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Zealous or Jealous

Sermon passage: (Acts 13:44-52) Spoken on: June 30, 2013
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Acts

Tags: Acts, 使徒行传

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Sermon on Acts 13:44-52

If you recall from our passage last week, the ministry of Paul in this city was off to a very good start. In verse 42, 42 As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. Paul was speaking about the restoration of the Davidic kingship in the form of Jesus Christ. The Jews and the proselytes enjoyed the good news. Then we were told in verse 44, 44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. “They began to contradict what Paul was saying”. This is the part that interested me the most. I’m trying to decipher what caused the sudden change in attitude for the Jews. They were friendly in the previous Sabbath, but turned hostile when the crowds came in the next Sabbath.

So I wondered if it has to do with the jealousy that Luke was describing in these Jews. What is this jealousy? What I discovered is that this word encapsulates a dual nature of feelings: Zelos (ζῆλος). Etymologically, it is the root word of two English words Zealous and Jealous. When used positively, it is translated as zeal. It describes the zeal towards a cause, or the zeal towards an organization or a tradition. But when translated negatively, it becomes jealousy. Now, this is interesting because in Christianity, zeal is one of the Christian virtues. [1] We are told to be zealous for God. This is how we know that Zeal is important for our Christian faith. When Jesus was purifying the Temple from becoming a marketplace, John recorded that the disciples remembered Psalm 69:9. In John 2:17, His disciples remembered that it was written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus was whipping his whip in righteous anger.

I like what an author wrote about Zeal: “The reason good Christians do nothing (about evil) is because of this casual attitude toward sin. Zeal is really a function of one’s outrage at sin, just as anger is a natural reaction to injustice. Of course anger is also dangerous, since we are far more willing to be outraged at injustices to ourselves than to others. The same with zeal, which becomes fanaticism when we are more outraged at others’ sins than our own. But a refusal to acknowledge sin at all, in either ourselves or others, has led to the crisis the Church faces today. Without zeal, Christianity becomes a hollow shell of itself.” [2]

Zeal is a Christian virtue because it expresses our fervor for God’s will. We need to be championing his righteous laws for humanity. And we need to be outraged against sinfulness. Zeal is the positive side of Zelos. However, perhaps in our passage today, Zelos can also be expressed negatively in the form of jealousy. This is when our intensive love causes us to become possessive or even abusive. Recently I was watching this Korean variety show called Mamma Mia. It is a talk show where celebrities would attend with their mothers. This mother shared about how she introduced a pretty girl in her church to her son. The girl was someone who came back from abroad recently. So the son went on a date, bought flowers for the girl and came back excited. Her son and the girl decided to date. Then the mother confessed, “But the problem was me. I suddenly felt strange. It felt like I lost him.” Son continued, “We dated for a while. When I said we were going out, she got upset. ‘Don’t go. Don’t leave me.’” Mother said, “I even asked him if he liked her or me.” After all the talk show guests had a good laugh, the mother concluded, “I want him to continue dating her. I’m trying to control my feelings.”

I believe this is a feeling that is familiar to most of us, maybe more so for mothers and their mommy’s boys. It often begins in a good way. It could be love for someone. Or it could be passion for something. And because it is so good, you want to share it. But then you slowly realize that sharing is not so good after all. ‘Cause when you share it, it is no longer yours alone. I’m sure that many of us must have felt this way about something or someone before. Maybe it was a friend who became popular with other friends. Maybe it was a pet project that involved more and more people. You had passion for it, yet your jealousy was roused when you could not have full possession of it.

I was intrigued by this dual nature of Zelos, and I researched further its use in the Bible. And I found that it is used repeatedly by Paul to describe the Jews or some of the more extreme Jewish Christians. Paul said this in Galatians 4: 17 Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. 18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. 19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

In these verses, you can feel the zeal of Paul for the Christians in Galatia. He wants to be with them. He wants to teach them personally so that they can grow and mature spiritually. “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good.” This is the key difference between the two sides of Zelos, being zealous or being jealous. The difference lies in your true purpose. Besides Paul, there is another group zealous for these Christians in Galatia, “but for no good”. Their zeal is in the form of jealousy. “What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.” This Zeal is actually possessiveness.

Let’s return to the story in our passage today. When the Jews saw the big crowd turning out to hear Paul, translated literally, the Jews were filled with “Zelos”. At this juncture, the term is still very neutral. Is it zeal or is it jealousy? Maybe Paul was describing their zeal? Maybe their zeal for God would cause them to praise God for the mass turnout to hear the gospel. Maybe their zeal would make them participate in the evangelism to the entire city. As you can imagine, this passion, if channeled positively, would have driven them to do great works for God. But this zeal became jealousy. “They began to contradict what Paul was saying”. What exactly is this contradiction? We were given a clue in verse 39 onwards. This is probably the most displeasing part of Paul’s message for the Jews.

39 Through (Jesus) everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. 40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: 41 “‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’”

From the actions of the Jews, we see that they did indeed became scoffers as the prophets have said. What they were refusing to believe is “a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses”. This was the source of their zeal, and the source of their jealousy. They held dear the justification that came from the law of Moses. How could there be another such form of justification? A justification that even bypasses Judaism?

