Etymology is a fascinating discipline. You can learn a lot about culture change and the fluidity of social norms by tracing the evolution of specific words within a language.
Take for example the word ‘zealot’. The popular use of this term has become increasingly acerbic in our lifetime. Listening to the mainstream news media you’d come to the conclusion that being referred to as a ‘zealot’ is not such a good thing. On whichever side of the growing socio-political chasm you consider yourself, chances are there are individuals and groups on the ‘other side’ whom you deem to be ‘dangerous zealots’.
It’s a shame, really. If being characterised as a zealot is such an ‘evil’ thing, what’s the alternative? Mediocrity, complacency and apathy? How do those words sound to you?
It’s strange that our society has so quickly forgotten its history. The historical figures we respect, admire and seek to emulate the most were almost always single minded, passionate and determined to push through for a noble cause, no matter the challenges thrown in their path.
Think of Galileo who defied all ‘science’ and convention of his day to doggedly pursue his belief that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around. Or Martin Luther who fought against the Pope and the entire Catholic Church to preach salvation by grace alone through faith alone (cf. Eph. 2:8-9). Or his namesake, Martin Luther King Jr. who gave his life for the cause of equal rights for all people, irrespective of the colour of their skin.
Guess what? They all fit the classical definition of a ‘zealot’: “a person who shows fervour for a person, cause, or object; eager desire or endeavor; enthusiastic diligence; ardour.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Who wouldn’t want to be thought of as “eager”, “diligent” and “enthusiastic”?
If I’m looking to hire a new employee, what qualities will I seek? I can assure you it won’t be mediocrity, complacency and apathy.
As Christians we are called to be zealous. Zealous for good works (cf. Titus 2:11-15), zealous for the name and reputation of our Lord (cf. 1 King 19:10; Mark 11:15-17) and zealous for our faith in Jesus, as we read in our devotional passage (Rev. 3:19).
Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle, said it well:
Zeal is a subject, like many others in religion, most sadly misunderstood. Many would be ashamed to be thought ‘zealous’ Christians. Many are ready to say of zealous people what Festus said of Paul: ‘They are beside themselves,—they are mad.’ (Acts xxvi. 24). But zeal is a subject which no reader of the Bible has any right to pass over. If we make the Bible our rule of faith and practice, we cannot turn away from it. We must look it in the face… I believe we ought not to be afraid of it, but rather to love and admire it. I believe it to be a mighty blessing to the world, and the origin of countless benefits to mankind. I want to strike a blow at the lazy, easy, sleepy Christianity of these latter days, which can see no beauty in zeal, and only uses the word ‘zealot’ as a word of reproach. I want to remind Christians that ‘Zealot’ was a name given to one of our Lord Jesus Christ’s Apostles, and to persuade them to be zealous men.
It comes down to priorities and commitment. It comes down to who, or what, we worship. True worship requires 100% commitment. It requires courage and a willingness to stand up and stand firm for what we believe.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16)
Too many of us who call ourselves ‘Christians’ are in practice only part-time pretenders. We’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced by our modern culture of consumerism and egocentrism. We want to keep our options open, unwilling to commit to anything or anyone. And when we do choose to dip our toe in the waters of our Christian faith, it has to be the drive-through, fast-food variety. Quick and easy to digest and not likely to offend our ‘politically correct’ sensibilities. Attempting to accommodate all other world views, we end up standing for nothing.
Jesus had a dramatic response to this type of Christianity. We read it in our devotional passage:
“'I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16)
Is that how we want the Creator of the universe to respond to our version of Christianity?
Cold water is good for life-giving replenishment. Hot water is good for life-preserving purification. What’s lukewarm water good for? Growing life-sapping bacteria.
At the risk of losing those with attention spans more accustomed to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, I once again turn to one of the great theologians of the 19th century, J.C. Ryle:
Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire which no man feels by nature,—which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted,—but which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called “zealous” men. This desire is so strong, when it really reigns in a man, that it impels him to make any sacrifice,—to go through any trouble,—to deny himself to any amount,—to suffer, to work, to labour, to toil,—to spend himself and be spent, and even to die,—if only he can please God and honour Christ… A zealous man in religion is pre-eminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say that he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, whole-hearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God.
For all the wonderful example of zealousness in the Bible (e.g. Enoch; Noah; Abraham; Moses; Daniel; Elijah; John the Baptist; Paul), one mercifully stands out above all the rest… beyond measure:
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:3-5)
If like me you don’t feel like you measure up to the call to be zealous for the Lord, just open the door of your heart and let Jesus in to do the work only He is qualified to do.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with Me on My throne, as I also conquered and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'” (Rev. 3:20-22)