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.”
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.
In fact, all four lists of the disciples essentially render his name the same
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.
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. According to Josephus, the Zealot movement
was founded by Judas the Galilean,
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.
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.
The Pharisees tended to be apolitical. The Zealots weren’t.
Politically, the Zealots are
described to have had an “inviolable attachment to liberty.”
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
The political movement amounted to nothing. Israel still remained under Roman
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.