And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.
On my way out to California, I had my first up-close celebrity experience. I was in the airport at Las Vegas, when I saw a very elegant looking man with a full head of white hair. I thought he looked familiar, so I walked over closer, and saw that he was reading a script. Then I realize who he was – he was the guy who played J. Peterman on Seinfeld. He was also on the first season of Dancing with the Stars, and I think he hosts Family Feud. I even remembered his name – so I quietly went up to him and asked, “Is your last name O’Hurley? He said yes, and I told him I was a fan of his work on Seinfeld, and that he was the first celebrity I had actually met. And then he said, in the J. Peterman voice, “Nice to meet you.”
Many of you have probably never heard of him. He certainly is not an A-list celebrity. I mean, if he was on the same Southwest flight as me, how great could his career path be? But, he is one of those great character actors who plays the small parts that add so much to the story.
Today we are going to study about one of those kinds of characters in the account of Jesus’ death. There are only three verses in the entire Bible which mention Simon of Cyrene, and they say virtually the same thing. Yet he is an intriguing character. Full-length books have been written about Simon, so I don’t feel like one sermon is that much of a stretch.
While there are only a few verses which mention Simon by name, those passages are packed with details about him and his family, and also provide lots of hints as so what he would have witnessed as one of the cast of the cross. So let’s begin with the most basic facts and move from there to piece together a portrait of this intriguing character.
I. Who Was Simon?
The text says that he was “of Cyrene,” a large city in north Africa (modern day Libya). We know from historical records that there was a very large Jewish population in Cyrene.
We are also told how he came to be connected with the story of the crucifixion. He was “coming in from the country.” The Law of Moses commanded Jews to come to Jerusalem for three great feasts, such as the Passover week of Jesus’ crucifixion. Typically, Jerusalem swelled in population during these weeks, and those coming from out of town often stayed just outside Jerusalem, and traveled back and forth from the country to the city. Jesus apparently did this, staying in Bethany during the week, but coming into the city for teaching and for Passover.
So based on these two simple details, that Simon was from Cyrene and that he was coming in from the country, we can deduce that most likely he was a Jew living in a foreign land (what was called the Diaspora, the dispersed), and that he had come to Jerusalem like so many other pilgrims to celebrate the Passover.
Of course it is possible that he was just a Gentile who happened to be in town during the holy week (though this seems unlikely, since most Gentiles probably would have avoided vacationing in Jerusalem at this hectic time of year!). Perhaps he was a proselyte, a Gentile who converted to Judaism. If he was a native of Africa, it is quite possible he was black. The producers The Greatest Story Ever Told opted for this view, since Sidney Poitier portrayed Simon.
Whether he was a Diaspora Jew or a curious Gentile, Simon’s trip to Jerusalem was going to take a turn he never expected.
II. What Did Simon See?
I want you to try to imagine the scene in Mark 15 if you saw things from Simon’s perspective, rather than from years of familiarity. Think of what has been happening to Jesus at the time Simon is introduced in the gospel account. What would Jesus have looked like when Simon first laid eyes on Him? What was the setting like in which Simon suddenly became a part of the gospel record?
First of all, Simon would have seen a man in his mid-30s who had the physical build of a carpenter, but whose frame bore the grisly evidence of torture. Barely recognizable from the beating and scourging he had received, this man would have been covered in blood, with gaping wounds all over his back, wounds which were made worse by the rugged crossbeam the pathetic figure was carrying. Even the most hardened person would have recoiled at what Simon saw.
Second, Simon saw a man who did not appear to have a friend in this world, a man totally rejected and despised. At this point Simon could not have known that the closest circle of Jesus’ friends had deserted him when the temple guards came to arrest Him, but this is exactly what happened.
And they all left him and fled (Mark 14:50).
But he could not have avoided knowing that this man was hated by just about everyone jammed into Jerusalem. As he came into the city he may have even heard the shouting mob cry out for Jesus to be crucified. Perhaps he had read about the exploits of the criminal named Barabbas that the crowd preferred to released rather than Jesus, even though Barabbas was a murderer (Mark 15:7-14).
This was, in Simon’s eyes, a forlorn and forsaken man.
And third, Simon saw a cursed man. If Simon was a Gentile, he knew that crucifixion was a penalty reserved for only the worst kinds of criminals. The Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting penalty.”
