Through the days of Lent, we will look at the faces of those who surrounded the cross of Jesus on the day His life was poured out as a sacrifice for our sins. Here at the beginning it’s a good place to ask, “What’s the point? Why study these people who have such an incidental role?”
I believe that Scripture was written under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Part of what that means is that there are no incidentals, no bit parts, nothing added just for “color” or “realism” as an author of fiction would do. When we look closely at the details like a detective, we will learn new things about the Bible.
For example, today we look at a man who receives barely a verse’s notice in the Synoptic Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. John doesn’t mention him at all. Today we’ll discern the example of faith set for us by Simon of Cyrene.
Read Mark 15:21.
Who was Simon?
As Cyrene was a community where many Jews lived, we can guess that Simon was a Jew who had come to Jerusalem with his sons to celebrate the Passover. It was a kind of collision of expectations and reality which God arranged.
It’s a given that Simon carried Jesus’ cross all the way to Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. That makes Simon one of the witnesses of this tragic event. It was customary for Jews who went to Jerusalem for the Passover to stay the extra 50 days and observe the Feast of Pentecost too. This means that Simon may have also been on hand for a happier occasion – the birth of the Church. ACS 2:10 lists people from Cyrene among those witnessing the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Where is Cyrene?
It is located on/t Mediterranean coast of Africa, in modern-day Libya.
We know many Jews lived there for two reasons.
One, King Ptolemy, Greek conqueror of the Holy Land, transported a number of Jews out of Jerusalem and scattered them across northern Africa. Two, Acts 6:9 mentions the synagogue of Cyrene. Synagogues were only built in places with significant Jewish populations.
The Greeks founded the city because of a nearby spring, the agricultural value of the land, and the presence of a medicinal spice called siphilium. As the colony grew, it became an intellectual center, famous for its medical school. They named it after the nature-goddess Kyrana, the wife of Apollo.
Why did they require Simon to carry Jesus’ cross?
William Barclay explains how crucifixions were carried out: “When the cross was prepared the criminal had himself to carry it to the place of execution. He was place in the middle of a hollow square of four soldiers. In front marched a soldier carrying a board stating the crime of which the prisoner was guilty. They took not the shortest but the longest way to the place of execution. They followed every possible street and lane so that as many as possible should see and take warning.” (The Daily Study Bible Series, Romans.)
Contrary to most depictions of the event, the prisoner carried the crosspiece, not the entire cross. It weighed 30-40 lbs and was strapped across the shoulders of the condemned. It’s possible that Simon was carrying not just the crosspiece but also supporting Jesus’ weight as He remained strapped to it.
Jesus was unable to carry his crosspiece because His back had been laid open by a scourging earlier and the loss of blood made him weak. The whip the Romans used was not simply a leather strap or cord. The cords were braided with bits of metal and bone woven in. These rough pieces would catch the skin and rip it open when the scourge was drawn back. Some prisoners did not survive the scourging.
Roman law required civilians to render limited service whenever a soldier required it of them. No questions, no excuses, no exceptions. When a Roman soldier made this request, he did it by placing the flat of his spear on your shoulder. Imagine having that weapon just inches from your face. How much of a fight would you put up?
God was at work in their selection of Simon to be the cross-bearer, as Mark is trying to make plain to his readers. The Roman soldiers chose Simon out of the crowd and forced him to assist Jesus.
What happened later?
Only Mark’s Gospel names Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus. They have no role in the story, so the only reason Mark would have for mentioning them is that they were known to his readers. Remember, Mark was an associate of Paul’s. It makes sense for him to connect people who had become church leaders with the events of Jesus’ life.
Paul mentions a Rufus in Romans 16:13. He honors Rufus by writing that he was CHOSEN IN THE LORD; a linchpin in God’s plan. Paul also commended Rufus’ mother, writing [she] HAS BEEN A MOTHER TO ME, TOO. There’s no proof that this is the same Rufus, but the simplest explanation is often the best.
In ACS 19:33-34, a Jew named Alexander attempts to verbally defend Paul and his associates during a riot in Ephesus.
Based on this evidence, we can speculate that Simon found faith in the Lord Jesus on the day he carried His cross. He later passed that faith on to his sons and they became leaders of the Church.
We know historically that the Gospel was taken to Cyrene and two churches were planted there. Maybe they were founded by Simon & his sons.
Taking all the Bible reveals into account, the most logical explanation is that Mark is supplying the back story of two influential leaders in the early church. He told, in an economy of words, the very dramatic story of how Alexander and Rufus first saw Jesus with their father Simon.
How can we follow Simon’s example?
First of all, Simon was faithful to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jews were expected to make the trip to Jerusalem every Passover. But such a trip required an enormous amount of money and months of time and few had the means to do it even once. Simon had made a big sacrifice just to be in Jerusalem.
Simon had no choice but to obey the soldier’s command. Still, try to imagine the anxiety he must’ve felt in that moment. The Roman soldier’s spear was on his shoulder, his sons were standing nearby.
He was obedient and responded to the challenge. It was a physical challenge to carry a 30-40 pound piece of wood, impossibly complicated by having a bloodied, weakened man attached to it. There was an emotional challenge too. Walking alongside Jesus, Simon saw and heard the insults and anger directed at Jesus. Simon’s task would have been a humiliating, terrifying, emotional experience.
When are you going to carry your cross?
Earlier in his Gospel, Mark quoted Jesus, “IF ANYONE WOULD COME AFTER ME, HE MUST DENY HIMSELF AND TAKE UP HIS CROSS AND FOLLOW AFTER ME.” The personal cross is Jesus’ symbol of discipleship.
Now think of this verse by taking Simon’s place. Think of the horror in that bloodied, rough piece of wood, crafted for one purpose only; to kill a man in the most agonizing way ever invented.
Taking up our cross is a physical challenge; we face temptations and diseases and death in this world. We must persevere in our faith and continue to cling to our cross.
Taking up our cross is an emotional challenge. The world doesn’t always tolerate Christians; we share in the persecution Jesus suffered.
Taking up our cross is a spiritual challenge. Our enemy the devil wants us to avoid the cross. He wants us to fail, falter, and let go.
Given all that, it is natural for us to wonder; “Is it worth it?” “Why suffer all that to be a disciple?” Jesus promised His disciples abundant life in this world. Not an abundance of things, but an abundance of love and holiness, the real stuff of life. Jesus also promised His disciples eternal life. He promised life after death that will be so wonderful that we will be more than repaid our losses in this life by rewards in the life to come, the most important is living forever with Him.
Today is the day to take up your cross. Now is the moment to be faithful. This world will present you with challenges, but the One who overcame the cross for you will help you overcome this challenges as you carry your own cross. Be faithful!