In Jesus’ day, a handful of Jewish groups and political parties sought to govern or influence the day-to-day life of the Jews living in Palestine. Given their views, many of these groups would have taken a keen interest in the life and ministry of Jesus, and not always in favor or support.

The historian Josephus write of four prominent groups:

The Pharisees, who Jesus frequently clashed with and admonished for their legalism and hypocrisy, were fastidious about the Law and its application. As religious fundamentalists, they were often the most rigid and overbearing, maneuvering to protect their wealth and preserve their political power at all costs, even if it meant blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:22-29) or partnering with the Romans to have Jesus crucified (John 18).

The Sadducees, also mentioned in the gospels, were a more wealthy, aristocratic, and liberal group, known for their denial of the supernatural.

The Essenes, though not mentioned in Scripture, were a third Jewish party and a more monk-like group of aesthetics and celibates who lived in the desert and devoted themselves to the study of the Old Testament.

The fourth group, and the most politically minded and feared among the Jews, were the Zealots.

In the first century, The Zealots were a notorious sect of Jewish patriots who sought to overthrow the Roman occupation of Palestine through violence, terror, and political intimidation, often resorting to murder, assassination, and militant action to further their agenda. Ironically, one of Jesus’ own disciples, Simon the Zealot, was a member of this group before being called to follow Christ.

Who Were the Zealots?

Their name, derived from the Greek work zelos, fit the Zealots’ reputation as those with a passion, zeal, or fervor of spirit.

Of course, this begs the question: what were the Zealots so fervent and passionate about?

Although they held many religious views with the Pharisees, the Zealots were known more for their hatred of Rome than anything else. It was this resentment and animus towards the Roman occupation that inspired the Zealots to become one of the most violent and aggressive groups in the region.

In fact, no Jewish group was as politically motivated or opposed to Rome as the Zealots.

Josephus suggests, however, that their name was a bit of a misnomer, “as if they were zealous in good undertakings, and were not rather zealous in the worst actions, and extravagant in them beyond the example of others.” (Antiquities 18.1.16)

Make no mistake, the Zealots were violent extremists, militant outlaws, and political revolutionaries with “an insatiable passion for liberty.” (Antiquities 18.1.6)

According to John Drane, “their overriding conviction was that they could have no master but God, and for them that implied that driving out the Romans must be a top priority.” (39)

Of course, not all Zealots were violent in their approach. Unfortunately, many extremists among the party sought to advance their cause by targeting Roman soldiers, politicians, and even Jews friendly to Rome for assassination.

Barabbas, the notorious criminal and convicted murderer released during the crucifixion of Jesus, was likely among this group (Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:38-40).

Known as the sicarii, or “dagger men,” the Zealots would often conceal curved daggers in the folds of their robes and sneak up on Roman soldiers and politicians and stab them in the back. The Zealots were also known to burn or destroy Roman targets in Judea then retreat to the Galilean countryside to hide.

Their founder, Judas (not Iscariot), was himself a Galilean who had led a revolt against Rome in AD 6 in response to the passage of a Roman census tax. Famous for their murderous rampage, looting, rioting, and destruction, the early Zealots were swiftly crushed by the Romans and their leaders crucified.

After this, the Zealot movement went underground, and its members resorted to more secretive and covert attacks on select targets.

No less influential, these were the Zealots who were at work to overthrow Rome during Jesus’ adult years.

Who Was Simon the Zealot?

Perhaps surprisingly, one of Christ’s own disciples, Simon, was a member of the Zealots prior to meeting Jesus. It is possible that Judas Iscariot, another member of the Twelve and the one who went on to betray Jesus, was a former Zealot as well.

Like many of the Zealots, it is probable Simon had initially followed Jesus for political reasons, wondering if Jesus was the kind of revolutionary leader who would finally lead Israel in open revolt against their Roman oppressors.

But Jesus was no such Messiah.

In fact, despite the assertions of many contemporary intellectuals, Jesus was not a revolutionary, at least not in a political sense or the way the Zealots expected Him to be.

