WHAT A CYRENE SAW
by Pastor Mike Fortune
April 7, 2007
Matthew 27:24-25 records that after Pontius Pilate had ceremoniously washed his hands and declared, “‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ Verse 25 says all the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’ The only thing left for the mob to do then was to rejoice over the success of their freshly‑washed robes of self‑declared righteousness.
Had the Jews put Jesus to death in their own way, He would have been stoned; but since they were doing it the legal way, the Roman way, He was crucified. The history of death by crucifixion is an old one. Alexander the Great borrowed it from the Persians. Then it was copied by the Carthaginians. And finally it was adopted by the Romans who used it to execute slaves, thieves and prisoners of war.
But the Romans considered death on a cross far too cruel for their own citizens. It was because of this that, according to tradition, Paul was beheaded by a sword instead of being crucified as was Simon Peter. As the mob faced Jesus, they faced a man who was utterly worn out. After His hours of agonized praying in Gethsemane He had gone from one weary trial to another, and He had not had a bite of food or a drop of water since the Last Supper the night before. There had been the trial before Annas, the three trials before Caiaphas (the preliminary trial, the regular trial, and the repeat trial early in the morning to make everything legal and within the letter of the law). There had been the trial before Pilate and the trial before Herod. And there was the final trial before Pilate.
In addition to this, Jesus had gone through endless mental and physical torture. There had been the pain of finding Peter, James and John asleep three times before Judas came and betrayed Him with a kiss. There had been the pain of seeing Peter slash off a man's ear with a sword. There had been the pain of seeing His disciples flee. There had been the pain of being bound and having His hands pulled high between His shoulders. There had been the pain of being nearly whipped to death by the order of Pilate. The man delivered to the mob was already half dead. He was a pitiful sight with the crown of thorns on His head and His back raw and His face swollen.
The procession begins
An order was given, and two criminals were brought up out of their dungeon and placed with Jesus. Then each was given a cross on which he would be nailed. At a signal, a platoon of legionnaires, soldiers armed with spears, formed a box around them so that they could not escape. Then a man appeared with a sign painted on a thin pine board. The large black letters read: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” The inscription was written in Latin, Hebrew and Greek. A Roman officer on a horse led the legionnaires, and the man with the sign stood immediately in front. When everything was ready the centurion on the horse shouted, “Forward march,” and the solemn procession headed for the skull‑shaped hill, Calvary.
The road at the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, the road they traveled, was about twelve feet wide and led up a straight incline before it sloped toward the Damascus Gate. Jesus, with the heavy cross on His shoulders, did not walk as fast now as He had the day before when He led the Twelve into the Upper Room, the eleven to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the three apostles further into the Garden. The cross on His shoulders was heavy enough, but added to that weight were the past sins, the present sins, and the future sins of the entire world. No one else but the Son of God could have carried that load!
As the newly formed column inched toward the grim place of execution, gathering were multitudes who watched from the streets and the roof tops of stores and houses. It was between 6 and 9 am. Some were just waking up, groggy and silent. Others turned their heads and dabbed at their eyes. Some of them yawned with unconcern. Others giggled and laughed.
In that crowd, however, there must have been people whom Jesus had healed of blindness. But now they were blind again. This time by their tears. Also in that crowd there must have been some whom He had cleansed of leprosy. And I think in that crowd there must have been some whom Jesus had made to hear and to speak. And I imagine they cried out, “You can't do this to Him! He healed my ears and gave me speech!” But these cries were ignored, and the procession plodded on.
Jesus falls to the ground
Then all at once Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth who had carried many a beam on His shoulders, stumbled and fell to the ground. Someone kicked Him, but He could not get up. His humanity was exhausted. The centurion was now in a dilemma. He could not ask one of his soldiers to carry the cross. It would be beneath them. He could not ask a Jew to carry it. For if a Jew even touched it, he would be defiled and not be able to partake of the Passover. And if it was too embarrassing for a common soldier to carry, it was definitely beneath a Roman officer to interfere with the religious practices of their subjects.
If only Peter or James or John were there at this time! Like Isaac carrying the wood to the place of sacrifice for Abraham, they could have carried the cross for Jesus. They didn’t need to worry about not being ready for Passover, for they had already eaten the Last Supper with Jesus! John 18:15 says Peter and John had been at the high priest Caiaphas’ palace a few hours earlier. But where were they now? Jesus had been very close to them for 3 ½ years, but in this moment of trial, they were not there to pick up the load for Him!
