The Zealots (Part 2)

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There were two political choices facing the Jewish person in Judea under Roman rule—submit or rebel. Those choices were personified by two groups or sects that were active during the period—the Herodians and the Zealots. This is not to say that every Jew belonged to one or the other of these “fraternities.” They each actually had very few “members” as such. But the Herodians and the Zealots exemplified the extreme ways in which conquered peoples have always reacted to foreign rulers. Who were these Jewish sectaries and how did they themselves respond to Jesus’ unique message of salvation?

The Herodians are mentioned only twice in the Gospels, once in Galilee (Mark 3:6) and once in Jerusalem (Mark 12:13, Matthew 22:16). In each of these occurrences they are associated with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus. While they may have agreed with the Pharisees in their religious views, they must have been distinguished from them in their political beliefs. The Pharisees tended to be rather non-political, more concerned about the Mosaic and Oral law and its application to their daily lives. On the other hand, the Herodians, by their very name, must have been active supporters of Roman rule. The Emperor Augustus was wise enough to know that a subject people could be kept under control better if they were ruled immediately by a “puppet ruler” from the people themselves. Therefore, he appointed Herod who was of nominal Jewish background as a descendant of forced converts to the Jewish faith. Herod, his sons, and their sons ruled over the Jewish people for over a century. This rule, however, was exercised by the permission and blessing of Rome. The Herodian dynasty represented Roman rule to the people. Those who actively supported Roman domination of Judea manifested that support by devotion to Rome’s puppets, the Herods. Hence they were known as Herodians.

The ideas of the Herodians can best be illustrated by the question which they put to Jesus in Matthew 22. In that chapter, various groups come to Jesus and ask Him a question with the purpose of ensnaring Him by an inappropriate answer.

And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22: 16-22)

How appropriate that a group that strongly supported Caesar’s rule over the Jews should ask Him a question about paying taxes to the government of Caesar. This question was actually one of the hottest issues of the day among the Jewish populace. It is important that we understand the motivation of these questioning groups in Matthew 22. They were not sincerely asking for Jesus’ opinion on a certain topic. This is evident from the verse which immediately precedes the incident: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his talk” (Matt 22:15).

The Herodians and their encouragers wanted to catch Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If He opposed paying taxes, they would report Him to the Roman authorities. If He boldly supported the payment, then they hoped He would lose favor with the people. Jesus’ answer was a marvel of wisdom which has set the example for His followers for nearly two thousand years. Like it or not, we must pay our taxes—our money has the ruler’s image on it. Our souls, however, are stamped with God’s image—we must give Him that spiritual obedience above all else!

On the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Herodians were those who just as strongly opposed Roman rule over the Jewish people. Known as the Zealots after the zealous Phinehas of Old Testament fame (Num. 25:11-13), they not only opposed the Romans, they also warred against them with all of their might. They were ancient guerrilla fighters, attacking and killing Roman soldiers at every opportunity. As has been often observed, depending on one’s perspective, they were terrorists to some while to others they were freedom fighters. Founded in A.D. 6 as a result of another unwelcome taxation by the Romans, the Zealots carried the war against the Romans underground with whatever arms they could secure. They eventually led the nation into armed rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66 only to perish with the thousands in the destructions of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) and Masada (A.D. 73). Barabbas and his two fellow prisoners who were crucified with Jesus were undoubtedly also part of this group. Some think Judas was at least in sympathy with their goals and this contributed to his decision to betray Jesus when it became evident that the Master did not encourage such political views.

Another Zealot hot-head must have seen the light taught by the true Messiah and abandoned his radical ways. He is mentioned in the Gospels as “Simon the Zealot” (Matt. 10:4; Acts 1:13). To these sincere but misguided “young Turks” of His day, Jesus offered the following words: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt 26:52), and “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). It is easy to see, therefore, why Jesus message did not square with the radical terrorist message of the Zealots. It is also sad to see how that message was so perverted by later generations of Christians who thought that Christianity could be advanced and enforced more by the sword of metal rather than the sword of the spirit!

Jesus did not allow Himself to get caught up in the political rivalries and temporal conflicts of His contemporaries. He and His message transcended such issues that were so important to those whose horizon is only earthly things. Jesus taught the Herodians and us that as citizens of any country we have a higher obligation to our own King, whose image we bear. If duties to God and Caesar conflict, there is no doubt where our obedience must lie, even if we have to suffer for that choice. On the other hand, He taught the Zealots and us that freedom from physical bondage to others does not produce the lasting spiritual freedom so desperately needed by all mankind. Caesar is not our ultimate enemy. By Jesus’ power we can conquer our worst enemy—which is not the political power over us but our own sinful natures.

We will continue to search for the ideal balance between faith and politics. That answer will always, however, relate to our faithfulness to Him who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Let us give heed to this message of the Messiah who said to a powerful political ruler: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).

One of his most famous followers would later express it this way. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20,21).

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Aaron Blumer's picture


It might not look like it, but this piece has a lot of relevance to our own times. (Thanks to Dr V. for sharing it)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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