Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Zeal

by John D Ramsey

Throughout the last week, we have watched the Olympics at our house. Our data projector and large screen in the basement make the drama of competition even more theatrical. The girls like to take popcorn with them when they watch in the evening.

Among the athletes of Olympic caliber, the quality that I admire most is zeal. Zeal comes from the same root word as jealous. Although envy is often labeled jealousy, they are distinctly different. In fact, Jealous is merely a variant spelling of zealous. If there is a distinction between zealous and jealous, zeal is jealousy with feet. Envy wants what is yours while jealousy protects what is mine or lays hold of what is precious to me. Zealous athletes train intensely so that they may compete successfully to win. They are jealous of their own success. A zealous athlete can still be gracious in defeat while an envious athlete is the occasional poor sport. Zeal wants to accomplish victory whereas envy merely seeks the reward.

I was pleasantly surprised when I watched Chris Collinsworth’s interview with Kobe Bryant. The Wall Street Journal noticed, too. It was touching to hear that the sight of his Olympic uniform overwhelmed an athlete who has lingered at the pinnacle of success. When Collinsworth questioned him, Kobe summarized his sentiment saying, “This is a tremendous honor.” It is right that he should feel that way. If he were nonchalant about wearing a USA jersey before the eyes of the world, he should have stayed at home. Kobe Bryant exhibits zeal for his country and his sport.

It has been many years since I participated in competitive sports of any kind. Yet I think that I have tasted the zeal for winning in spite of pain. I remember running a middle distance race when a competitor took an early lead. I caught up and passed him because I feared that if I did not lead I would not get another opportunity to catch up. For the rest of the race I could hear his feet behind me step for step. Neither of us would relinquish the race to the other, and we both achieved our personal best times. When we talked afterward, he told me that he usually started fast and then after building his lead relaxed in to a lighter pace. I usually raced differently, staying with the pack until the last 200 yards when I rolled into a sprint. His early lead made me modify my race, and my persistence made him modify his. Had we not both been jealous of the win, neither would have accomplished as much.

Among the heroes of the Old Testament, the zeal of Elisha stands out. When Elijah called him to serve, Elisha sacrificed his oxen and burned his plow. There was no turning back. Before Elijah was taken into heaven, Elisha would not turn back. He would not leave Elijah's side though he knew that Elijah's ministry was complete. Fifty other prophets stayed on the western bank of the Jordan, but Elisha crossed over with Elijah as the river divided in front of them.

In his zeal, Elisha asked for a double portion of Spirit that was upon Elijah. When God took Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Elisha knew that Elijah was indeed the strength of Israel. Yet Elisha was zealous to become greater. He had asked for a double portion of God's Spirit. He was jealous for what was most precious to him.

After Elijah disappeared from sight, Elisha duplicated the last miracle of Elijah, approaching the Jordan River and crying out, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” and striking the waters of the Jordan with Elijah’s cloak. The water parted and he crossed over.

Elisha performed many other miracles in the name of the Lord including raising the Shunammite woman’s son from the dead. Late in his life, when Elisha was sick and dying, the king of Israel, Joash, came to him weeping, crying aloud, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Nevertheless, Joash was not zealous for the God of Israel; rather, he was envious of Elisha’s power. Elisha tested him accordingly. He had him take his bow and shoot an arrow through the open window. Elisha said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, even the arrow of victory over Aram; for you will defeat the Arameans at Aphek until you have destroyed them.”
2 Kings 13:17 (NASB)

Then Elisha had Joash take arrows from his quiver and strike the ground. Joash complied striking the ground three times. Elisha became angry and said, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would have struck Aram until you would have destroyed it. But now you shall strike Aram only three times.” 2 Kings 13:19 (NASB) Elisha could see that Joash lacked zeal. His heart was not right before God. In fact, 2 Kings 13:11 says, “He did evil in the sight of the LORD”. The king’s lament for Elisha was a mendacious attempt to elicit Elisha's blessing. Joash only wanted the power; he lacked the zeal to accomplish what the Lord would have him to do. Although God was merciful, Israel’s victory over Aram was incomplete.

Inserted into this record is a remarkable account; it is as if Elisha had one more miracle left in him. If he could not impart the Spirit of God to the king of Israel, he still had to impart it to someone. After Elisha died and was buried (or entombed), men came to bury a dead man. They spotted marauders from Moab, and rather than taking care to bury their friend, they tossed him into Elisha’s grave. “When the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.” 2 Kings 13:21 (NASB) The zeal of Elisha persisted even after his death. Even his bones testified to the power of God to save!

As believers, about what or whom are we to be zealous? The Apostle Paul wrote,

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, [I became] as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, [I became] as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NASB)

Paul lived among many kinds of people. He was a Jew. He was a Roman citizen. He was a teacher, and he was a tradesman. He debated philosophy and religion in Athens. Yet, all that he did, he did for the sake of the Gospel.
  • What are we willing to do for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
  • For what are we most zealous?
  • Whom do we know who is zealous for the Gospel?
  • If we lack zeal for the Gospel, where will we find it?
Elisha served Elijah. Paul spent the three years after his conversion in Arabia. Their zeal was first evidenced by their diligence to know God. It is there where we, too, must begin. We must first know Jesus to know the power of his resurrection. Knowing his power will fill us with the zeal to serve him as he calls us to do.

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