Who Were The Zealots?

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

Who were the Zealots? Whatever happened to them?

Zealous

The word zealous means to be fervent, to be passionate about, or to be devoted to something and most people in this world want to have freedom. No one loves living under an iron-fisted ruler. People will eventually resist and create a political change in the nation, and in time, those most passionate about the overthrow of the government, will act. And many others will follow. These could be called zealots. The Early Americans were zealots concerning their right to be represented since they were being taxed, and eventually fought for independence from Great Britain, so it’s okay to be zealous for something you strongly believe in, and especially if it is a great evil, like with Nazi Germany last century. The allies were zealous to free Europe from the axis powers, and they did. Being zealous is fine, as long as it doesn’t lead to violence that breaks the commands of God. It’s proper and fitting to defend oneself, but to burn, loot, destroy, or even kill just to make social change is wrong. That kind of zealousness is sin.

Catapulta, by Edward Poynter (1868).

The Zealous Jews

The Jews were zealous over the Mosaic Law, which is why they fought and resisted the Apostle Paul’s message of the gospel of grace, but Paul wrote that sometimes being zealous is good. He mentioned “how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), and but not the Mosaic Law so this is a good. Paul was “zealous for God” (Acts 22:3), but in his zealousness for the Jewish laws, he persecuted the church (Acts 9). Zealousness can be good or it can be bad. It all depends on what the zealousness produces. For example, it can be good to be “zealous for what is good” (1 Pet 3:13). When Jesus Christ rebuked the lukewarm church, He told them, “I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:19). Being zealous about repentance, about doing what is good, and about obedience to God’s law (not the Mosaic Law) is a positive thing, but when we’re zealous over non-essential things, bad things usually come to pass. Many enter into debates and arguments over trivial biblical issues; issues that won’t matter in eternity. This is when being zealous can cause division and set brother against brother and sister against sister.

The Zealots

The Zealots were more of a political movement than a military one, at least in the beginning. This movement, empowered by the Zealots, sprang from first-century Jews in the Temple who constantly sought to incite the Jews in Judea to rebel against Roman rule. They wanted to physically remove the Romans from all of Judea and establish a Jewish state or nation again. If they had to resort to bloodshed to do it, they would (and they did). The word itself (zealot) comes from the Greek word “zelotes,” which mean “emulator” or to be a “zealous follower.” This group, originated by Judas of Galilee and a Pharisee named Zadok had the intention of violently overthrowing the Roman authorities, and they had a considerable force to do it…and for a time, they were successful.

The Great Jewish Revolution

Destruction of Jerusalem by Ercole de’ Roberti (1850).

The Jewish historian, Josephus, gives us a good historical record of the Zealots and the Great Jewish Revolution they inspired in the Antiquities of the Jews. He wrote that for a time, it appeared they would keep the Roman armies at bay, but not for long. Josephus wrote that the Zealots “agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord” (Antiquities 18.1.6). When the Great Jewish Revolt began in A.D. 66, the Zealots had great success in overtaking Jerusalem, but their revolt was short-lived because in A.D. 70, the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple. A remnant of the Zealots escaped and took refuge at Masada, but even that would end in the deaths of all the Jews and their family members who fled there. The Zealots has a great beginning, but they ended in disaster.

First Love

There’s something about that time when you’re first saved. It is the “first love” the Apostle John wrote about in the Book of Revelation. To the church at Ephesus, He said, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:2-4), so Jesus says, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 3:5), or be zealous again…zealous for the Lord. This kind of zealousness is desirable.

Conclusion

As we have noted, being zealous for the right thing can be good. We can be zealous for obeying the law (Acts 21:10). We can be zealous in proclaiming the goodness of God, like when Jesus healed many and He charged them to tell no one, but the more He told them, “the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36), and who could blame them? The Apostle Peter found comfort in one area of zealousness, saying, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good” (1 Pet 3:13)? That is, if we are living lives of obedience before God, that will include doing good works that God has appointed for us to walk in (Eph 2:10), and we’ll be zealous in doing them. And why not? We ought to be fired up about our Lord and Master. He is the only way to the Father (John 6:44; Acts 4:12), so we must be zealous in our proclamation of that fact.

Here is some related reading for you: Should Christians Get Involved in Politics?

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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