This was how Paul described them in Romans 10: Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

When “zeal is not based on knowledge”, it easily becomes jealousy because we put our zeal on the wrong things. In the case of the Jews, their zeal for God was dependent on the Law and the Temple. Allow me to describe the situation from their perspective. The fall of Judah and the exile was a harsh lesson for the chosen people of God. And when they returned from exile, Ezra re-established the Law and Nehemiah rebuilt the Temple. So you can now see why these two things became synonymous with the covenant with God. They were the closest things they had to gain the righteousness of God. Yet Paul preaches a gospel that bypasses all these. “4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

This may serve as a good reminder about where we put our zeal in our faith. As a pastor, I receive quite a few pieces of advice on how to manage the church. Some will tell me this is the best form of worship. Or this is the best way to do cell groups. Or this is the best method for Christian families. Or this is the most important ministry. I can sense the passion of their beliefs, and I must admit that it has borne fruits for them, otherwise they would not have been such strong advocates. But zeal easily becomes jealousy. The telltale sign is what happens when they encounter a competing philosophy. They cannot believe that other form of worship songs can be equally edifying. Or that strong faith can grow out of broken families. Simply put, they cannot believe in a righteousness that bypasses their own method to God. When you see their disbelief towards God’s works, that’s when you wonder, if their zeal is actually misplaced. It is just zeal for themselves, zeal for their own methods of righteousness.

I believe this is what happened with the Jews, and why Luke used the word Zelos to describe them. Initially, they were enthusiastic out of the zeal of their own faith. But zeal turned into jealousy when their faith seemed threatened or sidestepped. So this is now my main concern: what can we do to avoid a similar pitfall in our zeal for God? How can we avoid ending up like these Jews who are “zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge”?

When I relooked at our passage today, I noticed that there is a phrase repeated 4 times, and that is “the Word of the Lord”. Acts 13: 44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. 49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.

When the phrase is highlighted and the text arranged in order, you can observe that it was the word of the Lord that made the difference. The word arrived into the city and the word spread. Those who reject the word, also reject eternal life. Those who honor the word were appointed for eternal life. This is because the word of the Lord is life. It is what gives life and sustains life. And so when Paul speaks of zeal without knowledge, it is likewise zeal without the knowledge of God’s word. If the Jews had good knowledge of God’s word, then they would have avoided jealousy in their zeal. It is in God’s will that the Gentiles also be saved. Paul quotes from Isaiah 49.

Isaiah 49: 5 And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—
6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

It may seem a little unfair to fault the Jews for their knowledge of the word because the Scriptures are so extensive and multi-varied. But knowledge of the Word includes not just the Scriptures, but also revelations that comes in the form of God’s works. We can be somewhat excused when we are ignorant of certain parts of the Scriptures, but when we are presented with God’s works, we must discern them and acknowledge them. Verse 45 can be translated in two different ways.

NIV: 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.
NASV: But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming.
CNVT: 45 猶太人看見這麼多人,就滿心嫉妒,反駁保羅所講的,並且毀謗他們。
Union: 45 但犹太人看见人这样多,就满心嫉妒,硬驳保罗所说的话,并且毁谤。

The question here is whether the abuse/ blasphemy was towards Paul or towards God. I prefer the latter interpretation. What the Jews were doing was to deny the works of God through Jesus Christ, the works of God through the Holy Spirit and the Apostles, and that was the blasphemy. In short, their zeal was without knowledge, it was without knowledge of the Scriptures, it was without knowledge of God’s works. This was why they could not see the justification that comes from Jesus Christ. This was why their zeal turned into jealousy.

Today, we must be wary of this and guard our zeal for God with the word of the Lord. I believe many of us in Jubilee are zealous for God. I see it in our participation in the various ministries. I see it in our offering and support for mission work. But I also believe that God’s wonder is boundless, and his grace often surpasses our knowledge and our expectations. When we guard with the word of the Lord, we make sure that bad things are kept out, but we must also make sure that good things can go in! So let’s keep an open mind in our quest to know God and to co-work with him. Let our knowledge be renewed and refreshed in his revelations to us. Let’s us be zealous; but not jealous due to unnecessary sacred cows. When God’s word sweeps through this community and this city, we are ready and we honor his word.

At the end of today’s passage, we are told of the departure of Paul from the city. 51 So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. “This custom is a way of signalling that responsibility for an action is with the people or town. It portrays leaving defilement behind and moving on. In the other words, no trace of their presence is left, even on their feet.” [3] This action of shaking the dust off their feet reminds me of a dance action by the Korean group Super Junior. In their song Sorry Sorry, there is an action where they hit their shoes like shaking the dust off their feet. Somehow in my mind, I see an imagery of Paul and Barnabas saying Sorry Sorry to the city as they dust their feet in departure. I want to leave you this imagery also as a reminder to all of us.

我们华人有一句成语叫“擦身而过”。福音与恩典同样也可能“擦身而过”。想像福音已经到你身边,甚至到你跟前。但是就因为一些陈见,一些执着,一些私念,就这样擦身而过。岂不可惜吗? Guard your hearts so that it may be opened to the word of the Lord. Or else the grace of God may just brush by us without leaving a trace. In the end, it is just Sorry Sorry to us.

[3] Bock, Acts (ECNT), Baker, p.466