But if Simon was a Jew, in addition to this general revulsion of crucifixion, he also believed that Jesus was under divine judgment. He would have known that the Law said in Deut. 21:23 that a man hanged on a tree for such display was “cursed by God.”
So this is what Simon saw. A wretched prisoner grotesquely disfigured. A rejected prisoner, scorned by a crowd thirsty for His blood. And someone who appeared to be forsaken and cursed by the Lord Himself.
In other words, Simon saw the same person Isaiah did centuries earlier, described in the Song of the Suffering Servant.
-He saw a man whose “appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance” (Isa. 52:14). He saw a man “wounded” – “crushed” – scarred with “stripes” – but as yet he did not recognize that He was
“wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5).
-He saw someone “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised” (Isa. 53:3), but just as Isaiah said, Simon, like all the others, “esteemed him not.”
-And he saw someone who from every outward indication was cursed by God, or as Isaiah put it, “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4).
Little did Simon realize when he chose to come into the city from the country that he was going to see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision from hundreds of years earlier, and that he would be dragged into playing a role in this drama of redemption.
III. What Did Simon Do?
Normally it was Roman practice for the condemned to carry their own cross (probably the cross-beam) to the place of execution. This added to the shame and humiliation of the penalty (just like when your folks may have sent you to grab the belt or switch you be whipped with). Though the text does not spell this out, I think we can safely draw the inference that the accumulated punishment Jesus had taken, combined with the lack of sleep and hydration, not to mention the incredible burden of His mission (like Frodo in Lord of the Rings), made it impossible for Jesus to bear the weight of the cross. We as Christians believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, but He was in the flesh, and His humanity was never on clearer display than when He staggered beneath the weight of the cross.
In some of the popular accounts of the story of Simon, he is hailed as a great hero, who nobly chose to step in and help Jesus out when no one else would. But this is not at all what the text says. Mark says he was “compelled,” Luke says he was “seized” (23:26). Simon was pressed into service to carry a heavy beam of wood, splattered with the blood and bits of flesh of a man everyone hated.
How would you have felt if you were Simon? Some of us protest when we are asked to take out the garbage – imagine how we would feel about being drafted into serving as a beast of burden for a condemned man! This beam is too heavy, and besides it is disgusting! What will people think – that I am a criminal? This isn’t fair!
Simon did witness firsthand a horrible injustice – not to him, but to Jesus. There was nothing fair about Jesus taking that cross for us. He didn’t deserve it – we did! Simon did!
-Simon was compelled – Jesus freely gave His life
Mark 10:45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
-Simon bore a cross beam – Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
-Simon carried one man’s cross – by the grace of God Jesus tasted death for all men (Heb. 2:9).
So while Simon was temporarily inconvenienced during a trip into the city to walk a few yards, carrying a piece of wood for just a few minutes, Jesus left the glory of heaven to carry out an eternal plan to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world!
Simon carried a cross of wood; Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath!
But while Jesus is of course the central character in the cast of the cross, it is tantalizing to wonder what effect this event may have had on Simon. And it may be that Mark left us clues to tell us.
IV. The Rest of the Story?
I freely admit that at this point we are left with more questions than answers, and all we have to go on is circumstantial evidence. But consider the following:
• Mark named Simon’s sons – Alexander and Rufus - indicating they were known to the community for which his gospel was written (Rome).
• Romans 16:3 contains a greeting to a Christian in Rome named Rufus.
Rom. 16:13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.
• Acts 2:10 says that there were Jews from Cyrene present at Pentecost when Peter preached.
Acts 2:10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome
• Acts 11:20 says that some of the Christians in the Jerusalem church who were originally from Cyrene traveled to Antioch to preach.
Acts 11:20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.
• Acts 13:1 mentions a Christian in Antioch named “Simeon who was called Niger,” which means “dark.”
I believe in the basis of this evidence a good case can be made that Simon of Cyrene later became a disciple of Jesus.
It is not at all a wild piece of speculation to imagine that Simon was deeply touched by his encounter with Christ. If a complete pagan like the centurion supervising the crucifixion could confess just moments after Jesus’ death “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39), then it is certainly plausible that Simon came to believe based on what he witnessed, especially if just a few weeks later he heard Peter explain the significance of what had transpired. And since it is only Mark who mentions the names of his sons, perhaps Simon passed on the story of Jesus to his children, who ended up in the city where Mark’s gospel was written.
