This summer, we will have weekly studies available for each of 12 weeks from May 13 through July 29. Each week, we’ll focus on one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. We’ll look at a short passage involving that disciples (actions, words, attitudes, etc.); we’ll have a short reading putting the passage in context; and we’ll have some discussion/reflection questions that can be contemplated alone or discussed in a group (a youth small group, friends, family, etc.). One of the main questions we’ll be asking is whether what we see from the disciple is “good” (something to be imitated) as we try to be disciples today — and the answers will not always be as easy as we think. This week, we look at the disciple Simon the Zealot, and we explore what that phrase after his name means.
We’ve already talked about one Simon — the one who would also go by Peter. But there was another Simon who was a disciple of Jesus. He’s one of two disciples we don’t have any recorded spoken words from in the gospels. All we know about him is his name — Simon — and what he was called to differentiate him from the other Simon — “Zealot.”
The NIV uses this word, “Zealot,” to describe Simon in Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. (The original Greek word is different in Matthew and Mark from the one in Luke and Acts, but they are translated the same.)
What is a zealot? The dictionary will tell you it’s a person who is zealous — passionate might be the simplest synonym to use. But Merriam-Webster also notes that when capitalized, Zealot is “a member of a fanatical sect arising in Judea during the first century a.d. and militantly opposing the Roman domination of Palestine.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible suggests this applied to Simon: “Simon was probably thus designated because he formerly had identified himself with fanatical opponents of Roman rule in Palestine, called Zealots.”
But Zealot also had a broader, older meaning apart from the sects who opposed Roman rule. We have stories in the Old Testament of “zealous” priestly figures who were outraged at Israel’s transgressions and took things (violently) into their own hands (such as Simeon and Levi in Genesis 34 and Phinehas in Numbers 25). From IDB: “The Zealot gave himself over to God to be an agent of God’s righteous wrath and judgment against idolatry, apostasy, and any transgression of the law which excited God’s jealousy (“jealousy” and “zeal” both having the same Hebrew root).”
It’s still not clear exactly what was meant by Jesus’ disciple Simon being called a Zealot. Harper’s Bible Dictionary says “it would seem” that this reference is to “the older sense of the word,” not the specific sect opposing Roman rule in Jesus’ time.
So what do we know? We know Simon was someone who had strong feelings, who was passionate and serious about his faith, and who was not hesitant to take action against the wrong he saw in the world. We also know he’s someone Jesus chose to be a disciple.
You’ll be invited below to guess for yourself about who Simon might have been (be creative!), and then reflect on all these things, thinking especially about what’s admirable about this kind of zeal while being mindful of what could go wrong.
ANSWER these questions:
What do you think about stories in the Old Testament of “zealous” people killing others in vengeance to win back the favor of God?
From reading the material above and what you know about Jesus, why do you think Jesus chose Simon the Zealot as a disciple? What’s your guess? Do you think he “stopped” being a Zealot when he became a disciple?
Are there right and wrong ways to be “zealous” in your faith? If so, what are examples of each?
What do you feel “zealous” for? What upsets you in the world around you that you want to help change?