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  • God-Guided Zeal

    Posted on November 16th, 2009 admin No comments

    If you want to see zeal, head to Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium next Saturday night. At 7:45 pm Nebraska will face K-State. The place will be packed with 85,000 fans. There will be a stark contrast between those dressed in scarlet red and those dressed in royal purple. Each fan will be eager to encourage their team through top of lungs screaming. Rain, shine, sleet or snow, these fans will show their zeal to drive the other team into the ground.

    When it comes to the pinnacle of zeal, college football is near the top, is it not? I mean there are plenty of other exciting things happening in this world. But, even the most creative person would be hard pressed to find anything that would grab the attention of 85,000 people, cause them to fill a stadium and do the things they will do next Saturday night. Factor in the millions of people who are sitting at home shouting at their flat screen TVs and we have unparalleled zeal.

    There is certainly nothing wrong with cheering for your favorite football team. We should enjoy life, so get out the face paint and have fun. Just don’t get too sad when K-State pulls off another victory.

    As Christians, you need to know who guides your zeal. If anyone has reason to be zealous, Christians have the most. Yes, Christians have more reason to enthusiastically pursue God’s work than any sports fan has to root for his or her favorite team. You need to know where your zeal is coming from. If you don’t know who is guiding your zeal, you may look to the wrong source for direction and find yourself zealous over something that means nothing. You could wake up one day and realize that you have spent your life living an infomercial peddling egg slicers and shoe organizers, rather than investing your life in the kingdom of God.

    Today you will have the chance to answer the question, “Who guides my zeal: God or self?” We will look at one character in the Bible. His life was like a roller coaster – up and down. One minute his zeal was guided by God, the other minute his zeal was guided by self. As we move through this passage, examine your own life. Is your zeal God-guided or misguided?

    Our text is Judges 11:29-40. We will begin by reading verses 29-33 (ESV):

    29 Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites.
    30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,
    31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
    32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand.
    33 And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

    Now as we follow Jephthah’s story through this text, we will discuss the difference between God-guided zeal and misguided zeal. Be thinking about how you relate to Jephthah so that you can determine if your zeal is God-guided or misguided. If your zeal is misguided, by the end of this message you will learn what needs to happen.

    First, zeal drives people to action. Regardless of whether your zeal is God-guided or misguided, it’s going to move you to action. If you are a spiritual dead beat and never get excited about anything, then we have another issue. Today we are assuming that there are times when you get excited about something. Let’s examine the difference between God-guided and misguided zeal.

    God-guided zeal drives people who trust God. We can define God-guided zeal as the enthusiastic pursuit of God’s work in God’s strength. You are eager to do God’s work and you know that you must trust God to accomplish the task before you.

    Verse 29 begins, “Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon (or came upon) Jephthah.” Before the church began in the first century AD, the Spirit of the Lord came upon people rather than indwelling believers in Christ as he does today. The Spirit of the Lord would come upon people to give them divine enablement to perform a certain task that was too big for anyone to do in their own strength. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah to provide the divine enablement he needed as the military leader of God’s people. Jephthah faced strong, pagan enemies. He could not overcome their strength without God’s divine enablement.

    This work of the Spirit coming upon someone to provide divine enablement occurred earlier in the book of Judges. In chapter 6, verse 34, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon giving him strength and protection from Israel’s enemies. Gideon then assembled an army of men who fought and defeated the Midianites. God who gave him supernatural strength made his victory possible. The same thing happened in Judges 3:10. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Israel’s first judge, Othniel, who led Israel in military victory over the king of Mesopotamia. When the text tells us, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah,” we know from Israel’s history what that means: Jephthah is enabled by God to lead his people in victory.

    As we read this story it is as if we are on the edge of a new frontier. We are looking forward to something good. We know God is at work in his people. He is about to deliver them from their enemies and give them another chance to trust him. That’s good news, especially given Israel’s history. In the book of Judges, the Israelites were in this ugly rut of turning away from God and doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord. God’s people would do evil, so God would hand them over to their enemies. They would then cry out to God for deliverance in desperation. God would then respond by his grace and deliver them from their oppression. Yet, they would soon do evil again and find themselves on the judgment side of the Lord’s anger.

