Simon the Zealot is one of the more curious disciples mentioned in the New Testament. Let's see what some classic authors have said about him.
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St. Simon (Commonly Called the Zealot)
By John Kitto
This apostle, in the catalogue of our Lord’s chosen disciples, is styled “Simon the Canaanite,” whence some are of the opinion that he was born at Cana in Galilee; and it is generally thought that he was the bridegroom mentioned by St. John, at whose marriage our blessed Saviour turned the water into wine.
The name of this apostle is derived from the Hebrew word knah, which signifies zeal, and denotes a warm and sprightly disposition. He did not, however, acquire this name from his ardent affection for his Master, and the desire of his advancing his religion in the world, but from his zealous attachment to a particular sect of religion before he became acquainted with his great Lord and Master.
In order to explain this matter more clearly to the understanding of our readers, it is necessary to observe, that as there were several sects and parties among the Jews, so there was one, either a distinct sect, or at least a branch of the Pharisees, called the sect of the Zealots. This sect took upon them to inflict punishments in extraordinary cases; and that not only by the connivance, but with the leave both of the rulers and people, till, in process of time, their zeal degenerated into all kinds of licentiousness and wild extravagance; and they not only became the pests of the commonwealth in their own territories, but were likewise hated by the people of those parts which belonged to the Romans. They were continually urging the people to shake off the Roman yoke and assert their natural liberty, taking care, when they had thrown all things into confusion, to make their own advantage of the consequences of arising therefrom. Josephus gives a very long and particular account of them, throughout the whole of which he repeatedly represents them as the great plague of the Jewish nation. Various attempts were made, especially by Ananias, the high-priest, to reduce them to order, and oblige them to observe the rules of sobriety; but all endeavors proved ineffectual. They continued their violent proceedings, and, joining with the Idumaeans, committed every kind of outrage. They broke into the sanctuary, slew the priests themselves before the altar, and filled the streets of Jerusalem with tumults, rapine, and blood. Nay, when Jerusalem was closely besieged by the Roman army, they continued their detestable proceedings, creating fresh tumult and factions, and were indeed the principal cause of the ill success of the Jews in that fatal war.
This is a true account of the sect of the Zealots, though, whatever St. Simon was before, we have no reason to suspect but that after his conversion he was very zealous for the honor of his Master, and considered all those who were enemies to Christ as enemies to himself, however near they might be to him in any natural relation. As he was very exact in all the practical duties of the Christian religion, so he showed a very serious and pious indignation toward those who professed religion, and a faith in Christ, with their mouths, but dishonored their sacred profession by their irregular and vicious lives, as many of the first professing Christians really did.
St. Simon continued in communion with the rest of the apostles and disciples at Jerusalem, and at the feast of Pentecost received the same miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost; so that he was qualified with the rest of his brethren for the apostolic office. In propagating the gospel of the Son of God, we cannot doubt of his exercising his gifts with the same zeal and fidelity as his fellow-apostles, though in what part of the world is uncertain. Some say that he went into Egypt, Cyrene, and Africa, preaching the gospel to the inhabitants of those remote and barbarous countries; and others add, that after he had passed through those burning wastes, he preached the gospel to the inhabitants of the western parts, and even in Britain, where, having converted great multitudes, and sustained the greatest hardships and persecutions, he was at last crucified, and buried in some part of that island, but the exact place where is unknown.
Resources: This story is adapted from John Kitto's 1870 History of the Bible and represents the commonly accepted views about this apostle among rank and file believers in the late 19th century.
Simon the Canaanite? Or Simon the Zealot?
by Charles Spurgeon
Simon called the Zealot has apparently two surnames in Scripture, but they mean the same thing. He is called Simon the Canaanite in Hebrew—not because he was an inhabitant of Cana or a Canaanite, but that word, when interpreted, means precisely the same as the Greek word Zelotes. He was called Simon the Zealot. I suppose that he had this name before his conversion. It is thought by some that he was a member of that very fierce and fanatical political sect of the Jews called the Zealots.
But this does not seem very probable, since the sect of the Zealots had scarcely arisen in the time of the Savior. And therefore we are inclined to think with Hackett, in his exposition of the Acts, that he was so called because of his zealous attachment to his religion as a Jew. There were some in the different classes of Jewish society who were so excessively full of zeal as to gain the name of zealot. But it strikes me that he must have been a zealot after conversion, too, for within that sacred circle that surrounded our Lord, every word was truth and the Master would not have allowed any of His disciples to have worn a surname which was not expressive or truthful.
He was Simon the Zealot before he knew not the Messiah. He surely could not have been less Simon the Zealot when, gifted with the Holy Spirit, he went forth to cast out demons, heal the sick, and to proclaim that the kingdom of Heaven was at hand. I should be glad if many among us would earn the same title by so living that men would call us zealots, or even “fanatics,” for this is so sleepy an age concerning religious things, that to be called fanatic, nowadays, is one of the highest honors a man can have conferred upon him! May we so act and live that we might truthfully wear the title of Christian zealots...
If you would see crowns put upon the head of the Savior and His Throne lifted high—and I know this is your great ambition! If you would see Jehovah, your Father, glorified even to the ends of the earth—then be filled with zeal! Under God, the way of the world's conversion must be by the zeal of the Church. Simon the Zealot must lead the van. The rest may follow in their places—knowledge, patience, courage, prudence, every grace shall do exploits—but this shall be first, this shall bear the standard high! Zeal for God, zeal for His Truth—this shall be in the van, and may you stand side by side with the most zealous in the day of conflict, that you may be there in the hour of victory.
Some of you have sought for the conversion of souls. When I look upon some of you I know you are spiritual mothers and fathers in Israel—not to ones or twos, but scores! Shall your zeal relax? We have, by God's Grace, lived to see many of our enemies clothed with shame. We have preached the Word till that Word begins to tell and make the solid rocks of error shake. Will you draw back? Will you lose your force? Will you slacken in prayer? Will you refuse to receive the blessing which awaits you? Will you take your heads from the crown when it is ready to descend? I pray you do not so! Let us be banded together as one man! Let us contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints! Let us pray with fervor! Let us live in holiness! Let us preach constantly and preach with fire! And let us so live that we may impress our age and leave our footprints on the sands of time.
As for some of you who never were zealous—who are the fathers of no spiritual children. As for some of you—whose religion gets into a very narrow compass and is good for very little when it gets there—I pray you bestir yourselves. If your religion is a lie, do not profess it! If it is a farce, do not enslave yourselves to it!
But if there is anything in religion, it is worth everything! It cannot sit second at the table—it must have the first place. The Christian man is to be, first of all, a Christian man! Next to that a tradesman or what you will—but first of all a Christian man. The first thing with the Believer is his Lord. Christ will be nowhere if He is not first and chief and that religion is vain and void which does not fill the soul and take up the throne of the heart.
May God allow us, then, to wear the character, if not the name of Simon the Zealot, and then we will wait at His footstool and serve Him after such sort as He shall help us to do and His shall be all the praise. But, ah, we must be converted first! So let the sinner remember that his first business is with this text—"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved"—that is, trust Jesus, for it is written, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved. He that believes not shall be damned." God grant you Divine Grace to trust Christ and then to be zealous for Him. Amen.
Adapted from Spurgeon's Sermons, Zealots (No. 639), by Charles Spurgeon.
Photo Credit: Portrait by Jusepe de Ribera, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.