The Crowded Streets

Luke 19:28-44; 23:26

April 9, 2006 | Brian Bill

The sounds of Hallelujah and Hosanna still echo in my ears from that first Palm Sunday.  There was unfettered rejoicing on those crowded streets, much like we just heard from the choir.  So much jubilation was breaking out that Jesus even declared that the stones would sing praises if the people weren’t allowed to.  I too have pledged my allegiance to the Lamb but I’m getting ahead of myself because I realize I haven’t even introduced myself to you.  

My name is Simon and I’m from Cyrene, which is located in northern Africa.  You know it as Libya today.  I’m a pretty minor character in the Bible, appearing in only one verse.  And according to Scripture, I was speechless, saying nothing during my brief appearance.  Actually, I couldn’t have spoken had I wanted to.  I’m thankful for this opportunity now to put words to my thoughts and feelings.  This is all fresh in my mind because I was just interviewed by the CSI Jerusalem team.  

These “Crucifixion Scene Investigators” asked me numerous questions and quizzed me about Jesus Christ because I was an unwilling eyewitness to some events that they are still trying to process.  They questioned my motives and wanted to know what I was doing on another crowded street just days later.  I think they believe I had something to do with his death.  Next week the CSI team will examine some of the forensic evidence to determine if it’s really true that Jesus rose from the dead.  I could tell them what I know but they didn’t want to focus on that.  Instead they honed in on what happened on the way to Calvary.

My plans were interrupted in a way that has impacted me for eternity.  Let me explain.  I had waited my entire life to make the trip to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  I saved my shekels so I could bring my wife and my two boys, Alexander and Rufus, with me.  The journey to Jerusalem was not easy but just seeing the city of David made it all worthwhile.  It was breathtaking and the Temple was glorious.  I could barely believe that I was standing in its courts.  I broke down during the evening sacrifice as I saw the smoke from the altar ascend to the heavens.  My very soul seemed to rise up to God.

The First Crowded Street

On Sunday, the day that each of us chose our lambs for the Passover feast, I made arrangements for our family to celebrate that great event recorded in the Book of Exodus, when the blood of an innocent lamb was applied to the door of the house so that God’s wrath would “Passover” His people.  I couldn’t wait to finally participate in this feast because it was a way for us to identify with how our ancestors were delivered from certain death.  I remember one synagogue sermon telling us that our pilgrimage to Jerusalem would help us feel as if we had “personally gone forth out of Egypt.”

We were taken up with all the festivities when I noticed a crowd of people taking off their outer cloaks and spreading them on the street as a rabbi rode on a colt into Jerusalem.  My memory was jarred as I recalled a passage from Zechariah 9:9 that indicates that the Messiah would ride on a colt.  I brushed this off because this man looked way too ordinary to be a King.  But then people started to sing.  Luke 19:37-38 reports what happened: “…the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.’”  

In addition, Matthew 21:8-9 mentions that they “cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of Him and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’”  I did a double-take when I heard that because this was a quotation from Psalm 118 which was used during the Passover and was commonly understood to refer to the Messiah.  The word “hosanna” means “save.”  In addition, the spreading of palms on the road was a common way to welcome a victorious king when he would return from battle.  Palm branches were also placed on graves as a sign of eternal life.  Since they often grew out in the desert near water, these branches were an indication that life-giving activity was near.  

Then in the midst of all the music, Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and started weeping.  The mood changed in an instant.  I couldn’t figure out why He would cry at a time like this and then I heard His loud lament: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace…”  He already knew that most of the people would reject Him, even though many had just been rejoicing.

Another Crowded Street

My family and I spent the next few days making preparations for the Passover meal and then on Friday we all put on our best clothes and started making our way in from the country where we were staying because there was no room in the capital for us.  We passed a flock of bleating sheep that were being rushed to the Temple for those who waited until the last minute to buy one.  I never really got over the fact that these innocent animals would be slaughtered.  This was really hard on my boys who had made a pet of our Passover lamb.  Was there any other way for us to be delivered from God’s judgment?

I noticed an air of excitement in the city that day and also heard some talking about a prophet from Nazareth.  This had to be the same man I had seen riding on a donkey just days before.  As we made our way through the city gates, the city was completely crowded and the noise was almost painful to my country ears.  People were everywhere.  And then I heard angry voices and loud weeping, as though a mob was coming right toward us.  I felt a shiver run through my spine.

Before we knew what happened we became part of this parade of people.  Most of those at the front seemed to be watching something as they walked backwards.  As I glanced to the end of this processional, I saw a contingent of Romans soldiers, barking out orders as they tried to keep the road clear.  And then I saw three men stumbling under the weight of heavy cross beams, with a soldier in front of each one carrying a wooden sign that advertised their crimes.

