Consumed With Zeal? John 2:17
have used the text of John 2:17 to teach that Christians should be
extremely zealous because Jesus was "consumed with zeal." But is that interpretation
consistent with what this text says in its context? Let's start by
taking a look at the passage in question.
When it was almost time for the Jewish
Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found
men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables
exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from
the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the
money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves
he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house
into a market!"
His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will
18 Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us
to prove your authority to do all this?"
19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again
in three days."
20 The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this
temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" 21 But the temple
he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead,
his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the
Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw
the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. 24 But
Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25 He did
not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
Intent upon trying to "fire up" a group, preachers speak about
how "incredibly zealous" Jesus was and how all Christ-followers today
ought to be the same. However, this teaching is completely off-base.
Like most wrong
interpretations, this ignores both the context and the intended message
text. In addition, there are three other problems with this
interpretation. The first is
the confusion associated with the word "consume." The second is the
misunderstanding of the biblical nature of zeal, and the third is the
relevance of the temple for the Christian. We will look at these,
consider what this passage is really saying in its context, and discuss
might truly apply to Christians today.
Confusion About Being "Consumed"
The English word "consumed" has several definitions; Webster's on-line
dictionary gives the following
definitions for consumed:
1 : to do away with completely : DESTROY
<fire consumed several buildings>
2 a : to spend
wastefully : SQUANDER b : USE UP <writing consumed much of his
3 a : to eat or drink
especially in great quantity <consumed several bags of pretzels>
b : to enjoy avidly : DEVOUR <mysteries, which she consumes for fun
-- E. R. Lipson>
4 : to engage fully :
ENGROSS <consumed with curiosity>
5 : to utilize as a
customer <consume goods and services>
Out of convenience, this interpretation uses definition 4) above to
mean consume = engross. However, when a word has multiple possible
meanings, the context dictates the meaning. So we must consider the
context of this saying to determine what is meant by "consumed."
The "it is written" reference in 2:17 points us to Psalm 69; a
at this psalm show us what usage of "consume" the author had in mind.
1 Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
3 I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.
4 Those who hate me without reason
outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
what I did not steal.
5 You know my folly, O God;
my guilt is not hidden from you.
6 May those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me,
O Lord, the LORD Almighty;
may those who seek you
not be put to shame because of me,
O God of Israel.
7 For I endure scorn for your sake,
and shame covers my face.
8 I am a
stranger to my brothers,
an alien to my own mother's sons;
9 for zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
10 When I weep
I must endure scorn;
11 when I put
people make sport of me.
12 Those who
sit at the gate mock me,
and I am the song of the drunkards.
13 But I pray
to you, O LORD,
in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God,
answer me with your sure salvation.
This zeal brought the
author scorn, insults and destruction. This points to definitions 1 or
possibly 2 above, not definition 4.
When the apostles
associated this text (Psalm 69) with the behavior of Jesus at the
temple, it had Messianic overtones. This Messiahship
was not based upon the control or domination many assumed the Messiah
would have, but
rather his commitment towards God in the face of opposition, even to
the point of his own destruction. As F.F. Bruce has said,
The zeal for the house of God which Jesus
manifested would yet be the death of him. (F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, Eerdmans,
Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, p. 75).
the Jews asked for a miracle to prove Jesus' authority to take this
action. They knew that no mere zealot could take this action; asking
for a miraculous sign was tantamount to asking if this was the Messiah
(ref. John 6:14). Indeed, John's presentation of this incident ends
with Jesus performing some signs at the Passover and some believing in
him (John 2:23).
way to get to the bottom of what the English "consume" means here is to
consider the Greek text. The
Greek word here translated "consume" is kataphagetai (katafa/getai/), an inflected form of katesthio,
meaning literally "to eat" or
figuratively, "to destroy"
(ref. Bauer, Walter, Translated by Gingrich, F. W. and Danker,
Frederick. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
Christian Literature, 2nd Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1979,
word is used literally in Mark 4:4 (birds eating seed planted on the
path). It is used figuratively in Mark 12:40
(teachers of law devouring widow's houses), Luke 15:30 (lost son
squandering wealth), Galatians 5:15 (biting and devouring one another).
figuratively in the passive voice in John 2:17, it
means something is being done to the object that
works to "eat" or destroy him. It does not mean the object is engrossed
that which "consumes" him.
