In recent years International News has been dominated by the violent turmoil throughout North Africa and the Middle East, particularly in relation to the so-called "Arab Spring." Authoritarian regimes have been challenged and tyrannical dictators have fallen, while others remain defiant and oppressive. One can never underestimate the passion and determination of an oppressed people who long for civil rights and freedom. But rebellion, militancy, and even terrorism are nothing new, especially in the ancient Near East.In the 4th century BC, the inhabitants of Judea surrendered to the armies of Alexander the Great and were begrudgingly absorbed into the rapidly expanding Grecian Empire. When Alexander died and his conquests were divided into four smaller kingdoms, the Palestinian Jews were afflicted by the Ptolemies of Egypt to the south and by the Seleucids of Syria to the north. In the 2nd century BC, while Judea was under the control of the Seleucids, the ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes fiercely reacted to an attempted coup by attacking Jerusalem, pillaging the temple, erecting altars to Greek gods, and banning Jewish scriptures, sacrifices, feasts, and circumcision. The corresponding Jewish revolt, led by Judas Maccabeus, finally broke the power of the Seleucids and restored freedom and independence to Judea . . . . for a time.
Not long after the Jews had wrenched free from Syrian rule, their territory was gradually seized by the growing Roman Empire. Herod the Great was appointed by Rome as king of Judea in 37 BC, and he gained control of the region by force of arms and ruled as a friend of Rome for over three decades. Judea was established as a Roman province in AD 6, a military governor (procurator) was stationed there, and the residents were then required to pay taxes to the Roman government. The Jewish people had gone from an autonomous, self-governing nation to the occupation and control of a foreign power. This is the world that Jesus knew.
It was in this context that the Zealot movement was born. The Zealots were the ones responsible for instigating the Jewish revolt of AD 66, provoking the brutal response of the Romans that resulted in the demolition of the Jewish temple and the city of Jerusalem in AD 70. Some historians classify the Zealots as a separate Jewish sect, whereas others consider them to have been an extreme wing of the Pharisees. They were zealous for Jewish sovereignty, promoted insurrection and violence against the pagan occupiers, and engaged in assassinations and armed conflict. They typically targeted Romans or representatives of Rome, while the Sicarii, named after the small daggers (sicai) they used, also turned against fellow-Jews suspected as apostates or enemy collaborators.
With this background in mind, we can more clearly understand the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:12: "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (NKJV). We can also appreciate the dilemma the Pharisees and Herodians attempted to create for the Lord by asking him whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:17). They apparently assumed, in this volatile environment, that whatever answer he gave would have incited the fury of either the Romans or the Zealots against him.
There are a number of New Testament characters who seem to have been involved in the Zealot movement, including Theudas, Judas of Galilee, and an unnamed Egyptian (Acts 5:36-37; 21:38). Barabbas, the criminal who was pardoned from execution instead of Jesus, appears to have been included among these political extremists, seeing that he and his fellow rebels "had committed murder in the rebellion" (Mark 15:7; cf. Luke 23:19, 25).
Some of the Zealots even found their way into the Christian movement. One of the Lord’s personal disciples, Simon, is explicitly labeled "the zealot" by Luke (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). While Matthew (10:4) and Mark (3:18) use the more obscure term Kananites, which is rendered in many English versions as "Cananite," it is actually derived from a Hebrew word meaning "zealot." Even more information is available on the background of Saul of Tarsus, who maliciously targeted Jewish Christians whom he considered apostates from the Jewish faith (Acts 8:1; 9:1, 21; 22:4-5, 19-20; 26:10; etc.). In the Greek text of Acts 22:3, as Paul recounts his violent past, the noun form is used to identify him as "a zealot" of God. Also, in Galatians 1:14 Paul again employs the noun form to describe his former activity in Judaism as "a zealot."
From the above information, the following lessons can be learned. Firstly, Jesus transforms individual lives. The apostle Paul, because of his sordid past, regarded himself as less than the least of all the saints (Ephesians 3:8), the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), and unworthy to be called an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:9). But thanks to the transforming power of Jesus, the former Zealot became an unwavering advocate of the Christian faith. This clearly demonstrates that no one is too bad to be accepted by Christ and changed into something better. It also indicates that no matter where a person might be in his/her spiritual development, with the Lord’s help improvements can be made. It further shows that Christians ought to be careful about prematurely judging one’s potential receptivity (or lack thereof) based upon immediate appearances or lifestyle. After all, it was an ex-terrorist who said, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
Secondly, Jesus transforms relationships. While the Zealots were vehemently opposed to the Romans and their collaborators, including those who gathered Caesar’s taxes, Jesus brought together Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector, making enemies into brothers. The Lord still has the power to transform strained or broken relationships, whether in the home, in the church, or in the community. The key is learning and heeding his biblical directives, with each person involved recognizing that the process begins with "me" (Romans 12:18).
Finally, Jesus enables us to harnesses our zeal and focus it in the right direction. Everyone is passionate about something. Intense enthusiasm can either be good or bad, depending on whether or not it is controlled and where it is directed. It is not enough to have "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2). May the Lord help us to redirect our energies, if necessary, toward eagerly fulfilling his perfect will. From the reflections of a former Zealot, we read: "For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
--Kevin L. Moore
Related Post: Barabbas