Mark 15:21 “A certain man from Cyrene , Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
When the trial of the Lord Jesus was over and the mockery and torture of the soldiers finally ended the soldiers led Christ out to crucify him. They had removed the robe with which they had dressed him, and put his own clothes on him again, but there is no reference to the crown of thorns being removed. So the traditional image we have of Christ wearing it while hanging on Golgotha could well be the truth. Our Lord was given his cross to carry to Golgotha – incidentally this verse contains the first reference to the cross of Christ in Mark’s gospel. Often the chosen route to the place of execution would not have been the most direct way but it would have been taken in order that the condemned men would be seen by the most people, the execution party walking along the main streets, via the city gates and squares and market places. The Romans wanted everyone to be stirred by this dark sight and be afraid of law-breaking. Today I want to be like these soldiers and get as many of you as I can to look at Jesus on his way to Calvary and on the cross.
A condemned man would be enclosed by a hollow square of four soldiers and preceded by another soldier who would bear a placard stating the crime of which the prisoner had been found guilty. The man being taken to his place of execution would be carrying either the whole cross, or the cross beam, or even the upright, we don’t know what it was in the case of Jesus. The other two men had been condemned to die some days earlier and so their crosses had already been set up. Perhaps Jesus had to carry the upright portion.
We’re not certain as to the exact shape of the cross. One opinion is that it was a plain stake; that is the view of some of the cults because Christ’s atonement is not central to their faith, and in this way they can demean it further – he was nailed to a mere upright. Another opinion is that it was a cross in the form of the figure X, the so-called St Andrew’s Cross. Yet another suggests that it was in the shape of a T, known as St Anthony’s Cross, while the fourth, the so-called Latin Cross, is the traditional idea we all have of a cross – shaped like this †. We think that that is the most likely shape. There had to be a place above the head of Jesus where the placard accusing him of his crimes was soon to be nailed.
At a certain spot as they walked along it became obvious to the execution squad that Jesus wasn’t strong enough to carry the cross any further. Did he totter and collapse, lying in a deep faint on the road with the cross on top of him? Did the soldiers realise that beating him with the flat of their swords wouldn’t make a scrap of difference? The Bible nowhere tells us that he fell or why it was necessary for someone else to carry Jesus’ cross, but the gospel writers have described these hours of suffering that our Lord has endured, his sweat had been as drops of blood in the Garden, and soon men were beating him up, and then officially he had been whipped until his back was a pulpy mess. He had hardly slept and then his head had been hit again and again with a rod so that Jesus knew extreme weakness and loss of blood. We can appreciate the fact that as a true man he was no longer strong enough to carry this heavy beam of wood a single step further, and he collapsed under it.
The wonder of Jesus’ love for his people is not that for their sake he boldly faced death standing tall and strong, but that for their sake Christ faced it utterly exhausted, unable to carry the cross any further. This is the man who for the rest of Good Friday morning and afternoon has to grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death, and that he must do so while as weak as a kitten. He needed to be crying out from his heart moment by moment, “Help me now Father. Keep me and give me strength for these next hours to resist temptation. Keep me loving you and loving my persecuting neighbours as myself.” That is the context in which we meet Simon of Cyrene.
1. SIMON OF CYRENE WAS COERCED INTO BEARING JESUS’ CROSS.
“A certain man from Cyrene , Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (v.21). Who was this man? Simon was an African. Cyrene is one of the most prominent cities in what today is Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya . Cyrene was a centre in north Africa where the Jewish faith had been established for centuries. There it had established its synagogues and schools and evangelism. Its businessmen and traders were familiar figures in the Mediterranean basin and many Cyrenians visited Jerusalem . So Simon might have been an African Jew who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Some have suggested that he was an older man who had come to retire in the promised land in sight of the temple, but we think it unlikely that a Roman soldier would have chosen an old man – or a woman or child – to carry the cross to Golgotha . Perhaps he was an out and out pagan who had turned up quite unwittingly in Jerusalem to discover that the city was packed with men and women at a feast called the ‘Passover’ and then, bewildered by the hundreds of thousands of people there, he also came across this grim procession of three condemned men going to their deaths.
