Voltaire said, the perfect is the enemy of the good. I add, the zealot is the enemy of the faithful. Zealotry is a form of spiritual illness. It is dangerous. Zealots would destroy the faith in order to save it. It does not matter what zealots believe so long as it consumes them completely.
The Zealot movement came about during a Roman census in AD 6. Opposing this census, according to Britannica, was understood to be a mark of the true Jewish religious rebel. If a Jewish family took part in the census, they were implying that pagans had the right to rule over the Jewish nation. The Zealots attacked such people along with Roman officials.
Gamaliel is quoted in Acts saying, “Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him scattered.”(5:37b) Zealots cause nothing but suffering. For a time they appear to be liberators. Yet, they simply are not. History indicates they have not changed.
The Zealot Problem
Right after the Soviet Union collapsed, President George H. W. Bush declared a “new world order” was developing. A colleague living then in Alaska told me one of the members of his fundamentalist church decided to move “off the grid” into the wilderness. The reason was “he does not want to live in George Bush’s new world order.” The move turned out to be a near tragedy. My friend said, “I don’t know why he couldn’t have that kind of zeal for Jesus.” In short, that describes the problem.
We fail to note the difference between one who has zeal and the zealot. The zealot party believes themselves to be the only ones to have zeal. In believing so they misunderstand zeal. To be zealous is to be single-minded in pursuit of something. To be zealous is to be fervent. The zealot mistakes controlling the hearts of others for the fervent pursuit of an ideal. “I was violently persecuting the church of god and was trying to destroy it…for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Galatians 1:13b-14) St. Paul allowed his zeal to uphold tradition to make him believe his completeness as a Jew was tied to destroying those who didn’t do as he did.
My friend should have never wished his politically zealous friend to turn that energy into serving Jesus. Paul does not describe himself as doing that. He “proclaimed the faith he once tried to destroy” after having Jesus revealed to him. That revelation was a spiritual healing for him.
Healing the Zealot
People suffering from spiritual illnesses do not recognize the problem. Some Christians believe all spiritual illnesses are demonic possessions and require deliverance. Such an obsession is itself a spiritual illness. So it is difficult to overcome.
Heresy is not so much about erroneous doctrines as it is a desire to divide because of them. One, like St. Paul, has an inordinate desire to harm in the name of truth. The Pastoral Epistles continually use the phrase “sound doctrine.” Many interpreters think this means true doctrines. I may say something that is true. But that does not make my teaching sound. The teaching the church provides is supposed to promote spiritual health. If the desire is to have something other than spiritual health, the desire is heretical.
Zealotry can be overcome. It must first be recognized for what it is.
The minister of my home church thought the Apostle Simon the Zealot meant that a radical right-winger was among Jesus’ followers. If Simon held his political views as one of Jesus’ disciples, one wonders how Levi the tax collector survived. Some bad ideas must be let go of at sometime or other in spiritual growth.
Simon the Zealot and St Paul are good cases for further analysis. It appears that both needed separation from associations that drove their belief to control others. Neither of them stayed “within the fold” when each discovered a better way. Walking away from the bad is an important step.
Gamaliel’s point in his speech referred to earlier is how the dissolution of the movement brings about a healing. Traditionally, Gamaliel is described as a leader of the Pharisees. It is a group that is regarded as Jesus’ enemies by most modern interpreters. And yet, St. Paul continued to describe himself as one. (Philippians 3:4b) The root of the word Pharisee means separation. There wound up being a variety of them.
Recognizing the problem within one’s self takes place before a person can separate from it, the situations, and the associations involved. An ancient Zealot recognized the need to keep Jewish law and tradition. And mistakenly thought coercion was the means to make observance occur. A reading of the Mosaic law demonstrates coercive measures. But they don’t appear to work very well in the long run.
Gamaliel appealed to historic experience. Why persecute something that will eventually disappear? Why persecute someone that could really be doing God’s will? The zealous person is placed in a conundrum. We can only look at the present to determine our future actions. What will our actions bring to everyone else? Do we promote fear to bring good? Doesn’t history show us the end results of that?