The Real Zeal Deal

This article was originally published by Convivium. 

If I were to have been one of the 12 disciples, I think I would’ve been James or John. It may seem arrogant to claim similarity to two of Jesus’ closest disciples, but I have always resonated with the nickname he gave them: Sons of Thunder.

It was a fitting nickname (Mark 3:17): the Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder. The Sons of Thunder were men of great zeal. Ambitious, driven and passionate, sometimes to a fault. They alongside Peter – The Rock, also a man of great zeal, arrogant passion and reckless loyalty ­­­­­– formed Jesus’ intimate circle. They were the three who were with him when no one else was. The three who were invited in to his Transfiguration, the three who saw him raise a dead girl back to life.

Zeal is a characteristic often seen in the Bible and can be defined as great energy or enthusiasm in the pursuit of a cause or an objective. Zeal, in and of itself, is not inherently good or bad. It is completely dependent on what it is being directed at. If the cause or objective of your zeal is not in line with the will of God, you find yourself in a dangerous place.

The starkest example of this is Saul turned Paul. Saul was a man of tremendous zeal, the object of which was the destruction of the followers of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:6). All the strength and fire of his zeal was in direct opposition to God. And God, in his mercy, did not allow that to stand.

Saul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus and was overwhelmed and struck blind. As God’s grace and mercy saved him and changed every part of his goals and motivation, he was transformed from Saul into Paul. From a man deeply zealous for destruction to a man deeply zealous for the salvation of all who don’t know Christ.

We see zeal as a defining character trait of Jesus’ three closest disciples. The Rock and the Sons of Thunder certainly knew what they wanted. When Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, he leapt out of the boat to meet him. And even though he sank, the next time Peter was in a boat and saw Jesus on the shore, he again leapt straight out and swam to Him.

When Jesus was rejected from entering a village, James and John asked him “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54). The brutality of their reaction was immediately rebuked by Jesus (Luke 9:55), who did not hesitate to correct them when their zeal fell out of line with His character and will.

Failure is often devastating to the zealots among us. When Jesus told his disciples they would all abandon him, Peter bravely declared that even if everyone else would fall away, he would never desert Jesus. He would die with him before denying him (Matthew 26:31-35). And yet, not one day later, Peter denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. Peter was devastated by his failure, by his betrayal of Jesus, and it was only in the forgiveness of Christ and the power of God’s Spirit that his zeal was returned to him, and then some.

Peter had a special knowledge of Jesus that seemed to come before that of the other disciples. When Jesus gave a sermon that went against every cultural norm, many of his followers could not accept his teaching and left. Yet when he turned to the twelve and asked them if they too were going to leave, Peter replied “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 67-69)

For some reason, this bold, deeply flawed man, with all the strength and weakness of his zeal, held the spot of one of Jesus’ closest friends, and he followed him with a stubborn loyalty and a reckless abandon.

Zeal is the often the outworking of God’s promises. When it was prophesied that Judah would go into exile, a promised remained. “For out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant, and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the Lord will perform this.” (2 Kings 19:31) In his zeal for his people, even in the darkest situations, God would save a remnant, bring forth a remnant.

Throughout the Scriptures we see the importance of good, God-given zeal, as well as the dangers and pitfalls of self-important, uninformed and misdirected zeal. Misdirected zeal is devastating. It is heartbreaking. When our zeal is driven by our own blindness, rather than the knowledge of God, it leads us away from God, rather than to Him.

The apostle Paul says in the book of Romans, speaking of his Israelite brothers, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” (Romans 10:2-3) They had a zeal for God, but it was not based in his righteousness. It was not based in the truth of Jesus Christ.

Zeal is a powerful thing, and zeal without knowledge is dangerous. As a late teen studying in a discipleship program, I read the passage above and I was struck with a sober fear. Not an anxiety-ridden fear, but a holy fear. A fear that makes you desperate for Jesus to make you more like Him. Because the fact was I had zeal for the Lord, but I didn’t have knowledge. And I wanted it – oh, I wanted it. I wanted my zeal to be based in more than emotion, to be based in Spirit and Truth.

We see perfect zeal lived out in the life of Christ. When Jesus tears through the temples, tossing tables and driving the underhanded salesmen out, his disciples remember the words of the Psalm, “zeal for Your house will consume me” (John 2:17; Psalm 69:9).

I am convinced that Jesus has a very special place in his heart for the zealots among us – the ones whose passion pushes them to the very edge, who would rather go way too far than not far enough. The ones who will brazenly jump out of the boat, sink and fail and then, after Jesus plucks them up sopping wet and a little shell-shocked, follow Him back into the boat, ready to jump again next time.

Because the crazy thing is, those were his three closest friends. Peter the Rock, and James and John, the Sons of Thunder. Because Jesus modeled perfect zeal. In refusing to turn a blind eye to those being taken advantage of, in throwing over the tables that had desecrated the house of his Father, Jesus taught us to have tremendous zeal for the things of God.

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