Mark tells us that “he was on his way in from the country” (v.21). It is rather vague; he does not seem involved in any mission. He is certainly not returning at this early hour from working in the fields. Did Simon own an estate? We don’t know. Was he simply on his way into the market – going shopping from out of town? Was Simon chosen because he was an obvious stranger, an out of towner, a man of a different race and so the choice wouldn’t offend any Jerusalem families? Who knows? Simon is hidden in obscurity, and yet we know his name as well as the names of his sons. We’re not told the names of the people who allowed Jesus to use their donkey to ride into Jerusalem . We don’t know the name of the owner of the Upper Room, though we’ve work it out to be John Mark’s mother, but we do know the home town of this man who carried Jesus’ cross, and we’re given his name, and we’re told the names of his sons. What else do we know about him?
2. SIMON OF CYRENE WAS A MAN COMPELLED BY THE SOLDIERS TO CARRY THE CROSS OF CHRIST.
The word which the Mark uses in this connection is found only twice in the New Testament, and in both cases it means coercion. The word actually comes from the Persian language; it is derived from the days of the Persian Empire and the primitive postal service that took orders from the Emperor to his distant ambassadors. Horses, and accommodation and entertainment all would be requisitioned to serve the emperor’s wishes. So the word entered Europe and became used of any similar activity, of the conscription of men to fight for the state, of a soldier constraining a man to carry his kitbag for a mile. Here in Jerusalem the flat side of a Roman spear would fall in a man’s shoulder and he would be required to obey the occupying imperial power in bearing a burden, in this instance, carrying the cross of a condemned man.
During the war a government takes on extra powers; it requisitions land and villages for tank training and for armed personnel carriers to practise their manoeuvres. It takes over railway carriages and planes and stately homes, and if anyone complains the great answer is, “There’s a war on.” The powers that be are ordained by God and they have the right to such necessary sacrifices. Jesus Christ was one such great king and he had the right to exercise authority over his whole creation, over a fish to take up in its mouth a coin and swim into a net, over the wind to cease blowing, over the Sabbath silence to show mercy to people in need. He had the right to requisition a little boy’s five loaves and two fishes, and to take the foal of a donkey on which to ride into Jerusalem , and a fine Upper Room in packed pilgrim-filled Jerusalem during the Passover. This was the authority King Jesus had when he entered his royal city telling men that the kingdom of God had come because the King himself had come. He made men acknowledge this. They were constrained to obey him.
Yet now a very stark contrast is being set up. Jesus seems to be stripped of all authority. Before him as he goes through the city gate walks a man bearing a placard on which his crime is being displayed. Around him are four soldiers, and behind him walks a disgruntled African carrying this wretched cross, and yet this is the same city gate through which Jesus had entered in triumph less than a week earlier. What a contrast! Then he was riding a steed evidently claiming, “ Jerusalem , your King has come to you!” with multitudes shouting Hosannas in their enthusiasm. Crowds had been hanging on to his words as he preached in the temple day after day. This same city is now throwing him out as a condemned criminal and soon it will be mocking him for hours as he hangs on the cross, and yet it is the same city that had offered him a room for the last supper a day earlier. From his place of headship at that table in this very city he had laid out the teaching which would be the foundation of his kingdom and the world wide mission of his church. In this city he had initiated the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper which his people, whenever they met, would celebrate in memory of him. As a King he had requisitioned a donkey and proclaimed his right to enter Jerusalem to the plaudits of its citizens; as a Priest he had requisitioned a room in which to establish a holy communion for all his people, but now he is staggering and falling on his way to be nailed to this very cross that Simon is being forced to carry.
Less than a week has passed since the cries of Hosanna rent the air; less than 24 hours have passed since the Last Supper was celebrated but what now of all his claims to royal glory and priestly glory? The soldiers of ‘King Caesar’ are reasserting their authority over the city of the great king. They have Jesus in their power after the little blip of the crowds waving palm branches; they are marching Jesus off to his death. Judah ’s priests that follow in this grim procession are there to make sure he dies for his blasphemy, and now this temporary inconvenience of Jesus collapsing to the floor is overcome by an African called Simon whom they commandeer and order, “Carry this criminal’s cross to Calvary ! We are requisitioning you. We’re going to make sure this deceiver gets what’s coming to him.”
