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God wants us to be zealous for Him; Paul urges us never to be lacking in zeal, but always to keep our spiritual fervour, serving the Lord (Rom 12:11). Zeal is that fire and passion which keeps us serving, keeps us persevering and refuses to let us give up, however discouraged we may be at times. Nonetheless, it is a stark, sobering fact of life that zeal can be misguided. Paul himself knew that, for there was none more zealous than he as a Pharisee in persecuting the church: ‘If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.’ (Phil 3:4-6)

Much of the opposition faced by the apostles and early Christians could be said to come from misguided zeal, from religious tranches in Judaism who cared passionately about the law and the temple. Stephen aroused such condemnation because he was said to ‘speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God’ (Acts 6:11); ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.’(Acts 6:13) It is a frightening fact that the religious leaders could not cope with the radical teaching of Jesus and His followers and genuinely believed they were doing God’s will in opposing them.

Jesus had been arrested and tried on much the same grounds as those now being used to question Stephen; He had challenged traditional scribal interpretations of the Law, saying that He had come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Matt 5:17), and had prophesied not only the destruction of the temple but that He would raise it again in three days. (John 2:19-22; see also Mark 14:57-59.) John makes it clear that the temple Jesus was talking about was the temple of His body; Paul would later go on to remind believers that our bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 6:19) The law and the Temple all pointed ahead to the radical work Jesus would complete on our behalf; the book of Hebrews makes it very plain that Jesus is the fulfilment of all the sacrificial system that preceded Him and that ‘the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.’ (Heb 10:1)

Stephen was the victim of misguided zeal, stoned to death as the first Christian martyr because of his bold proclamation of Christ’s teaching about both the law and the Temple. It’s ironic that those sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw his face shining like an angel (Acts 6:15), just as Moses’s face shone after his encounter with God when he was given the law (Ex 34:29-35). They did not heed the Light which had come into the world and they did not heed the light shining from one of His followers. Misguided zeal is a dangerous thing indeed.