Then Mark 15:21 shares these words. “21A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country...” Cyrene was a city on the Northern coast of modern day Libya in North Africa. It was founded by the Greeks in 631 B.C. and later occupied by the Romans and then by the Arabs. Before that, it was known as Tripoli in the west and Cyranecia in the east. It was the main city in a group of 5 “city ‑ states” known during the time of Jesus and Paul as a “Pentapolis” and was second in size only to Athens. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the city of Cyrene held a population of Jews as early as 85 BC and was known for having at least 4 classes of peoples; citizens, farmers, resident aliens, and Jews. It remains a popular tourist destination for those interested in world history and ancient ruins to this day. So Simon the Jew from Cyrene comes walking by, just in from the country, minding his own business, when he sees a crowd of people on the way to Calvary. So he stops to see what it was all about. And what Simon saw from that moment on changed history for him and for many others!
Simon is forced to carry the cross
Being from Cyrene, the cross roads of Northern Africa (map) with its melting pot of cultures, beliefs, and interracial marriages with other African peoples, many scholars suggest that Simon was black. A reference to “Simon the Niger (which means black) of Cyrene” in Acts 13:1 adds credibility to the claim. The Bible doesn’t say for sure, but it seems likely. What we do know, whatever the reason, is he stood out in the crowd. Because the centurion noticed him immediately. He barked an order, and the legionnaires grabbed Simon and forced him to pick up Jesus’ cross. The greatest honor ever given to a human being was when Mary conceived and gave birth to Jesus Christ. The next greatest honor given to a human being was his—the honor of carrying Jesus’ cross. But how unexpected the honor was! And how unhappy Simon must have been at first!
Maybe some of us are like Simon. Maybe you’ve been asked to carry Christ’s cross. And maybe you don’t like being asked! Whenever you are the one who has to take care of an aging parent because circumstance arranges that you are the one who happens to be living close by—you’re carrying Christ’s cross. Whenever you are the parent of a handicapped child and are asked to do things ordinary parents aren’t asked to do—you’re carrying Christ’s cross. Whenever you are the one to whom the emotionally needy person at church or school or work chooses to reach out to—you’re carrying Christ’s cross. Whenever you are the one whose gentle nature makes it difficult to say no to things and people take advantage of you—you’re carrying Christ’s cross. Whenever you are the one who is the first at the scene of an accident; whenever you are the one whom the drunk homeless guy confronts on the sidewalk; whenever you are the one who forever finds herself caught up in duties not of your own choosing that always have you around when the less‑glamorous work needs to be done; whenever you are the one whose plans and dreams can be sacrificed because everyone else’s are deemed more important; whenever you're the one whose life is disrupted by unwanted circumstance, you are Simon of Cyrene. And you are helping Jesus carry the cross.
But even if you had the choice, unlike Simon, and were not forced by circumstances beyond your control, wouldn’t you want to help Jesus carry the cross? Newspapers list a seemingly endless list of organizations and non profits begging people to volunteer, to share the care, to give of their time. And in many of those places, they encourage you to be Christian while you’re doing it! Not just Sabbath afternoons at the nursing home. Not just Wednesday nights at Pathfinders. Or prayer meeting. Could it be? That rightly understood, that ordinary outreach is not really an option for obedient Christians? For whether our crosses are voluntary, or seemingly involuntary, don’t they become part of God’s perfect will for us? And if they do, shouldn’t we cooperate with His will for us? Even if we don’t want to at first? Mark 16:21 says, “21And they forced him to carry the cross.” Another version says “compelled.” Real Christians are obedient Christians. They are compelled to pick up Christ’s cross and carry it.
You may have to cross to carry, too
So let me encourage you this morning. I do not know what kind of cross Jesus has given you. But whatever it is, by God’s grace, carry it! Does it really matter how or why it got there? It’s there. You see the least of these. So pick them up and carry them for Christ’s sake. Whatever it is, it will not overwhelm you. 1 Corinthians 10:13 promises that “13No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” I’m thinking if that applies to temptations which are bad. His support and presence has to also apply to carrying Christ’s crosses, which are good. What do you say?
No doubt, the task Simon was asked to complete was not a glamorous one. His job was simply to carry a cross a few hundred feet. Tradition says that Jesus Himself had already carried the cross most of the distance. Although the job looked insignificant at the moment, it turned out to be extremely important! It is easy enough to get people to assume big crosses with publicity attached to them, crosses that the multitudes can see. But it is very difficult to get them to assume the little crosses that often go unnoticed by the crowd. Yet, frequently it is the little crosses that do the most good!