    I can relate to the Israelites cycle of good, bad, good, bad. The spiritual life has mountain top experiences that seem to follow times of obedience. The spiritual life becomes a piece of cake. Yet, something happens. We take our eyes off God and do evil. Then comes misery. Once again, God gives grace and restores us to a place of peace where we are given another chance to obey him. It is a fresh start, a time to take God seriously.

    Maybe Jephthah is the leader who is going to break the cycle. The Spirit of the Lord has come upon him. God has given him zeal to assemble an army and fight against their oppressor, the Ammonites. Jephthah travels through the cities listed in verse 29. His God-guided zeal spreads to other men as it does from a starting quarterback to his team. Jephthah enters these cities in the same way that zealous player busts onto the field, ready to take on his opponent. With his army assembled, Jephthah heads to enemy territory, driven by God-guided zeal.

    People of God should be zealous. There is spiritual work to be done. Widows and orphans need care. People need to hear the Gospel. Believers need to be encouraged. We need to take our God-guided zeal to the field of life, outside the walls of this church. Satan wants us to do nothing. He wants us to sit silently like hoity-toity people at a fine arts auction, when we should be cheering like zealous fans at a college football game. For example, you meet someone at the grocery store, then you allow your God-guided zeal to drive you to action. You say, “Let me tell you about Jesus. He is God who came to earth as a human being. He lived a sinless life. He didn’t sin one time. I can’t go one hour without sinning. And he died on a cross as a sacrifice for my sin. He then rose from the grave and now lives in heaven. I have believed in him as my Savior. He paid the penalty of my sin and has brought me into relationship with God. I don’t have to work. I don’t have to lose sleep at night wondering what is going to happen when I die. Because I have believed in Jesus I know I have eternal life.” That is something to cheer about!

    God-guided zeal drives the person who trusts God. Of course your zeal can’t make anyone believe. Of course, you have to balance zeal with patience as God works in the hearts of people. But yes, God-guided zeal should drive you to tackle spiritual work that you could never do in your own strength.

    Now that we know God-guided zeal drives people who trust God to action, let’s talk about misguided zeal.

    Misguided zeal drives people who trust self.
    We can define misguided zeal as the enthusiastic pursuit of God’s work in one’s own strength rather than God’s strength. The enthusiastic pursuit of good things without God’s supernatural enablement is misguided zeal. Misguided zeal drives the person who wants to do the things of God apart from God. Maybe they have a history of successful ministry. There was a time when their church was the biggest church in town. They led the Sunday school program through the 80s. They know the Bible better than anyone. These things are success baggage. Success baggage misguides people by causing them to trust in themselves rather than God. When someone wants to do good but they are influenced by success baggage, that person’s zeal is misguided.

    Jephthah had success baggage that left him with misguided zeal. I don’t know the details of his success, but the beginning of Judges 11 gives us helpful information. Jephthah had a life story that proved he was an overcomer. His mother was a prostitute. His half-brothers drove him out of town. Yet he overcame opposition and became a valiant warrior, a successful leader of men. He was sought out by the elders of Gilead to be their leader, to fight against the sons of Ammon. Jephthah goes from being surrounded by worthless fellows in Judges 11:3 to being appointed leader of the nation by the elders. That alone is success, and he hasn’t done anything. Today we would give him the Nobel peace prize.

    At this point, after the Spirit of the Lord has come upon him, after he has been given divine enablement, Jephthah starts to trust in himself. He keeps the zeal, but it is misguided.

    Know that misguided zeal is dangerous. When we trust ourselves, we grow impatient and start speaking too soon. Jephthah, whose name literally means, “he opens,” grew impatient and opened his mouth. He made a vow, or a binding promise, to God.

    In verse 30, Jephthah says, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

    Jephthah attempts to negotiate with God. He makes a vow to the Lord, “If you do this for me, then I will do that for you.” O yeah, God needs a mortal man to do something for him. He can’t do anything on his own. “Please help me Jephthah. Please help me Jephthah.” Yeah, right. God doesn’t need Jepthah. He doesn’t need anyone. But, in this case, he has chosen to use Jephthah. And, he has chose to use you and me.

