Paul says of his Jewish brethren that they are zealous, but without knowledge. I think we can safely say the same for new believers. Sadly, we can say the same for many old believers as well. What constitutes the “zeal without knowledge” is not a lack of theological knowledge, nor a lack of biblical knowledge. To be quite candid, the Jews that Paul would have known, especially considering that he studied under Gamaliel, were much more studied and scholarly than our modern theologians and thinkers. The fact that you can come out of seminary without the New Testament memorized is a testimony of this. Those first century Jews would have had the entirety of the Old Testament memorized by the time they became a rabbi, let alone if they were a Pharisee. These were incredibly intelligent and studied men. Their “zeal without knowledge” cannot be a statement of a lack of study or biblical insight.
What, then, is it that they lacked that Paul is saying that we have obtained? Is it only the knowledge of Christ, that this man Jesus died for our sins and rose again so that we might go to heaven when we die? Or is it that Jesus is Messiah, and that’s somehow enough to constitute that we have knowledge and they don’t? Where does Paul get off on saying something like this? Or, is it something a bit deeper than this, that if we could grasp what it is that Paul is saying we would suddenly gasp at the reality that we are not living up to?
For those of you who know the verse, you know the context is the righteousness of God, a phrase that came up earlier in Romans 1:16-17. The righteousness of God is shown to they who walk in faith, and are therefore justified by faith, and not through ‘righteous deeds’. We can conclude, then, that the knowledge that we have that they don’t have is one of righteousness through faith. Yet, I would still contend that there is a real sense in which this amazing truth has not yet settled upon the consciousness of many. We still speak of tithing, church membership, reading your Bible, serving in church, praying, and other sorts of activities as if they are acts that must be performed. Heaven forbid that you miss church a couple weeks in a row. Are you still even saved if you do this? And God forbid that you might start eating your food without praying first, especially when you’re in front of your fellow church people.
My point is that we have too often made much of the little things, and little of the big things. You’re never called a heretic for not feeding the poor, or willingly condemning someone that you disagree with, or purposefully walking on the other side of the road when you see someone in need. It is not the people who ignore the cry of the oppressed, or the ones who don’t ever help when the widows in their church can’t afford to have heat in the winter, or the people who don’t notice when the flock is searching like sheep without a shepherd – it is not these who are considered unrighteous by their unrighteous deeds. No, it is the people who dance too closely with their crush, or the girls who wear a shirt that fits perfectly (and is now “tempting” the men), or the pastor who allowed a secular marriage to take place in the church when sister Margaret came walking in unwarranted to hear that godless music (which was actually just The Temptations, but how dare we play non-Christian music in a church?).
How many times have we been zealous, but not according to knowledge? We have established our own church views and traditions, passed down by generations, thinking that we’re upholding the very faith itself, and yet it can be shown to be a fraud. Am I saved because I don’t wear the AC/DC shirts that I used to wear? Am I no longer saved if I find one of those shirts in the bottom of my drawer, and I decide to wear it for old times’ sake? This isn’t an issue of ethics, per se, but of the motives behind the offenses. For the Jews to have a zeal for God without knowledge is for the Jews to hold tightly to a law that they have poured over again and again to establish a code of ethics that then legislates morality to all. If you walk too far on the Sabbath, you are officially working on the Sabbath. In the same way, if you show up to church without makeup and jewelry, are you really wearing your Sunday best for God? They keep a kosher diet, which we think we don’t have to eat. Yet, we get downright offended when someone doesn’t like Chris Tomlin’s music.
Our spirituality stinks, and our theology reflects it. When you have to wear a tie in order to go to seminary, and you have to keep your hair a certain length (depending on if you’re a man or woman), otherwise you’re breaking their rules and regulations, I question entirely what it is that you’re actually teaching. It isn’t about the dress code. It is about the law that Christianity has made, all the while claiming to be ‘free from law’. Notice in all these things I have not mentioned things that are direct sins and in contradiction to what God has said. Some of what Christianity has given as a code of ethics is body shaming, and some of it is rejecting what God has called beautiful. Some of it is nit picking from the older generation that the younger generation doesn’t do things like they do. In none of it is the point to find God and learn what it means to live as Jesus told us to in our own day and age. It is not to continue the faith that has been handed down from the apostles, but the faith that has been handed down from ‘the forefathers’ – whoever they might be.
In all of this, the main point is still to focus upon truth. Truth sets free, and the many unwritten laws in church-ianity is not setting free. A theological system that can go through the doctrines of the faith without addressing these sorts of issues, setting free the captive while kicking goats and bashing wolves, is simply not Christian theology. Sometimes the sheep need you to take a knife and boar out the bottom of their hoof because it has begun to rot. The sheep doesn’t like it, but it needs to be done. Sometimes you need to take that knife and clean out a worm or bug from their nose. The sheep doesn’t like it, but it needs to be done. Whether we’re healing the sheep, kicking the goats, or chasing off the wolves, our focus should be upon the reality that is eternal, and the protocol that God has ordained from before the foundation on the world. Our zeal should be upon being those people that Jesus taught us to be, which is rooted in the Old Testament – as far back as Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Zeal with knowledge, which is to say, zeal in truth, is zeal that has been confronted with the Kingdom of God, and therefore spends all and is expended upon living in and for that Kingdom. It is like a man who finds hidden treasure in a field, and he then buries it to go home and sell everything, only to then buy the field with the proceeds. This is the simple faith, no gimmicks and no additives. If that doesn’t describe what you’re zealous for, then maybe your zeal is misplaced.