We know that he’s the King of heaven; he’s the Lord of the universe – of everything he created, and without him wasn’t anything made that was made – he’s the king of zillions of angels, but now Jesus has to obey pagan soldiers and ungodly priests when they tell him what’s he’s to do. ‘King’ Caesar Augustus again shows where the real power lies; he lays claim to the whole world. He’s the god of this world, and the Lord Christ has to do his will. The priests of the line of Aaron say, “Blasphemers must die,” and off to Golgotha Jesus goes. Now Christ has stopped making any demands; he has no rights of requisition; he is a condemned criminal; no one listens to him; no one gives him anything. He will soon be dead and that will be the end. The people of Jerusalem are thinking in clichés – “He thought a lot of himself didn’t he? . . . Pride comes before a fall . . . how have the mighty fallen . . .” Others were more sympathetic and forlorn; “Why must it always end like this with a reformer being killed? We thought he would have been the one who would have redeemed Israel .” Nobody at all understands what’s going on, not one solitary person in the entire world.
3. SIMON OF CYRENE WAS A MAN WHO THOUGHT HE WAS IN THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME.
Simon was a man on holiday in Jerusalem , a sightseer, a bystander, not wanting to get involved, not wanting to be pressurised about religion and Jesus. “Back off! This is a private debate. I don’t want to get involved; I want to enjoy myself,” he might have been thinking, and then suddenly a Roman legionnaire comes right up to him; the crowds and the narrow street block his escape route. There is the spear touching his shoulder, “Pick up that cross and come along with us;” that’s the command, and Simon has no time to debate the issue. Before he knew it it seemed that everybody in Jerusalem was gazing at him, an African carrying a cross, following this beaten-up unsteady man surrounded by four soldiers.
Simon was ashamed, embarrassed and resentful. He was annoyed with the soldier for seizing on him, and angry with the prisoner for not shouldering his own burden. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he imagined himself saying to his friends later on as he described to them the events of that day. The edges of the cross dug into his shoulder as they plodded round and round the streets of Jerusalem . However, things are not as they first appear. In fact we suspect that Simon never actually said those words.
What a day it was for Simon, never to be forgotten. If he had been on his way in from the country an hour later he would have missed it all. If he had walked a little faster or a little slower, or taken another gate into the city he’d have seen nothing. If he’d pressed back into a doorway the lieutenant in charge of the execution squad wouldn’t have spotted him. But none of that happened, and in God’s providence he was there at that place and at that time, and so he carried Christ’s cross. “God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions” (Westminster Shorter Catechism’s answer to question 11). Think of Joseph going at a certain moment to take a message from his father to his brothers and they are seething with resentment and hatred towards him, and soon a party of slave-traders is heading for Egypt with Joseph taken there. Joseph was tempted to think he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Egypt he is bought by Potiphar and soon his wife is plaguing the young slave with her seductions. “I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Joseph could think, and his saying no to her results in a false accusation of attempted rape and then he ends up in prison, and so on and on the story of Joseph goes. Yet God is preserving and governing the life of Joseph in every action. He makes him ruler of Egypt and the deliverer of his brethren in seven years of famine.
A criminal tries one more crime but this time he gets caught and sentenced to crucifixion. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he thinks as they nail him to a cross, but there on the cross alongside him is Jesus of Nazareth. He is a man who rebukes the official wailing women mourners rejecting their pity. He is a man who prays for those crucifying him that they might be forgiven. He is a man who has time to listen to this criminal as he says to Christ, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” To him Jesus gives assurance of salvation and eternal life, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” This criminal, though dying on a cross, was not at all in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was exactly where he should be, hearing Jesus Christ speaking to him.
Think of the providence of God that put a Christian in your office, on your street, or perhaps taking the same course as yourself, and how she shared her faith in Christ with you, and invited you to meetings and the rest is the history of new life. I write letters to a man in Brighton whose name is Michael W.J. Phelan and he told me of the providence which transformed him for good. He had had no connection with any Jewish or Christian individual or organisation, but one day he noticed a book whose title caught his eye. He didn’t even know that the book he’d picked up, entitled Good News For Modern Man, was a New Testament. When that dawned on him he may have been initially a little disappointed but as he progressed and read its pages, he said, “I was drawn more and more deeply into the heart of its teaching until I reached a definite point where an event of recognition occurred. Without the aid of any other human, immediately and comprehensively, I was granted the realisation that what I was reading was absolutely and eternally True. The impact this recognition made upon me was life-changing, and brought a feeling of joy combined with wonder and awe. For me, there could be no going back: from that moment on, I knew I was reading words that forever were true, and must be lived by, and, if need be, died for.”
