Happy Good Friday — or so we call it. It is a joyful day, even if it is the most solemn day in the church calendar. We talked about reckoning the repulsion and the delight of the cross last time. Today we talk about one of the little stories of the crucifixion narrative, Pastor John, specifically the figure of Simon of Cyrene.
A listener to the podcast writes us about it. “Hello, Pastor John! Reading through the story of the crucifixion this week, something caught my attention that I had read over many times. In Luke 23:26, amid the crucifixion event, we read, ‘And as they led [Jesus] away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus.’ I know that God is sovereign, and therefore this was not an accident or a random detail added into the story. What’s the significance of Simon carrying Jesus’s cross? What does God want us to see here?”
Famous Simon of Cyrene
This was really good for me to think about because I’ve read that a hundred times and have not paused, like so many of these questions force me to do. And that’s really valuable. Sometimes, when authors are reporting facts, they give us clear clues and pointers as to why they are including those facts and what they want us to learn from them. I don’t see really clear, decisive clues here or in any of the Gospels for why the Gospel writers include this fact.
“Jesus prayed that the horrors of suffering and death wouldn’t deter him from his obedience and his saving mission.”
One of the reasons for that may be that Simon, who carried the cross, may have become a well-known presence in the early church so that the mere reference to his name functions as just another historical evidence. It would be like saying, “This man right there that you know, he carried the cross.”
The reason this may be the case is because in Mark 15:21 Simon is called the father of Alexander and Rufus. That’s an unusual piece of information. I mean, it would be very odd for Mark to put that in unless he expected his readers to know who Alexander and Rufus were. And Mark is sometimes associated with Peter as a Gospel writer, and Peter is associated with Rome, and in Romans 16, there’s a man named Rufus.
There are little things like that that cause people to say, “Okay, this is an allusion to a man that everybody in the church knew.” He had become something of a known person, and so you don’t have to say anything about him. It would be like saying, “He’s the one who carried the cross. Isn’t that amazing? You can go talk to him and ask him what it was like.”
But I suspect that in Luke’s mind there was more going on than merely a historical link between the crucifixion and a person who was known as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Let me make some suggestions. And that’s really all they are. I’m willing to make them as suggestions rather than pronouncements of certainties that I see.
It may be that those who listen to me could see more than I see and make one of the suggestions move toward, “Oh, that really was intended by Luke.” So I’m giving you homework to do (kind of).
1. Served by a Foreigner
My first suggestion is based on Simon being described as from Cyrene. That’s a city in North Africa, today’s Libya. We don’t know if he was Jewish or Gentile because the name Simon was common for Greeks and Jews.
We don’t know if he was visiting Jerusalem or lived there, but what we know is that the Gospels draw attention to the fact that this man’s got a foreign origin. He’s an African. Luke might say, “Let it be noted that a foreigner served Jesus in his final hour — indeed, an African.” That’s suggestion number one.
2. Pick Up Your Cross
Second, Luke is the only one of the Gospels that says Simon carried the cross behind Jesus. All the other Gospels that mention this just say he carried it. Does Luke want us to remember Luke 9:23, where he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”? In other words, is Luke suggesting to us this is a picture of what discipleship is?
3. Sudden Suffering
Third, if we think that Luke was pointing to this event as a parable of discipleship, like I just suggested, could the fact that Simon was chosen so suddenly and unexpectedly for the heavy task be Luke’s way of teaching us that we don’t always choose the moment of our cross bearing?
“Simon was a real historical person, and he was there at a real historical moment.”
We don’t always choose the moment of our suffering. They come upon us in unexpected ways, frightening ways, heavy ways, painful ways, seemingly random ways. In other words, the fact that Simon was chosen seemingly randomly — I mean, it just says he was coming in from the field, was coming in from the country — that little added note seems to say, “This is random — you think.”
This could be a lesson that every moment of our lives coming in from the country, we should be ready to be snatched into the service of Jesus in a painful way. And we just don’t know when.
4. Kept Alive for the Cross
Fourth, I think most people would assume that demanding someone else to carry Jesus’s cross means he was at the breaking point, too weak to finish the trek on his own. But what we may not think about as quickly is whether this act to get Simon to help was an act of compassion or cruelty or simple expediency. Here’s what I mean.
If he couldn’t carry his cross, somebody had to because these soldiers are charged, “Crucify him.” And if they say they let him die on the way, somebody is going to be ticked. Maybe it was just pure expediency: “We got to get this man up there to get him crucified.” Or it might have been a moment of compassion from one of the Roman soldiers.
Or — this is what I had not realized — Matthew Henry suggests it may be that they saw Jesus was about to die under the burden and they were so bloodthirsty or fearful of punishment from Pilate that they wanted to make sure he survived for the remaining torture. In other words, just the opposite of compassion: “We’ve got to get nails through his hands and nails through his feet. We can’t let this man just die here of exhaustion under his cross.”
5. Heavenly Help
Fifth (my final suggestion), only Luke tells us that in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus is in agony and was helped by an angel as he prayed. In Luke 22:43, an angel came and helped him, sustained him, gave him strength. In Hebrews 5:7 it says, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”
“The call to suffer for Jesus is often sudden and costly and seemingly random.”
He was heard because of his reverence, his godly fear. Now how does that work? He prayed that God would save him from death and he was heard. Well, he died. I’ve argued in an article at Desiring God that Jesus was saved from death in answer to his cry, not in the sense that he didn’t die, but in the sense that he was saved from the faith-destroying powers of death.
In other words, death loomed in front of him. And he was a human being. Death was so horrible that it could have deterred him from obedience. And he pleaded with his Father, “Don’t let death destroy me like that.” And an angel came and helped him.
What he was praying was not that he wouldn’t die, but that the horrors of suffering and death wouldn’t deter him from his obedience and his saving mission. Could it be, then, that Simon’s stepping in to help Jesus make it to the cross, to help Jesus just at that moment, was like the angel showing up at the perfect moment as the humanly weak Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane — and now on the road to the cross — needed help to finish his mission?
What We Know
Whether these five suggestions are part of Luke’s intention as he writes, what we know is this:
- Simon was a real historical person, and he was there at a real historical moment.
- He was a foreigner, an African, who served Jesus in his final hour.
- Carrying the cross behind Jesus is a beautiful and painful picture of our calling as disciples, according to Luke 9. Whether Luke intended us to see that or not, it’s true.
- The call to suffer for Jesus is often sudden and costly and seemingly random.
- Simon’s help proved to be both a relief temporarily, but also added suffering because it sustained Jesus to get to the cross and have the horrible experience of crucifixion for us.
- We know that when Jesus cried out to his heavenly Father in Gethsemane, he was given help. He needed help so that his obedience would not falter. God answered his prayers. These were the hardest hours of Jesus’s life.
As we meditate on all these details, oh, what love and thankfulness should rise in our hearts.