The Man from Cyrene
As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross (Matt 27:32).
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 (Mark 15:21).
And as they led him 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 (Luke 23:26).
This account, appearing in all three Synoptic Gospels, is curious indeed. In the larger context of each, Jesus has just been beaten cruelly by the Roman soldiers and now he is being led away to be crucified. The apostle John completely ignores this part of the story. He simply says that Jesus “went out, bearing his own cross to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha” (John 19:17). If we read only John’s Gospel, we do not realize that someone else besides Jesus carried his cross. When we read only the Synoptics, we do not realize that Jesus carried his own cross at all. This leaves us to surmise that after Jesus carried his own cross for some of the distance to his place of final execution, he must have stumbled on the way or been too weak to finish the journey on his own. So the Roman soldiers conscripted a man in the crowd to carry it for him. One Simon of Cyrene.
What do we know about this man, Simon from Cyrene?
Well, very little. We know that he hailed from Cyrene, which was a prosperous city near the northernmost point of modern day Lybia, off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. We know that there had been a Jewish population there since the Diaspora. We learn from Acts 2 that there were Jews from Cyrene in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost who heard Peter preach the gospel of Jesus. We also know from Acts 11 that Jews who were from Cyrene traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch to escape persecution after the stoning of Stephen, and that they were instrumental in proclaiming the gospel and establishing the church at Antioch that later became the apostle Paul’s sending church.
Mark refers to Simon as a “passerby,” and Mark and Luke both mention him as one who was “coming in from the country.” So he had obviously traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover from Cyrene, making his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the temple as any faithful Jew would have loved to do. The journey by land would have taken him about a month, and by sea perhaps two or more weeks. So here he was, on the day of the Passover, making his way through the streets of Jerusalem near the northwest corner of the temple mount.
Mark 15:25 says that Jesus was crucified the third hour of the day, the same as the morning hour of prayer. So it doesn’t take too much imagination to assume that Simon was making his way to the temple for the morning hour of prayer. And while he is nearing the steps leading up to the temple gate, he is pressed against the sides of the street to make way for the Roman soldiers and other Jews as they led this poor, condemned, bleeding figure outside the gate to be crucified in a public place.
The focus in the Gospels is rightly on Jesus himself. He is going to the cross. He is pouring out his life for our sins so that he might pour the Holy Spirit out upon us who embrace his atonement by faith. And I suppose that is why this story is a jarring interruption into the Passion Week narrative. The story would be precious enough if a random, unnamed individual carried the cross of the Savior. But all of the Synoptic authors give his name. Why does his name even matter? What is more, we even learn in Mark’s Gospel the names of his children, Alexander and Rufus. Why does Mark mention them?
This may seem speculative, but it makes sense to think that Simon of Cyrene later became a believer and was known to the early church. Think about it. Why else would his name mean anything? Why else would it matter? A random visitor from a far-off place. He is forced to carry Jesus’ cross for some distance to the place of crucifixion. He is literally a non-entity in the story. There had to be a reason the authors of these three Gospels knew his name and the names of his sons.
In fact, now I really am stretching things, perhaps, but the only other time we read the name Rufus in the Bible is when Paul is writing to the Romans and he says in Romans 16:13, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” So there was a Rufus in Rome. And, according to the earliest church fathers, Rome is the city where Mark wrote his Gospel. He traveled with Peter to Rome, and his Gospel is based upon Peter’s preaching. Which means that Mark would likely have known the Rufus Paul is talking about in Romans 16.
But here is Simon, pressed to the side of the dusty Jerusalem street, perhaps standing out in the crowd as an obvious foreigner. In fact, maybe he was tall or stocky and looked like he could carry some weight. He watches as Jesus slowly passes by, in great agony. And then, Jesus stumbles. The soldiers look around. They see Simon. When a Roman soldier told you to do something, you complied. So, Simon stepped forward, and the soldiers placed the cross beam that Jesus had been carrying upon his own shoulders, the device for Jesus’ horrifying death.
Luke then says that Simon carried the cross “behind” Jesus. There has to be a veiled reference here to something Jesus told his disciples when he first announced his impending death before his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus had said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To come “after” Jesus is nearly the same preposition as we find in Luke 23:26. Jesus could have said to the disciples, “If anyone wants to come behind me” that is, “follow me,” then he must go where I am going. And I am carrying a cross.
Simon, that day, literally carried Jesus’ own cross “behind” him, “after” him, on his way not to his own execution, but to Jesus’ execution.
This must have been a gut-wrenching, emotional time for Simon. A surreal moment. It would have happened so quickly, Simon’s mind would have only been able to take in the situation as he followed the Lord. People in the first century were very familiar with crucifixion. If you defied Rome, you died a dreadful, slow death with unbearable pain, lifted up in complete shame, cut off from humanity. Simon came that day as close to crucifixion as he had ever come, and it likely filled him with dread that he would somehow become complicit in whatever crimes this man would have committed to deserve such a punishment.
What happened when he arrived at The Place of a Skull? Did he stay and watch? Did he do what we might have wanted to do, that is, disappear quickly back into the crowd, not wanting to look upon this dreadful scene any longer? And if he moved slowly away, wanting to get as far as he could from this place of pain, did he hear the hammer blows as he turned away, and the groans, and the agonizing cries?
I have to believe that Simon became a believer, that he later was taught the significance of who this person was and what he was doing, and believed. And that is why his name is recorded for us. We do not know when he believed. Perhaps he was still in Jerusalem at Pentecost and became one of the believers from Cyrene when Peter preached the gospel, proclaiming that this crucified One had been raised from the dead. Perhaps he remained in Jerusalem for some time and even became one of the scattered preachers of the gospel that helped to establish the church in Antioch. We don’t know. But the early church knew this man. His story obviously circulated. The day he literally took up the cross of Jesus and followed him. It is a palpable image for all of us as we consider the death of Christ for us.
When we look ahead on the road of our lives, what do we see? A promising career? Family? Wealth? Popularity? Fame? Political power? A life of ease or adventure?
As Simon looked back on that event as a believer in Christ, he likely saw it as a moment of discovery. It was an event that taught him what Jesus meant when he said to come after him by taking up the cross. To take up our cross and come after Jesus is to have nothing in our vision on the path ahead except our Lord who died for us, as we follow him to a place of execution, carrying his cross, identifying with him, willing to lay down our lives for him, even as he did for us. All of the other blessings and trials in our lives must be within the will of God along the way of following Jesus, as we are compelled—not by some brute force, but by love and devotion—to carry the cross after him.