There was a day in the life of Joseph’s father, ancient Jacob, when he heard that the ruler of Egypt had taken captive his son Simeon and he refused to free him unless his dear youngest son Benjamin was sent to Egypt . Jacob wailed his grief, “‘You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!’” (Gen 42:36). However, everything was wonderfully for Jacob’s good. Joseph was alive, and Simeon was being cared for by Joseph and soon all of them would be provided for through the seven years of famine. There are times when we think that we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but God is in it all intent on working everything together for our good.
How do we know that this is the right place and the right time? I will tell you; if I learn from the experience the answer to the most important questions of all, how can I become a follower of God, and how can I save my life? I will tell you the answers which Jesus Christ gave to those questions; “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Lk. 9:23&24). When Simon went into Jerusalem that day there was only one thought on his mind, like there’s only one thought on the minds of every natural man, “I’ve got to save my life. I’ve got to be cool. I must have space. I mustn’t get embarrassed. I mustn’t get religious. I’ve got to live for me. I’ve got to save my life.” Then suddenly a soldier’s spear touches his shoulder, and a soldier’s voice barks out an order, and, before he knows it, he is taking up Jesus’ cross and following him to the place where he dies, and it was on that day that Simon began to lose his life for the sake of Christ, and on that day he began to find it, just like many of us.
There’s been some correspondence in the Times this past week about epitaphs. What do you put on your tombstone? One woman wrote in from Norfolk and said that whenever her husband finished some do-it-yourself work he would say, “This’ll do.” She thought that would be a good epitaph on his gravestone; you sum it up your life like that, “This’ll do.” In other words people without God say, “I did my best. It wasn’t perfect, but that’ll do.” But how does God judge our lives? He looks at Jesus’ life and he says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” “This will do,” God says as he looks at the life of Christ, but he doesn’t say that about me or you or anyone, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Jesus never did. So we have to lose our own lives. We have to say, “My life will never do,” and we have to take Jesus’ life in order to be safe. There’s a fabulously wealthy model who’s been drug-taking and she’s been caught doing it on camera. She’s had to face up to the fact that she’s losing it – she’s losing her life – and what she said this week might lead us to hope she’s going to find it. “I take full responsibility for my actions. I also accept that there are various personal issues that I need to address and have started taking the difficult, yet necessary steps to resolve them. I want to apologise to all the people I have let down because of my behaviour which has reflected badly on my family, friends, co-workers, business associates and others. The support and love I have received are invaluable.” Have you gone to God with the mistakes of your life and said things like that to him? You’ve got to do it. Whoever wants to save his life must lose it for Jesus’ sake. “I’m just sorry it’s me. My life will never do. Help me to take up my cross and follow Christ.”
So often our first thoughts of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are changed to an awareness that in fact we were in the right place at the right time. Some of you are thinking that Aberystwyth is the wrong place, that this church is the wrong place, and this time could have been better spent, but I’m saying that if today your wrong-thinking and your self-preserving lifestyle is lost for the sake of Christ then your whole life will be saved for ever and ever.
4. SIMON OF CYRENE ’S LIFE SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN CHANGED BY THAT EVENT.
How can I say that? What evidence can I bring to back that statement up? First see how Mark describes Simon, not only telling us where he was from but giving us names of his two sons, Alexander and Rufus. Often Mark doesn’t bother to give us the names of prominent people who met our Lord, we’re not told the names of centurions, and men and women who were healed or raised from the dead, or prominent people who helped Jesus by giving him a room in their homes. Yet Mark is telling us this, “This man – do you know who he was? – he was Alexander and Rufus’ father!” When John Mark wrote this gospel these people were still alive, Simon was an old man, and his sons Alexander and Rufus were in their prime. This gospel of Mark was probably written for the church at Rome , and if you turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans you will read in Romans 16:13 these words, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother – a mother to me also.” This name ‘Rufus’ is not a very common one, and of the hundreds of Christians in the Roman congregation Paul especially greets those he was close to, and this family was one such. Rufus had been chosen by the Lord – that’s a Christian, every Christian; the Lord says to us, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you.”
