The Untold Story of the Other Simon
I have always been fascinated by the obscure characters of Scripture, and in particular by those who appear within the Gospel narratives. When reading about these individuals – men such as Joseph of Arimathea and the maniac of Gadara – I find myself wanting to know more about them. Just who were these men, exactly? What were they like? What brought them into the earthly presence of the Master? And what happened to them when they walked away?
One such character is a man named Simon. He was one of the twelve disciples, and to distinguish him from his more famous counterpart (Cephas), he is identified in the Synoptic Gospels and in Acts as “the Zealot.” Simon Zelotes is a character so obscure, that his name is only recorded four times in Scripture – and even then, he is merely listed in a roll call of the Twelve. He never speaks. He never acts apart from the other apostles. And after the events of Pentecost, he is never mentioned again. But even from a character that is only mentioned in passing, there is something for us to learn.
The Zealots were an underground sect of Jewish loyalists, renowned for their fanaticism and hatred of Rome. The majority of their ranks posed as law-abiding citizens of the Empire, but secretly they were a merciless hoard of freedom fighters – a band of ruthless men, waiting in the shadows for the opportunity to bring Rome to her knees. Certain of their members were men called sicarii (“Dagger-killers”), dangerous assassins skilled in the art of stealth, and known for murdering Roman sympathizers in public places. The rest of the resistance was comprised of bandits and outlaws who financed their clandestine operations by robbing both Jews and Gentiles alike. The Zealots were dedicated, and singularly focused. Their passion was as much for Israel’s independence as it was for the destruction of Rome. And whether sicarii or not, every Zealot was ready and willing to kill or be killed for their cause.
With just one descriptive word, the penmen of the Gospel accounts identify Simon as a former political terrorist. He had been at worst a murderer and at best a thief. He was a man of fiery passion – a man willing to lay down his life for a cause. But somewhere between his days as an insurrectionist and his days as an apostle, his cause changed – from the violent pursuit of an earthly kingdom to the peaceful agenda of a spiritual one. Something drastically altered Simon’s worldview. That Someone was Jesus.
The most astounding part about Simon’s relationship with Christ was that Jesus stood for everything that Simon had stood against. Simon had been taught to hate his enemies, but Jesus had taught him pray for them instead. Simon had lived a life of violence and bloodshed, all for the glory of Israel; but Jesus advocated a life of peacefully suffering persecution, all for the glory of God. Jesus was the Messiah, but He was not the Messiah that Simon had envisioned. But somehow, that Messiah miraculously transformed Simon’s passion for Israel into a passion for Him.
If ever there was an earth-shattering example of becoming a new creation in Christ, it was Simon the Zealot. Not only did he abandon his ruthless vendetta, but he chose to follow Christ with a man like Matthew, a former publican whom Jesus had found in a Roman tax booth. In his past life, Simon would have executed or robbed Matthew without a second thought. But now, these two men of formerly opposing worldviews were united in their call to follow the Master. In the presence of the Savior, Simon’s prejudice and hatred had fled. The testimony of Simon working side-by-side with Matthew is a beautiful illustration of a heart that was conquered by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Even the untold stories of the Bible have the power to convict me. When I think about Simon’s testimony, it occurs to me how self-centered I can be. There are those in this world with whom I have vehement differences of opinion. Whether it is the liberal politician in Washington or the Muslim fanatic in Afghanistan, the world is filled with worldviews that are in direct opposition to my own. Much of my worldview has been fashioned by the anvil of Scripture and the hammer of the Spirit, but that does not entitle me to feel superior to those whose perspective is blinded by the same sin that once blinded me. In order to be conformed to the image of Christ, my mission in life must be to love my enemies and to reach them for the Kingdom of God. This is how God changed Simon: the very people that he had once sought to destroy, he eventually sought to save.
But even more than loving my enemies in the world, I am reminded of how imperative it is to love the other disciples in the church. Everything about Matthew the Tax Collector had been the antithesis of Simon the Zealot. The only common ground these two men had was Jesus, and He had commanded them to “love one another, as I have loved you… By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:34-35).” And then, to punctuate His words in the Upper Room, Jesus demonstrated His love for them by dying in their place on Calvary’s cross. This was the love with which Christ had loved Simon, and this was the love with which Simon was commanded to love Matthew. Before Simon could show the love of God to a dying world, he had to love Matthew as Christ had loved him.
History and tradition tell us that Simon would later take the message of the Gospel into Egypt and other parts of northern Africa, and perhaps even as far the British Isles. Although the details of his life after Pentecost have been lost to the sands of time, most scholars agree that Simon was eventually martyred – sawn asunder – because of his incredible passion for the Gospel of Christ.
His name is recorded only four times in the Bible. He never speaks, and he never acts alone. But God used a Zealot named Simon to turn the world upside down for the Kingdom of God. And that is why I love the obscure characters of Scripture.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts