Matthew 27:32-35 “They came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry His cross”
Mark 15:21-24 “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; It was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.”
Luke 23:26-33 “As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.”
1. The Synoptic Accounts:
Historians have recorded the custom of the times in the Roman Empire’s dominance. When a man was sentenced to death, a group of four soldiers would form a hollow square with the prisoner in the middle, and the prisoner would carry his own cross to the place of execution. In front of the quaternion of soldiers would be a forerunner carrying the nature of the crime on a placard for all to read.
The custom was not to take the shortest route, but to take the longer route, and so get the best exposure of the victim to the crowd. The Romans wanted to advertise the fate of criminals, as a deterrent to others.
According to Matthew Mark & Luke, Jesus was unable to carry his own cross. He had undergone three different trials, and on each occasion had been severely beaten. He had undergone significant loss of blood. He had had no sleep, food or drink during the last 24 hours, and if he were to try to carry the cross, he would collapse under its weight.
There was, however, another custom. If a man about to be executed was unable to carry out this obligation, the soldiers were allowed to conscript anyone they met to do this work. There were soldiers around him, but no soldier should do what the residents of an occupied country could do, and so the centurion scanned the crowd. There were lots of Jewish faces that looked back at his, but these people at Feast times were particularly troublesome. Too easily offended.
Then he saw the face he wanted. He recognized the face of a man that was neither obviously Roman or Jewish. It was a black face. The prejudice of the Roman mind sensed in this man an easy victim. He points to this man, gives the command, and Simon of Cyrene, a small country in Northern Africa, is conscripted to carry the cross.
Simon is a stranger in the city. He is a foreigner. He may be a tourist come to attend the great Jewish festival of Passover. He is a pilgrim making his way, perhaps for the first time in his life, to the City of Jerusalem.
He was coming into town from the countryside. He was not part of the rabble that day. He just happened to be there when the long arm of the law grabbed him and commandeered him. The Biblical records say, “They compelled him to carry the cross.” He was a reluctant carrier. He had come for the festival and finds himself humiliated and abased. Treated as a slave. Resentment must have begun its slow burn in him. Bitterness over the bigotry that chose him would have been dominant as he hefted the cross on to his shoulder and lead this parade of death.
Yes, Simon could have lived a lifetime in bitterness over the racist acts of this government, and the unfair treatment he received. But he didn’t. We know something about Simon after this event. He probably looked back to this moment for the rest of his life and would say with a glint in his eye, “It all began right there.”
We do not know if Jesus spoke any words to Simon. They are not recorded.
We do not know if Simon stayed by the cross and heard the words, “Father forgive them.”
We do not know if he had heard Jesus teach on a previous occasion, and was influenced by his wisdom, and perhaps in this moment had a chance to rethink what he had heard as he climbed the hill beside this strange Galilean.
But we do know that it was not long before Simon is a vital part of the early Christian Church. How do we know that?
He is named. He is named Simon of Cyrene. His is the only name from that crowd that we do know. How did the church get to know his name, unless he was connected with the church some time after this event, and told his story.
We do know that people from the area of Cyrene, first planted a Church in the gentile area of Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:19-21) and that a man called Simon Niger was a leader in that congregation (Acts 13:1). There were several Simons in the early Church. There was Simon nicknamed Peter. Simon nicknamed the Zealot, Simon the Tanner and so on. The man who gave leadership to the Antioch church is named, Simon Niger, or Simon the Black. He is our friend Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross.
We know that his two sons Rufus and Alexander become leaders in the early church. (Mark 15:21-24) They were along with Simon’s wife, friends of Paul’s when he wrote the book of Romans(16:13) In fact Simon is one of the elders who discipled Paul in the early days of his journey, and helped commission Paul & Barnabas to be missionaries to Asia Minor. Simon the African, now living in Asia, helped push Paul towards the evangelization of Europe. Something wonderful happened to Simon on the day he bore another man’s cross, and because of that, great things happened in the early church.
2. The Gospel of John
The first three gospels tell us about Simon. The man who helped bear the cross for Christ. But when we read the Gospel of John, we notice a peculiar thing. There is no mention of Simon in this Gospel, nor the note that anyone helped carry the cross. In fact, listen to the way John describes the event.
John 19:16-18 – “So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull.” John tells us that Jesus carried the cross all by Himself. Without any help from his friends or any stranger.
But why would John say this? He knows the story about Simon. He is familiar with the story in the Gospel of Mark. He writes thirty years later than Mark. Why does he change the record?
