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Series Theme: Meditations in Galatians
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Meditation No. 20


Meditation Title: Dubious Zealousness


Gal 4:18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good


We don't tend to speak much about ‘zeal' or ‘zealousness' in modern life; they don't tend to be modern words. Zeal is usually defined as “intense enthusiasm, as when working for a cause, ardent endeavour or devotion, ardour, fervour.” It means going all out for a cause. As Christians when we think of zealous Christians or Christians full of zeal, we tend to think in positive terms, but is zeal always a good thing? The truth is that we can probably think of ‘causes' that we don't think are good, and so the people who are zealous for those causes we would consider misguided.

Paul now refers to such people when he addresses these Christians in Galatia who have had Jewish believers coming to them seeking to get them to conform to Jewish norms: “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good.” (v.17a) Oh yes, these people, these Jews from Jerusalem, came with great zeal and when we encounter zeal it is very easy to get swept up in it but, says Paul, this zeal of theirs was not good (implied) and does not bring good. In fact, he goes on, “What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them.” (v.17b) Those Jewish believers, holding on to Jewish things from the past, actually think Paul is misguided in his Gospel and so want to separate off these believers in Galatia from him. They think he is a bad influence, teaching wrong things, so they have come teaching something else and that puts Paul in a bad light and drives a wedge between he and the Galatian believers. Paul will not stand for that, hence this letter, after all he is their spiritual father.

But did you notice the closing words of that last verse? “so that you may be zealous for them.” Those intruders from the south are not only zealous themselves for what is false, but they want the Galatian believers similarly to be zealous for it. Hold on, says Paul, “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you.” (v.18). I'm all for zeal, he says, as long as your purpose or your cause is good. I would be the first to encourage zeal for a good cause, but you've got to check it and make sure it is a good cause. I introduced you to a good cause (implied) and so of course I want you to be zealous, both when I am with you and when I am not. I want you to continue to be just as zealous for the Gospel when I have to leave you as when I was able to be with you.

He anguishes with them as a father: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you….” (v.19) Actually this is more the language of a mother expecting a baby. He uses the imagery of coming to Christ as of coming to birth. As an evangelist he would have been in anguish to see them ‘born again' but as an apostle he wants to see them matured and going on strongly with Christ. He doesn't want their growth to be stunted by anything; he doesn't want their development in Christ to be set back by false teaching. That leaves him in the same anguish. He yearns for them to go on in the Lord and when he sees or hears of things hindering that, he anguishes over it. He yearns to be with them in the flesh again: “how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” (v.20) i.e. if only I was able to be with you we could talk these things out and I could show you the error of what is happening and clear all this up, so I would no longer feel like this, no longer feel perplexed and wondering whatever has happened, whatever is going on.

The question of zeal raises several questions. The first and obvious one is have we got it right, this cause for which we are so zealous? The letter to the Galatians is a warning to us whenever we become zealous, full of zeal, to check that our enthusiasm is for a right thing. There are many cults around who have gone of the rails of orthodoxy and, oh how zealous they are – but wrong!

Another question might be, is our zeal balanced by righteousness of character. My wife is a teacher and so often observes in young pupils who are Christians, a zeal to speak out for the Lord, and yet so often they are not examples to follow; they are not good workers, they are not conscientious, they do not hand work in on time, they do not join in class discussions, in fact they do not stand out well for the Lord. But it is not only young people; there are many older Christians who are zealous to share the Lord but they are not good witnesses in life. Indeed often the way they seek to share the Gospel is brash and arrogant. It should not be.

But what about all those Christians for whom their faith is ‘Sunday morning only'? Oh, if only there WAS a zeal for their Lord! How we sometimes need shaking up, shaking out of our complacency or out of our self-absorbed lives! Let's not just point fingers at those who have got a wrong zeal, or those who fail to accompany their zeal with grace; let's check ourselves out. Is my life filled with a passion for the Lord, a passion to share His love, a passion to see others enter into the wonder of a relationship with Him? May it be so!