By Pastor Glenn Pease
We want to look at an Apostle of whom we would know nothing if the New Testament did not tell us of his political affiliation before he became a believer. If a man was called Simon the Democrat or Simon the Republican, you would not be able to draw many conclusions about him because these terms are too general. But if he was called Simon the Communist you would be able to say much more about him, for they have a more specific philosophy. So it is with the name Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a political party in Israel with a very clear cut philosophy, and a program to carry it out.
Since the New Testament tells us nothing of Simon but the fact that he was a member of this party, everything we can learn about him must come as inferences from what we know of the party. Simon the Zealot is as obscure as Simon Peter is famous. We know nothing about the Apostle Peter's political background, but that is all we know of Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were radical and fanatical nationalists who mixed their religion and politics into one of the most potent mixtures history has ever seen.
The land of Palestine was a country under Roman rule. None of the Jews liked it, but some hated it, and they wanted to fight this master that had them in its grip. Herod the Great was able to keep the volcano of their wrath from erupting by skilled diplomacy and sheer power of personality. But when he died in 4 B. C. and the territory was divided between his three sons, things began to get hot. In 7 A. D. a leader rose up in Galilee where the blaze was hottest. Judas the Galilean led an insurrection. They stormed the palace and broke into the arsenal, and embarked on a revolution as armed rebels.
Judas and his men were no match for the power of Rome, however, and he was crushed. In Acts 5:37 Gamaliel tells us of his fate. "Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered." Judas did not get far, but he started something which gave rise to the party called the Zealots. These fanatical nationalists loved their country more than life itself, and they hated Rome with all the hatred the human heart can possess. Such passion of love and hate when mixed lead to zeal bordering on madness. Nothing was permitted to stand in their way. Murder was not only permitted, it was promoted. They became known as the assassins. The name Sicarii came from the Sica, the little curved sword which they carried below their robes, and which they plunged into their enemies at every possible opportunity.
They were ruthless, and they were hunted down by the Romans and killed, but their zeal was so great that they did not fear what the Romans could do to them. Josephus wrote, "The Zealots have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is the only Ruler and Lord. They do not mind dying any kind of death, nor do they heed the torture of their kindred and their friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord." This zeal and loyalty and love for country were all qualities to be admired, but their hate for Rome spoiled these values. Hatred, however good the basis for it, destroys the hater. The Zealots did not destroy Rome, but they destroyed their own nation. Fanaticism is self-destructive. They so hated Rome that they became suspicious of all who did not hate Rome with their zeal. They began to look upon Jews who paid taxes to Rome as compromisers and enemies of Israel.
Their battle cry was, "No Lord but Jehovah, no tax but the temple tax, no friend but the Zealot." Everyone who was not with them was against them, and so they began to turn upon their own countrymen. Any Jew who entered into an agreement with the Romans was marked for assassination. The country homes of rich Saducees were burned and the people were terrorized. Four sons of Judas the Galilean continued gorilla warfare until they were killed. A grandson was still at it with no lag in zeal.
When he and his 900 men were trapped by the Romans he ordered them to destroy themselves with fire so the Romans would have nothing but ashes for their victory. This fanaticism finally led to complete self-destruction of the Zealots and of the Jewish state. In 70 A. D. the Romans surrounded Jerusalem for a final showdown with the Jews. The people were starving, and were in a hopeless situation. The Zealots were so crazed with hate for Rome, however, that they began to murder everyone who was for coming to terms with the Romans. Surrender was betrayal of God and country they said, and so they started a civil war within the city. When the Romans took the city the Zealots were the last to perish. They were in Masada, the last stronghold. When escape was seen to be impossible, Elezer told his men to slaughter their wives and children and then commit suicide. They did it and 960 perished. Only 2 women and 5 children escaped by hiding. So the Zealots perished by their own hands illustrating the self-destructive nature of fanaticism.