In short, John 2:17 does not
say Jesus was consumed with
zeal, but rather would be consumed by (that is, destroyed by)
Biblical, Righteous Zeal
This text says nothing about how much
zeal Jesus had, nor does it command
Christ-followers to have any amount of zeal.
These text is
not about zeal; it is about the Messianic identity of Jesus. But
because of the wrong ideas some may have about zeal, it is worthwhile
to discuss biblical, righteous zeal.
The Greek word for zeal, "zelos" (zh>lov), carries
positive and negative connotation depending upon its usage. It can
mean zeal for something good, but can also mean jealousy as in Acts
7:9, James 3:16, 1 Corinthians 3:3 and others. It is partisanship, for
good or bad.
Good zeal must
be founded on knowledge, lest it lead to people establishing
their owns ways instead of following God's ways:
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 that comes from God and sought to establish their own,
they did not submit to God's righteousness. (Romans 10:2-3)
Zeal must also be directed to God and goodness, not towards a side in
partisan spiritual divisions:
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 be zealous
for them. 18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good,
and to be so always and not just when I am with you. (Galatians 4:17-18)
Even zeal for the
(Galatians 1:14, Acts 22:3) can be bad, because this very zeal is what
blinded Paul to truth and led to him persecuting the church
(Philippians 3:6). Religious zeal may be desired by many, but it can be
a terrible thing if misdirected.
twist John 2:17 into a command to be zealous usually
want to have people be zealous for their particular aspect of
Christianity-- a sect, denomination, a pet doctrine or practice. Such
"zeal" runs the
of becoming zeal without knowledge (or more precisely, with limited
knowledge), partisan zeal (which is simple jealousy), or zeal leading
persecution of others-- and all are spoken against in the scriptures.
In unhealthy or cultic churches, this twisting of John 2:17 for "zeal"
may arise from a manipulative expectation that everyone be
outwardly enthusiastic and extroverted (sometimes even to the point of
trying to alter
personality type from introverted to extroverted). This makes the group
look more "fired up" to outsiders (though it is artificially induced),
people in such a revved-up state are more easily directed to various
and activities without exercising critical or cognitive thought
beforehand. In my experience, this seems to be the real reason why this
passage is twisted into a command to be "zealous."
Scriptural zeal does not consist of artificially-induced, mindless or
peppy enthusiasm, but by a deliberate
lifestyle and actions at critical times based upon truth.
In fact, the zeal of Jesus here placed him in defiance
of those in authority who erroneously thought they knew God's
Psalm 69:8). In this regard, zeal is more likely to be in opposition to
the status quo than in submission to it.
Christians must make sure
their zeal is based upon knowledge and is well-directed. Zeal about
something ought to be proportionate to its certainty, lest it blind
them to truth they do not yet perceive. True godly zeal may place
them in opposition to those who
think they know God's ways, and it could lead to hardships and even
some form of destruction as it did Jesus.
The Temple and the Christian
For Jews, the temple was regarded as "God's house" (1 Chronicle
6:48, 9:13, Matthew 12:4, etc.). When Psalm 69 speaks of "zeal
for God's house," it specifically relates to the temple as well as the
the system of sacrifices that were associated with it.
But in Christ, the law is put away:
Christ is the end of the law so that there may be
righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the
law. (Galatians 3:25)
With the law put away, the priesthood and the temple lose their
significance. The temple itself was eventually destroyed in 70 AD by
the Romans. For Christians, the idea of "zeal for your house"
(meaning the temple) is utterly anachronistic.
