Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.…
The conversion of Paul did not cool the ardour of his affection for his countrymen. Fidelity impelled him to expose their errors, but charity inclined him to notice what was commendable. They were honest in their zeal; but honesty can make no atonement for dangerous errors or perverse abuses. They were ignorant, but they shut their eyes to the light.
I. The apostle here ascribes to the Jews AN ESSENTIAL AND MOST VALUABLE PROPERTY OF THE CHRISTIAN, AND MORE ESPECIALLY OF THE MINISTERIAL CHARACTER. Two things seemed to be included under it — ardour, as opposed to lukewarmness, and activity, as opposed to remissness. It implies that the object which has called it forth is held in the highest estimation by us; that our hearts, engaged in the love and animated by the desire of it, prompt us to make every effort to secure its attainment. Christian zeal consists in the warm exercise of the graces of the Spirit, issuing in the decided and growing production of the fruits of the Spirit. It is founded on an enlightened and firmly-rooted conviction of the truth of the gospel. In its exercise, zeal, like charity, must begin at home. The man who searches abroad for evils to remedy, and overlooks those which attach to himself, is either a hypocrite or a fool, or both. But zeal, though it begins, does not terminate with ourselves. It feels for the honour of God and the souls of men, and endeavours to advance the one and save the other. When this principle is wanting, religion is an empty name, a lifeless carcass. But though there cannot be religion without zeal, there may be zeal without religion. Note some of the defects of that zeal which the apostle condemns.
1. It was exerted in contending for matters of inferior moment, and neglected those which were of supreme importance. The Jews expended the strength of their zeal on points of form and ceremony, and overlooked the weightier matters of the law. Those who are most ignorant or indifferent in regard to what is essential are invariably the most violent and tenacious in regard to what is circumstantial. Liberality, it is true, may be carried to a dangerous extreme, but so may intolerance, and it is better to err on the side of charity than to incur the imputation of bigotry. The object of zeal is to make converts, not proselytes; to bring accessions to the Church from the world, not to transfer the members of one religious denomination to another.
2. It was ostentatious and presuming. They wore broad phylacteries, said long prayers at the corners of the streets, etc. Our Lord saw through the disguise of their fair professions and their hollow sanctity, and inculcated a course of conduct quite the reverse of theirs. The zeal of which He approves is not that which assumes useless singularities, and is ever urging its claims to public admiration. It is not the men that make the most noise that do the greatest good.
3. It was overbearing and uncharitable. They excluded from the pale of the Church all who did not think as they thought and do as they did. It would have been well had the intolerant spirit of the Jews died with themselves; but it has, in this enlightened age, made its appearance in a most offensive and injurious form. When we see individuals setting themselves up as the only true Christians on earth, denouncing the religion of the whole world, except their own, we know not whether most to pity or to blame. As perfection is not attainable here, neither probably is uniformity.
II. FROM THEIR DEFECTS LET US NOW LEARN WHAT OUGHT TO BE THE DISTINGUISHING FEATURES OF ZEAL IN US. To escape the charge which the Jews deservedly incurred, ours must be —
1. An enlightened zeal formed and regulated by clear, comprehensive, and correct views of truth and duty. Without this, zeal is a most dangerous principle. There are no extravagances which it will not practise; there are no cruelties which it will not perpetrate. Before his conversion Paul had zeal, but it was not according to knowledge (Philippians 3.).
2. Pure zeal; a zeal influenced by gospel motives and animated by Christ's Spirit. Jehu boasted of his zeal for the Lord; but he had no higher aim than the gratification of his own ambition. In requesting our Lord to command fire from heaven for the destruction of the Samaritans, the disciples discovered an impure zeal, and spake under the influence of national prejudices and irritated feelings.
3. Prudent zeal: guarding against every avoidable occasion of offence to others; displaying all the wisdom of the serpent in selecting means and opportunities of doing good, and employing them with a tender regard to the feelings and prejudices of others. Destitute of this property, zeal is calculated to do far more harm than good, and awakens aversion where it should conciliate love.
4. Peaceable; calm in its exercise; prompting to no foolish extravagances; disposed to put the most favourable construction on others, and discovering a sincere regard for their welfare.
5. Decided zeal; above the meanness of all temporising accommodations; disregarding the fear of man; determined to pursue the path of duty; prepared to stand by the consequences.
6. Fruitful; not evaporating in words, but abounding in deeds of usefulness.
(J. Barr, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.