SIMON OF CYRENE
By Pastor Glenn Pease
This text focuses on a man who was forced to become famous. Millions of people through the ages have labored and fought to get their names in the record of history, but Simon of Cyrene was pushed into the pages of history. Except for one incident in his life he would never have been known, but because of that one experience, he is known the world over wherever the Gospel of Jesus is known. There is very little said about Simon in the Bible. In fact, just about everything we know about him is found in Mark 15:21, and in one verse in each of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which are parallels of this one.
One might suspect that there is hardly enough information to preach on for ten minutes, but this is not the case, for the Bible has a unique way of saying a great deal in just a few words. A high school student was assigned to write a five hundred word theme, and he chose to write on the universe, its origin, nature, and destiny. Even the Bible does not attempt to condense to that degree, but it does not waste words. The story of creation is told in two chapters. The great 23rd Psalm is just a little over a hundred words. The famous Sermon on the Mount is in three chapters, and the last words of Christ on the cross, though few in quantity, have been of such quality as to give birth to literally tons of literature. The Bible is the key example of the truth that one does not need to be wordy to be wise, nor voluminous to be valuable. I trust we see this as we consider what we can know about Simon from this one verse. First of all-
I. WE KNOW WHERE HE WAS FROM AND WHAT HE WAS DOING.
He was from Cyrene, one of the two largest towns of Libya in North Africa, of over 100,000 people. It was a city in which a great many Jews lived, and many of them would travel all the way to Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost. In the list of places in Acts 2 of which the people were from, you will find Cyrene listed. Simon was either a Jew or a proselyte, that is a pagan who was converted to Judaism, and who was a very pious believer, for he was willing to travel over a thousand miles to Jerusalem to worship in the temple.
But what he was doing when he was suddenly, in a moment, made to change the whole direction of his life, was simply passing by. He knew nothing of all that had gone on in the city that night. Jesus had been going through the agonies of Gethsemane, and the trial, and had endured the cruel mockings and beatings of the mob and soldiers. Simon had no doubt been sleeping. He had a long day planned, and was up early in the morning, as were all Orthodox Jews, saying their prayers. He was dressed, cleaned, and almost into the city before 9 in the morning. If he had been three minutes earlier or later, or had gone a different way, we never would have heard of him, but in the providence of God Simon was to have an experience that morning that changed his whole life. This brings us to the second thing we know about Simon.
II. WE KNOW HE WAS COMPELLED TO BEAR THE CROSS OF CHRIST.
As Simon came near the city gate he saw a crowd coming out of the city. They were shouting and mocking at three men who were bearing crosses. One of them was having a difficult time, and it was obvious he was holding up the procession. The soldiers who were anxious to get this business over ordered Simon to bear his cross. The Roman soldiers had a right to compel a civilian to help them. When Jesus said, "If anyone compel you to go a mile, go with him two miles," He was referring to this practice.
Why the soldiers picked Simon is not known. We know that Jesus had been up all night, and had taken a beating that was known to have killed other men. Therefore, it is quite likely that the traditional viewpoint is true-that Jesus stumbled and fell beneath the load. Many feel that Simon must have shown sympathy for this one who had been so cruelly treated, and possibly even stepped forward to help Him up. The soldier in charge, seeing a chance to speed things up, says, "Alright helpful, you carry the cross," and forced him to do so. Simon was likely the only one in the crowd not mocking Jesus, and so he was a likely one to choose.
I find it easy to believe another idea held by many, that Jesus looked on Simon with a look of love that drew out his compassion. Jesus had a power in His eyes to move men. Just hours before He moved another Simon, called Peter, to tears of repentance by a mere glance. It is likely then that Simon was moved by a force within before he was compel from without. The poet put it-
Thou must have looked on Simon,
Turn Lord, and look on me,
Till I shall see and follow,
And bear Thy cross for Thee.