Teaching a Sabbath school class is not always an easy thing. To work on a lesson for a class with its quota of rowdies is not always easy. I bet many a teacher goes home and cries over the lack of help they receive and attention the children give. And yet it so happens that here and there a screaming toddler or a paper-throwing junior or an uninterested teenager hears something or sees something in one of these faithful teachers that eventually brings about a great change in their life. So do not despise the seemingly little things! Simon’s burden was not unusually heavy. His task was not drawn out. But it was very necessary! And his name is written large in history as a result.
What Simon saw reminds us that you may be asked to pick up a cross for the simple reason that no one else will carry it! Simon was not chosen because he was pious, strong or faithful. He was chosen because no one else would do it! And when he picked up the cross, without a doubt he was met with jeers and boos. Can you imagine the hostility and abuse that was heaped on him as he stood to his feet with the cross over his shoulder? Someone probably pointed out, “Now you're defiled. You can’t partake of the Passover. You are the most ignorant ignoramus I ever met!” But he didn’t retaliate. Defend himself. Or abandon the task. Instead, he picked up Christ’s cross. And carried it to Golgotha. Reminding us of a most important truth. Jesus always walks with the one who is carrying His cross!
Christ is walking with you
Are you tired of being tired? Tired of being the bigger person? The more mature Christian? Tired of carrying burdens? Whether you chose them or were chosen to carry them? Look by faith to Jesus. He is walking step by step with you. And He is carrying the heaviest end of the load! The end with the roughest edges. The end with the weight of the entire world. Are you weary of the accusations from the crowd? Look and keep looking up by faith at Jesus! Most of the scorn is being heaped on Him! Are you weary of your tired, aching, diseased, faltering body? Look at Jesus. He was so weary He fell down and literally couldn’t get up! His body was covered with wounds, spittle and blood! When Simon took hold of the cross, Jesus was so faint that He had fallen to the ground. But now that He had Simon to lean on, if not physically, at least emotionally, He gathered strength. We know this is true because of what happened next.
In the crowd that day there was a large number of women who were weeping and lamenting over Jesus. Luke 23:28-31 says that after Simon picked up His cross, Jesus spoke to the women, quoting Hosea 10:3, saying, “28‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29For the time will come when you will say, Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed! 30Then ‘They will say to the mountains, Fall on us! and to the hills, Cover us! 31For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?’”
Do you think Jesus would have had the strength to utter these words without the help of Simon? Maybe. But maybe not! Carrying a rough wooden cross, that he did not choose, a short distance, may have seemed insignificant to Simon, but notice, it empowered Jesus to preach!
What you are doing for Jesus may seem very trivial and insignificant, a kind word here, a listening ear there, an unspoken token of God’s generosity and grace, an unprovoked act of kindness to go, a free ride, a hot meal, a little card, but those little things, those little words often allow Jesus or the Holy Spirit to carry out His work in you and in the lives of others more efficiently and effectively than any sermon on the mount! Listen to what Jesus had to say on this matter. Matthew 10:42 (NLT), “42And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”
And we don’t believe Simon lost that reward. For after he had carried Christ’s cross, surely he saw what else happened that day. Mark 15:22-39 describes how they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). How they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. How they gambled for his clothes. How they crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. How those who passed by hurled insults at him. How the chief priests and the religious leaders of the day mocked him. How one of those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. How after 6 hours on the cross, from 9am to 3pm, Jesus cried out to his heavenly father. How the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. How in spite of the pitch dark from 12 noon to three in the afternoon, the Roman centurion closest to Jesus was able to see the things that happened that day clearly enough to say, “‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”
What Simon saw changed his life
What Simon saw that day changed his life. Mark 15:21 tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Apparently, his sons were already Christ followers because not only were they known and loved by the readers of Mark’s gospel in Rome, since Mark mentions them by name and assumes everyone knows who’s he’s referring to in Mark 15:21, but at the conclusion of his Epistle to the Romans Paul added these words. “13Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.” It seems that the whole family, eventually even Simon, became believers willing to carry Christ’s cross after He was crucified on it.
Simon of Cyrene was not central to the drama or meaning of Jesus’ passion and death. He was an unimportant figure who happened to be standing at the edges of things when the drama accidentally enfolded him and forced him to play an un‑glamorous, but needed, role. His own agenda and plans had to be sacrificed and his response was at first no doubt, less than fully enthusiastic. Yet this unplanned for, initially forced but humble service became the most important thing he ever did. Henri Nouwen once wrote: “I used to get upset about all the interruptions to my work until one day I realized that the interruptions were my real work.” Another way of saying that is carrying Christ’s cross pays! Immediately. And eternally. On Good Friday. On Saturday. And on Sunday. Carrying Christ’s cross pays eternal dividends no matter what day it is.