    Why then, do we attempt to negotiate with God? “Lord, if you get me through this illness, then I will be more serious about serving you. Lord, if you bless me with this raise, then I’ll give 10% of my pre-tax earnings to the church. Lord, if you save my grandson, then I’ll join the church prayer team.”

    I remember a time as a kid when I was standing in the showring at a county fair with a cow. I wanted to win this 4-H show, so I prayed, “Lord, if you help me win this show, then I will give my life to you.” O I’m sure that made the Lord’s day: “OK, Casey, I’ll get right on that.”

    Why do we negotiate with God? We negotiate with God because we see him as dependent on us rather than understanding ourselves as dependent on him. When we get to the place of wanting to do his work, but negotiating with him in the process, then our zeal is misguided, because somewhere in the back of our minds is our success, our strength, our talent, our ability.

    It isn’t enough, then, to have zeal. Our eagerness and our commitment must be ground in truth. That is not the case with misguided zeal. Misguided zeal misses simple truth. I’ll mention three biblical truths misguided zeal misses:

    2.1) God cannot be negotiated into blessing. God does not want people to negotiate with him. He wants people to obey him. End of story.

    2.2) God does not gain pleasure in hurting people. Jephthah’s vow smells of pagan influence. He is going to kill whatever comes out of the doors of his house to meet him when he returns from battle? He had to expect that one of his servants would greet him when he returned home. That is a servant, as in a live person made in the image of God. Not a cow, a chicken or a Chihuahua, but a person.

    2.3) God does not abandon his people. Jephthah was concerned that God would possibly abandon him in battle. He hasn’t even fought yet, and he is already bargaining with God to stay with him until the end. Jephthah did not know that the only thing he needed to do was faithfully obey God. He did not know the truth of God’s word explained in Deuteronomy 28:1, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” Deuteronomy 28:7 reads, “The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.” God does not abandon his people.

    If Jephthah missed these biblical truths, we can miss more. We must make sure, then, that our zeal is grounded in truth, that it is God-guided and not misguided. The possibility of having misguided zeal is even more pronounced for people with success baggage. Success baggage makes us trust in self rather than God. When we trust in self, our zeal is misguided and is extremely dangerous. Simply having zeal to God’s work is not enough; our zeal must be God-guided.

    Think about religious cults. They are usually founded and led by zealous people who are enthusiastic about doing what they claim to be God’s work. The problem is that those leaders trust in themselves, not God. They always stray from the truth of scripture. In some cases they create new documents and elevate them over the Bible. Followers of these religious cults often share misguided zeal. They take years out of their lives to ride bikes around neighborhoods sharing their message. That would be a good thing if their message was true, but it is not. Ask them. They have no concept of grace. Their message is always centered on self, not God, not the free gift of salvation provided by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their zeal is misguided.

    Members of religious cults aren’t the only ones with misguided zeal. Even the most faithful followers of Jesus Christ fall to misguided zeal. That’s why Jesus spent so much time addressing the religious leaders who defined their spirituality by what they did rather than by what God did for them.

    When you find yourself excited about doing God’s work, whether it’s passing out bulletins or singing a solo on Sunday morning, leading a Bible study at work or sharing the gospel with someone at the grocery store, ask yourself, “Is my zeal God-guided or misguided?” How do you know? It is simple: Are you trusting in God – Lord, I can’t do this on my own; I need your supernatural enablement! Or, are you trusting in self – my voice is so beautiful, I am so smart, I can help you understand what it really means to be a Christian.

    Zeal leads people to action. Make sure your zeal is God-guided.

    Our second point is that zeal leaves marks on people. Regardless of whether your zeal is God-guided or misguided, it’s going to impact people. Let’s examine the different marks left by God-guided and misguided zeal.

    God-guided zeal blesses people. God-guided zeal blesses people who trust God.

    In verse 32 we see that Jephthah heads to the Ammonites with the goal of fighting them. He is on a mission to do God’s work. The Spirit of the Lord is still upon him. Even though his zeal was just misguided as he made the unfortunate vow with the Lord, God continues to work through him.

