Accidental Cross

Luke 23:26

“As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus” (Luke 23:26).

We don’t know much about him.

He was just a bit player in the great drama surrounding the death of Christ. For a brief moment, he steps on the stage, plays his part, and then leaves, never to be mentioned again in the Bible.

We know his name: Simon.
We know where he lived: Cyrene, a city in northern Libya, not far from the Mediterranean Sea, about 115 miles east of Benghazi.

We also know that he had two sons: Alexander and Rufus.

Evidently he was a Jew who had come a long distance to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. On this particular Friday morning, he was part of the great throng of people milling around the narrow streets going to and from the Temple. It shouldn’t surprise us that a Jew from Cyrene was there. Acts 2:10 says that on the Day of Pentecost there were Jews in Jerusalem from “the part of Libya belonging to Cyrene,” and Acts 6:9 mentions the synagogue of the Cyrenians. Evidently a small colony of people from Cyrene made their permanent residence in Jerusalem. Others (perhaps Simon is among them) would have journeyed from Cyrene to observe Passover. All of this suggests that it wasn’t unusual for a man like Simon to be in Jerusalem at a time like this.

We don’t know how much he knew about Jesus.

We don’t know how much he knew about Jesus. There would be no reason a man from Cyrene would have heard of this upstart rabbi from Nazareth before coming to Jerusalem. Perhaps he had heard about him and knew something of the controversy surrounding him. It’s entirely possible that he had heard that Jesus had come riding into the city on a donkey the previous Sunday and that great crowds of people had welcomed him.

Why Would Anyone Kill Jesus?

Rumors swirled like wildfire in the crowded confines of the ancient walled city. So it is not impossible that he had heard people talk about Jesus in the days leading up to this particular Friday. Perhaps he had heard about certain miracles Jesus had performed and how some of his followers believed him to be the long-awaited Messiah. But if he had heard that, he would also have heard other rumors, dark things about Jesus and his background, his questionable pedigree, and his run-ins with the scribes and Pharisees. That too was common knowledge in Jerusalem.

One can easily imagine that Simon from Cyrene knew something about Jesus. We can also suppose that he had no fixed or firm opinions about this man. It would be clear enough to an outsider that some loved him, some hated him, and many were perplexed by the controversy swirling around him.

But one question hung in the air.
Why would anyone kill a man like Jesus?

Why would anyone kill Jesus?

That would have seemed like a great surprise to Simon.
Crucifixion was a hideous way to day. Only the worst criminals were crucified. There were other, more humane means of putting people to death.

What crime had Jesus committed?
Either he was a very bad man or the authorities had made a terrible mistake. Surely the friends of Jesus (and he had many admirers) would have seen this as a shocking miscarriage of justice.

But Simon could not be sure.
He was just a face in the crowd that day.

Dying Already

It happened something like this. Sometime after midnight Jesus had been betrayed by Judas and then arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. From there he was taken by the soldiers to be tried by Annas. Then he went to Caiaphas  the high priest for another hearing. Then the Sanhedrin questioned him. Evidently he spent a few hours in an underground cell. Very early in the morning he was questioned by Pilate who sent him to Herod who sent him back to Pilate who offered the crowd a choice between Barabbas and Jesus.

The crowd chose Barabbas.
Jesus was sent away to be crucified.

Along the way he had been beaten, mocked and scourged. The whole grueling process had left him weakened from exhaustion, hunger, brutal torture, almost unbearable pain and the continual loss of blood. Some older versions of these events show us a Christ who looks like maybe he’s had a bad night but overall is in good shape. This is one place where Mel Gibson is probably closer to the truth. Scourging was a brutal form of torture that left the back torn to ribbons. Often the rib cage was exposed. Victims sometimes died as a result. It was a sort of “death before dying” designed so that a man would die within a few hours or a day or two at most.

Jesus is dying already and he is not yet crucified.

Jesus is dying already and he is not yet crucified.

Having been sentenced to death, Jesus begins to carry his own cross to the place of execution. The crossbeam alone would weigh around 100 pounds with the entire cross being around 300 pounds. To carry even the crossbeam would be a staggering load for someone in Jesus’ condition.

Step by step he carries the instrument of his own death toward Golgotha, the Place of the Skull.
Every step is agony.
The crown of thorns presses upon his brow.
He has been beaten so badly that his face is covered with bruises, welts and cuts. Human spit mixes with dirt, sweat and blood.

Seeing Christ stumble and fall, the soldiers realize that he will never make it to his own execution. So they grab a man from the crowd.

That man is Simon of Cyrene.

