Simon the Zealot

Samuel Kuo—Flushing, NY, USA

At the time of writing, citizens of the United States are progressing through another presidential election cycle. It has been virtually impossible not to know, since daily headlines and nightly news programs have often consisted of the latest campaign bulletins. Not only is there plenty of coverage in the traditional media sources, many people’s social networking newsfeeds are blanketed with political opinions, links, and videos related to this year’s batch of candidates as well. Often, many of these posts are full of emotion, anger, and vitriol especially concerning their political opposition. People can be quite passionate when it comes to their politics, no matter the country.

If our assumptions prove correct, one of the Lord Jesus’ hand-selected disciples was also very politically involved. In fact, whenever his name appears in the Bible, his political affiliation is always attached: “Simon the Zealot.”

HIS NAME

The New Testament lists Jesus Christ’s twelve apostles in four separate passages. In both Luke 6:12 and Acts 1:13, we see Simon’s name written as “Simon the Zealot.” Interestingly, Matthew 10:4 and Mk 3:18 render his name as “Simon the Cananite” (NKJV) or “Simon the Cananaean” (RSV); however, this is not to be mistaken with the geographical locations of Cana or Canaan. “Cananite” from the Greek, Καναναῖος (kananaios) originates from the Aramaic קַנְאָן (can’an) meaning zealot, enthusiast[1]. In fact, all four lists of the disciples essentially render his name the same way.

The fact that “Zealot” was always biblically attached to Simon’s name most likely indicates that he belonged to the eponymous Jewish sect and political faction of the time.

THE ZEALOTS

Typically, Christians are familiar with two Jewish sects during the time of Christ: the Pharisees and Sadducees. These groups are often mentioned in the gospels, and their beliefs are somewhat elaborated upon (cf. Acts 23:6–8). However, based on the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, there were two additional Jewish sects (or what he calls “philosophies”) at the time of Jesus: the Essenes and the Zealots[2].  According to Josephus, the Zealot movement was founded by Judas the Galilean[3], who attempted a revolt against the Roman government around AD 6 because of a tax-related decree to conduct a census. (Interestingly, this Judas is also mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5:37.)

Religiously, the Zealots were very similar to the Pharisees[4]. This meant that they believed in the immortality of the soul, in a final judgment after death, and in a physical resurrection. The Pharisees were very virtuous, obtaining a good reputation among the people, and therefore able to be very persuasive in their doctrines concerning worship. They practiced modesty, despising delicacies in their diet.[5] The Pharisees tended to be apolitical. The Zealots weren’t.

Politically, the Zealots are described to have had an “inviolable attachment to liberty.”[6] They believed that only God had the right to rule over the Jewish nation—that Jews “were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans, and would, after God, submit to mortal men as their lords.”[7] Therefore, they believed that they were doing God’s work by rebelling against Roman soldiers and leaders, even killing some of them. They were political extremists. A related sub-group, called the Sicarii, or assassins, who wore concealed daggers were even more extreme, carrying out planned assassination attempts.[8] Of note is the mentioning of this group in Acts 21:38.

It is often said that Barabbas, the prisoner released on Passover instead of Jesus Christ, would probably also have been a member of the Zealots, or at least similar politically, since he is described as a “rebel” (NKJV) or “insurrectionist” (NIV, Mk 15:7).

BE HARMONIOUS WITH OTHER CHRISTIANS

If indeed the apostle Simon used to belong to the aforementioned sect, there are many lessons that we can learn and apply to our Christian walk. The first is that we should learn to dwell in harmony with our Christian brothers and sisters.

One of the other disciples whom Jesus Christ hand-selected was Matthew (Mt 9:9; Lk 6:15). Remember that Matthew was a tax-collector before he left everything to follow Jesus (Lk 5:27). As a former tax-collector, his actions would have been consistent with a political posture opposite of Simon’s, since the taxes that he collected would eventually end up in the hands of the Romans, and the Zealots were staunchly anti-Rome. Sometimes, people of opposing political stances cannot even be in the same room together. Yet here we see that Simon had to learn to, at the very least, tolerate Matthew and his past in order to be disciples of Jesus Christ. “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3).

Eventually all twelve disciples were sent to preach the kingdom of heaven (Mt 10:5–7). They lived together (Acts 1:13). They prayed together (Acts 1:13–14). They preached together (Acts 4:33). They were imprisoned together (Acts 5:18). They suffered persecution together (Acts 5:40–41). The Bible only uses the collective term, “the disciples,” but Matthew and Simon would obviously be included. To think despite their ideological differences, they could work so cohesively together for the kingdom of God.

Every area of church ministry requires the cooperation of many individual members. But the church can be so diverse—not only in ethnicity and language, but in many ideologies and preferences as well. Democrat or Republican? Communist China or Democratic Taiwan/Hong Kong? Capitalist America or Socialist Europe? Arsenal or Chelsea? Yankees or Mets? Coke or Pepsi?

How can the church work together? How can the holy work progress? In matters of the truth of salvation, obviously no compromise is permitted (Gal 1:6–9; 2 Jn 9–11). But in all other matters, including our politics, we need to lay aside our differences and dwell in harmony with our brothers and sisters. I like to think that Simon and Matthew put into practice what the Lord Jesus Christ taught His followers: “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for [them]” (Mt 5:44).