    Verses 32 and 33 both say Jephthah exercised faith and God blessed him. In verse 32 Jephthah exercised faith by crossing over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them. God blessed by giving the Ammonites into his hand. In verse 33 Jephthah exercised faith by striking the Ammonites. God blessed by subduing them.

    Why was this man successful even though he blew it in some areas? He was successful because he exercised faith in and obedience to the Lord. He had faith in and obedience to the Lord. Jephthah’s trust in God was the reason why the writer of Hebrews included him in the hall of faith alongside Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets (Hebrews 11:32). Sure, he slipped. Sure, he sinned. But, God’s grace prevailed in Jephthah’s life and enabled him to trust God. When he was driven by God-guided zeal, he was blessed.

    At this point in the story you are probably picking up on the pinball-like personality of Jephthah’s spiritual life. The Spirit of the Lord comes upon him like a spring-loaded ball launch and he is empowered for God’s work. His spiritual life then hits the bumper of success baggage where he trusts in himself, misses biblical truth and attempts to negotiate with God. As he heads to his demise, he encounters God’s grace like a mechanical flipper and he is propelled back into service with God-guided zeal where he trusts God and he is blessed.

    Can you relate? You are living the spiritual life in God’s strength. You are enthusiastically doing God’s work, then (donk) you hit the bumper of sin where you trust in yourself, you miss biblical truth and attempt to negotiate with God. You start falling out of fellowship with God, when you slam into his grace. He restores you, brings you back into fellowship with him and propels you back into service with God-guided zeal where you experience the blessing of trusting him.

    It would be nice to live a more consistent spiritual life, but we are still influenced by sin. Our desire to grow spiritually is one reason we come to church. We want to know God at a deeper level and want to live more like Jesus. We want to know the blessing of God-guided zeal.

    Now that we have seen that God-guided zeal blesses people, let’s move to misguided zeal.

    Misguided zeal hurts people. Misguided zeal hurts the person who trusts self and the people around that person. Let’s pick up our text by reading Judges 11, verses 34-40.

    34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
    35 And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”
    36 And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.”
    37 So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.”
    38 So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains.
    39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel
    40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

    As Jephthah returned home after victory on the battlefield, he remembered the vow he made to the Lord. Being a man of commitment, he thought that he had to fulfill his end of the bargain since God gave the Ammonites into his hand. He thought he had to kill whoever walked out of the doors of his home to greet because he made that vow with the Lord. As he approached the front of his home, the door swung open and out ran his daughter. She was dancing and making a joyful noise with tambourines: “Daddy is home! Daddy is home!”

    That scene freezes in his mind. She was his only child.

    Jephthah tore his clothes in grief according to the custom of that day. He said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”

    She knows what that means. Daddy is a man of his word. He is committed to the Lord. He will offer his only daughter as a burnt offering. He will take the life of his only daughter because he gave the Lord his word.”

    That, my friends, is misguided zeal. God in no way would want anyone to kill their own child for him. Misguided zeal misses the biblical truth that God does not gain pleasure in hurting people. On the other hand, misguided zeal hurts people. Jephthah did not want to kill his only daughter, but because he was so committed to the Lord he thought that was his only option. He didn’t know provisions in the Law that would have spared the life of his daughter. According to Leviticus 27 he could have paid a ransom price and bought his daughter back. Earlier he opened his mouth too soon, and now he hurts. That’s not to mention the pain misguided zeal has brought upon his daughter, or the other people who must have loved her. She was the leader’s daughter. People knew about her. They exchanged stories about what was happening in her life. They grew to love her, and now they know that she is about to die.

    Rather than being the center-of-attention as her final day nears, she asks her father for a two-month grace period. In verse 37, she submits to her father and asks, “leave me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity.”

    What does Daddy say? Verse 38, “Go.” Go? I’m thinking, “This is your only child. You are about to kill her. She wants to take a little time to grieve and all you can say is “go.” He could have at least done the “this hurts me more than it hurts you” thing. But, the writer of Judges, probably Samuel, only recorded “go.” She’s not dead yet, but their relationship has already fractured.

    In verse 37 it becomes apparent that Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity was a big deal. Verse 37 mentions weeping because of her virginity. Verse 38 mentions weeping because of her virginity. Verse 39 mentions that she had no relations with a man. I wouldn’t think that would top the list of things to mourn about, but it did. The idea is that she would never marry. She would die childless. She would not carry on Jephthah’s lineage which was an expectation as his only child.