We cannot be sure how to cross of Jesus affected Simon, but really that isn’t what’s most important anyway. What is vital is how the cross will affect us.
V. Some Lessons for Us
The essence of conversion is accepting the payment Jesus made for our sins on the cross by identifying with the cross.
If in fact Simon became a follower of Jesus, he did so the same way all of us do – by being confronted by the cross.
The Bible employs the imagery of the crucifixion to explain what it means to be converted to Jesus. It means that our old self, the sinner, comes face to face with the cross as Simon did, but on a much deeper level. Simon merely accepted the task of carrying a piece of timber; conversion means we put our trust in Jesus’ death and repent; to change course in such a radical and profound way it is as if the old person we used to be is crucified! Isn’t this exactly what Paul was talking about in Gal. 2:20?
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
Paul knew that Christ loved him – personally; that Christ gave Himself for him-personally; and because he was confronted with the cross, he chose to be “crucified with Christ,” to stop living for Paul and start living for Christ.
The time at which this happens is explained by Paul in Romans 6:3-6. Notice what this passage says – in reverse order:
• “Our old self was crucified with him” (6:6).
• This is because “we have been united with him in a death like his” (6:5).
• When did this occur? In baptism – “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (6:3-4).
So our lives as disciples begin with our own confrontation with the cross, virtually re-enacting Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection in our trust that in baptism God will raise us to newness of life.
Or to put another way, Jesus bore the cross that we deserved, and through faith and in baptism we share in His death for us.
Jesus bore our cross so we could become disciples, but paradoxically as disciples, we in turn bear His cross.
Remember what happened after Jesus made the first prediction of His death? In Mark 8, right after Peter’s great confession, Jesus told the disciples what was to happen to Him at the hands of the Jewish leaders (Mark 8:31). Peter was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, but he was also convinced that he knew what the Messiah would be like, and execution did not fit into Peter’s preconceived beliefs. It seemed absurd, and he essentially told Jesus that – (Mark 8:32). So from Peter’s great confession we now have Peter’s great confusion, and Jesus dispels Peter’s false beliefs with the shocking truth that not only will He bear a cross, but anyone who intends to follow Him must bear a cross.
Mark 8:34 And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Mark 8:35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Jesus bore His cross because doing God’s will meant more to Him than life itself. To bear Jesus’ cross means that we embrace the same solemn pledge to deny ourselves, to lose our lives to find them, if that’s what God expects of us.
When is the last time you truly told yourself, NO, you are not going to do something, because no matter how much you want to you know that you are to deny yourself like Jesus, and lose yourself in obedience to God’s will?
Jesus took His cross to serve others, even though they didn’t deserve it – especially because they didn’t deserve it! To accept the burden of Jesus’ cross means that we pour ourselves out to do good for others rather than being fixated on our self-interest.
When is the last time you truly gave up something you really wanted to have so that you could do something for someone else? When is the last time you put someone’s needs ahead of your own when they absolutely did not deserve it?
These are the tough questions that all of us must face if we are really to be genuine cross bearing followers of Jesus.
True discipleship is a lot more than carrying a wooden cross. It is putting God before everything else, even our very life. It is putting others first and serving them, rather than ourselves. It is becoming a slave of all, even as our Master came not to be served, but to serve and give His life for others.
Do you imagine that when Simon returned home that when his wife asked him why his clothes were so filthy and what happened that he just brushed her off? No. In essence Simon helped facilitate the death of a total stranger. I have to think he was deeply affected by what happened that day.
My guess is that being brought face to face with the cross in the dramatic way that Simon was had a powerful effect on him, that he was virtually compelled to follow Jesus after seeing what He went through. It is hard to imagine that when he was allowed to drop that cross that Simon just went on his way strolling home as if nothing unusual happened.
But there have been disciples who one day were bearing the cross of Jesus, and the next just set it down and walked away. That this happens is unthinkable, but undeniable.
On the other hand, you may have come here today not expecting to be confronted with a cross, which you are invited to pick up, just as Simon had no idea what was about to happen when he walked into the city that day. I hope you will pick it up, and never put it down.