At the end of Titus 2, St. Paul roots his previous injunctions for “reverent behavior,” that which “becomes holiness,” in the incontrovertible fact that God’s grace “has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” (Ti 2:11) The Incarnation of the Son of God is such a paradigmatic event that those who believe in it, and all its wonderful implications, are invited to live in light of it. Every relationship I have here on earth ought to be permeated with the grace that came to earth with redemption in tow. This grace is an active thing. Paul describes it as an “instructing,” reorienting “appearing” that comes from God to reform and redirect all life. (Ti 2:12–13) And that’s when Paul employs a fascinating term to describe what this grace does in the lives of its believers: it makes them “zealous of good works.” (Ti 2:14)
“Zeal,” of course, isn’t a word that is frequently used today. Its seldom uses are often tinged with the negative connotation of one being militant, fanatical, and extremist. Much like how the term “fundamentalist” is viewed nowadays. The notion of being a “zealot” finds its origins in the Maccabean era.1 This class of political, religious, and nationalistic patriots are represented as fanatical devotees to the ritual and law of Judaism, rigorously opposing any deviations from Jewish tradition — so much so, in fact, that they are frequently reported of performing heinous acts and violent crimes in order to uphold their cause. This, of course, makes it all the more interesting to understand that among Jesus’s own apostles was a zealot, “Simon Zelotes,” learned and ministered and had his zeal rightly reordered. (Lk 6:15; Acts 1:13) What’s more, Paul acknowledges in his letter to the Galatians that he was “extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Gal 1:14) He, too, was enamored by the pietistic radicalism passed down from the religionists of old.
All of which captivates me since I have recently come across two different authors writing in two different eras, on different texts of Scripture, engaging the idea of zeal as one that is an essential mark of true Christian religion.
The first comes from the venerable English preacher and theologian, Charles Bridges (1794—1869). Throughout the 19th century, Bridges became one of the most outspoken leaders of the Church of England’s Evangelical party. In his excellent commentary on Psalm 119, he takes time to expound on verse 139 where the psalmists confesses that his “zeal has consumed him.” Bridges contrasts rival zeals, one that consists of “fervent, disinterested affection,” which expands the heart and delights “to unite with the whole empire of God in the pursuit of a good, which all may enjoy without envious rivalry.”2 This, of course, is true, godly zeal. It is an insignia of Christian discipleship, writes Bridges, “enlightened by the word of God, and quickened into operation by the love of Christ, it both shines and warms at the same moment.”3 The other zeal, he continues, “is a selfish, interested principle, contracting the heart, and ready to sacrifice the good of mankind, and even the glory of God, to its own individual advantage.”4 It is a “misguided heat, that spends itself upon the externals of religion . . . wasting its strength upon the subordinate parts of the system” of faith.5 The contrast is abundantly clear, then, with zeals existing on opposite poles: the one desirous of the good of others, the other eager only for its own good.
The second instance comes from renowned Scottish Baptist minister, Alexander Maclaren (1826—1910). Maclaren’s name has become almost synonymous with his incredible expositional legacy. He was an illustrious preacher who purposed everywhere to show the reality of the Christian faith. In a collection of his sermons on Paul’s letter to Titus, Maclaren endeavors to speak to what it means that one is “zealous of good works.” He, too, speaks of opposing zeals — one that “fastens on externals, that tries to enforce specific acts of conduct, that is devoted to ceremony and regulations and red tape”6; and one that is “desirous of being beautiful and pure and true and noble and Christlike, to be panting after perfection, and casting ourselves with all the energy of our nature into the work of growing like Christ.”7 These passions are incongruous with one another. I cannot be zealous for my own gain while also zealous for my neighbor’s benefit. Such, I think, is what Jesus himself refers to when declares that the human heart is incapable of having two masters. (Mt 6:24)
All of which to say that I wish the concept “genuine zeal” would find popularity again among Christian congregations. We of all people have every right and reason imaginable for which to be zealous. “An indifferent Christian,” writes Maclaren, “who believes in sin and in redemption and in an incarnate Christ and in a sacrifice on the Cross and in a Divine Spirit and in a future Judgment and remains cold, is all but an impossibility; he is a contradiction in terms, and a living monster.”8 The yuletide season we’re celebrating right now is, perhaps, the best incendiary for religious fervor. Singing of my Savior King “away in a manger” ought to arouse my zeal for this marvelous, mysterious gospel of God’s grace that “has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” (Ti 2:11)
Therefore, at the crux of the conversation surrounding the idea of zeal is, likewise, the crux of all Christian religion. Zeal is only as good as the object or cause which it upholds, and from which it derives all its energy. “Zeal is a passion,” Bridges asserts, “whose real character must be determined by the objects on which it is employed, and the principle by which it is directed.”9 Such is what English churchman Octavius Winslow is getting at when he writes:
You are, my reader, either for Christ, or you are against Christ. In this great controversy between Christ and Satan, you are not an indifferent and unconcerned spectator.10
The question at hand, then, isn’t whether or not zeal itself is good. Rather, for what (or Whom) am I zealous? We are all zealous for one thing or another, but what is it that captivates my emotions, energies, and activities? What steals my attention as the hours, days, and years flit by? I pray that my zeal would be recast onto its true and proper Object, onto the Grace that comes to all to be the ransom for all.
See the Apocryphal reference 4 Macc 18:12; cf. Num 25:11.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 366.
Alexander Maclaren, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon & Hebrews (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1910), 186.
Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus: As Unfolded in the Eighth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 24.