Simon was a popular name among first century Jews. We see a number of men by the name of Simon mentioned in the Gospels. To name a few: Simon, the fisherman who Jesus renamed Peter; Simon, the zealot who also became a disciple; Simon, the Pharisee who hosted Jesus for dinner; Simon, the healed leper who also hosted Jesus for dinner (who John may have called Lazarus); and Simon, from Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. Let’s look at this last Simon – and what all of us can learn from him.
Mark records, “A passerby named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the countryside just then, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.)” (Mark 15:21)
According to Roman law, one who was found guilty and condemned to death was required to carry his cross, or at least the cross beam, to the place of his crucifixion. Jesus left the Praetorium bearing His cross, but along the way the Roman soldiers conscripted Simon the Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross.
Let’s look at the question as to why someone was needed to carry His cross. The obvious explanation is the one that we immediately presume to be correct, and the one we see depicted in dramatizations of His crucifixion. That being that physically Jesus could no longer walk under the weight of the cross. Jesus would have been thirty-three years of age. He had spent most of His life as a carpenter and therefore would have had good upper body strength. Throughout the three-plus years of His ministry, He continually walked all over the countryside. If He had a “Fitbit”, it would have been tracking record numbers of steps. And earlier that week, He had physically driven the moneychangers out of the Temple. Jesus would have been in excellent physical condition leading up to that morning. There is no question that after the brutal scourging and beatings that Jesus received at the hands of the Roman soldiers that morning, He would have been at near-death physically. But Luke records in his Gospel (Luke 23:32) that the two criminals were also led out with Him to be executed. They, too, would have been scourged and beaten that morning, and yet, there is no mention of anyone else carrying their crosses. Though i don’t in any way minimize the physical effects of the scourging and the beatings that Jesus bore for my sins – and yours, i do wonder if, according to the Father’s plan, there weren’t at least two other reasons for someone else to carry His cross.
The first of the two has to do with the reason that Roman law required the cross to be carried. It was to be carried by one who was guilty. Jesus wasn’t guilty of anything. Jesus lived a righteous, sinless life. Even the pagan Pilate could not find any guilt in Jesus. Jesus wasn’t being crucified because He was guilty. The Father had ordained that the Son would be crucified to bear the iniquity of our sin. It was not for Jesus to carry that cross – it was for a sinner to do so.
The second reason has to do with Simon himself. At that moment – just the right moment – the Father led Simon the Cyrene to arrive at that place along the way to Golgotha. Simon, a Hellenistic Jew, had just arrived in Jerusalem for the observance of Passover. Cyrene was situated in modern-day Libya, on the northern coast of Africa, at a distance of 783 miles from Jerusalem. Walking four miles per hour for eight hours per day, it would have taken Simon over twenty-four days to make the pilgrimage. Imagine the planning to have someone arrive from that distance at that specific spot and specific moment for the Father’s very specific assignment.
i would imagine that Simon’s immediate reaction was resentment. He was tired! He had been traveling for over three weeks. Of all of the people on the road at that moment, why were the soldiers singling him out to carry the cross for this Man? Since Simon was just arriving in the city, i don’t believe that he immediately knew that this was Jesus who was being led to be crucified. It is very possible that he had previously heard of Jesus. The other Hellenistic Jews that arrived earlier in the week had heard of Jesus, and wanted Philip to introduce them to Him. But i don’t believe that when the soldiers first pulled him out of the crowd that he knew who this Man was. And the soldiers didn’t give him a choice. They commanded him to do so, and to refuse would have been fatal for him.
So, get this picture in your mind. Jesus is ahead being led by the soldiers to His death, and there was Simon, following Jesus, carrying the cross. As they continued along the path, Simon would have heard the shouts from the crowd. He would have heard the grief-stricken cries of the women trailing behind. And at some point, he must have realized who this Man was. He heard Jesus turn to the women and say, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Jesus then bore witness to what would occur in the end times. Even as He was being led to His death, this Man, Jesus, was speaking as One in authority.
Perhaps it was at that moment that Simon believed. Perhaps it was later as he stood to watch at the foot of the cross. Perhaps it was later after he heard that Jesus had risen from the tomb. But at some point, it would appear that Simon believed in Jesus. The Father had ordered his steps to have a personal encounter with His Son – an encounter that not only transformed his life, but also the lives of his family. Mark is the only Gospel account that records the names of his two sons – Alexander and Rufus. It would appear that Mark is mentioning these two men as familiar names to the church. Remember, Mark was with the apostle Paul in Rome. He would have been a discipler of the believers there in Rome. And Paul references a believer by the name of Rufus in his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 16:13). Very possibly the Rufus that he mentions is Simon’s son. He also references the mother of Rufus, so it would appear that possibly the whole family may have become followers of Jesus. All because the Father had so ordered Simon’s steps!
You will recall that earlier in His ministry, as recorded in Luke 9:23, Jesus had told those in the crowd, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (ESV). Simon gives us a picture of that. Though initially it wasn’t his choice to follow Jesus, at some point it appears that he made that choice. And he followed Him all the way to Calvary. The Father had a path for Simon to follow – and He led him to follow Jesus. The Father had a cross for him to carry – and it was the cross on which our Savior shed His blood for the forgiveness of Simon’s sin, my sin and yours. In the midst of God’s eternal plan of redemption for all of mankind, the Father had also included the redemption of one specific person in His plans.
Today, the Father has a very specific path for each one of us – a path to follow Jesus. He has a cross for us to carry – a cross that the Father will use as a part of His redemptive plan in and through our lives for His glory. The Roman soldiers gave the task to Simon out of disdain for him and contempt for Jesus, but the Father orchestrated the plan out of His perfect will for Simon and His love for His Son. No matter the cross we carry, or the one who has placed it onto our shoulders, the Father has orchestrated it – out of His perfect will for us and His love for His Son. May God find us faithful to be like Simon – and take up the cross and follow Him!
Excerpts from Chapter 51 of Taking Up The Cross