To be zealous means to have an overriding desire for something. You could be zealous for a sports team, collecting paraphernalia until you have a roomful of it. You could be zealous for work, staying late and starting early every day of the week and never going on vacation. You could be zealous for the Lord- worshiping daily, attending every community function that your house of worship holds, being on every committee, and talking about God and his plan of salvation to everyone and anyone you can.
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We are told that zealousness for the Lord is good. David talks about it in the Psalms 69 and 119; Isaiah mentions it in his writings (Isaiah 37, 59 and 63); and Pinchus was rewarded for his zealousness for the Lord in Numbers 25:11-13.
Now, as wonderful as it may be to be zealous for something, when that zealousness is misdirected whatever good may have come from it will be turned to evil.
We see this in the letter Shaul (Paul) wrote to the Galatians. This letter was written to protect the Messianic community in Galatia, which Shaul founded, from the Messianic Jews who were not trying to dissuade them from following Yeshua but to burden them with wrongful teaching about the necessity of following the Torah. This is what we have come to call “legalism”, which is the idea that without exact and literal obedience to the instructions in the Torah, we cannot be saved. Whereas it is true that we should do everything we can to obey the Torah instructions, it is not the path to salvation. Shaul was writing to remind the Galatians that faith comes before obedience, and obedience then comes as a result of that faith.
In Galatians 4:17-18 he says the following:
True, these teachers are zealous for you, but their motives are not good. They want to separate you from us so that you will become zealous for them. To be zealous is good, provided always that the cause is good.
The issue of legalism that was a problem to these early Messianic Gentile communities has been replaced with the doctrine of Constantinian Christianity, created at the Council of Nicene in the year 325 C.E. From then on, legalism no longer mattered because by that time Christianity had become so separated from its’ Jewish roots that it was a totally different religion, which pretty much rejected the instructions in the Torah, altogether.
You would think that that would be the end of legalism, but it wasn’t. Today, Gentile Believers who want to worship as Messiah did, and want to go back to their Jewish roots, have resurrected legalism.
They aren’t so worried about following the Torah as they are about the minutia within the Torah. For example, we see many arguments about something that would never even be a consideration for a Jewish Believer, or even a “mainstream” Jew, which is the way to pronounce God’s holy name, the Tetragrammaton. I have seen so many arguments about the difference between the Paleo-Hebraic spelling (Y-H-W-H) and the modern Hebrew spelling (Y-H-V-H) that I wonder if they even realize that none of the early Messianic communities ever pronounced that name, at all? Jews do not use that name because we respect it, yet Gentiles who suddenly feel the need to get back to their Jewish roots show no respect at all for God’s name. They misinterpret the use of “the name of the Lord” that is in the Tanakh to justify pronouncing the Tetragrammaton: their zealousness to know God better is misdirected and becomes disrespectful to God, and also to all the Jewish Believers who are told they are wrong not to pronounce God’s holy name.
I’m sorry, but we have been the chosen people for nearly Six Thousand years: not to sound self-centered, but maybe Gentiles should consider we know what we are doing?
I also see so many arguments about when the festivals start. The modern Jewish calendar is accepted by almost every Jew in the world and yet, Gentiles who are just beginning to observe God’s commanded festivals (which is a good thing) are now arguing over when they really start (which is a legalistic thing.)
I am saying “Gentiles” but I am sure there are Jews within these groups also who are of the same mindset, but from my experience, it is almost exclusively Gentile Believers who are arguing for this modern form of legalism.
For instance, Rosh Chodesh is the celebration of the new month, which begins with the sighting of the moon in the new moon phase. Today we have science to show us exactly when this happens, unlike the ancient days when it was required to have three witnesses agree that the moon is in phase. Yet, I see so many people argue over when it really is a new moon, and when that festival really begins. OY!!
Don’t they know that in the olden days, which they are trying to legalistic recreate, the new moon and festival beginnings had a “grace period” of some three days? There might have been clouds in the sky obscuring the view or it could have been raining, in either case, the moon could not be seen. Once the ones responsible for officially stating when a festival began (who were in Jerusalem) agreed it was time, they would light signal fires on mountaintops throughout the land of Israel to announce the beginning of that festival. This means that the exact phase of the moon wasn’t really as important as everyone celebrating at the same time.
Think of the harvest festivals- no harvest is at the exact same day as the prior year. Shavuot is one of the most important holy days of the year, one of the three pilgrimage holy days requiring us to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. It begins 50 days after Habikkurim (First Fruits), yet first fruits depended on when the harvest was done, which was never the exact same time every year. Today we celebrate Pesach, Habikkurim, and Shavuot based on the calendar days and not on any harvest. That means that no one who uses the Jewish calendar is exactly right about when First Fruits and Shavuot begin. So, nu? Do you think that God is going to send every person who observes his festivals based on the Jewish calendar to Sheol?
Here’s the problem with this modern form of legalism: it is misdirected zealousness. The zealousness to be obedient to the Torah has been perverted to obedience for the sake of obedience, which leads to faithlessness. I believe this to be true, and just as Shaul told the Galatians that they were being made zealous for someone else, the Enemy of the Lord wants to make us zealous for him. And how can he do that to faithful Believers? By separating them from God through misdirected zealousness.
When we are arguing amongst ourselves over things that have no relationship to our salvation, such as exactly when the moon is in a certain phase, or how to pronounce a name, or when a festival begins we separate ourselves from each other. Haven’t you ever heard the term “divide and conquer”? Well, that is what this legalism is doing within the Messianic and Christian Believing communities.
It is good to be zealous for proper worship, which I define as worship the way God said to do so. He gave us a User Manual to teach us how to worship him properly, which is called the Torah. All we need to do is follow the instructions as best as we can. I cannot speak for God, but since he constantly tells us throughout the Tanakh that he is not interested in the blood of bulls or sheep (meaning obedience for the sake of being obedient) and that he sees the heart, I think it is safe to say as long as your heart is zealous for God he will understand and forgive you if you celebrate a festival day early or a day late. To be safe, just use the same calendar that every other Jew in the world uses.
Also, if you want to get back to your Jewish roots, don’t reinvent the wheel by doing what Jews don’t do, such as pronouncing the holy name of the Lord. Use Adonai, Lord, God, Elohim, HaShem or some other biblical name for God. And, for Pete’s sake, don’t use transliteration spellings that are wrong, like Quodash or Alohim- OY!! If you use a transliteration, use the ones Jews use because they are based on the Hebrew spelling, which is the correct pronunciation.
Legalism is trying to do things exactly as instructed for the sake of being correct. God really doesn’t care about performance, he cares about the reasons for that performance. If your desire to be obedient is zealousness for God as a direct result of faithfulness, then that is good. You don’t have to be perfect, just willing to try from a heartfelt desire to show God you love him.
If your zealousness for God leads you to obedience for the sake of obedience, that is legalism and zealousness misdirected.
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