What do you get when you cross a few small businessmen, a corrupt tax collector who sympathizes with a foreign power, a right wing radical, and an embezzler? A bad joke? Hardly! This is actually a description of who some of Jesus’ disciples were when he chose them to follow him. They have become such incredible religious icons, that it is often overlooked that they were once simply men who engaged in their world as men do today; in various ways.
I want to discuss one of Jesus’ disciples who you may not know much about, because not a lot is said about him. The disciple: Simon the Zealot, who for all intents and purposes, may have been a terrorist. What was that Matt? One of the disciples was a terrorist? Yep, I bet you didn’t know that. To be more specific the title given to Simon tells us pretty much the only thing we know about him, that he was a member of a group of Jews who were determined to over throw Roman rule, even to the point of using ancient terrorist and military tactics; this group was called the ‘Zealots’. While the Zealot party was not explicitly labelled as such until about 66 A.D., Josephus (in Bruce 1988, 40-41), the first century Jewish historian, dates their origin to a revolutionary called Judas the Galilean who led a revolt in 6 A.D.. These guys were incredibly radical, they hated the idea of Roman rule and they wanted independence from Rome, so that Jerusalem could be one people under God, and they were willing to take lives to get this independence.
I am going to get a little technical here, but that is simply because my assertion that one of Jesus’ friends was likely a terrorist may be so radical to you I want to show it rests on a firm foundation. You see there is some debate as to whether or not Simon’s title refers to his political affiliations or to his personality. Heard(in Green 1992, 696), mentions that Simon the Zealot was likely a description of his character. However, Bruce (1988, 40-41), Hendriksen (2007, 330), Wilkins (2004, 388) and Constable (2005, 49) all agree that ‘Zealot’ refers to his political leanings. In fact in Mark 3:18 his name is Simon the Cananaean, which is effectively a reference to his patriotism (Constable 2005, 49), his love for his country, or land (remember the Jewish nation was situated in the land of Canaan). This is incredible, as this means that Jesus had amongst his group of disciples someone who, at least initially, wanted to use military force and any means possible to overthrow Rome. In fact, that is exactly what the Zealots, alongside other Jewish groups, tried to do in the late 60’s A.D.. They initiated a rebellion against Rome which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. These guys were radical, every bit as radical as some of the terror groups that exist in the world today. In fact when you think of the Zealots it is not too much of a stretch to think Hamas.
It gets even more interesting when you see that some people associate the Jewish assassins, the Sicarii, with the Zealots (Heard, in Green 1992 , 695). The Sicarii were similar to some Muslim terrorists today. One thing for which they were famous for was walking the streets carrying daggers which they would use to surprise attack Jewish nobility who they believed were in cahoots with Rome (Gundry 2003 ,67). They would walk up to them in the street and randomly stab them to death as a public demonstration…sound familiar? As mentioned some debate the exact connection between the Sicarii and the Zealots, but Josephus (in Green 1992, 695) tells us that the leader of the Sicarii at the beginning of the Jewish revolt was the son or grandson of Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealots. So there was definitely a connection of some kind.
This is so fascinating and brings some incredible illumination to the gospel narratives. Think about this: Peter, Andrew, James and John, were all involved in a small fishing business, which is in fact well known. Now Jesus chose all of these guys to be his disciples. He also chose Matthew (Levi), who was a tax collector, to follow him. The tax collectors in the ancient provinces of Rome were notoriously corrupt, and they milked those who paid their taxes as much as they could, and the situation in first century Judea was no different. The Jews hated tax collectors, considered them turn coats, and frequently talked about them in the negative terms of ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (cf. Matt. 9:11); they very much disliked these guys. So you have small businessmen, and then you have someone whom all Jews, and especially Jewish businessmen, would consider their enemy, and Jesus wants all these guys to fellowship together in his small band of disciples? This must have made for fascinating camp fire discussions.
But to make matters even more interesting Jesus takes a member of the far right radical Zealot group and brings him into the mix. Think about this: the tax collectors like Matthew were considered to be collaborators with the Romans, and the Zealots hated the Romans, and a group associated with the Zealots eventually would be killing collaborators. Simon likely hated men like Matthew. This sheds new light on Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27). This was not just some ivory tower command, preached to a group of religious idealists; this was a striking command from God to his followers who at least for a time, probably hated each other. To put it in roughly equivalent contemporary terms you have left-wing compromisers, right-wing patriots, and middle ground small businessmen, all expected by Jesus not just to get along, but love each other? Wow, that must have been hard.