Because of an act of sympathy and compassion he found himself going in the opposite direction and bearing a cursed cross. What a way to start the Passover season. He was on his way to church, and he winds up in a parade to a crucifixion. Just to touch the cross would defile him, so his day was ruined. What a miserable way to meet the Master. He was on his way to worship God, and was interrupted by having to help Christ get to the cross to redeem the world. Not a bad days work! He, of course, did not realize what was taking place. He came a thousand miles to do something significant, and all he did was help save the world.
Simon did not rebel at this sudden turn of events. It had to be a disappointment, but it was one of the greatest acts of love in history. Like Cornelius, Lydia, and others who were honestly seeking to know the will of God, he had, no doubt, prayed that very morning, "Lord teach me thy will and draw me closer to you this day." He had come a long way seeking a deeper knowledge of God, but he believed compassion and not cruelty was the will of God, so he submitted to the shame of bearing the cross.
He was compelled to bear it, but he chose to submit. The fact that nothing more is said indicates that Simon gave no trouble, but bore the cross without a struggle. If only we could, like Simon, choose to bear what we are compelled to bear. If only we could see the blessings and burdens that we bear for Jesus. Circumstances compel us to bear burdens, but we can choose to submit or rebel. This principle holds true for all of life. For example: Young people are compelled to go to school. This is a burden that many would not choose if it was left to them. But since we are compelled to go, we have two choices. We can rebel and fight the system, and quit as soon as possible, or we can take it as a challenge, and choose to submit to the burden, and in so doing the burden will become a blessing. We cannot determine what life brings to us, but we can determine what we bring to life, and if we choose to do what we are compelled to do, we can change burdens into blessings. The third thing we know about Simon is-
III. WE KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES OF HIS BEARING THE CROSS.
It is also certain, that though the cross kept Simon from church that morning, it brought him to Christ. We believe he found it to be true that the way of the cross leads home, and that his frustration led to faith; his embarrassment led to enlistment; his compassion led to commitment, and his sympathy led to salvation. There are several reasons for believing this to be the case. In the first place, it fits into a pattern which is amazing if true. If Simon was a convert just before the cross, and the Roman Centurion was a convert just after the death of Christ on the cross, then together with the thief on the cross, we have three converts at the cross representing the descendants of each of the three sons of Noah, Sham, Ham, and Japeth. This would be a concrete illustration of the universality of the cross, and that Jesus did indeed die for all men.
There is more to go on, however, for our verse says that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Why would Mark, who wrote his Gospel for the Romans, say that he was the father of these two men unless it was because the Romans knew these two men? There would be no point in giving these names unless they were well known among the Roman Christians. Nor would these names be known if Simon just disappeared in the crowd after reaching Golgotha. The others Gospels do not mention the names of these two sons. This means that the sons of Simon were well known Christians in Rome, and this is confirmed by Paul in his letter to the Romans where he says in 16:13, "Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine." Where did this outstanding Christian family come from? Paul had not been to Rome when he wrote his letter, so he must have met them before they moved to Rome.
If we put all these facts together and see that, not the Ethiopian Eunuch, but Simon of Cyrene was the first convert from Africa, and he went back to his home and won his family to Christ. From there they likely moved to Antioch, for in Acts 13:1 we read of prophets and teachers there, two of which were Simon and Lucius of Cyrene. It was here in Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Who knows how much he who bore the cross of Christ had to do with that. He was the first convert at the cross, and became a leader where believers were first called Christians. It would be here that Paul would get to know the family, and later be able to speak of them when they moved to Rome.
There is much we do not know, but these things that we do know teach us to see that though Simon was compelled to bear the cross for a while by the soldiers, he chose to bear it the rest of his life for the Savior. That brings us to the final thing we can know about Simon.
