Word Study #198 — What, or Whom, do you Seek?

The answer to this question reveals a lot about a person. Although it represents only one single Greek word in the New Testament, zeteo and three prefixed forms, its 98 appearances encompass quite a variety of intensity – from casually “looking for” a person or an object (Mk.1:37, 3:32), or, more urgently, parents looking for a lost child (Lk.2:45,48,49) , to God “seeking” (Jn.4:22) for honest and earnest worshipers! There is an even greater variety of objects mentioned: a “home” sought by an evil spirit (Mt.12:43), material security (Lk.12:29), Judas’ efforts to betray Jesus (Mk.14:11), the rulers’ wish to kill him (Jn.5:16,18), the Lord himself (Ac.17:27), personal profit (I Cor.10:33), glory and honor and immortality (Rom.2:7), and many more. Clearly identifiable lexical clues would be helpful in discerning both the urgency of the “seeking” and its positive or negative connotations, but this is one of those aggravating situations where there are none, and we have only the contexts from which to make a call.

For example, on numerous occasions when great crowds were “seeking” for Jesus (Mk.1:37, Lk.4:32, Jn.1:38, 6:24,26; 7:11, 34,36; 8:21, 11:56, 13:33) most of them were probably just curious. However, exactly the same word is used of those who were eagerly “seeking” healing for themselves or others (Lk.5:18, 6:19), the scribes who were “seeking”to trap him in technicalities of disputes about their “law” (Mk.14:1, Lk.11:54), the mob “seeking” to arrest him (Mt.21:46, Mk.12:12, Lk.20:19, Jn.10:39), and the authorities “seeking” an excuse to kill him (Lk.22:2, Jn.5:16, 7:1, 25, 30; I:37,40: 11:8), Judas’ betrayal (Mt.26:16, Mk.14:11, Lk.22:6), and Pilate’s half-hearted effort to release him (Jn.19:12)!

Much more significant – and amazing! – is Jesus’ statement in Jn.4:23, noted above, that the Father himself is also “seeking”, for people to worship him in spirit and in truth, and representing himself, in the Lk.15 parables, as determinedly “seeking” for lost or wandering individuals (also Lk.19:10, Mt.18:12). This is no casual curiosity! It is an effort so determined as to involve willingness to pay an incredibly high price for its realization!

A similar attitude is reflected in the parables of the merchant “seeking” fine pearls (Mt.13:45) and, although the word is not used there, the finder of buried treasure (v.44), which support Jesus’ admonition to “seek the Kingdom of God and his justice” (Mt.6:33, Lk.12:31) above all else. Here, he introduces a scene of sharp contrast, as he describes the “seeking” of the “nations/Gentiles” [people outside the disciple group] for the necessities (or luxuries) of life (Lk.12:22-30, Mt.6:25-32), a contrast repeated in the several statements regarding the “saving” and “losing” of one’s earthly life and possessions (Lk.17:33, Jn.5:30,44). We see the same idea with different vocabulary in Mt.16:25, 10:38, Jn.12:25. In each of these cases, the “seeking” appears to imply the primary focus of one’s life and efforts.

Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to assume that every appearance of zeteo carries such weight. The listings in L/S also include “to inquire, investigate, or examine; to seek to do something; to require or demand; to conduct a judicial inquiry”, none of which would automatically involve a strong degree of personal commitment. These senses also occur in the New Testament. When Andrew and his companion “followed” Jesus home from John the Baptist’s meeting, they probably had nothing very monumental in mind (Jn.1:38), only asking “where are you staying?”. Jesus used zeteo regarding a discussion in which several disciples were trying to figure out what he meant (Jn.16:19). The Lord instructed Ananias to “inquire” for Paul in Damascus (Ac.9:11), and Cornelius’ emissaries to “inquire” for Peter in Joppa (Ac.10:19,21). The same word is used of Elymas’ opposition to Paul (Ac.13:8), and his later search for a guide (13:11) after losing his sight, of the decision by Paul’s party to sail for Macedonia (Ac.16:10), and the sailors’ efforts to abandon ship during the storm (Ac.27:30).
Zeteo carries the sense of “require or demand” in the Jews’ repeated demands for a “sign” (Mt.16:4, Mk.8:11, Lk.11:16), in Jesus’ statement that more will be required of those to whom much has been entrusted (Lk.12:48), and his warning that responsibility for all the unjust persecution of God’s messengers (Lk.11:50-51) would be charged against those who opposed him.

Parallel uses of zeteo can be found in the epistles. Reinforcing his Areopagos sermon (Ac.17:27) comment that all people everywhere were expected to “seek the Lord”, Paul returns to that theme in Rom.10:20, supplementing it with the admonition to “seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom.2:7), “seek to excel for the edifying of the Body” (I Cor.14:12), and “seek those things that are above, where Christ is”(Col.3:1). Perhaps more significantly, he cautions against selfish “seeking” (I Cor10:24, 13:5, Phil.2:21), and holds up his own behavior as an example (I Cor.10:33, II Cor.12:14, Gal.1:10, I Thes.2:6).

Peter, in his turn, urges his readers to “seek peace, and pursue it!” (I Pet.3:11), pairing zeteo with dioko, which is used of relentless pursuit or persecution – certainly not a casual affair! Earlier, Peter had used the prefixed (emphatic) forms, ekzeteo and epizeteo, to describe the urgent “seeking” of the ancient prophets to understand about Jesus’ coming (I Pet.1:10,11). He returns to the unprefixed zeteo (5:8) to describe the devil “seeking” for people to “devour” – but that certainly does not represent a reduction in intensity!

The writer to the Hebrews also makes more use of the prefixed forms: ekzeteo in 11:6 and 12:17, and epizeteo in 11:14 and 13:14, all of which carry a flavor of urgent effort. Several of these are supplemented with a form of spoudazo (to be eager, in haste, or serious; to be earnest, to study, lecture or teach, to pursue zealously), with which we will deal in more detail in the next study.

There is certainly a tone of desperation present in Rv..9:6, which was somewhat prefigured in Jn.7:34,36; 8:21, 13:33.

Much harder to characterize are Jesus’ enigmatic statements to his challengers in Jn.7:18, 19, 20, 25, 30 and 8:50. Those folks simply didn’t “get it”, and, I’m afraid, neither do we. This much is certain: his life on earth was not focused upon himself and his own “glory” (see #74). That seems to have been a concern that he willingly left in the Father’s hands (Jn.17). Perhaps we should simply follow his example! Very likely, his earlier statement (5:30), “I seek not my own will”, is closely connected, as is his critique of those who bask in the acclaim of their fellows, but “don’t seek honor from God!” (5:44).

Finally, in every account of the resurrection, the same theme precedes the glorious news: either “I know you’re looking for Jesus” (Mt.28:5) or “What/who are you looking for?” (Mk.16:6,Lk.24:5, Jn.20:15.) The faithful women were only “seeking”/expecting to pay their final respects to the body of one they had loved. Instead, they were entrusted with the most glorious message this poor world had ever received!
For the loving and faithful, what you “seek” is not always what you “find”! It’s much better!

 May all of our “seeking” be born of loving faithfulness, and yield that message of joy!


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