GIVE UP OUR PASSIONS AND IDEOLOGIES

Simon the Zealot also teaches us that after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, we should eventually give up our passions and ideologies that we may have adopted over time, especially when they are in conflict with the Lord Jesus’ teachings.

Presumably, Simon was extremely zealous for his nation Israel—a very pro-independence outlook. Perhaps what first attracted Simon to Jesus Christ was that he thought Jesus was the Messiah who would overthrow the Roman government and restore the kingdom of Israel. In fact, it seemed that Simon wouldn’t have been the only disciple with such expectation, since even during the ascension of Jesus Christ, the disciples thought He was establishing a physical kingdom: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

However, soon after receiving the promised Holy Spirit, Simon’s zeal for Israel eventually transformed into a zeal for Jesus Christ. He realized Jesus did not come to establish a physical kingdom, but one that transcended the world (cf. Jn 18:36). Instead of living for his passions and ideologies, he labored for Jesus Christ instead.

One teaching that would have especially challenged Simon was Jesus’ teaching on paying taxes. Jesus had once famously said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). This was a direct challenge to the politics to which he followed. How could he go against the principles that he was so passionate for? How could he let go of his anti-Roman ideology? The key would have been transformation through the promised Holy Spirit. When one walks in the Spirit, he follows the will of the Spirit, rather than his own passions (Rom 8:1–8).

Since we are in Christ Jesus, we must also tear down our worldly zeal. Collectively, we often struggle with all sorts of worldly zeal. A zeal for video games. A zeal for make-up and fashion. A zeal for higher education and status. A zeal for the newest gadgets and technology. A zeal for travel and pleasure. A zeal for sin. It is generally easy to tell not only by the amount of time we spend on these things, but also on how we sacrifice other priorities to obtain them—especially when matters concerning the kingdom of God are laid at the altar. Many times our zeal for these worldly things are thus borderline idolatrous. Those passions and philosophies may have enslaved our hearts and cheated us with empty deceit (Col 2:8). But we must learn to give them up like Simon did.

BE ZEALOUS FOR JESUS CHRIST AND THE GOSPEL

We may think that such excitements are the answers to a happy and meaningful life; however, we may entirely neglect to cultivate a zeal to follow Jesus Christ wholeheartedly. Where is our zeal to live, and even die, for the One who died for us? (2 Cor 5:14–15). This is one of the biggest lessons we learn from Simon the Zealot.

Though the Bible is silent on what eventually happened to most of the twelve apostles, many extra-biblical accounts indicate that they likely died as martyrs for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Simon the Zealot would have been no exception. There are many conflicting accounts, but perhaps the strongest tradition suggests that he was ultimately sawn in half for being a Christian. Hence, many western works of art classically depict Simon the Zealot with a saw[9].

Why would the apostles give up their lives for the gospel? Because they had been witnesses of its absolute truth. Because God’s love and Lord Jesus’ sacrifice had transformed them. Because the down-pouring of the promised Holy Spirit had completely changed their values and passions, empowering them to live accordingly. Seldom would someone die for another person. Even rarer is a person who would die for a cause they did not believe in. But that’s exactly what most of the Twelve did.

Are we convicted by the gospel truth? Has God’s grace and love transformed us? How has the Holy Spirit changed and empowered us? These are all questions worthy of our contemplation. May we also follow in the footsteps of the apostles to live for the sake of Christ.

CONCLUSION

The Zealot movement eventually died out in a most tragic way. They were very active throughout the war of AD 66–70 against the Romans, which led to the fall of Jerusalem by future Emperor Titus. Josephus describes how they made a final stand against the Romans in a fortress called Masada in AD 73. The ensuing Roman siege was lengthy and demoralizing. On the night before walls were breached, seeing that there was no escape, rather than surrendering to their enemies, they chose ten of their own to kill the rest of the fortress inhabitants, including the women and children. Then lots were drawn among the ten for one to kill the other nine. And finally, the last survivor was to kill himself.[10] The political movement amounted to nothing. Israel still remained under Roman control.

Zeal for various worldly passions and ideologies, politics or otherwise, will pass away with the flow of time, just like the Zealots did. Scripture tells us not to put our trust in princes for they are of no help (Ps 146:3, 118:9). But if we are zealous for Jesus Christ we stand on a kingdom that will prevail forever.



[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Josephus, F. Antiquities of the Jews, 18.11–26 (18 ch1 4–6)

[3] Josephus, F. Wars of the Jews, 2.118 (2 ch8.1)

[4] Metzger, B. (2003). The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (3rd ed.). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

[5] Josephus, F. Antiquities of the Jews, 18.12–15 (18 ch1.3)

[6] Ibid, 18.23–25 (18 ch.1.6)

[7] Josephus, F. Wars of the Jews, 2.118  (2 ch.8.1)

[8] Josephus, F. Antiquities of the Jews, 20.185–187 (20 ch.8.10)

[9] Guiley, R. (2001). The Encyclopedia of Saints. New York: Checkmark Books

[10] Josephus, F. Wars of the Jews, 7.252–406 (7 ch 8.1–9.2)

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