous for its vain philosophies and wants to trap us in its fanaticism. We must persevere to do the will of God for His glory in our Christian zeal wherever we are called. We must keep Christ as our first love in all things. We cannot be concerned about what the world will say, but we must continue to minister to our children, community, and the world through God’s Holy Word and our Christian service with a zeal for God!
Mr. Dave Vander Meer is the administrator of Reformed Heritage Christian School, a board member of Reformed Mission Services, and was formerly the youth director at Cornerstone URC.