Last time we learned about the establishment of the Zealots and the Sicarii who were a bit of a break-away group of political assassins. We finished by learning about the last stronghold of the Zealots at Masada, but I wanted to tell you about another stronghold they had in the Galilee overlooking the Sea of Galilee and very close to Tiberias.
Mt Arbel overlooks the sea and its cliff-face full of caves and it was in these caves that many of the Zealots lived. It was easy to defend and hard to get to because entering the caves mean scaling some of the sheer cliff-face which was difficult. If the Zealots had secret entrances, Herod’s soldiers didn’t know them. Herod tried repeatedly to arrest or kill them but failed repeatedly. In the end, the Roman soldiers built large crates that could hold numerous soldiers, they lowered the crates over the side of the cliffs on ropes, putting a lot of faith in their comrades to not let them crash to their deaths at the bottom of the mountain. Once they were level with the cave entrances, they used large hooks on long poles to reach in and drag the rebels out, sending them crashing to their deaths at the bottom of the mountain. Really charming stuff.
It’s always interesting to learn about different groups and their motivation, especially religious groups. When you believe something so fundamentally, there’s no room for compromise and certainly no wiggle room for common ground. For Christians, how do we walk that fine line when the government that rules us endorses and promotes evil or policies that are diametrically opposed to our own convictions and beliefs? How do we live in such societies and remain faithful to our beliefs and yet, still obey the law of the land…is that even possible?
The Zealots were passionate about God’s Law and their ancestral inheritance, and they believed that violence was an acceptable means to that end and to add to this conundrum, Jesus hand-picked one of them to be among His disciples. Simon the Zealot!
All the disciples are curious choices and one of the best teachings I’ve ever heard about these men was done by Dr John Macarthur. The series is called ‘Twelve Extraordinary Men’ and I highly recommend it. I learned so much from it.
So imagine this, Jesus hand-picked a man named Levi, we know him as Matthew and he was a tax collector. His name actually tells us about his tribal heritage, he was a Levite, from the priestly tribe of Levi. When you read the Gospel of Matthew you notice that it’s very Jewish in its flavour and that’s understandable when you know who the author was. Levi/Matthew knew the Law, that was his training growing up as a Levite but at some point, he chose to work for the Romans collecting taxes from his own countrymen on their behalf.
Collecting taxes was a job that could be very lucrative, to make money, all he had to do was collect the required amounts for Rome, and add a percentage on top for himself…how much that percentage was, was up to him. Most Jews considered tax collectors to be guilty of treason, they were traitors to their own people, they’d sided with their enemy and were hated, despised and rejected. In fact, being a tax collector put a huge target on their backs.
Jesus chose one of them to be among His twelve disciples. Jesus also chose Simon the Zealot, a religious patriot who hated Rome and deemed it his religious duty to use violence and even kill, if necessary, anyone who was aligned with Rome and the occupation of Israel. Jesus brought those two together.
In normal circumstances, these two should have killed each other inside of a week! How is it that Jesus and His twelve hand-picked men, zealots or terrorists, tax-collecting traitors, rough fishermen, zealous religious men and ruffians, all came together and with only three years of on-the-job training, changed the world and turned it on its head.
Those men learned to put their biases, their former religious convictions and beliefs, their behaviours and their ideologies aside, in fact, all those things changed completely. After being with Jesus, they weren’t the same men at all.
They became unified, with challenges along the way of course, but they became unified and after the death, resurrection and ascension, they left Jerusalem and travelled the known world with the Gospel and changed the world forever. They learned a new way to live, think, act and communicate.
Just to finish, to show just how transformed the Apostles were after being with Jesus…no longer pursuing their own goals and agendas, they all – with John being the exception – died horrific deaths for their faith in Jesus. No longer were they trying to establish their own personal kingdoms, or trying to overthrow and rule earthly kingdoms, they worked with unity and passion and godly zeal to preach the Gospel to all people all over the known world, for the establishment and growth of God’s kingdom, while their personalities and character traits remained the same.
In particular, Simon the former Zealot turned zealous for Christ, is believed to have traveled to Egypt first and then joined Thaddaeus in Persia (today Iran), where his particular method of martyrdom was being sawn in half with a saw. Again, in spite of their horrific deaths, the disciples turned the world on its head through their zeal for Christ and His Gospel.