May 24 2017
May 24 2017


If I were to ask you to take out a half sheet of paper and participate in a brief quiz on basic Bible knowledge, how would you feel? Be honest now – would you feel confident, anxious, uncomfortable – maybe a mixture of all three?  What if you knew the quiz involved something as elementary as remembering the names of Jesus’ 12 apostles?  Certainly any sincere Christ follower could bring to mind the names of Jesus closest  companions.  Or could we?

Oh I’m persuaded, if you thought about it long enough, you would remember the names of Simon Peter, James, John, Matthew, Andrew, Philp and Thomas.  While a name like Bartholomew might be more difficult for some of us to recall, I doubt that anyone could forget the name of Jesus’ betrayer Judas Iscariot.

Unfortunately after Bartholomew, the work of remembering becomes more rigorous.  I wonder how many of us could complete the list of 12? Would you remember that there is a second James – James the son of Alphaeus?  How about a second Judas – Judas the son of James or even a second Simon – Simon who was called the Zealot?

Truthfully, many of us struggle even to remember the names of men like Judas the son of James, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot because the Bible tells us next to nothing about them.

Take Simon the Zealot for example. Author and scholar Leslie B. Flynn confirms, “The New Testament tells us absolutely nothing of what Simon the Zealot said or did.” Aside from a few unsubstantiated legends, we know nothing specific about Simon the individual.  The fact that Luke identifies Simon as a Zealot is important however.  For it is in that distinction that we can understand something significant about Simon’s worldview.

In first century Palestine there was arguably no more fanatical expression of the Jewish faith than the Zealots.  Zealots saw themselves as super-patriots.  Their rallying cry was “No king but God; not tax but the temple tax; no friend but the Zealot!” The Zealots hated the reality of foreign occupation and were willing to go to any lengths to wrestle the Promised Land away from Roman control.

The roots of this hatred can be traced back to the year 167 B.C.  In that year, an aged priest named Mattathias began a revolt in Palestine against the occupying forces of Syria.  Tragically, the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes had no tolerance for Jewish culture – even less so for Jewish religious practice.  Antiochus enraged the Jews by robbing the temple and setting up a statue of Jupiter in the Holy of Holies.  He pulled down the walls of Jerusalem, commanded the sacrifice of swine, forbade circumcision and destroyed all the sacred books he could get his hands on.

Driven to a point of desperation by such outrages, Mattathias was joined in revolt by other Jews who were ‘zealous’ to defend the faith of Israel.  The uprising was further strengthened by the military genius of Mattathias’ son Judas ‘the hammer’ Maccabeus.

By harassing the Syrian forces with vigorous and persistent guerilla warfare, Judas was able to overcome overwhelming odds and defeat every detachment of Syrian forces sent against him.  In time, Judas was able to go on the offensive, retake Jerusalem, purify the temple and ultimately restore the practice of daily sacrifices.

Unfortunately, this beloved period of Jewish sovereignty was relatively short lived – coming to an abrupt end with the Roman conquest of Palestine about 60 years before the birth of Christs.

Under Roman rule, the Zealots quickly developed into an underground movement capable of sabotage and violence.  Many believe Barabbas – the prisoner charged with murder and insurrection who was offered in exchange for Jesus by the crowds – was a Zealot.  Historians also blame Zealot fanaticism for bringing about the final destruction of the Jewish state.  For when Jerusalem was besieged by Rome in 70 A.D the Zealots waged a virtual civil was inside the city – murdering anyone who suggested any kind of moderation in policy toward the Romans.

Knowing the kind of man Simon was, it’s easy to scratch the head and wonder why Jesus selected him in the first place.   A Zealot - a rebel - why would Jesus pursue a man so bent on revolution to be a part of his inner circle?

At first glance Simon does seem an unlikely choice to follow the Prince of Peace.  But then again so did many of those Jesus tapped on the shoulder and said, “Follow me.”

Take Matthew for example.  Could two people have been more dissimilar than Matthew and Simon?  Can you recall Matthew’s vocation?  Before Matthew met Jesus he was a tax collector.  It goes without saying that tax collectors were not well thought of in first century Palestine.   Matthew would have been viewed by many as a collaborator – someone who had sold his soul to Rome in exchange for wealth.

Consider with me then the vast difference between these two men.  Simon hated the reality of Roman occupation.  Matthew worked to fill the Roman treasury with Jewish taxes.  Simon saw himself as a patriot.  Matthew no doubt knew he was a turncoat.  Simon was an enemy of oppression.  Matthew represented the very embodiment of Roman oppression.    Had these two men met under different circumstances, Simon the Zealot may very well have slit the throat of Matthew the tax collector.

But in Jesus, these two unlikely apostles became brothers in the faith.  Matthew and Simon were able to set aside personal agendas, set aside divergent worldviews in order to be united in the common cause of the gospel.

What a powerful reminder that is for the church in our day!   That though we may not always agree on everything, the church has to potential to experience uncommon harmony of purpose through the reconciling power of Jesus Christ!

You will no doubt notice I inserted the word ‘potential’ in the aforementioned statement  – we have the potential to experience uncommon harmony of purpose…  Unfortunately, history and contemporary experience remind us that harmony has seldom been a hallmark of the church’s witness.

And why is that?  I wonder if it may often have something to do with our misguided zeal.  Like Simon, we can so easily become zealous for things we feel strongly about.  We can be zealous around social issues like abortion, homosexuality or women in leadership.  We can be zealous for our political or theological perspective.  We can be zealous to defend our understanding of Christian worship, polity or practice.  There is no shortage of issues for which Christians can hold strong opinions.

It is certainly not wrong to have strong feelings or to zealously defend those ideals that are important to us.  Zeal in itself is not bad.   Unless that is, we allow zeal to overshadow the larger mission of what we are called to do as be as followers of Jesus Christ.  We may know that the witness of the church is compromised, when in our zeal, we act in cruel and unkind ways toward those who do not share our convictions.

If two people like Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot could lay aside such significant differences and be reconciled for the greater mission of sharing the gospel – shouldn’t we?


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