That’s the reason why out of all the hundreds of people on the streets of Jerusalem Simon was the one the soldier chose to carry Jesus’ cross. Simon was known and loved and chosen by God from before the foundation of the world. That was why God focused the soldier’s eyes on Simon, not because he was of a different place and a different race – if indeed he was – but because of God’s grace set on him. God was determined to save him; God had made up his mind and so he moves a hardened soldier to requisition Simon and bring him and Jesus together. So, if we are right, and this Rufus in the church in Rome is the same Rufus whom Mark mentions here, and if his mother is Simon’s wife, then what great changes God worked in Simon’s life that affected all his family. They all became Christians through what happened that day.
But let us also turn to the opening verse of Acts 13 and the list of men mentioned who were leaders of the Antioch church, “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.” We all know of Saul and Barnabus; none of us know anything about Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, nor of Lucius of Cyrene, though he came from the same place as Simon. It is the other name that is interesting, ‘Simeon called Niger .’ ‘Simeon’ is the same name as ‘Simon’. ‘ Niger ’ was the regular familiar name for a man with a dark skin, a man who came from Africa – ‘ Nigeria .’ “Hello brother Niger !” Here then might be another appearance of Simon in the New Testament. He is now a leader of the church in Antioch with other Christians from Cyrene , and they are about to send out Paul and Barnabas on the very first mission to the Gentile nations – a church-based mission to bring Christ to the whole world. You find these three very different names, ‘Simon’, a Hebrew name, ‘Alexander’, a Greek name and ‘Rufus’, a Latin name. It’s another hint of the growing universality of the gospel. Christianity was not going to stay in the ghetto of Israel ; it was going to spread through the entire world so that 2,000 years later and thousands of miles from Jerusalem we Gentiles in Wales would be loving and serving Jesus Christ.
One day a soldier seized Simon when he was a long way from home and made him carry a criminal’s cross to the place where Jesus was killed. A few weeks later that man is announcing to his wife and little boys that now he knows God. His sins have been forgiven and for the rest of his life he is going to serve this Jesus who died on a cross in shame, but rose on the third day. He told them, “Because of my sins I made him bear my cross. Henceforth I will bear one too, yet not I, but Christ bears it for me.” A few years later he is leading a Gentile church in Antioch and he is announcing to all the people of that city as well as to all the devils and to all the angels, “This is my Lord and my God.”
Today I am bringing to you an astonishing invitation. It is utterly incredible and mind-boggling. I am inviting you to take up your cross and begin to follow Jesus Christ the Son of God. In other words, I am inviting you to become a Christian, and that is what it entails. Now count the cost. Remember that a man carrying a cross is on his way to die, and I am inviting you to die to all the pleasures and glittering prizes of the world, and to die to what your sinful self wants you to do, to give up everything and follow Jesus. In that way you will find what life is all about, by losing the life you are living now.
If we are going to bear the cross today then we’ll have to bear it in a way that’s different from how Simon was compelled to bear it. It won’t be a wooden cross. It won’t even be Christ’s cross, it will be ours. Christ’s own cross was an outrage in a sense that ours never can be. His was unique because it was a redeeming cross. His was a summons to accursedness which the cross we bear never is. He suffered the cross that we might be exempt from it. His cross was an instrument of victory. It destroyed Satan and put the Lord’s enemies to open shame. His weakness became the power of God. His foolish determination to be crucified became God’s wisdom. His servitude became the grounds of his lordship. Because he humbled himself even to the death of the cross God highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name. His dying was the means of initiating the whole life of these last days. The word of his cross became the saving power of God.
Our cross will be the trials and tribulations that come to us because of believing what Jesus believes and saying what Jesus said and living like he lived, making no compromise with the world. That will be our cross, and so we won’t thank Simon for being forced to bear Jesus’ cross; we’ll thank Jesus for bearing Simon’s sins. In bearing our cross we will discover the only happy life there is.
This first Good Friday Simon of Cyrene unwittingly served the great Angel of the Covenant, and Simon followed him and followed him and followed him all the way to heaven. When Simon stands before Christ on the Day of Judgment, as we will all stand before him, Christ will say to his own, “You looked after me; you clothed and fed me; you bore my cross.” Simon and all of us will say, “When Lord did we feed you and give you something to drink? When did we visit you and carry your burden? We don’t know anything about that. We know that our sins placed that cross on you. You carried such a burden of our blame and shame.” Christ will say, “Those who have done the will of the Father have borne my cross.”
25th September 2005 GEOFF THOMAS