I did my best to shield my family and keep them safe.  Part of me wanted to leave and another part of me wanted to get in position for a better look.  It was kind of like slowing down to see an accident.  The decision was made for me because there was nothing I could do to leave.  We were trapped.  Just then the second cross-bearer tripped and fell flat on his face in the filth of the sewage channel that runs down the middle of the narrow streets.  I was able to read the charge board before the soldier put it down in order to help this man back to his feet: “King of the Jews,” it read.  This was revolting to me.  This was an insult to us Jews.  We didn’t have a king!  This was one more slap in the face from the Romans.

And then I noticed that this man was bloody and bruised.  On top of his head I saw what looked like a bird’s nest.  Then I realized that this was designed to look like a crown, only it was made out of sharp, wicked thorns that pierced his skull.  As he lay down in the street I could see that the skin on his back had been shredded and I could tell he had been flogged mercilessly.  I shuddered to think how that rugged cross beam must have felt on his shoulders and trembled at what this coarse timber would do to his back when he was nailed to it.

And then I heard one of the crass soldiers mockingly ask, “Where’s your donkey today, Messiah-man?”  Others joined in, taking this opportunity to humiliate him further.  I won’t even repeat what else they said.  I then heard the Centurion shout, “Get him on his feet.  Let’s get moving!”  The prisoner was on his knees, trying to walk as he shook his head to get the sweat out of his eyes, groping about like a man in the dark.  I wondered what he was groping for and then I heard someone say, “He’s searching for his cross, to take it up again.”  His spirit seemed so willing but his flesh was so weak.  It was almost as if he wanted to keep his appointment with death.  I couldn’t help but think that he looked like a lamb being led to slaughter, as the words of Isaiah 53:7 came to mind.  I gagged and started heaving at the sight of Jesus searching for His cross.

The Centurion spoke again: “God help us if he dies right here.  Someone will have to carry it for him.”  One of the soldiers yelled back: “We can’t pick a Jew because it’s one of their feast days.  They’d lynch us right here.”  The Centurion reminded him that the law allowed them to pick someone out of the crowd.  I looked around to see who they would choose and then I felt a spear in my back and a sword at my throat.  “You,” he said, “Carry the cross!”

I argued and explained that I wasn’t even from Jerusalem.  I didn’t want to be involved and I didn’t want to be separated from my family.  I was here to celebrate the Passover and if I touched that cross or got any blood on me I would be disqualified from participating.  The soldier persisted and forced me into the street.  Luke 23:26 captures the force of this command: “As they led them 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.”  They grabbed me roughly and put the rough cross on my shoulders and made me start walking.

I was pretty angry about this inconvenient and embarrassing interruption until Jesus looked directly at me.  When our eyes met I saw gratitude and a sense of urgency as if he was saying, “It’s OK.  This is the way it has to be.”  And so I let go of my celebration plans and put the cross on my shoulders.  I was almost knocked to the ground.  I had heard a cross could weigh up to 100 pounds but I had no idea it would be this heavy.  

While we were walking I heard women weeping and wailing.  I couldn’t catch everything they said, but they were really broken up by this.  I told Luke all about it and he recorded Jesus’ amazing response in Luke 23:28: “Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.’” He was more concerned for their pain than he was for his own.  The Centurion told him to shut up so we could keep moving.

Our walk seemed to last forever.  The Romans loved to figure out the longest route possible to the execution place so they could make a public spectacle of their prisoners.

Christ on the Cross

When we finally got to the hill, my mind wandered back to the story of Abraham and Isaac going up the steep incline to the spot where the son was placed on the altar.  I wondered if I was following in their same steps because I had been told that this was the same location where Abraham’s faith was tested.   And here I was, carrying the wood for a sacrifice.  When the Centurion finally told me I could drop the cross I was relieved that I could finally go back to my family.  But then I was told that their regulations stated that I would not be released until the prisoner was nailed down and lifted up.

Covered with blood, wracked with pain, alone in his agony, he was more concerned with their forgiveness than with His comfort

I was forced to watch them drive the long rusty spikes through each wrist.  I writhed in pain as another soldier held his feet so a longer spike could be driven through both feet.  I started heaving again.  What stopped me from getting sick was what Jesus said while they were doing it.  Between hammer blows, as the spasms of pain caused him to grimace, I heard these words: “Father…[hammer blow]…forgive them…[another hammer blow]…they don’t know…what they’re doing.”  I had never heard anything like this before!  Covered with blood, wracked with pain, alone in his agony, he was more concerned with their forgiveness than with His comfort.

