Faces and Places Around The Cross: Simon Of Cyrene
Reading from the Gospel according to Mark. This is the Word of God.
“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. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means the place of the skull. Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh. But he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that virtually all of the pictures and representation of the crucifixion which we have view Jesus from the front? Have you ever paused to ponder what you might see were you to move around and look at the back of the cross, at the backside of Calvary? Let me try to give you some idea. Hold on tight. This is not easy going.
We’re told in scripture that the Roman authorities sentenced Jesus to be both scourged and crucified. That was a rare if not unprecedented occurrence because the fact is, so few people ever survive the scourging. But Jesus was sentenced to both. Scourging meant, in the Roman law, 39 lashes with a vicious whip which was called the scorpion. So violent was the beating that we know that Jesus’ back would quite literally have been ripped to shreds, most of the flesh torn away.
Now, if there was anything normal about crucifixion—there wasn’t. But if there were, you would have to say that under normal circumstances, people who were crucified hung on the cross for as much as several days before they finally died. Jesus died in just three hours. I submit to you it was because of the terrible physical impact of the beating from the hands of the Roman soldiers. While it is true that Jesus drew His last breath on the cross, I actually think there is a sense in which we can say that our Lord Jesus Christ was literally beaten to death. And therefore, if you really want to know how much Jesus loves you and loves me, if you really want to know what Jesus was forced to undergo for your salvation and mine, I would suggest that all you have to do is walk around to the back of the cross. The beating which He received was unspeakable. And that is why a short time later, Jesus was unable to carry his cross. It was customary for all condemned prisoners to carry their own cross out to the place of execution. Jesus was not able to carry His cross. And clearly, it was because of the terrible physical impact of that savage beating from the Roman soldiers.
Well, it is, at that point, that Simon of Cyrene enters the story. Or more accurately put, Simon of Cyrene was dragged into the story. You see. The Bible tells us that Simon was just a passerby who happened to be coming in from the country. Well, we know precious little about Simon of Cyrene. But what little we do know is quite significant. We know, for example, that Cyrene was an African city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the region what we call today Libya. And we also know that at that point in time, in Cyrene, there was a very large Jewish community. And therefore, we can logically assume that Simon of Cyrene was a Jewish pilgrim who made the 1,500-mile journey from Cyrene to the city of Jerusalem in order to participate in all of the celebrations of the Passover. That was always a goal for any Jewish person living outside the region of the holy land, to be able to be a pilgrim to journey to the holy city of Jerusalem and there, to join in the great celebrations around the Passover.
So Simon of Cyrene made that long journey to Jerusalem. However, as he was entering the city, he chanced to encounter a procession of death heading out of the city. And before he could even begin to absorb what was happening, the Roman soldiers seized him and made him, forced him, compelled him to carry the cross of the condemned Christ. Now, I want you to understand that that would have been a shocking, shattering, devastating, disastrous experience for Simon of Cyrene. Not only would it have been a bitter blow to his sense of personal dignity. But what’s worse, because he was now forced to handle the cross, an instrument of death, that meant that he would be declared ritually unclean and thus, he would be prohibited from engaging in any of the ceremonies surrounding the celebration of the Passover. 1,500 miles he had traveled just for this high spiritual experience. And in a moment, it’s all snatched away from him. And therefore, we know surely, in despair and humiliation, Simon of Cyrene was made to carry the cross of Jesus all the way along the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows, all the way out to Calvary, the place of execution.
Well, that’s the story. And I suspect that most of us know the story quite well, However, there are two little details in the biblical account which you may never have noticed, two little details which I wish to highlight in the course of this sermon.
The first of those little details is actually in Luke’s version of this incident, Luke 23. Luke says that after the Roman soldiers seized Simon of Cyrene they made him, listen, they made him carry the cross behind Jesus. Notice that, behind Jesus.
That means that all the way out to Calvary, Simon would have been looking at the back of Jesus. Remembering that, two thoughts burn in my mind. My first thought is it was no accident that Simon of Cyrene arrived at that spot at that moment. You see, if Simon had entered the city five minutes earlier or five minutes later, he would have missed the procession. And the procession would have missed him. Had he chosen to turn left instead of turning right upon entering the city, he would never have seen Jesus.
But that’s not what happened. That’s not the way it was written. It was written otherwise as if the great master playwright was setting the stage. You see, I believe that Simon of Cyrene, by divine appointment, was brought to that precise spot at that precise instant precisely because he could render help to God’s own son Jesus. It was no accident. Now, you and I do tend to fail to remember that the hidden hands of God are always at work in our lives, interweaving circumstances, orchestrating events in order to produce some divinely desired result in our lives. Oh, yes. God is always working in us and with us and through us. When we encounter those incidents in life that we can’t explain, we just simply write them off. And we say, “Well, those are accidents, or those are coincidences.” But you see, the reality is that if we saw everything from God’s perspective, if we had all the facts as God has them, then we would understand that there are no accidents, there are no coincidences. There is only providence, God’s providence. God is in charge. God is in control. God is in control of your life and mine.
