Zeal for Real? (Part 1)

I’m a partial believer in this familiar statement: “Experience is the best teacher”. Partial because there are some things we simply grow to know. For example I know fire is dangerous, because I was taught that from a young age. I also understand why – because fire burns. However that’s just something I’ve been taught to know. I have no zeal to live a life that shows my passion to for fire safety. I’m not part of a group of people who preach about fire, I’m not an arsonist either. I’m just somewhat familiar with it and realise its danger when uncontrollable so I avoid it. However there are people who are zealous about fire (they’re called firefighters). In all seriousness though, this scenario can be like us with God: we can either be people who just know a lot about God or we can be genuinely zealous for God. In this first part, I want to place the spotlight on misguided zeal.

Being zealous for God requires God himself. We cannot be zealous for God without God- that leads to misplaced zeal. In contrast, for many of us, knowing information about God is usually either down to intellectual curiosity or the family you were born into. Placing the opening statement in a faith context, I partially agreed since experience can lead to me “knowing” a lot about Christ (i.e. through church or family); however unless He is revealed to me by the Holy Spirit my knowledge is futile. Our experiences can distort truth if not subjected to God’s Word which is God’s revealed truth to us.

What we discover from a painful experience could have been covered in the Holy Spirit’s syllabus for your sanctification

 The Holy Spirit is the best teacher and He repeatedly brings the truth of the Word alive in our experiences.  What we, often belatedly, discover from a painful experience could have been covered in the Holy Spirit’s syllabus for your sanctification. God, in his mercy, is still able to teach and guide us through tough instances yet nevertheless, the essence of our knowledge is to produce Christlikeness rather than a crushed character.  

So let’s further investigate this concept of zeal. According to the Oxford Dictionary it is a “great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective”. In scripture zeal for God is always displayed through what we do and what we say, but the key to distinguish between real zeal and false zeal is the manner or motive in which we act. Let’s look at Numbers 25:10-13 (we can actually learn from Numbers!)

10 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’”

Just a brief (modernised) background to the story. Israel had just defeated their enemies: King Sihon & the Amorities and King Og and the people of Bashan. So the Moabites are afraid, and their King, Balak is also afraid. So he sends for Balaam (a prophet-albeit not a very truthful one) and Balaam makes a series of prophecies to Balak with false motives, which leads to Israel sinning with the people of Moab and becoming “yoked with their false God Baal of Peor” (verse 3). Phinehas was a priest and his actions, the execution of the man who slept with the Moabite woman, was deemed to have turned back God’s wrath.

Verse 11 says Phinehas was zealous with “my Zeal”. This is God’s very own zeal which comes from his holiness, since he is absolutely set apart from sin and evil. God’s holiness (his completely distinct nature from creation and sin) is what Phinehas is zealous for because without holiness no one can please God (Hebrews 12:14). This rather dramatic portrayal of zeal shows the passion for holiness and the desire for God’s will to be done amongst the people of Israel. Phinehas had an intense yearning for God’s holiness because he wanted to see God increasingly in his life whilst also maintain the purity of the Israelite community.His zeal was a godly one. If it wasn’t Phinehas’ action would not have glorified God; instead it would have dishonoured God.

So why do so many of us often generate a zeal towards God that doesn’t come from God? As we’ve established,  zeal is a godly characteristic so our own zeal is bound to be different. The Pharisees are the best examples of this. On many occasions they were blinded by their “zeal” for God so they couldn’t see God for who He really was.

Though their actions appeared to be zealous, they weren’t looking for the holiness of God but only focusing on their own “good deeds”.

Though their actions appeared to be zealous, they weren’t looking for the holiness of God but only focusing on their own “good deeds”. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that even our good acts are filthy rags. The truth is, like the Pharisees, our zeal can often be because we are looking for people to see us, rather than us looking to see God. The intent behind our actions determines whether the zeal is godly.

Reading the Bible, for instance, is something that should show our zeal for God. If we study it meticulously God should be pleased with us right? Well John 5:37-40 suggests otherwise! Even with supposedly “godly” activities, we can completely miss the point! The Pharisees diligently studied the scriptures but they missed Jesus and apart from Jesus we can do no good thing (John 15:5). We must, therefore, desire a godly zeal (Isaiah 59:17), not just a zeal towards God, otherwise our zeal will be misplaced. Our aim must be to want to know and see Christ increasingly each day. The Pharisees thought that by their zealous works they would be justified and rewarded. How often do we think this too? It’s the complete opposite! We work from God’s approval, not for God’s approval. We rely on his righteousness and forsake our own.

Taking it further we see that the Pharisees were eager to be rewarded for their works. Real zeal makes you understand that the reward of what you do is God himself. Matthew 6 is a chapter filled with godly acts that we should all pursue but the rewards for each are different. How many times have we shown zeal for God in evangelism or giving and told the world but deep down looked for the praise of man? Matthew 6 tells us we’ve received our reward. How many times have you shown zeal for God and no one has seen? Matthew 6 tells us our reward comes from our Father in heaven. God sees our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7) and nothing is hidden from Him (Hebrews 4:13)

Let’s not be Pharisaic in our approach to God and perform zealous acts for our vindication and acceptance, void of intimacy. Let us be like Phinehas, as New Testament priests (1 Peter 2:9) who love God wholeheartedly which overflows into a zeal for God’s holiness and the purity of His people.

(To be continued…)


  • James Okoli

    On the surface James likes to consider himself as quite ordinary, he is a student and lives a pretty normal life. However he also recognises that God is interested in doing extraordinary things in ordinary people and that is one of his biggest reasons for serving with OGGM. James is the facilitator for our courses and has a heart to ground and build people up in their love and devotion to the truth of the Gospel. Writing thought-provoking and challenging articles is just one way James seeks to do this and his hope is that people would read his articles and be edified, encouraged and empowered to live and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Twitter: @OkoJames_ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/james.okoli.33 IG: N/A (soon by God's grace)

    View all posts

Latest articles

Related articles