It may be that the story about Simon has been distorted in the minds of people. They may have been saying, “If it hadn’t been for Simon the crucifixion might never have happened.” Some might have been saying, “Jesus redeemed the world, with a little help from his friends.”
John however wants to leave behind a different impression. He may have said in his own mind as he writes the Gospel, “Simon may well have carried the wood, but Jesus carried the cross.” Simon helped carry the furniture, but single handedly, Jesus bore the whole burden of doing the will of his Father from beginning to end. Jesus bore the weight of our redemption on his own shoulders. The apostles had fled into the night leaving Jesus alone. Simon Peter was not a provider of our redemption that night. Nor was Simon of Cyrene.
The New Testament resounds with the reality that our best thanks go to Jesus who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree. He alone paid the sacrifice for our sins. Single handedly, Jesus provided salvation.
The Old Testament contains the interesting story of Gideon. God has asked Gideon to oppose the Midianite oppressor that has held Israel under occupation for a generation. Gideon gathers an army of 32,000 volunteers. God says, there are too many. Tell the crowd, whoever is afraid, can go home. 22,000 left, 10,000 stayed. God said, “there are still too many.” and 9,700 are removed leaving a miniscule force of 300 people.
When the question comes why would anyone want an army of 300 instead of 32,000 God says to Gideon, “I ask this, lest Israel take credit for this deliverance saying “My own hand delivered me.” God himself delivered this nation at the Red Sea, and the God of that moment is the God of this moment too, who saves us by his own intervention. God did not want to create a nation whose theme song was “I did it my way” but he wanted to create a nation that lived a life of gratitude for God’s presence in their life. He wanted a nation connected to God’s plans and God’s power.
When John tells the story of the carrying of the cross, he may have had in mind that ancient story from the book of Genesis about Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, the aging father, has been asked by God to sacrifice his son on a distant mountain, on Mount Moriah, the hill of Jerusalem according to II Chronicles 3:1. When it comes time to climb that hill, the father lays the wood for the sacrifice on the shoulders of his son, and the son carries the wood upon which he will be sacrificed. (Genesis 22:6) Isaac the son, who is now a strapping young man, submits to the will of his father.
And John may be saying, Jesus also, like ancient Isaac, went to the cross willingly, without coercion, without kicking or screaming, bearing the wood upon which he had agreed to be sacrificed. Jesus carried his own cross, with full awareness of its weight and its cost. And singlehandedly laid down his life, voluntarily, for us all.
What happened on the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows, in fact? Jesus may well have begun to carry his own cross but did not have the strength to carry it through those winding streets. Simon was conscripted. And Simon carried it the rest of the way.
But John’s word must be heard too. Jesus even though not carrying the wood, carried the weight of the world on his heart as he climbed the hill of Golgotha.
And what Jesus did for us once upon a time, at that crucial moment of history, He continues to do for you and me to this very hour.
The song writer has said,
He who carried the weight of the world upon his shoulders…
surely my brother He will carry you.
He who carried the cross to Golgotha, will not cease to carry the burdens of our very human life. None of us can carry alone the burdens that our past and our future impose upon us. But when he bore that cross, he carried more than wood. The weight of our salvation rested on Him, just as it had always rested on God. Jesus, since that day on the way of sorrows, has not abdicated his role as the bearer of human burdens. To this hour he bears away our guilt and our fear, our shame and our hurt.
The song writer has penned the words (#493)
My Sin, O the bliss of that glorious thought,
my sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to his cross, and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my Soul.
Paul says to the Colossians that not only were our sins nailed to his cross, but the record that stood against us, the guilt that cried out in our consciences, and the record that God had of our sins, was erased from the records when he nailed it to His cross. (Colossians 2:14).
When Jesus bore the cross, our guilt was nailed there. Our tragic tendency to failure was nailed there. And alone, Jesus bore the cross, and bears it still.
But the strange thing is that we continue to bear the burden of it, by ourselves. I remind myself of the man who was carrying a heavy load over his shoulders as he trudged down the road. A man with a horse and cart pulled along side him and offered the man a ride. He gladly climbed on board and off they went. But as they travelled the driver noticed the man still carrying the heavy sack over his shoulder. “Why don’t you put it down till we get where you’re going?” he asked. The burden bearing passenger reported. “It’s difficult for the horse to carry my weight, let alone the weight of my load, so I thought I should carry it to help reduce the load on the horse.” I have lived too much of my life that foolishly. Carrying my own burdens though I have been carried by him.
This morning, it would be useful to leave our burdens with God. He who carried the weight of the world when he carried the cross, can be trusted to willingly pick up the burden that causes me grief, and carry it.
Thanks be to God!