The words zeal, zealous, and zealously appear numerous times in both Old and New Testaments. The word zeal is defined as “great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective” (New Oxford American Dictionary). The World Book Dictionary defines it as “eager desire or effort; earnest enthusiasm; fervor.” It is used in the Scriptures to denote “zeal for Thine house” (John 2:17), “a zeal for God” (Rom. 10:2), and “your zeal for me” (Paul) (II Cor. 7:7).

As an adjective, it is used to denote being zealous “of the law,” (Acts 21:20), “toward God,” (Acts 22:3), “of spiritual gifts” (I Cor. 14:12), “of the traditions of my fathers” referring to Paul’s loyalty to the Law before his conversion (Gal. 1:14), and “of good works” (Titus 2:14).

Obviously “zeal” is a trait to be greatly desired; however, if it is not “according to knowledge,” it can be a dangerous thing (Rom. 10:2). The perfect example of this was Saul of Tarsus, when the “zeal for the traditions of my fathers” led him to “make havoc of the church, entering into every house, and hailing men and women committing them to prison” (Acts 8:4). Later, in describing his actions and explaining his conversion, he stated to Agrippa, “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26:9-1). In his letter to the church at Philippi, he called these actions zeal: “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church” (Phil. 3:6).

Sad to say, but I believe there are a lot of people just like Saul with misplaced zeal, zeal that is “not according to knowledge.” No doubt those described in Matthew 7:21-23 who argued their case before the Lord had been zealous, but not according to knowledge. So the conclusion is that religion without zeal, without any enthusiasm, without any interest in promoting the cause of Christ, is an empty religion. But on the other hand, zeal without proper knowledge is equally useless.

I believe an equal assessment can be gained by observing the order of the Christian characteristics that we are to build into our life (sometimes referred to as the Christian graces) (II Pet. 1:5-9). Peter begins by telling us, “giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue: and to virtue knowledge.” The word virtue in this context means “force, strength (of mind or body)” (Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible). Peter is describing strength, moral courage, necessary in living the Christian life. One who does not have the courage of their convictions will not be very successful in living the Christian life. We must not be afraid of what men can do to us (Matt. 10:28). We are never to seek to please men (Gal. 1:10) or use flattering words to gain advantage (I Thess. 2:5-6), nor “tickle the ears” of those who “will not endure sound doctrine” (II Timothy 4:1-4). We must courageously say in the face of all opposition, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But again, this kind of courage, if not tempered by a proper knowledge and understanding of God’s precious Truth, is a dangerous thing. Again, Saul is the perfect example. And most every denominational preacher today also fits into this category.

In conclusion, let me urge each one of us to “study to show thyself approved before God” (II Tim. 2:15). Let me challenge each one to study properly in context what is being said, and make proper application refusing to “wrest the Scriptures” which only leads to our “own destruction” (II Pet. 3:16). Let each of us, based upon proper knowledge, have such great energy and enthusiasm for the cause of Christ that it can be truly said of us, “Behold….what zeal!” (II Cor. 7:11).

-Paul M. Wilmoth

January 18, 1944 – April 5, 2021