    We should note that some commentators read this passage and suggest that Jephthah didn’t kill his daughter but rather gave her to the Lord’s service where she lived in a perpetual state of virginity. In other words, they suggest the “do to me as you have said” in verse 36 means that Jephthah sent his daughter into service at Israel’s central sanctuary. I understand this interpretation like this: Jephthah sent his daughter to the nunnery where she would never have relations with a man or have children. Now personally, I don’t buy that view, but I thought it is worth mentioning in the event you have a study Bible that suggests that view. We won’t go into supporting arguments for each view, but let’s apply a little street knowledge. If she knew she were headed to the nunnery and her virginity was really such as horrible thing, she have could have probably solved her dilemma in the two months she had in the hills. Sure, that was before internet dating, but she could have found a man somewhere. Maybe she was such a virtuous woman that she wouldn’t have done that. If you want to take this view, we won’t divide because we come to the same conclusion. The point is that Jephthah’s daughter would die without child.

    Jephthah’s misguided zeal hurt him by putting an end to his genetic line. It hurt his daughter by robbing her of motherhood and bringing her life to an end. It hurt the people of Israel by taking the life of someone they loved. Misguided zeal hurts people.

    Consider the Fort Collins, Colorado couple who staged the balloon boy incident last month. These parents came up with a hoax to get media attention. They said that their 6-year old son floated away in a helium balloon. Local and federal authorities spent over $60,000 dollars on a search that end when the young boy came out of hiding in the attic. That stunt took zeal. But, it was without doubt misguided zeal that hurt people. The boys could have been taken away by social workers. The mother could have been sent back to her home country, Japan. The father could have been locked up in state prison for six years and slapped with a $500,000 fine. Fortunately for this family, a deal was reached this week where the kids won’t be taken and the parents will face a maximum of 60 days in prison.

    Zeal is a good thing, but we have to remember the marks it leaves on people. Let’s choose God-guided zeal over misguided zeal by trusting God, not self. That way we can leave marks of blessing rather than marks of pain.

    Third, God’s grace offers God-guided zeal.
    God’s grace offers God-guided zeal.

    In the first 7 verses of chapter 12, we read how Jephthah was confronted by the men of Ephraim. They ask why he fought the Ammonites without calling them for help. Jephthah said he did ask for help, but no one answered. So, he took his life into his own hands and fought the Ammonites. In verse 3, Jephthah says, “The Lord gave them into my hand.” Right there he could have boasted in own his success, but he acknowledged that the Lord was the one who blessed him by granting him victory in battle.

    Jephthah then gathers the men of Gilead and they fight the men of Ephraim. God blesses him again with victory and he leads Israel for six years until his death.

    The greatest proclamation of this message is regardless of how you have lived life to this moment, God’s grace offers you God-guided zeal. You may realize that you have been trying your entire life to be good enough for God to bless you with eternal life. You have been zealous about doing Christian things, but you’ve done them in your own strength rather than God’s strength. If you’ve never given your life to God by trusting him to bless you with eternal life and a zeal for doing his work, then trust him today. Pray, “Father, I’m tired of being controlled by misguided zeal. I believe Jesus Christ died for my sin and rose from the grave. Please give me God-guided zeal and I will be obedient to the work of your Spirit in my life.”

    Maybe you have been a Christian for many years, but you’ve lost that God-guided zeal. You’ve gotten yourself into a spiritual rut where you’re not enthusiastic about any of God’s work. You come to church, but your spiritual life stops there. God’s grace offers you God-guided zeal. Turn away from a stale, self-reliant faith and ask God to give you zeal for doing his work. Pray, “Father, I’m tired of depending on myself for spiritual growth. I’ve grown stale. I’ve lost my enthusiasm for eternal things. Please give me God-guided zeal and I will be obedient to the work of your Spirit in my life.”

    Zeal drives people. Zeal leaves marks on people. The good news is that God’s grace offers God-guided zeal. As we trust God, he gives us an enthusiasm for doing work that blesses us and the people we encounter.


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