Some have used the text of John 2:17 to teach that Christians should be extremely zealous because Jesus was "consumed with zeal." But is that interpretation really consistent with what this text says in its context? Let's start by taking a look at the passage in question.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me."

18 Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?"

19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

20 The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. 25 He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man. (John 2:13-25)

Intent upon trying to "fire up" a group, preachers speak about how "incredibly zealous" Jesus was and how all Christ-followers today ought to be the same. However, this teaching is completely

Like most wrong interpretations, this ignores both the context and the intended message of the text. In addition, there are three other problems with this interpretation. The first is the confusion associated with the word "consume." The second is the misunderstanding of the biblical nature of zeal, and the third is the relevance of the temple for the Christian. We will look at these, consider what this passage is really saying in its context, and discuss how it might truly apply to Christians today.

Confusion About Being "Consumed"

The English word "consumed" has several definitions; Webster's on-line dictionary gives the following definitions for "consumed"

  transitive verb
  1: to do away with completely : DESTROY
  Fire consumed several buildings.
  2a: to spend wastefully : SQUANDER
  consumed his inheritance on luxuries
  b: USE UP
  Writing consumed much of his time.
  3a: to eat or drink especially in great quantity
  consumed several bags of pretzels
  b: to enjoy avidly : DEVOUR
  … mysteries, which she consumes for fun …
  — Eden Ross Lipson
  4: to engage fully : ENGROSS
  consumed with curiosity
  5: to utilize as a customer
  consume goods and services

  intransitive verb
  1: to waste or burn away : PERISH
  2: to utilize economic goods

Out of convenience, this interpretation uses definition 4) above to mean consume = engross. However, when a word has multiple possible meanings, the context dictates the meaning. So we must consider the context of this saying to determine what is meant by "consumed."

The "it is written" reference in 2:17 points us to Psalm 69; a look at this psalm show us what usage of "consume" the author had in mind.

Because for Your sake I have endured disgrace;
Dishonor has covered my face.
8 I have become estranged from my brothers,
And a stranger to my mother’s sons.
9 For zeal for Your house has consumed me,
And the taunts of those who taunt You have fallen on me.
10 When I wept in my soul with fasting,
It became my disgrace.
11 When I made sackcloth my clothing,
I became a proverb to them.
12 Those who sit in the gate talk about me,
And songs of mockery by those habitually drunk are about me.
(Psalm 69:7-12)

This zeal brought the author scorn, insults and destruction. This points to definitions 1 or possibly 2 above, not definition 4.

When the apostles associated this text (Psalm 69) with the behavior of Jesus at the temple, it had Messianic overtones. This Messiahship was not based upon the control or domination many assumed the Messiah would have, but rather his commitment towards God in the face of opposition, even to the point of his own destruction. As F.F. Bruce has said:

The zeal for the house of God which Jesus manifested would yet be the death of him. (F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, p. 75).

Even the Jews asked for a miracle to prove Jesus' authority to take this action. They knew that no mere zealot could take this action; asking for a miraculous sign was tantamount to asking if this was the Messiah (ref. John 6:14). Indeed, John's presentation of this incident ends with Jesus performing some signs at the Passover and some believing in him (John 2:23).

Another way to get to the bottom of what the English "consume" means here is to consider the Greek text. The Greek word here translated "consume" is kataphagetai (καταφάγεταί), an inflected form of katesthio, meaning literally "to eat" or figuratively, "to destroy" (ref. Bauer, Walter, Translated by Gingrich, F. W. and Danker, Frederick. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 422).

Elsewhere, the word is used literally in Mark 4:4 (birds eating seed planted on the path). It is used figuratively in Mark 12:40 (teachers of law devouring widow's houses), Luke 15:30 (lost son squandering wealth), Galatians 5:15 (biting and devouring one another). Used figuratively in the passive voice in John 2:17, it means something is being done to the object that works to "eat" or destroy him. It does not mean the object is engrossed with that which "consumes" him.

In short, John 2:17 does not say Jesus was consumed with zeal, but rather would be consumed by (that is, destroyed by) zeal.

Biblical, Righteous Zeal

This text says nothing about how much zeal Jesus had, nor does it command Christ-followers to have any amount of zeal.These text is not about zeal; it is about the Messianic identity of Jesus. But because of the wrong ideas some may have about zeal, it is worthwhile to discuss biblical, righteous zeal.

The Greek word for zeal, "zelos" (ζῆλος), carries both a positive and negative connotation depending upon its usage. It can mean zeal for something good, but can also mean jealousy as in Acts 7:9, James 3:16, 1 Corinthians 3:3 and others. It is partisanship, for good or bad.

Good zeal must be founded on knowledge, lest it lead to people establishing their owns ways instead of following God's ways.

For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. (Romans 10:2-3)

Zeal must also be directed to God and goodness, not towards a side in partisan spiritual divisions.

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. 18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. (Galatians 4:17-18)

Even zeal for the Law (Galatians 1:14, Acts 22:3) can be bad, because this very zeal is what blinded Paul to truth and led to him persecuting the church (Philippians 3:6). Religious zeal may be desired by many, but it can be a terrible thing if misdirected.

Interestingly, those who would twist John 2:17 into a command to be zealous usually want to have people be zealous for their particular aspect of Christianity-- a sect, denomination, a pet doctrine or practice. Such "zeal" runs the high risk of becoming zeal without knowledge (or more precisely, with limited knowledge), partisan zeal (which is simple jealousy), or zeal leading to persecution of others-- and all are spoken against in the scriptures.