They then hoisted up the cross and dropped it in a hole with a sickening thud.  I saw his back ripped raw again by the rough timber as his head flopped down.  His breathing became forced as the nails stretched and eventually severed his tendons.  As I stood there and watched, I heard some more words cascade from his compassionate lips:

  • To the repentant rebel on the cross next to Him: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  
  • To his mother: “’Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”  
  • To his father in Heaven: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  
  • “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.”  
  • “When He had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’”  
  • And finally, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’  When He had said this, he breathed His last.”  

Someone told me that at that exact moment the thick curtain in the Temple tore in two, from the top to bottom.  It got very dark.  There was an earthquake.  Though it was a warm afternoon, I got goose bumps because during this time frame, lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple.  The Apostle Paul later stated the obvious connection in 1 Corinthians 5:7 when he wrote: “For Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed.”  John the Baptist, when he saw Jesus coming toward him, said: “Look the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

And then I heard the skeptical Centurion make a stunning statement: “And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’”  Luke 23:48 records what others did: “When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and walked away.”   

When someone beat their breast in the first century, it was a sign of guilt and remorse.  Their indifference had been replaced with feelings of guilt.  As they watched what Jesus went through, maybe they began to realize their role in putting Him on the cross.  They came to witness a show, but they left with feelings of woe.  The centurion believed when he saw what Jesus went through.  The others said, “Let’s leave.”

What about you?  Are you going to believe or are you going to leave?  I just stood there as if paralyzed and watched the Lamb.  It seemed impossible that I had been there for three hours.  I should have been worried about missing out on the Passover Lamb but then it hit me that I was standing near the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  After his body was taken down from the cross, I slowly turned away to rejoin my wife and two boys, who were weeping as they watched the Lamb.

Living Out What I Learned

Before I leave I’d like to share four lessons that I learned from the Lamb that day.

1. God interrupts us in order to impact us. 

It’s much better to learn what He wants to teach us, than to fight Him every step of the way

Perhaps you wonder why you are even here today.  Let me tell you that it’s not an accident because God has a way of changing our plans.   Sometimes He pushes us into something we want no part of.  And other times opportunities come out of the blue.  At first I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and then I realized that I was in the right place at the right time.  Friend, in a moment of interruption; look for God to work.  It might be through a job change, financial stress, a health situation, or even a broken relationship.  Remember that God has plans and purposes that we’re often not prepared for.  It’s much better to learn what He wants to teach us, than to fight Him every step of the way.

2. Carry the cross and be changed.

 I can tell you this: Carrying the cross will change your life forever.  I was the first person to take Jesus’ words literally in Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  I’m not sure what this means for you but at the very minimum it involves suffering for the sake of Jesus.  It involves sacrificing my will for His.  It means that I must surrender to Him.  And finally, I must serve Him for the rest of my life.  And this must be done “daily” not just once.  Someone summarized it well: “Cross I carry, load I lighten; yet my load He carries for me on that cross on Calvary.”  Where our will meets God’s will, there will always be a cross.  And, if you really want to live, you must first take up your cross and die.  Remember this: when you carry the cross, you have a unique view of Jesus that others will never see.  I still feel the weight of that cross on my back.  Not every day.  I wish I did.  The days I don’t are my bad days because they are lost days.  The days I do are the good days because they’re the days I live for him.

3. Expose your children to the cross of Christ. 

When I realized that my young boys observed the agony that day and saw what Jesus went through, I was alarmed at first.  But as they talked about it almost every day since, it was a turning point for them.  At the end of the book of Romans, Paul calls out Rufus by name and in Mark’s gospel Alexander and Rufus are mentioned together.  They will forever understand that the Lamb of God died as their substitute.  They understand the horror of sin and the holiness of the Savior.  If you’re a parent, I hope you’re taking every opportunity you can to teach your children about Jesus.  This church has an excellent Sunday morning and Wednesday night program, plus a Christian School that will partner with you as you point them to the cross.  If you have a teenager, do everything you can do to get them into Student Impact.  Children matter to God and should therefore matter to us.

4. Look to the Lamb and be saved. 

Just as God provided a substitute sacrifice for Abraham, He has also provided the final sacrifice so that we can be saved.  God now “passes over” our sins if we have applied the blood of Jesus over the door to our hearts.  The CSI team believes that I was an accomplice in Jesus’ death because I carried the weapon that was used to kill him.  At first I tried to tell them that I had nothing to do with his death.  But then I realized that I did…and so did you.  It was our sins that led him to be sacrificed for us.  It was really my hand on the hammer that drove the nails into his body.  Imagine that.  I bore the cross that he bore for me.  I suffered shame for his name but He did it all for me…and for you.  Will you look to the Lamb and be saved?  Will you watch the Lamb?  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?