Meditations on the Cross, 4
John tells us that after His trial and scourgings, Jesus: "...bearing His own cross went out to the place called 'Skull Place'" (19:17).
The other three Gospel writers tell us, "...they compelled a passerby, a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, coming in from the field (the father of Alexander and Rufus) to carry His cross" (Mark 15:21; cf. Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26).
Most students of the Gospels have little problem reconciling these passages. Knowing that Jesus had had no sleep the night before and that He had endured a Roman scourging with its accompanying physical and verbal abuse, we can imagine Him starting out on the road to His death carrying the cross but unable to finish. [He was probably carrying not the entire cross, but the cross beam - heavy enough in itself.] When He stumbles and falls, another man, a passerby is compelled into service.
Who was this Simon? To the calloused Roman soldiers he was probably a nobody, just another faceless provincial who just happened to be available, and whom they had the authority to force into their service whenever they felt it necessary. But the fact that three of the Gospel writers have something to say about him implies that he was important to them in some way. They tell us his name and that he was from Cyrene, a Roman province in North Africa. Mark also adds that he was the father of two men, Alexander and Rufus, probably men known to the original readers. They also tell us that he was coming in from the field (or the country) which could imply that he was at that time a resident of Judea - a farm worker or small farmer. Paul in his letter to the Romans mentions a man named Rufus who was at that (later) time a resident of Rome. Since it is believed that Mark's Gospel was written in or to Rome, we can see a possible connection. Another possibility is that this is the "Simeon called Niger" in the church at Antioch, who is mentioned along with a "Lucius of Cyrene" in the Book of Acts (13:1, 2). The nickname "Niger" means "black" in Greek. Was he possibly a black African?
He was probably not a follower of Jesus at this time. Mark tells us that he was simply "a passerby." But what impact did this task have on him? He was more than simply a witness of Jesus' sufferings, he was compelled to take part in them - to carry the cross that the Savior was no longer able to bear. Luke tells us that he carried the cross "behind Jesus" (28:26).
The beam would have been a heavy weight for even a muscular farm hand to carry any distance, but we can imagine that the sight of the bruised and bleeding Man stumbling along immediately in front of him was a greater burden.
Could this have been Simon's conversion experience? Jesus had said many times, "If anyone wants to follow after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Mark 8:34). Had Simon heard these words? He was, in a very real sense carrying them out. Did Simon see the connection between his actions and Jesus' demands?
But Simon is not at the center of this bloody, violent drama. It is the Man he is following. Though we may find it difficult to imagine ourselves in Simon's place, it would seem impossible to understand the Savior's mind at this time. He knew in some way that He was beginning to drink from the cup the Father had given to Him. Perhaps He felt the irony of His being physically incapable of following His own admonition. But He knew what lay ahead - the physical and mental sufferings He was yet to endure as He bore much more than a wooden beam.