In unhealthy churches, this twisting of John 2:17 for "zeal" may arise from a manipulative expectation that everyone be outwardly enthusiastic and extroverted (sometimes even to the point of trying to alter the personality type from introverted to extroverted). This makes the group look more "fired up" to outsiders (though it is artificially induced), and people in such a revved-up state are more easily directed to various actions and activities without exercising critical or cognitive thought beforehand. In my experience, this seems to be the real reason why this passage is twisted into a command to be "zealous."

Scriptural zeal does not consist of artificially-induced, mindless or peppy enthusiasm, but by a deliberate lifestyle and actions at critical times based upon truth. In fact, the zeal of Jesus here placed him in defiance of those in authority who erroneously thought they knew God's ways (ref. Psalm 69:8). In this regard, zeal is more likely to be in opposition to the status quo than in submission to it.

Christians must make sure their zeal is based upon knowledge and is well-directed. Zeal about something ought to be proportionate to its certainty, lest it blind them to truth they do not yet perceive. True godly zeal may place them in opposition to those who think they know God's ways, and it could lead to hardships and even some form of destruction as it did Jesus.

The Temple and the Christian

For Jews, the temple was regarded as "God's house" (1 Chronicle 6:48, 9:13, Matthew 12:4, etc.). When Psalm 69 speaks of "zeal for God's house," it specifically relates to the temple as well as the Mosaic priesthood and the system of sacrifices that were associated with it.

But in Christ, the law is put away.

Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)

Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Galatians 3:25)

With the law put away, the priesthood and the temple lose their significance. The temple itself was eventually destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. For Christians, the idea of "zeal for your house" (meaning the temple) is utterly anachronistic.

Now the New Testament uses the "temple" metaphor to describe the physical body of a Christian (1 Corinthians 3:16-17) and the church (not a church building, but the people, Ephesians 2:21). But one cannot be zealous towards these and rightly claim to be following Psalm 69:8 or John 2:17; one cannot be zealous for a metaphor.

There is no Christian equivalent to the temple. In fact, in this passage Jesus likens himself to the temple (John 2:19), and elsewhere claimed to be greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6). The one-time sacrifice of Christ is the fulfillment of all the temple stood for:

8 First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them" (although the law required them to be made). 9 Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:8-14)

A Right Understanding of John 2:17

More could be said of this passage, but it seems that at least the following observations are true about this passage with respect to its context and application.

Under the Law of Moses, the temple was considered "God's dwelling place" or "God's house" (ref. Deuteronomy 12:11, 1 Chronicles 5:48, Ezra 1:5).

Further, the Law allowed travelers to purchases animals for sacrifice at the temple

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. 23 Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. 24 But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), 25 then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. 26 Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. (Deuteronomy 14:22-26)

It is evident that this practice had been corrupted in the time of Christ. It is unclear exactly what the problem was. Does this mean it had turned into a place where other (non-temple) business was also transacted? Does it mean that those selling were making an exorbitant profit, taking advantage of their physical location to rip off travelers from out of town who had no other options? Or had the whole enterprise become secularized or unspiritual to the point where those involved didn't honor God anymore? Matthew 21:12 (the "den of robbers" reference in a subsequent temple cleansing) suggests that ripping off worshipers was in view.

By chasing these merchants out of the temple, he sought to restore the practice to what was intended. But he also incurred the wrath of those who benefited or profited from a corrupted system-- something he would experience time and time again during his earthly ministry. In time this wrath would lead to his crucifixion (compare John 2:19-20 with Mark 14:58 and Mark 15:29). Thus, his zeal for the Lord's house consumed him, leading to his destruction.

This whole event is about Jesus being the Messiah. The apostles associated this event with Psalm 69, pointing to them understanding Jesus as the Messiah as well as refining contemporary ideas concerning the Messiah. In the time of Christ, most Messianic expectations had to do with conquering Rome and ruling the nation. But the Messiah suffering and being destroyed are in view here.

Application for Today

Christians today ought to take note of Jesus objecting to man-made corruptions of the commands and intentions of God as expressed in the Law. To the extent that the New Testament contains commands and God's intentions for Christians, Christians today also ought to object when problematic corruptions are introduced.

Contemporary church culture today often seems to care more about "what works," what is trendy or what appeals to the target demographic instead of what God has actually said in the scriptures. As Jesus' hearers were angry about him confronting them, those invested in these additions and corruptions might also be angry when confronted today.

It also follows that Christians ought to hold very loosely and humbly to all of our own traditions and preferences. We should always examine them lest we corrupt and/or wrongly add to God's stated will. We should also be wary that these might damage the weakest members of the body or betray our own worldly inclinations.

How tragic and ironic for Jesus to come to earth once and be destroyed by his zeal for God's ways-- expressed in his confronting corruptions of those ways-- only to have his followers corrupt his ways with their traditions and then deserve the same sort of confrontation!

But this passage ought not be about getting wrapped up in questions about zeal or traditions. Rather, it is about how Jesus is the Messiah, and how his actions were described in a Psalm written a centuries before he walked the earth. It is about how his body became the new temple, how that temple was destroyed and raised in three days as part of his plan for our redemption. Zeal for God's house destroyed him, but in the end also saved us.