But here is the even more significant point, Simon the Zealot, became one of the twelve, and instead of wasting his life and dying in the fight for Jewish liberation against Rome, a pointless war the Jews could never have won anyway, he gave his life to the ministry of the gospel of peace, and eventually was martyred as were so many of the Apostles. In other words Jesus took a terrorist/potential terrorist, redeemed and transformed him, and made him one of his very closest friends (John 15:15) and used him to bring an undisclosed amount of people the message of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. What a testimony that is!
This speaks volumes to Christians today as well. Look, I don’t deny the threat that Islamic terrorism holds. Just a few days before I wrote this article those two police officers were attacked by an extremist teen who allegedly supports ISIS in Melbourne, and one of them was nearly killed. There have been arrests and ‘chatter’ about attacks in Australia. ISIS has called upon any supporters they have in this country to kill Australians, and despite Barak Obama’s and Tony Abbott’s claims that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, I highly doubt that any of the people that heed that call will be Christians, Buddhists or Jews. I recognize that Islamic terrorists and radicals could bring a reign of terror in Australia that we have never seen or experienced in this country, and they pose a real threat to this nation (it could also all fizzle out soon as well). I recognize that they do this in the name of their religion, even though not all Muslims are terrorists (and I must stress this again: not all Muslims are terrorists). I recognize the threats and to some degree they are terrifying; I don’t want my son to grow up in a Muslim country, or even a country where Islamic Sharia law has any sway, or a country where cities are turned into war zones.
But listen very carefully, Jesus’ command to love our enemy was not conditional, it was not love them unless they are a certain religion, or love them only if they are nice to you. We are to bless even those who persecute us (Rom. 12:14), and there is no ideology which persecutes more Christians than Islam (cf. http://www.worldwatchlist.us/). The fact that Simon the Zealot became one of the twelve disciples and one of the 12 most significant people in Christian history is testament to the grace of God and how powerful it can be. Christians are at their best, not when they are cursing their enemy, but when they are praying for them, preaching to them, and giving them a glass of water when they are thirsty; aka loving them.
I am not shocked by the reaction on Facebook and other social media from the general population in regards to this awakened terrorist threat, I am however saddened by some of the extreme views and posts put up by Christians. Hatred and bigotry should not be coming from the mouths of Christians. Our first response should always be grace, and love, I know it’s not easy, and I do not do it perfectly myself, none of us do, but we cannot go down the road of hatred. It will not help, it will polarize the situation, and it will hamper our ability to be witnesses to anyone in our country, including Muslims.
I am not advocating that we should ignore the threat, all you need to do is look at my Facebook page and you will see that I am aware of some of what is happening. But I refuse to hate, I refuse to tar every Muslim with the same brush. We should not cross the line over to hate. Christ would not have us do that, he just wouldn’t.
I would challenge you all to think about the fact that one of Jesus’s friends, one of his disciples, was saved from a life of terrorism and radicalism and transferred to a life of service, by the grace of God, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact the gospel is our greatest weapon because with it we cut through hatred with love, we cut through bitterness with forgiveness, we cut through death with the promise of eternal life, and we cut through patriotism with the promise of a better country where there is no threat of any kind. It is not easy and I do not have all the answers as to how we handle whatever comes our way in this regard, but I do know that Christ would have us seek to be lights, not lasers, we are to shine the gospel of his grace outward, not cut down with hatred. Our battle is not against flesh and blood; we so often forget this (Eph. 6:12). Wherever there is hatred, wherever there is evil at work in our world, we need to remember that the evil spiritual forces connected with Satan and his cronies are at work, he is our true enemy, he is the one we really are fighting against.
Let’s focus our energy on reaching out with the gospel that all who believe in Jesus Christ can be saved, no matter their past, no matter their sins, if they turn and trust in him. Think about this one last thing: Paul was the definition of a religious extremist of the violent variety. He went about throwing Christians in prison and breathing murderous threats against them (Acts 8:3; 9:1), and the Lord Jesus transformed him into the great Apostle Paul, church planter extraordinaire. Pray for God to do this to more religious extremists of various faiths. Pray that God would raise up missionaries out of the already saved and the currently unsaved, pray that God would call more like Paul, who will then re-focus their intense energy on good, rather than evil. The world could use a few more men and women like that.
Green, McKnight, Marshall 1992, Dictionary of Jesus and the Apostles.
Bruce F.F. 1988, The Book of Acts, NICNT.
Hendriksen W 2007, Luke, NTC.
Wilkins M J 2004, Matthew, NAC.
Constable R 2005, Mark, Online Commentary.
Gundry R H 2003, A Survey of the New Testament.