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Fanatic zeal or true worship?

Zeal is a good thing – when used correctly. How do you exercise your religion?
Fanaticism, zeal or true worship – how do you exercise your religion? John 8:3-11

It is a known fact that fanaticism can be a factor in the exercise of religion. This happens by focusing on other people’s sin and “offense,” and using a strict ethical and moral standard on others, without applying it to oneself. This hypocrisy is the core of fanaticism.

Fanaticism – Zeal

Fanaticism has been defined as excessive, uncritical zeal. Zeal (or often jealousy) is a term found in the Bible. “… for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God …” Exodus 34:14. “Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously’?” James 4:5. In this sense, jealousy (or, in many other translations, zeal) refers to God’s burning love for people, a love that does not accept or tolerate infidelity and betrayal. Neither the love of marriage nor obligations in many other contexts would normally endure and accept this either.

The Pharisees’ hypocrisy

In John 8 there is a story about Jesus that illustrates this:

“Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?’ This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.” John 8:3-6.

John does not tell us anything about what he wrote, but as the Christian writer Sigurd Bratlie has explained, it may well be that Jesus wrote, “It is also written, ‘You shall not covet!’” (Deuteronomy 5:21)

“So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’ And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” John 8:7-9.

John does not tell us what He wrote the second time ether, but according to Bratlie he may have written: “It is also written in the law. ‘Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law by observing them.’ (Deuteronomy 27:26)

We see that the Pharisees were focused on the sinner and the physical, visible offense. Jesus moved the spotlight away from the sinner to the hidden covetousness and desire that could hide behind the law-abiding and virtuous facade of the Pharisees.

Redemption from the power of sin

It is poignant to see the wisdom that Jesus disarmed the Pharisees with, and how He confronted them with their own sin. Faced with such powerful and convincing righteousness, the Pharisees became guilty in their own eyes, and crept away, ashamed. Since they had not kept themselves clean from the hidden covetousness, they were also subject to the curse.

Jesus did not condemn the woman, but that does not mean that he condoned her sin. “Go and sin no more.” John 8:11. The gospel, the glad tidings, separates the sinner from sin, and redeems the sinner, not only from sin, but also from the power of sin, and thus also from the curse of the law.

Paul, a zealous persecutor and a violent man

The Apostle Paul, who himself was a Jew, gave the Jews witness that they had a zeal for God, but without the proper knowledge – without discernment. (Romans 10:2) He writes about himself, “…concerning zeal, persecuting the church …” (Philippians 3:6)

Further, Paul says: “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Galatians 1:13-14.

His zeal for the law was not directed towards himself, but outwards, against those he believed did not meet the requirements of the law. His zeal was aimed at the “sinners” instead of being zealous to promote the good cause, the fear of the Lord. (Proverbs 23:17)

The exercise of religion must benefit ourselves and our fellow human beings. This misplaced zeal, on the other hand, caused Paul to breathe threats and murder against the disciples. He entered house after house, dragging off men and women and throwing them into prison. (Acts 8:3; Acts 9:1) Here we see an example of the extreme effects fanatic zeal can lead to.

Paul meets the truth

But this was before Paul’s dramatic encounter with Jesus outside Damascus. (Acts 26:12-18) In his ignorance, Paul did not know that the Jesus he was persecuting represented the fulfillment of the law in His person, and that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge were hidden in Him. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul realized that he had fallen far short of fulfilling that same law that he was so zealous that others should fulfil. In his letter to the Romans he asks:

“Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.
You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?
You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?
You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery?
Etc. Romans 2:17-22.

After his repentance, Paul’s focus changed from shining the spotlight on the others, and turned it on himself. In the light of this self-searching, Paul exclaimed. “… let God be true but every man a liar.” Romans 3:4.

Paul gave up his own “righteousness,” which was from the law, and was completely absorbed by the righteousness he could receive through faith in Christ. (Philippians 3:9) He found the way in Jesus’ footsteps, where sin in the flesh, the hidden covetousness or desire, was condemned. By walking according to the leading of the Holy Spirit, the righteous requirement of the law could be fulfilled in him. (Romans 8:3-4)

A total transformation

After Paul told his story before King Agrippa, Agrippa declared that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian. The complete transformation that Paul had experienced in his life then led him to say. “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains.” Acts 26:29. A person who can say something like this in truth clearly has a message of joy, freedom and peace to humanity.

Here we see that the core of fanaticism is hypocrisy, an outer “piety” that covers an inner, hidden sinful and bad life. While fanaticism by its very nature will bring people into bondage under other people’s rules and regulations with fear of punishment, genuine and true worship will lead people to true freedom, joy, peace and harmonious fellowship.

You may be interested in reading more on our topic page about our relationship with God, or in the selected articles below:

Can you say that you are zealous for the Lord?

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