Based on a series of sermons preached in PCC Prayer Meetings in 2021
“And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.”John 2:17
It was early in the Lord’s earthly ministry, in April AD 27. He had attended a wedding in Canna of Galilee and then headed up to Jerusalem to observe the Passover with His disciples. They have come to the temple, which at this time has four zones. The innermost zone is the court of the priest, next is the court of Israel, then the court of the women and the outermost is the court of the Gentiles. This outer court is the closest that Gentile seekers of Jehovah could get to the temple.
The Lord Jesus has come into this court of the Gentiles. What He sees there infuriates Him. People are buying and selling oxen, sheep and doves, and changing money. The animals are for sacrifices. People who come from afar need to buy animals for their sacrifices. Money changers are also needed because the Temple taxes are paid in Tyrian Shekels. So, worshippers must change their common Roman coins to Tyrian coins. Money changing is a necessary business. The problem, however, is that they are conducting their business in the temple courtyard!
This courtyard is reserved for the Gentiles who want to draw near to God.
When our Lord sees how the courtyard has been converted into a marketplace, He is filled with anger. He makes a scourge of small cords and begins to drive out of the temple, the sheep and the oxen, and He overturns the tables of the money changers. “Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise,” He exclaims (Jn 2:16).
The disciples are surprised by His actions. But immediately, they are reminded of Psalm 69:9—“The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (v. 17).
They have perhaps sung these words often from childhood. So they should not be surprised at the Lord’s zeal. It has already been prophesied in His own words a thousand years earlier that He would be zealous!
1. What Is It to Be Zealous?
The word “zeal” in Greek means “heat.” It speaks of passion and fervour in the pursuit of something. The disciples saw the Lord overturning the money changers’ table, driving out the sacrificial animals, and scolding the people who bought and sold in the courtyard. He was angry, and He acted purposefully with ardour. They concluded that it was zeal.
Zeal can be righteous or unrighteous, just as the related idea of jealousy can be good or bad.
Our Lord was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin, so we can safely say His zeal was righteous. His was a righteous zeal for the pure worship of God that manifested itself in righteous anger against those engaging in commercial activities in the Temple courtyard. He was seeking by His actions to impress upon the people the importance of fearing God and not desecrating His worship.
2. What Should We Be Zealous About?
Our Saviour was zealous about the sanctity of the temple. Therefore it behoves us to have the same zeal. But we can’t be zealous about the temple’s sanctity, for the temple has served its purpose.
But the temple represented the worship of God. Christ came to redeem a people to worship the Father in and through Him. Peter reminds us that Christ is the chief cornerstone of the temple, whereas we are the living stones. In union with Him, we are to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.
Therefore, the zeal of Christ for the sanctity of the temple was not an end in itself. Instead, it is a zeal for the pure worship of God. Therefore, we ought also to have a zeal for the pure worship of God today!
It is lamentable, isn’t it, that most modern Christians are not zealous about the purity of worship because it is deemed that the style of worship is a matter of indifference. But our Reformed Fathers are, no doubt, right that worshipping God in any way not appointed in God’s word is to engage in idolatrous worship. It is equivalent to doing things not sanctioned in the temple precinct, such as buying and selling sacrificial animals and changing money. These things may be done lawfully outside the bounds of the temple, but within the temple bounds, only what is appointed by the Lord is permissible.
Is there anything else we should be zealous about? Sure! We should be zealous about reaching out to the lost, walking in the narrow way, keeping God’s commandments, praying, etc. But let us be careful not to fail to be zealous about the purity of worship and instead focus on things our Saviour was not zealous about. We think of music, the outward glory of Israel, the attire of worshippers, the magnificence of church buildings, or even Bible translations.
Sure, we must have a good translation. But remember that neither the Lord Jesus nor His disciple displayed any zeal for a particular Bible translation. The apostles seem to have no issue using the Septuagint, which was not an extremely accurate translation from all indications.
3. What Special Care Must We Take in Our Zeal?
First of all, let us repent of our lack of zeal. The Lord Jesus was rebuking the Laodicean church for their lack of zeal when he charged them for being neither hot nor cold. “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev 3:19).
Secondly, let us be careful that we are zealous with a true zeal borne out of loyalty, faith, love and reverence for God. See that it is not a display of willful, political, tempestuous, uncontrollable passion. Such zeal ought to be repented of.
As someone puts it: “True zeal is a sweet, heavenly, and gentle flame, which maketh us active for God, but always within the sphere of love.” Fleshly zeal, on the other hand, is like gunpowder set on fire. It tears and blows up all who stand before it.
Our Lord’s zeal was not like that. His zeal was purposeful and controlled. Notice how he overturned the money changers’ table and drove the oxen and sheep out of the temple, but did not set the doves free (v. 16). The coins could be picked up; the sheep and oxen could be rounded up again, but if the doves were freed, it would be hard to gather them again. And many who sold doves were probably very poor!
Thirdly, let us see that we do not have zeal without knowledge. God has a particular zeal for His own worship. He adds to the 2nd Commandment:
“…for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”Ex 20:5-6
The word translated “jealous” (קַנָּא, qannâ’) is closely related to the word translated “zeal” (קִנְאָה, qin’âh) in Psalm 69:9. In fact, the latter is derived from the former. The Lord Jesus was zealous for God’s worship because God is jealous of His own worship. His zeal is not a zeal without knowledge, but based upon His knowledge of the mind of God.
The apostle Paul bears record that the Jews have “a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2). He would be very familiar with such zeal, for he had it. But it is a destructive zeal that does not glorify God. It led to Paul’s characterisation of himself as the chief of sinners, for he persecuted the church of Christ.
Let us see to it that this may not be true of us. Be zealous, but know why. Don’t be zealous simply because someone you know and respect spoke loudly about a subject. But be convicted of the truth by God’s word and then be zealous for the glory of God in imitation of Christ.
Fourthly, let us seek God’s wisdom to know how to exercise our zeal in a way that is ultimately constructive rather than destructive. We ought to be zealous for the pure worship of God as our Saviour was.
But what should we do in our zeal? If we are not careful, we will leave an awful impression amongst those we want to persuade—so that instead of seeing a reformation, we see revulsion. Let us pray for wisdom and the Lord’s guidance. But let us not remain inactive for fear of men rather than the fear of God.
Fifthly, as we are zealous about the worship of God as our Saviour was, let us not forget that He was not only zealous about what was done in the temple, but also what was done by the temple. We are the temple of God today.
As the Lord cleansed the temple courtyard zealously, so He sets an example for us to guard the purity of our lives zealously.
The question we must ask ourselves as we apply our Lord’s example is: Is my heart full of the shouts of money changers, the bleating of sheep, the mooing of cows, and the cooing of pigeons? Is my heart full of the affairs and lust of this present world so that it has little space left for the things of God? Are there so many competing voices in my heart that I cannot hear the Lord’s voice or feel His fear?
“Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life,” says Solomon (Prov 4:23).
May the Lord help us reflect on our attitude towards the Lord Jesus! May we repent where we find in us a callous attitude towards Him! May He, by His Spirit, clear our hearts of all the sacrificial animals and money changers, and restore in us a zeal for things He was zealous about, for which He laid His life down! Amen.