Zealotry has a bad name. It’s acceptable to be zealous about a hobby, or to approach the new day with zeal. But to call someone a zealot? That’s a bit insulting.

Maybe its because we have so many bad examples of zealotry, which makes perfect sense. In Scripture we find there is a good zealotry and a bad zealotry.

The great theologian R.C. Sproul once wrote, “Zeal without knowledge has wreaked incalculable havoc through history.”

Are we zealous for what is true and right, or are we zealous for the things of this world?

While we can appreciate the desire for independence from Rome that drove the Jewish Zealots of the first century A.D., their zealotry was ultimately the bad kind. Yes, they were zealous for freedom from Rome, but were pretty hazy about what they wanted to do with that freedom. Perhaps they had a plan when their movement had begun, but after a while they became zealous for being zealous. Sometime in the mid-50s A.D., a splinter group of the truly zealous appeared, the Sicarii. They were known to carry daggers (known as a sicae) specifically for the purpose of killing Roman soldiers and sympathizers! Eventually, the zealots separated themselves from their fellow (if less zealous) Jews, and their cause culminated in a mass suicide in 73 A.D. at Masada.

In a bit of bitter irony, their zeal effectively ended the Jewish bid for independence.

As it turns out, Jesus appealed to some of the earliest zealots – a number of His disciples and followers appear to have been of the zealot persuasion. Some scholars believe Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, was a zealot consumed with the desire for a military coup. And, of course, one of the disciples was referred to as Simon the Zealot – not to be confused with Simon Peter, known as the Rock, who was himself susceptible to zealous impulses.

Yet Jesus directed their zeal, gave it an eternal purpose – shaped from a blunt (and sometimes reckless) instrument into a refined force serving God and others.

Isaiah 59:17 reads, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.”

What makes zeal, and zealotry, good or bad isn’t the zeal itself, but its object. The whole of Scripture makes it clear our zeal must be for the Lord, not for ourselves. Our zeal must not for the applause of those around us, but for Him and His purposes alone.

Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan is the publisher of Texas Scorecard. He is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M, and Eagle Scout. Previously, he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, Capitol Hill staffer, think tank vice president. Michael and his wife have three adult children, and a dog. Check out his podcast, Reflections on Life and Liberty.