Now the New
the "temple" metaphor to describe the physical body of a Christian (1
Corinthians 3:16-17) and the church (not a church building, but the
Ephesians 2:21). But one cannot be zealous towards these and
rightly claim to be following Psalm 69:8 or John 2:17; one cannot be
zealous for a metaphor.
no Christian equivalent to the temple. In fact, in this passage Jesus
likens himself to the temple (John 2:19), and elsewhere claimed to be
greater than the temple
(Matthew 12:6). The one-time sacrifice of
Christ is the fulfillment of all the temple stood for:
8 First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings
and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them"
(although the law required them to be made). 9 Then he said, "Here I
am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish
the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the
sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 Day after day every
priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he
offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when
this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat
down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his
enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has
made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:8-14)
Right Understanding of John 2:17
More could be said of this passage, but it seems that at
least the following observations are true about this passage with
respect to its context and application.
Under the Law of Moses, the temple was considered "God's dwelling
place" or "God's house" (ref. Deuteronomy 12:11, 1 Chronicles 5:48,
Further, the Law allowed travelers to purchases animals for
sacrifice at the temple:
Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce
each year. 23 Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the
firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God
at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may
learn to revere the LORD your God always. 24 But if that place is too
distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry
your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his
Name is so far away), 25 then exchange your tithe for silver, and take
the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose.
26 Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or
other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your
household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and
rejoice. (Deuteronomy 14:22-26)
It is evident that this practice had been corrupted in the time of
Christ. It is unclear exactly what the problem was. Does this mean it
had turned into a
other (non-temple) business was also transacted? Does it mean that
those selling were making an exorbitant
profit, taking advantage of
their physical location to rip off travelers from out of town who had
no other options? Or had the whole
enterprise become secularized or unspiritual to the point where
those involved didn't honor God anymore? Matthew 21:12 (the "den of
robbers" reference in a subsequent temple cleansing) suggests that
ripping off worshipers was in view.
By chasing these merchants out of the temple, he sought to restore the
to what was intended. But he also incurred the wrath
of those who benefited or profited from a corrupted system--
something he would experience time and time again during his earthly
ministry. In time this wrath
would lead to his crucifixion (compare John 2:19-20 with Mark 14:58 and
Mark 15:29). Thus, his zeal for the Lord's house
consumed him, leading to his destruction.
This whole event is about Jesus being the Messiah. The apostles
event with Psalm 69, pointing to them understanding Jesus as
Messiah as well as refining contemporary ideas concerning the Messiah.
In the time of Christ, most Messianic expectations had to do with
conquering Rome and ruling the nation. But the Messiah suffering and
being destroyed are in view here.
Christians today ought to take note of Jesus objecting to man-made
to and corruptions of the commands and intentions of God as expressed
in the Law. To the extent that the New Testament contains commands and
God's intentions for Christians, Christians today also ought to object
when additions and corruptions are introduced.
Contemporary church culture today often seems to care more about "what
works," what is trendy or what appeals to the target demographic
instead of what God has actually said in the scriptures. As Jesus' hearers were
angry about him confronting them, those invested in these
additions and corruptions might also be angry when confronted today.
It also follows that
Christians ought to hold very loosely and
humbly to all of our own traditions and preferences. We should always
examine them lest we corrupt
and/or wrongly add to God's stated will. We should also be wary that
these might damage
the weakest members of the body or betray our
own worldly inclinations.
How tragic and
ironic for Jesus to come to earth once and be
destroyed by his zeal for God's ways-- expressed in his confronting
corruptions of those ways-- only to have his followers corrupt his ways
with their traditions and then deserve the same sort of confrontation!
But this passage ought not be about getting wrapped up in questions
about zeal or traditions. Rather, it is about how Jesus is the Messiah,
how his actions were described in a Psalm written a thousand years
before he walked the earth. It is about how his body became the new
temple, how that temple was destroyed and raised in three days as part
of his plan for our redemption. Like the rest of the gospels:
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the
Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his
name. (John 20:31)