I. A Chance Encounter

Mark 15:21 says that Simon was “passing by on his way in from the country.” Simon came from Cyrene where there was a cosmopolitan mix of Jewish heritage, Roman rule, Greek culture and African influence. He evidently was just coming into the city from the country to observe Passover. The last thing on his mind is meeting Jesus. And he certainly had no idea of carrying his cross. He was merely part of the large crowd of Jews who had come to Jerusalem on that particular day for the slaying of the Passover lamb. It was a high moment in the Jewish religion so Simon wanted to be sure he didn’t miss it. That morning when he woke up somewhere outside of Jerusalem, he couldn’t have imagined what was about to happen. No Jew ever wanted to be anywhere near a crucifixion.

No Jew ever wanted to be anywhere near a crucifixion.

If he had arrived five minutes earlier or five minutes later, he would have missed the death march of Jesus and someone else would have been forced to carry the cross. Simon never intended to have anything to do with the execution of our Lord.

But God had other plans. What seemed like a chance encounter turns out to be a divine appointment.

II. A Forced Encounter

When Matthew says that they “forced” Simon to carry the cross, he used the same verb he used in Matthew 5:41,

“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”

It was well known that Roman soldiers could commandeer civilians and force them to carry their bags for a mile. Obviously such a demand would infuriate any Jew forced to obey. The word “forced” in that context really means “grabbed, conscripted, and compelled against your will." It implies the use of brute force to accomplish a goal. So when the text says that they “forced” Simon to carry the cross, it means he didn’t volunteer. They grabbed him out of the crowd.

Did they know he was from Cyrene? No, probably not.

Did they know he was from Cyrene? No, probably not.
Did they ask him nicely? No, probably not.
Did they threaten him? We don’t know, but very possibly they did.
Did he have a choice? No, he didn’t. The soldiers weren’t in a bargaining mood that day.

In the space of a moment Simon went from being in the one place he most wanted to be to wanting to be anywhere than where he was. Suddenly in the midst of the commotion, the shouts, with some cheering, others jeering, some weeping, amid the soldiers trying to do their job, and the dying Jesus barely able to walk, here is Simon, the man from Cyrene, compelled to join the greatest drama in human history.

III. A Transforming Encounter

Mark and Luke add two fascinating details to the story. Mark 15:21 tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Why add that detail? Surely Mark knew these two sons, or else why mention them? Could it be that Alexander and Rufus became followers of Jesus and were known to the Christians in Rome who were the first readers of Mark’s gospel? Could the Rufus of Romans 16:13 be the son of Simon of Cyrene? If so, then Simon’s wife (the mother of Rufus) became a personal friend of the Apostle Paul. If this is the right construction of the facts, then it means that Simon first followed Jesus himself and then sometime later led his own family to Christ.

But how did Simon become a believer? We find an enticing hint in one fact that only Luke mentions. He says that Simon was compelled to carry the cross behind Jesus (Luke 23:26). Surely this fact was meant to linger in our minds. I picture Simon being grabbed by the soldiers who made him drag the heavy wooden cross along the hard surface of the narrow streets. It all happened so fast that he had no time to think. The soldiers cared nothing for Jews anyway. If he tried to talk back, they would strike him. If he tried to run away, they would arrest him. No, it was better to obey. But who is this man in front of him? He is so badly beaten that Simon wonders what he could have done to deserve this. Many people seem glad to see him suffer, but here and there others are weeping.

Simon shows us what Christ meant when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Who is this man?
What has he done?
Why am I following him?

Simon stands as a symbol for every believer. He shows us what Christ meant when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me."

This is what a Christian is. He is a Christ-follower.
This is what a Christian does. He takes up his cross and follows him.

Here, then, is the story of a man who picked up an “accidental cross” and became the model for everyone who has ever followed Christ. A story like this, repeated in three of the four gospels, brief as it is, has enormous meaning. The Bible never wastes words.

Sometimes we find the cross.
Sometimes the cross finds us.

Sometimes the cross finds us.

This was Simon’s story. What began as an “accidental cross” for Simon became a “saving cross” for him and his family. That leads me to ask two simple questions with eternal implications:

Have you ever found the cross of Christ?
Has the cross of Christ ever found you?

Simon has a message for you and me. If he could speak across the centuries, I think he would say,

“I found my cross. Have you found yours?”

While preparing this message, I ran across this poem that brings the message home to each heart:

Simon of Cyrene bore
The Cross of Jesus-nothing more
His name is never heard again
Nor honored by historic pen
Nor on the pedestal of fame
His image courts the loud acclaim
Simon of Cyrene bore
The Cross Of Jesus, nothing more,

The Cross of Jesus, nothing more

And yet, when all our work is done
And golden beams the western sun
Upon a life of wealth and fame
A thousand echoes ring our name
Perhaps our hearts will humbly pray
"Good Master, let my record say
Upon the page Divine, he bore
The cross of Jesus, nothing more.”

We all have choices to make. Are you ready to take up the cross of Jesus and follow him? May God help us to be like Simon and take up the cross and with joyful hearts say, “Lord Jesus, I am ready to follow wherever you lead.”

2013-03-28-Accidental-Cross

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Ray Pritchard

RAY PRITCHARD

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