What is zeal in the Bible? Zeal moves beyond mere passion to having a great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective. Although we can be zealous for various causes (e.g., Simon the Zealot, Paul’s zeal for the law before meeting Christ), Scripture encourages us to cultivate zeal for serving Christ through good works.
At the beginning of this year, my sister-in-law let our family know that she was running the half marathon in Indianapolis. The Indy Mini Marathon is a race that brings tens of thousands of people each year to downtown Indy to wreak havoc on their bodies for 13.1 miles and then get free beer samples afterward. My wife Marissa had run the Mini before, but it had been a few years. In the last few years, she often mentioned running it again. When our sister-in-law said she had signed up, I saw it as an opportunity to challenge Marissa a little bit and to push her to do it.
Eventually, she paid to enter the race and started preparing. Her training regimen included running four times a week for about 8-10 weeks before the race. She would run 4-6 miles during the week, and then her Saturdays were longer runs ranging anywhere from 8-11 miles.
“She would run 4-6 miles during the week, and then her Saturdays were longer runs ranging anywhere from 8-11 miles.”
Now, if you’re a runner and have run a half marathon before, you may think this isn’t a daunting task. You train for 2 months in advance, work your way up to 11 or 12 miles, and on race day you push yourself to do those extra couple to finish it out. Unless physically unable, you may think to yourself, “Hmmm…I bet I could do that.” And I found myself saying that exact thing as she was training. When people asked me if I was running with her, I would respond with the implication that I could if I wanted to. I truly believed that if I sought to run this half marathon, then I could train and do it.
The difference between my wife and me is that she actually did it.
Marissa has a passion to run, and she has been doing it for much of her life. When it came down to running a somewhat difficult race, she had a desire to accomplish that goal. It would build her up physically and mentally. She could run with friends, and it allowed her to explore different areas of the city. She had more than just a short-lived passion; she had the inclination and emotion within her that motivated her to do it.
“The difference between my wife and me is that she actually did it.”
Anyone can have a passion for something. I can have the passion to wake up at 5 a.m. every day, read my Bible for 30 minutes, pray for 30 minutes, walk my dog, work out, and cook breakfast for my family, all before I have to go to work. These are all activities and disciplines that would be healthy and beneficial for my family and me. But a better question—indeed, the real question—is, do I have the zeal to actually do it?
The definition of passion is to have a strong and barely controllable emotion toward something. The definition of zeal is to have a great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective. In the Greek, zeal comes from a couple words: zelos (noun), meaning “excitement of mind, fervor of spirit, ardor, fierceness” (as well as its adjective equivalent zēlōtēs, which can mean to be “most eagerly desirous of a thing and to acquire it”) and spoude, which can mean “haste, earnestness, diligence.” You can have great momentary passion for anything, speaking about it and even stirring other people’s hearts toward it—but when it comes to putting that passion to action, that’s where zeal comes in.
“You can have great momentary passion for anything, speaking about it and even stirring other people’s hearts toward it—but when it comes to putting that passion to action, that’s where zeal comes in.”
Think about “zealots” for example. Simon the Zealot was one of Jesus’ disciples. Simon was a part of a political movement in the 1st century A.D. to rebel against the power of the Roman Empire in Israel. They were tired of the oppression. They were passionate about reestablishing Jewish culture and rule and driving Rome out of Judea. But they weren’t just passionate about it. They formed a new Jewish sect along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes. The goal of the Zealots was not to rebel against the Roman Empire by simply talking about the oppression, but to take action and expel the Roman Empire from their land by force of arms. They put their passion to action.
The apostle Paul also knew about zeal, referencing it several times in his writing. He mentions his zeal for Judaism: “And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14, ESV). Obviously, we eventually see a transformation in Paul where he becomes zealous for Jesus Christ and the spreading of the gospel. But Paul first had the zeal to further his belief in Judaism to the point of persecuting Christians, because he was passionate about it and then put that passion to action. We see it later in his letter to Titus about how our passion must turn to action because of Jesus, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14, ESV).
Zeal in the Bible: “[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11, ESV), and to the church in Corinth, he wrote, “So also you—since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, seek to excel in building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12, CSB).
Paul’s life exemplified zeal. To take it even further, he wasn’t just passionate about writing about zeal, we see him clearly living it out! All of these references to zeal contribute to the faithful life he lived:
“I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 4:12-14, NLT).
Zeal in the Bible: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
Marissa had ups and downs in her training plan. There were days when she was excited to run the 8 or 9 miles, and there were days when she would rather jump off a cliff than spend her day running any distance whatsoever. There were days where she was excited to share her training journey with me and also days when she didn’t want me to keep her accountable.
Our own spiritual journeys with God are usually marked by those same seasons or waves of emotion. In some seasons we can be on fire and in tune with the Spirit and aware of what God is doing in our life. Other seasons may seem like we’re constantly fighting temptations and struggling to find a spiritual routine. It’s in those spiritually low seasons where God reminds me of zeal, the spiritual grit, that the power of the Holy Spirit gives me. It’s in the midst of temptation that I “press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.”
I must choose to put what I believe into action and commit to pursuing that action. The passion to pursue my relationship with Jesus rarely goes away even in my low seasons. I still long to have a spiritual routine and a desire to overcome temptation, but do I have it in me to take action to stop being stagnant? Do I have the spiritual grit to not just set an alarm to read Scripture in the morning, but actually get out of bed when that alarm goes off? Do I have the spiritual grit to not just tell myself that I need to be serving my wife better, but to actually serve my wife?
Zeal in the Bible: “It’s in those spiritually low seasons where God reminds me of zeal, the spiritual grit, that the power of the Holy Spirit gives me.”
Sometimes our problem is more than lack of zeal (feeling content with mere passion); it’s having misplaced zeal. As in, sometimes we can have zeal trained on something besides what is good and true. In Romans 10:1-2, Paul describes the misplaced zeal of his fellow countrymen who thought they were pursuing God but persisted in rejecting Jesus: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (ESV). Our zeal needs to be grounded in reality as revealed by God in his Word. Mindless zeal takes us nowhere good. Just as it is a temptation to settle for momentary passion instead of devoted zeal, so it is a temptation to fall for misplaced zeal.
So, what’s that habit you’ve been telling yourself you ought to do in order to grow your relationship with Jesus or with other people? That thing that you’ve been telling yourself you could do but just haven’t? Maybe you’re passionate about it. You talk about it. You pray about it. But what are you going to do today to see that thing through? Our walk with Christ is rarely smooth and easy. But Paul assures us of the joy and blessing that we receive from walking in obedience to God and urges us to grow our desire to commune with God and allow him to transform our hearts. In his words:
“Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:13b-14, NLT).