Some of you may remember Thornton Wilder’s story entitled The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It was the story of the catastrophic collapse of a bridge. And if we had been there that day and witnessed the travelers on that bridge plunging to death in the ravine below, we would have simply declared that to be a terrible accident. And surely, it must have smashed God’s plans. But Thornton Wilder, as he unfolds the story, demonstrates to us that exactly the opposite was true. A priest chose to investigate the lives of all of those who died in the bridge collapse. And to his shock, he discovered that in every single instance, the person’s life work was finished. Even the life work of a little girl Papitha, even that was complete. Every single life was finished. Every task had been done. Every purpose had been fulfilled. Nothing was left undone. Every single life was complete. And so at that bridge’s collapse, it was the celestial clock chiming, calling those people home to the heavenly father. And in that instance, it was a perfect finish to their finished and complete lives. It was no accident at all, not when looked at through the eyes of God. It was no accident. It was God’s providence. God is in control. God is in charge of your life and mine.
We tend to forget that the forces of heaven are always at work directing things in our lives. We tend to forget that the guardian spirit is watching over us 24 hours of every day. We tend to forget that the hidden hands of God are holding us and the eternal arms of Christ are around us to support us. We tend to forget that there is One who made us, who loves us, and who loves us so much that now He is guiding, directing, arranging, and controlling things in our lives. We tend to forget that this One who loves us loves us so much that He was willing to allow His only son to be brutalized for our salvation. We tend to forget that one day, the celestial clock will chime for all of us. And in that moment, we will step into the loving arms of our creator God, our heavenly Father, not one minute early, not one minute late.
I am reminded of that by the experience of Simon of Cyrene who, by divine appointment, by God mapping out his 1,500-mile journey to bring him right to that spot, right to that moment where he could encounter Jesus Christ. And there can be no doubt—once you know the subsequent events of Simon’s life, there can be no doubt that God wanted him there.
The second thought is that whenever our will meets God’s will, there will always be a cross.
That’s the way it was for Simon. It was Simon’s will that he travel to Jerusalem for the Passover. It was God’s will that Simon encounter this procession of death. And when Simon’s will met God’s will, there was a cross. Whenever you and I yield our will to God’s will, there will always be a cross. We may feel that our great desire in life is to achieve some measure of material wealth and success. God says, “Nail it to the cross.” We may be searching for social prominence or acceptance. God says, “Take up the cross.” We may be seeking satisfaction for our selfish desires. But God says, “Deny yourself. Take up My son’s cross.” We may feel that the role of the church is to comfort our soles and buttress our weaknesses. But God says, “No. The only role of the church is to lift up the cross of my son to all people that I may draw all people to me.” That’s the only role of the church. Lift up the cross of Jesus Christ. Everything else in the church’s life is just, as we say, lagniappe.
Simon of Cyrene encountered Jesus Christ right at the spot, right at the point God intended. And when Simon carried the cross of Jesus Christ, it changed his life. And so God says to us what he said to Simon. “Carry My son’s cross.” And if we do that like Simon, just the responsibility of carrying the cross, the hardworking toil of living the Christian life in a time like this—it may put sweat on our brows. It may lead us to shame and embarrassment and humiliation. It may mean that we have to set aside our personal desires. But what I want you to see is this. When Simon of Cyrene carried the cross of Jesus Christ, Simon of Cyrene was changed.
And if we carry the cross of Christ, we may be changed as well. Understand me, please. Mark it down. Simon was changed. We know that. We know that because of the little detail that Mark inserts into his account of this incident. Let me just read it for you again. Mark writes, “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon,” listen, “The father of Alexander and Rufus was passing by on his way in from the country. And they forced him to carry the cross.” Now, why in the world would Mark insert into the story the names of Simon’s sons? It was because Alexander and Rufus, we know, became such visible important leaders in the early Christian church that all Mark had to do was drop their names and everybody would have known to whom he was referring.
Furthermore, if you flip over to the very last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Listen, greet Rufus chosen in the Lord and his mother who has been like a mother to me too.” That’s what Paul wrote, Simon’s wife, Simon’s sons. I submit to you that Simon of Cyrene, when he carried the cross of Jesus Christ, remember, please, we are told that he was made to carry the cross behind Jesus. I believe that when Simon of Cyrene saw Jesus back and saw what happened on Calvary, he came to understand that what Jesus was undergoing was for him. It was for him and for you and for me and for all God’s children. But yes, it was for Simon. And I believe that in that moment, Simon came to faith in Jesus Christ. And ultimately, the rest of his family came to that same faith. And oh, what a difference they made in the life of the early Christian church, and all because one day, Simon of Cyrene was made to carry the cross behind Jesus.
Let me put it to you straight. Two thousand years ago, Jesus died on a hill called Calvary so that you and I might live. Yes, he was savagely beaten by the soldiers. Yes, he was nailed to the cross. And it was all so that you and I might live now and live forever. If you doubt that, then let me urge you to take a good, hard look at Simon of Cyrene. For you see, that day, for a brief time on the way out to Calvary, Jesus borrowed Simon’s strength. But after that, for all of the rest of his life, Simon lived in the strength of Jesus. And therefore, my beloved people, if, like Simon of Cyrene, you surrender your life to Jesus Christ, if you receive Jesus Christ into your heart today, then after today, like Simon of Cyrene, your life will never be the same again.
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.