Simon the Zealot meets the Lord
For a man who did and said nothing that is recorded in the New Testament, Simon the Zealot certainly raises fascinating issues. What makes Simon so interesting is the dramatic description attached to his name. He is also known as “Simon the Canaanite” (Mt. 10:4; Mk. 3:18), referencing the Hebrew word for “zeal” rather than the similar sounding term for the land of Canaan.1 His name only appears in lists of the twelve apostles (see the previously cited references plus Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13). He is never quoted directly, but, as a member of Christ’s closest followers, he participated in several miracles (e.g., Jn. 6:1-14; Mk. 8:1-10) and, most likely, two major preaching campaigns (Mt. 10; Lk. 10). Most importantly, as an apostle, he was an eyewitness of the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22). It is the nature of his zeal both before and after his conversion that makes Simon such an important figure for believers to understand.
The Zealots were a well-known first century Jewish militant group. Depending on one’s perspective, they were either freedom fighters or terrorists. Older scholarship holds that they were founded by the notorious agitator Judas of Galilee who is mentioned by Gamaliel in Acts 5:37.2 Contemporary historians maintain that they did not exist prior to the first Jewish Revolt (66-73 ad).3 Whichever is correct, perhaps Simon was a zealot in the name’s revolutionary sense, for it is possible that it was also used before the previously mentioned revolt to describe patriots who wanted to achieve Jewish liberation by violent means.
Israel had a history of zeal expressed through force. Would-be guerrillas looked back for inspiration to passionate fighters like Phinehas (Num. 25:7-8, 11), Elijah (1 Ki. 18), and Josiah (1 Ki. 13:2). Closer to the time of the Lord, an incident from the intertestamental era furnishes an example of Jewish zeal expressed through violence. The following quotation describes a devout Jew’s reaction to the Gentile king Antiochus IV’s edict to cease offering to Jehovah and sacrifice instead according to his pagan rites:
When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: ‘Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!’ (1 Maccabees 2:24–27, nrsv).4
Likewise, the first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria writes of a man who violates an oath being punished by “…zealots for and keepers of the national laws, of rigid justice, prompt to stone such a criminal, and visiting without pity all such as work wickedness…”5
From revolutionary to apostle
Clearly, the Zealot was a well-established category of national folk hero in Jewish society in the days of Christ. This brings up the intriguing possibility that such a man was among the Lord’s twelve closest disciples. Does God’s grace extend to people who stop at nothing to achieve their ends? How does this line up with the Lord’s teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt. 5:9)?
As A.B. Bruce remarks: “An ex-zealot was not a safe man to make an apostle of, for he might be the means of rendering Jesus and His followers objects of political suspicion. But the Author of our faith was willing to take the risk. He expected to gain many disciples from the dangerous classes as well as from the despised, and He would have them, too, represented among the twelve.”6 The Lord Jesus specializes in saving hard cases—people that others give up on. My personal friend, Mr. Billy Stevenson, originally from Northern Ireland, was brought to Christ out of a background of sectarian fighting and membership in a Protestant paramilitary unit. More recently, a prominent member of the radical Palestinian group Hamas professed to receive the Lord as his Savior. Others have been saved out of terrorist groups, dangerous cults, and organized crime. There is no one so extreme that they cannot be made a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
Or Little “z”?
Rather than a zealot as an armed partisan, maybe Simon was a zealot in a less dramatic sense: he was passionate for the Law and the rabbinic traditions that grew up around it. That great pattern of all longsuffering, Saul of Tarsus, described himself in that way (Gal. 1:13-14); indeed, his zeal for Judaism even led him to persecute believers (Php. 3:6). One could never accuse him of half-heartedness! After his conversion, that same intense desire for the Lord’s glory moved Paul to carry the gospel into the most difficult situations. Of his devout countrymen, he wrote: “…they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). The Judaizers were zealous to gain adherents in Galatia, but he warned them of the danger of misplaced zeal (Gal. 4:17-18). Zeal is good, but only if it is wedded to truth.
God is passionately devoted to His people (Zech. 1:14; 8:2). At His first coming, the Son of God was zealous for His Father’s house and honor (Jn. 2:17). After his conversion, Simon became a zealot for the gospel of Christ. Whether his preconversion jealousy was for armed struggle or religious devotion, it was now channeled for God’s glory and the advancement of the gospel. Every believer ought to emulate his passion for the Lord.
Faith in Christ unites formerly disparate people in amazing ways. Bruce’s comments sum up Simon’s importance:
It gives one a pleasant surprise to think of Simon the zealot and Matthew the publican, men coming from so opposite quarters, meeting together in close fellowship in the little band of twelve. In the persons of these two disciples extremes meet—the tax-gatherer and the tax-hater: the unpatriotic Jew, who degraded himself by becoming a servant of the alien ruler; and the Jewish patriot, who chafed under the foreign yoke, and sighed for emancipation. This union of opposites was not accidental, but was designed by Jesus as a prophecy of the future. He wished the twelve to be the church in miniature or germ; and therefore He chose them so as to intimate that, as among them distinctions of publican and zealot were unknown, so in the church of the future there should be neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, bond nor free, but only Christ—all to each, and in each of the all.7
1 Mark Wilhelm Gesenius, “qanah,” in Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, ed. S. P. Tregelles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), p. 735; see also J.C. Lambert, “Cananaean” in Hastings, James, John A. Selbie, and John C. Lambert, eds. A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1906), p. 268.
2 C. M. Kerr, “Simon the Canaanite, or Cananaean, or Zealot,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol. 1–5 (Chicago, IL: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), p. 2797.
3 David Rhoads, “Zealots,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, ed. D.N. Freedman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 1043-1054.
4 1 Maccabees is not part of God’s Word. I quote it merely as a historical source; likewise, Philo in the next endnote.
5 Philo of Alexandria, “The Special Laws, II 253,” in The Works of Philo: Unabridged. Trans. C.D. Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), p. 592.
6 Alexander Balmain Bruce, The Training of the Twelve (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995), p. 35.
7 Bruce, pp.35-36.