But Simon of Cyrene doesn’t disappear from history. Perhaps he had relatives in Jerusalem. Perhaps he was still in the city at Pentecost. Maybe he was one of the 3,000 who heard Peter’s sermon and was baptized. We don’t know. What we do know is there were people from Cyrene still in Jerusalem 50 days later celebrating Pentecost. Acts 2:11 describes their amazement to “Hear [these unlearned Galilean apostles] declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” And according to Acts 13:1, one of them might have been a man named “Simeon called Niger, of Cyrene.” What did Simon see and learn?
1. You may be “asked” to pick up a cross for the simple reason that no one else will carry it. 2. Jesus always walks with the one who is carrying His cross. 3. And carrying His cross often allows Jesus to carry out His work in you and in the lives of others more efficiently and effectively than any sermon on the mount. Will you carry His cross? I hope so. Because you were there.
Our closing song today is perhaps the most universally used spiritual in all the hymnals of Christendom. It first appeared in print in Old Plantation Hymns compiled by William E. Burton in 1899. It asks the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? The primary poetic analogy is that all of us were there at Calvary by virtue of the fact that Romans 3:23 [NIV] says “23For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The other verses ask: Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? / Were you there when they pierced Him in the side? / Were you there when the sun refused to shine? / Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
But sometimes another stanza is added, Were you there when He rose up from the grave? To which all those in Christ can say “Yes!” because Romans 6:5 [NIV] says, “5If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” If that is your desire, lets stand and sing our closing song #158 “Were you there.”
Our Father in Heaven, we confess to you today that we were there when they crucified your Son. Though the sign above the cross said Jesus King of the Jews, we know it was for our sins that the King of the universe died. So in actual fact, we were there when they nailed Him to the tree. We were there when they pierced Him in the side. We were you there when the sun refused to shine. We were there when they laid Him in the tomb.
But because we accept by grace through faith in what the Bible says not only about the cross, but about the resurrection, like Simon we believe we were also there when He rose from the tomb and by that faith, we rose with Him.
So now as we endeavor to live out our resurrected lives in Christ, would you place in us the simple desire to carry your cross? Whatever it might be? Even if its something we didn’t ask for? Would you remind us, no matter how uncomfortable it becomes, that you are walking with us? Would you resurrect in us an appetite for prayer? And an overwhelmingly all consuming desire to freely serve the mission field we live in for Jesus sake and not our own? WE can’t do these things Father. But we believe you can. So would you start with us? One person at a time? One family at a time? One region at a time? There are many things we’re unsure of, but one thing we know and that’s this. We love you even more today than we did before. Thank you in advance for hearing and answering this prayer, in your time, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
“Archaeological evidence may confirm the historical reality of the Bible's Simon of Cyrene. In 1941, the Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik from the Hebrew University, and his assistant Nahman Avigad, discovered a rock tomb in the Kidron valley in eastern Jerusalem. Pottery inside the tomb enabled them to date it to the first century AD. Also in the tomb, there was a collection of eleven ossuaries, or bone boxes. In the tomb discovered by Sukenik and Avigad, some bones had also been left outside the ossuaries. Sukenik and Avigad found twelve names in fifteen inscriptions. Eight of the names were Greek style, and most of these were not known among Greco‑Jewish inscriptions in Palestine. However, some of them were particularly common in Cyrenaica. So it seems likely that this tomb belonged to a Jewish family that came from, or had strong links with, Cyrenaica. The inscriptions on one of these ossuaries says: Alexandros (son of) Simon. On the back of this ossuary, there is another inscription, where the writer has clearly made a mistake and started again. On the lid of the ossuary, there is a third inscription that has the name Alexandros in Greek, and then the Hebrew word QRNYT. The meaning of this word is not clear, but one possibility is that the person making the inscription meant to write QRNYH ‑ the difference is only a small one in Hebrew. QRNYH would be the Hebrew for 'Cyrenian'.
So there is evidence here for a family of Jews with links to Cyrene. The family included a man called Simon and his son Alexander, exactly as in the Bible. Of course, there is no way we can prove that this particular Simon was the same person mentioned in the Bible, but statistically it appears very probable. When we consider how uncommon the name Alexander was, and note that the ossuary inscription lists him in the same relationship to Simon as the New Testament does and recall that the burial cave contains the remains of people from Cyrenaica, the chance that the Simon on the ossuary refers to the Simon of Cyrene mentioned in the Gospels seems very likely.”—Tom Powers, in the July/August 2003 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, page 51.