From Simon the zealot to Simon the disciple

Oct 18, 2015 by

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There once was a zealot named Simon. Simon was a man who with “an inviolable attachment to liberty, [acknowledged] God [as his] only Ruler and Lord. No threat of death to either himself not to his relations or friends could make him call any man ‘lord’” (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews Book 18, chapter 1, 6). His party was known for their belief in violent resistance to the Romans. And it’s easy to understand how a passion to serve only one master would lead a man to wish to overthrow any usurpers of that authority. He longed for the Jewish kingdom to come and free them from their illegitimate occupation. He believed it would come from a sword.

But the end of Simon’s story is a surprising one. Simon (by tradition, anyhow) spent his post-Jesus days not fighting for a Jewish kingdom, but spreading the gospel to Africa, ultimately accepting a martyr’s death beside Jude in 65 AD. How did the zealot go from the Jewish nationalist revolutionary to laying down his life proclaiming a gospel of peace in a foreign land? At some point, his vision changed. He turned his back on his former beliefs, and this change ultimately climaxed with his surrender of his life to his enemies.

Simon began as a man who undoubtedly had heard Isaiah’s and Micah’s prophecies about swords being beaten in plowshares, and dismissed them as either the naïve nonsense prophets say, or a truth for another time. He began as a man who saw the suffering of his fellow man, and felt he had a duty to fight for them. After all, people were hurting, and only the cowardly or the heartless would refuse to fight on their behalf.

I wonder what Simon thought when he heard things like “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth?” Did he chuckle and reassure himself that the meek will only inherit the earth after “the brave” win it for them? Did he explain “blessed are the peacemakers” to himself by pointing out that generally, it is only the threat of violence responsible for “making” peace? (How would he have felt about the Pax Romana?) Did he think that Jesus was speaking hyperbolously when he told us to “not resist an evil person?” Was it simply more of that “mysterious Jesus stuff” or simply a truth for an age to come, after Messiah Jesus and his followers resisted Rome right out of the kingdom?

What must Simon have thought when Peter cut off Malchus’ ear? And what did he think when Jesus healed Malchus and rebuked Peter? After all, wasn’t leaving the sword in its sheath simply surrendering to evil and letting Jesus die? Wouldn’t Peter’s duty to Jesus be to protect him, and wouldn’t it be the height of selfishness to simply let him be carried off in order to keep his own hands clean?

What must Simon have felt when he and his sword ultimately abandoned and denied Jesus? Were the odds simply stacked so high against him that now fighting would be suicide? Was protecting the cleanliness of one’s hands at risk of another’s death generally selfish, but abandoning our duty to murder others perfectly reasonable if the odds were too high against our success? Especially as it looked like Jesus must not have been the messiah Simon was expecting him to be?

I suspect that somewhere between the period where he abandoned Jesus and Jesus’ appearance in the upper room that Simon may have reflected on the death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. At first, I’m sure he saw men with swords carrying out evil unchecked by men without. He may have confirmed his doubts that the meek could inherit anything but death in this world. The injustice of the wicked Romans crucifying an innocent man surely would have awoken the zealot within him, and I doubt that violence was far from his thoughts. And what a display of violence he had just witnessed.

Simon had watched (from a safe distance) as the nature of political power was put on display in the most honest and climactic terms in all of history. He watched well-meaning men who believed that their actions were just and necessary for the greater good (Pilate was appeasing the people and maintaining the peace; the Sanhedrin was protecting their fellow man from a blasphemous cult which undermined their “God-given” authority and ministry) kill the innocent Son of God. He watched as the masses of people oppressed by these evil men actually cheered on the murder of their only chance at freedom. And for what were the masses ready to throw their salvation away? An insurrectionist who promised them more violence. After watching the masses make their choice, surely Simon did some soul-searching to decide between the disciple and the zealot in himself.

One thing I am fairly certain of is that any internal struggle Simon may have had as he decided how to respond to this tragedy — as a disciple or a zealot — would have been resolved in the upper room. Here he would have seen the ultimate impotence of death, and the power of Christ. He would no longer have to seek for a messiah to silence Caesar and his blasphemous assertion that he was Lord. Simon would know that as Jesus as proclaimed before, that the kingdom was already in his midst, and that Jesus was Lord of it.

I am certain this statement was on his lips in his final moments. When the political powers and their swords confronted him and demanded his obedience, I’m sure that Simon, who had seen the glory of the resurrected Jesus with his own eyes would have proudly proclaimed to them that despite their crowns and despite their swords, there was only one true Lord whom he would acknowledge and one Lord he was honored to join — Jesus.

One year later, the zealots would finally revolt and achieve a significant victory against Rome, their numbers would grow and “The Great Revolt” would begin. Simon wasn’t there. But Simon didn’t miss his moment. In fact, Simon became the greatest zealot of all.

His fellow zealots led hundreds of thousands, and perhaps more than a million Jews to their deaths, and Jerusalem and the temple would be reduced to rubble. They not only didn’t achieve their kingdom, but all but destroyed their nation in the process.

Simon, however, saw the kingdom. Like his fellow zealots, Simon rejected all other lords, but he was unique in that he knew who the true Lord was, and he had been privileged to be his friend. Simon didn’t waste his life fighting over which human being he paid his taxes to. Simon gave his life in the service of the kingdom, and setting his African and Persian brothers free.

Jon Butterfield is a writer with an Evangelical Christian background who attends Oasis Community Church (Conservative Mennonite Conference) near Lexington, Ky. This post originally appeared at his blog, Pounding Plowshares.

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