Some people throw up quietly. I don’t know how they do it. When I am sick I’m noisy! The whole house knows about it. It’s an occasion; an event. I am told that vomiting is one of the most violent reactions our bodies ever experience. It’s contrary to nature. It’s an explosive rejection of what has been swallowed.
Jesus, writing via John to the Laodicean church, had an issue with them. Somehow their devotion had drifted. Their heartfelt passion had waned. They were simply going through the motions and hoped that that would suffice.
Amazingly, they were keeping church going without realising that Jesus was actually outside, patiently knocking, awaiting entry. They hadn’t noticed that they were doing church without Jesus! Of course it had been boring. Their worship was lukewarm and Jesus hated it so much that he threatened to vomit them out, remove their lamp stand and close them down.
He wanted them hot
He wanted them hot! He even preferred cold to lukewarm. Somehow cold was more acceptable. Lukewarm masquerading as hot was revolting.
Would you call yourself hot? I remember the first video I saw from the renewal at Pensacola in 1995. One girl who was interviewed told the story of her former spiritual indifference and how God had come to her. As she concluded, she looked at the camera and stated simply, ‘I’m hot now!’
Jesus was hot. Zeal for his Father’s house consumed him. Doing the Father’s will was everything to him. Nothing else really mattered.
Sometimes he was so focused that he seemed offensive. Told that his mother and brothers were outside waiting for him, Jesus asked, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’ They reckoned he was beside himself.
His zeal for his Father got him into trouble continuously. He made it very clear to the Pharisees what he thought of them – whited sepulchres containing men’s bones, blind leaders of the blind, brood of vipers, hypocrites, fools and blind men, gnat strainers and camel swallowers. Zeal for his Father meant no truck with them, no compromise with their religious nonsense. It meant that they could not trick him with their occasional attempts at oily flattery. He penetrated their disguise with frightening accuracy and devastating judgment.
His zeal also meant that his disciples often found life uncomfortable. It was no party being around Jesus. Where was their faith? Why did they fear? How slow they were to understand! Striding ahead of them to go to Jerusalem, he left them amazed. When Peter tried to suggest a safer path, his suggestion received a frightening rebuttal. Satan was discerned as its author and summarily dismissed.
Who can stand?
Zeal can be frightening. Its lack of compromise can make us feel very uncovered and naked. Lamps devoid of oil can go undetected for a while, but, when the bridegroom comes, empty lamps are sheer folly. The one-talent man who safely preserves his talent is dismissed as ‘wicked and lazy’.
As Malachi warned, ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…but who can stand when he appears…?’ (Mal. 3:1-2)
Whatever happened to gentle Jesus meek and mild? Of course he invited the weary to come to him and find rest for their soul, to be yoked to him and discover that he is meek and lowly of heart. But ‘meek and lowly’ must not be misunderstood or reinterpreted to mean easygoing and laid back.
On the other hand, ‘zealous’ does not mean unapproachable, distant and preoccupied. The woman caught in the act of adultery may well have anticipated stoning, but she encountered breathtaking tenderness. Christ’s zeal was burning in an unexpected way. Where did the chief sin lie? What hypocrisy had led to her being thrown down before him? His flaming eyes were directed elsewhere.
John the Baptist, himself a model of prophetic zeal, in the loneliness of his cell heard stories of Christ’s friendship with sinners, partying with the unacceptable.
What was going on? John was thoroughly confused. He had promised that compared with his water baptism Jesus would baptise with fire! Table fellowship with moral trash did not fit the bill! His disciples shared his confusion when they quizzed Jesus’ disciples, ‘How come you don’t fast while we and the Pharisees do?’
Jesus’ reply to John’s perplexed enquiry was to point out that he was actually completely fulfilling the Father’s will. The blind were receiving their sight, the lame were walking, lepers cleansed, deaf hearing and even the dead were raised (Luke 7:22). John the Baptist had been defining zeal from his own particular perspective; Christ’s zeal was far more complex than John had anticipated.
Paul recognised misplaced zeal among his contemporary Jews. He acknowledged that they had ‘zeal for God’ but showed that it was sadly wasted. Zeal has to be properly directed. Without a proper goal it is mere heat. It needs a God-given goal and a God-ordained channel. Failing to embrace Christ’s righteousness as a gift, they were striving to produce their own, based on law.
Paul saw this as worse than a waste of time. He now regarded his former religious zeal as a Pharisee as a pile of steaming dung compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. What he formerly regarded as appropriate religious zeal in persecuting the church and legal blamelessness he now understood to be loss for the sake of Christ.
Now all his zeal would be spent pursuing the knowledge of Christ. He wanted to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings. Never regarding himself as having arrived, he was pressing on, forgetting what was behind and eagerly reaching forward to what lay ahead. In spite of his amazing accomplishments, he never regarded it as time to sit back and ‘go with the flow’.
The only faithful one
Finally, we must beware of ‘self-conscious’ zeal. Peter was sure that though others might fail Christ he would not. Elijah confessed to being ‘very zealous for the Lord’ and saw himself as the only faithful one left. Both came terribly unstuck! Their claim to unique zeal compared with others was misguided, and needed correction and repentance. But notice their arrogance did not finally disqualify them. Both were reinstated. Both were tenderly wooed by a fresh awareness of God’s love and a fresh invitation to serve. Surely nothing can compare with a clear view of Christ’s love and tenderness to rekindle zeal that has flagged.
Jesus stood at the door of the Laodicean church. Certainly their lukewarmness had revolted him, but he still waited patiently, knocking, longing to be freshly invited into the heart of any who heard his voice.
He would come in and sup with them. He would remind them of his love and acceptance, his ability to rekindle their passions. We love because he first loved us. Our zeal is a response to his. We can’t simply manufacture it. Let his love capture you afresh! Let his personal delight in you stir and rekindle the fire! As Horatio Bonar said in his great old hymn:-
God is love. ‘Tis not by effort
Thou shalt ere that love return
‘Tis the consciousness, he loves thee
This shall cause thy heart to burn!