It would be hard to find anywhere in history a political party more zealous for its cause. It was from this radical group that Jesus chose one of His Apostles. The fact that Jesus could have both Matthew, who was a tax collector, and Simon the Zealot on his team reveals how He can combine all types of people into a unified group by their common loyalty to Him.
Under different circumstances Simon would run a blade a through Matthew, and Matthew would live in fear of Simon, but Jesus makes them partners in the Gospel. A left-winger and a right-winger united in Christ. How are curiosity would love to pry into the unknown and listen to the debates of these two men. Simon certainly gave up the philosophy of force when he followed Christ. He saw that the power of love is more effective. He had to forsake the sword, for Jesus said, "Those who lived by the sword shall perish by the sword." He had to give up his hatred for the Romans, for Jesus said to love your enemies. He had to chance his mind on taxes, for Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Simon had to make many chances in his philosophy, but we cannot doubt that he still maintained many of the qualities of the Zealot.
He was, no doubt, in his glory when Jesus cleansed the temple and used force. He was, no doubt, one of the spokesman who asked Jesus in Acts 1:6, "Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Simon was still eager to see his country free and powerful. He had a more universal outlook than he did as a Zealot, but still he would be a nationalist.
It would be interesting to hear Matthew trying to justify to him how he as a Jew could have collected taxes for Rome, and how he still had a lot of good friends in that business. The Apostles had to have some hot political debates, but they are not recorded for they have no value. The value is in seeing how Jesus kept a balance in His selection of the 12. They were not all of one mind on everything, but often in sharp contrast.
The fact that a man like Simon would follow Jesus indicates that following Him was no dull and boring thing. It had to be a call to adventure and high purpose to appeal to a man who was committed to a cause that called for loyalty unto death. Jesus apparently didn't have any political advisers in making His choices of men to be Apostles. When He chose Matthew He was in danger of angering the Jewish establishment, and when He chose Simon He was in danger of angering the Roman authorities. Jesus, however, did not look upon men as means to an end. He did not use people and toy with them according to political advantage. He took every man for what he was as an end in himself, and if it happened that their background and viewpoint was of a controversial nature, it made no difference to him. If they would heed His call and take up the cross and follow Him, they were His disciples.
This still holds true today and that is why the body of Christ is the most mixed group of people on earth. There are disciples of Christ from every kind of race, class, culture, and political persuasion that can be imagined. Like the 12, they find their unity in a common Lord. Simon came from and underground organization to follow Christ openly. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were rich Jewish politicians whom the Zealots would have desired to destroy. But they remained under ground within the establishment as hidden disciples of Christ. The New Testament reveals Christians playing a variety of roles in their relationship to Christ and the world. It is important to keep this in mind so that we do not think our particular relationship is the only valid one.
Rev. Richard Wurmbrand wrote of a bishop Frederic Mueller of the Lutheran church in Romania. He had collaborated with the Communist for 23 five years. He was decorated by them and was a member of the Communist Parliament. Yet all the while he advised the underground Christian fighters. It was obviously his conviction that he could do this for the glory of God. Other Christians would call him a betrayer of Christ, and rejoice in his death. Who is right? Is it better to be a Matthew or a Simon? One collaborates with the enemy, the other hates the enemy. All we know for sure is that Jesus called them both to be men who would be the foundation of His church that would alter all of human history. If Jesus is broadminded in His selection of men it was because He intended to build a church with a message that would appeal to all men. Something would have been missing with a Simon the Zealot in that foundation.
Christ met the test He had to meet if he was to be the great reconciler. He had to demonstrate His ability to reconcile men of extreme positions before He could be proclaimed as the reconciler of God and man. As He and His 12 Apostles walked about ministering to people He was giving an object lesson in the power of love to reconcile. People knew both Matthew and Simon, and you can imagine the impact of seeing them laboring together as they carried baskets among the 5000 feeding the hungry masses. Simon was a radical, but even more radical was the ability of Jesus to unite men with such radical differences. Praise God that a man like Simon was chosen to be one of the 12.