IV. WE KNOW HIS EXPERIENCE WAS RECORDED FOR A PURPOSE.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable. The story of Simon, though minor in length, teaches us a lesson of major importance. It teaches us what cross-bearing really is. Men have been more concerned about making up legends about the cross than they have been in learning what it means to bear it. Legend takes us way back to the garden of Eden. Adam was dying, and so his eldest son Seth ran to the gate of the garden, and begged the angel for fruit from the tree of life. The angel told him that Adam would be dead when he returned, but that he should bury him with seeds from the fruit of the tree of life in his mouth. A great tree grew from these seeds, which Noah cut down for the king post in his ark, which saved him and his family. Centuries later Hiram, king of Tyre, brought it down from the mountains to build the temple of Solomon. It was not used, however, but laid in a trench by the wall. Nehemiah used it when he rebuilt the temple, but when Herod rebuilt it again this tree was again laying beside the wall.
In the haste of the day of the trial of Jesus no one made a cross, and so this post by the temple wall was used. The early Christians cared nothing about the actual cross on which Christ died, but only the meaning of it, and so for several centuries there is a break in the legend. But when the church became corrupted because of paganism, it again revived the legend. The cross was found it was claimed, and was being sold in small pieces as charms. This is where we get the idea of knocking on wood. It has been estimated that enough pieces of the cross have been sold to build a fleet of ships. Today the cross has become, to many people, nothing more than a piece of jewelry. We bear golden crosses around our neck or on our lapel as decorations. There is nothing wrong with the cross as a symbol like this, but there is something wrong with our thinking about it. The experience of Simon teaches us to think of the cross as an identification with Christ, and not merely a decoration.
When Simon bore the cross of Christ he became identified with Christ, and bore the same reproach that he did. Jesus said, "Take up your cross daily and follow me." That means to be identified openly with Jesus, and if people would mock Christ they will mock you. That is why it is not as easy to talk about Jesus as it is about the weather or politics. It is embarrassing and difficult to be identified with Christ in some circles. I am sure Simon was ashamed as he picked up the cross and heard the laughter and mocking of the crowd.
Bearing the cross is not the same kind of suffering one goes through because of some injury or weakness in the body. That is a thorn and not a cross. The cross is only taken up when we are so identified with Christ that people will feel and act toward us as they do toward Him. If a person loves Jesus, he will also love you. If a person despises Jesus he will also despise you. This means that Christ expects us everyday to be so identified with Him that it costs us to be a Christian. It is easy to be a Christian if we do not bear the cross.
Ray Jordon tells of being in a group in Jerusalem that wanted to follow the path that Jesus took on His way to the cross. It was hot that day and he noticed that the leader had an umbrella over his head to protect him from the discomfort of the blazing sun. It struck him as to the amazing contrast between this and the real incident. They wanted to follow the path of Christ, but did not want any discomfort in doing so. It is understandable, for there would be no profit in being miserable as they followed the path. But when this philosophy passes over into the spiritual realm, it is tragic. We want to follow Jesus, but we do not want it to cost anything. It should be that we experience some discomfort because of our identification with Christ.
Leslie Weatherhead had an Indian Christian tell of what it cost to follow Christ, and it put him to shame when he considered how little he had identified himself with the cross of Christ in such a way that it cost. This Indian friend heard the call of Christ in a Methodist church in Madras. He came from a Brahmin family and his father was the head of the community. When his father heard of his decision for Christ he blazed with anger. He tied him to a pillar in the courtyard of his home. He stripped the turban from his head, a mark of indignity in the East, lashed his back with whips till blood ran, and let him stand in the hot sun for hours.
They even poured the contents of the sewage bin over his head. They put two large scars on his face with red hot irons. His own mother died of shock before him, and finally his sister cut him loose, and he escaped to the hills. He eventually became a chaplain in the army. Many have suffered the same thing for crimes, but when it is suffered because one is identified with Christ, that is cross-bearing. The story of Simon is recorded for the purpose of challenging each of us to take up the cross and be identified with Jesus whatever the cost.