According to John MacArthur, “the Zealots were hoping for a Messiah who would lead them in overthrowing the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel with its Solomonic glory. They were red-hot patriots, ready to die in an instant for what they believed in.” (175)

Jesus, however, had not come to overthrow Rome or lead a violent, political revolution. He said, “the Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

“The Zealots were convinced that paying tribute to a pagan king was an act of treason against God,” MacArthur, writes. (176)

When asked if the Jews should pay taxes, Jesus Himself affirmed the role and jurisdiction of earthly governments and authorities, saying, “pay to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).

To many Zealots, Jesus would have been seen as a disappointment. They wanted revolution; Jesus brought spiritual renewal, revival, and reconciliation with God the Father.

Somewhere along the way, Simon the Zealot saw Jesus for who He really was, having been transformed by Christ’s love and mission of grace in contrast to his former life of violence, political activism, and extremism.

It’s also worth noting that Matthew, a former tax collector, was included among the Twelve.

To the Zealots, tax collectors, who collected funds on behalf of Rome, were treated as traitors to their nation. As a result, Jewish tax collectors were often attacked and targeted for assassination.

John MacArthur writes, however, that “at one point in his life Simon would probably have gladly killed Matthew. In the end, they became spiritual brethren, working side by side for the same cause – the spread of the gospel – and worshipping the same Lord.” (77)

As Christ labored to reconcile the hearts of man to the Father, so too are former enemies and political adversaries reconciled through Christ’s work on the cross.

When it comes to Simon the Zealot, no reliable record of his ministry beyond the gospels exists. Some sources point to Simon traveling north as far as the British Isles. We ultimately don’t know.

The Zealots, however, would go on to revolt against Rome, retaking the city of Jerusalem in AD 66. However, the Roman response, as was often the case, was swift and brutal. In AD 70, the Romans crushed the Zealots, destroying the city of Jerusalem and the temple in the process.

Though they believed they were acting in accordance with God’s will, “the Zealots’ blind hatred of Rome and everything Roman ultimately provoked the destruction of their own city. The spirit of their movement was an insane, and ultimately self-destructive fanaticism.” (MacArthur, 177)

Is There Such a Thing as Healthy, Biblical Zeal?

The first century Zealots pursued a political agenda marked by violence and destruction, not Christ’s ultimate mission of grace, forgiveness, and salvation.

The Bible, however, does not condemn zeal and passion for those who love and follow Christ. In fact, Scripture encourages Christians to be passionate about the Word of God and serving the Lord.

Many Christians today are eager to fight for God and are more than willing to go toe-to-toe with those they view as enemies.

Jesus, however, challenged the heart and agenda of the Zealots when He said, “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

The apostle Paul would also later write, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Christians may be passionate, committed, and all in as the Zealots were, but that doesn’t mean that their heart or actions are guided by God’s love, the truth of God’s word, or an obedient heart.

As Paul writes in Romans, “brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:1-4).

A heart that is zealous but also violent, hateful, quarrelsome, envious, divisive, unforgiving, and ungracious may not be heart that has been transformed or even fully surrendered to God.

The Zealots sought political revolution; Jesus sought to restore the relationship between God the Father and humanity, bringing to life what was once dead in sin.

The Zealots sought to overthrow Rome; Jesus sought to kick down the gates of hell and break the power of sin and death once and for all.

For the follower of Christ, healthy zeal is evident in the fruit of a life changed by the goodness and grace of Jesus Christ. This comes in the form of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, otherwise known as the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Passion absent purpose or biblical truth can become a dangerous, divisive, and destructive force in this world. The Zealots sought to overthrow Rome. What they got was more death.

Jesus, however, made His mission clear: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

May Christ’s followers be guided and motivation by the same mission.

References and Further Reading

Drane, John. Introducing the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

MacArthur, John. 12 Ordinary MenDallas: Thomas Nelson, 2002.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/LordHenriVoton


Joel Ryan is a children’s book author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Crosswalk, Christianity.com, Stand Firm Men’s Magazine, and others. He is passionate about telling great stories, defending biblical truth, and helping writers of all ages develop their craft. Joel discusses, analyzes, and appreciates the great writings of the past and present on his website, Perspectives off the Page.