Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross. (Mark 15:21)
When we think of the long, lonely walk to Calvary and the hours of the agony that Jesus endured on the cross, it’s easy to lose clarity in the perception of a sea of nameless faces – those who urged the Romans on, those who watched to make sure their plans to kill Jesus came to fruition, those who simply enjoyed the spectacle for it’s blood, cruelty and drama… There were no doubt some who hid in anonymity, horrified by the turn of events, conscious of the enormity of the moment even though they might not have fully understood it. Perhaps some secretly hoped that the one they believed to be the messiah would somehow turn the tables, free himself, and break the yoke of Roman rule. Here and there, some stand out more clearly – His mother, the other Mary and John, the Roman soldiers who threw lots for His clothes, and the two thieves. Paltry company for the King of Glory in His suffering. But another stands out in the story – Simon of Cyrene, the man compelled by the soldiers to carry the cross of Christ.
Simon reminds us what it means to carry the cross of Christ.
The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about Simon of Cyrene. We can glean a few snippets here and there, but he certainly does not stand out as one of the bold, dramatic heroes of the sweeping saga of the early church. He’s mentioned in three of the gospels as the man forced to carry the cross of Christ, and mention of his name will immediately identify him to many Christians by this single incident. We are told in Mark’s Gospel that he is the father of Rufus and Alexander, which does suggest that he was known to the early followers of Jesus. Paul’s writings also suggest that he played a role in Paul’s ministry, although lack of real mention makes it likely that it was small and, in the larger scheme of things, insignificant in comparison.
The incident in which Simon is forced to carry the cross isn’t imbued with much detail. From what we can gather, he’s on his way into Jerusalem and ‘just happens’ to enter through the same gate through which Jesus passes on His way to Calvary. Of course, with God, nothing ‘just happens.’ I have absolutely no doubt that this simple man, a man who, apparently, does not seek influence or attention, was particularly selected by the Father to carry the cross for His beloved Son. If we look at the other incredible – and often prophecy fulfilling detail – contained in the description of the crucifixion, there can be no doubt that every tiny thing has eternal relevance. Simon of Cyrene was hand-picked by God. That moment on a dusty road was, for all we know, the fulfillment of this man’s destiny in God.
What I find interesting is that Simon is going in while they are going out. This makes it very clear that he’s not part of the crowd. He wasn’t there as they bayed for blood. He wasn’t there during the travesty of the trial, nor did he share the cry of condemnation against an innocent man. He had no part in the whippings, the torture, or the humiliation. He apparently had no fascination for blood and horror, either. He was going in, and they were going out. He was simply, as many of us would put it, in the wrong place at the wrong time. God, however, sees it otherwise. Simon was the right man in the right place and at the right time. It may well be that his separation from the bloodlust and hysteria and his quiet, unassuming humility were what God required in the man needed to carry the cross for Jesus.
There are those, like Paul and Peter, whom God creates and shapes for exploits and mighty ministries. These are the men who hold centre stage in the unfolding drama of a spiritual phenomenon that would transform the world. There are others, like John and Mary Magdalene, whose devotion to Jesus keeps them quietly steadfast. They are the supporting characters, those who remain constantly at stage right. They are comforting and familiar, friends we know and trust, those who can be depended on to be there through anything and everything. Jesus has broken their hearts with His beauty, and they can do no less than to stand, always faithful, no matter what the storm or struggle. Then there are those like Simon, co-opted for a brief moment in a seemingly random process of selection for a single, simple purpose. But these, despite their anonymity, are the ones who remain in our memories because they helped to carry the cross of Christ.
As with everything in the Bible, there is a lesson here. It’s not simply about humility or being willing to step in when called to do so. It’s also not only about the fact that that we never know, when we step out each day, just where our journey will take us and what God will require of us. The full story encompasses the cross and its significance for each and every believer, and the truth that God will always provide someone to help to carry the cross when the burden gets too much. To grasp this wonderful truth, we need to first understand what ‘carry the cross’ really means.
The Bible tells us that we must all ‘take up our cross’ daily and follow Jesus. This seems simple enough. It speaks of the need to deny self, to crucify ourselves with Christ, nailing all of our selfishness, our desires, our fleshly pursuits, our weaknesses, and our sins onto ‘our cross.’ It means death of the old self so we can live on as new creation in Christ. Taking up our cross means to willingly die so that we may live eternally, not for ourselves, but as living sacrifices for the revelation of the glory and purposes of God. What we don’t necessarily always see, however, is that taking up our cross may often mean sharing Christ’s cross as well. There may well be times when taking up our cross means sharing the suffering of Christ, when our cross, in effect, becomes the cross of shame and suffering. These are the times when we may need help to carry the cross of Christ.
It all comes down to the principle of full identification. Just as Jesus identified completely and fully with each and every one of us, so we are called to fully and completely identify with Him. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, when He hung on the cross, His identification with us was so total that we, in effect, hung there with Him. It is this identification that made His sacrifice perfectly perfect and completely complete, Jesus was the perfect sacrifice but He was also, at the same time, completely sinful. His death on the cross paid the propitiation price for every single imaginable sin. When we take up our cross, therefore, the identification is reversed. We fully identify with what Jesus did. Our call to live as a living sacrifice essentially means to identify so fully with Jesus that He is what others see, and what God sees, when they look at us. This identification includes the suffering, not just the liberty, joy and victory. And, when we are called to carry the cross of Christ, we will need others to aid us.
Jesus makes it very clear that suffering and persecution will come to those who profess their faith in Him. If we follow Jesus, this is one of the things we can be sure of. At some point we will be wrongly accused. We will be rejected and humiliated. We will be subjected to pressure to change our minds, our thoughts, our faith. We will be unjustly punished, tormented, ostracised, and persecuted. If these things happened to Him, how can we hope to escape? To be a disciple is to share His cup. But God’s grace is merciful. We only share it. Jesus has already done it in full, and that is our hope and encouragement. Though we may be forced to carry the cross, we know that it is only for a short while. Though we may suffer, we know that it is a temporary road to an eternal reward. We learn from looking at our Master, and what we see is the grace of God in action when and how we least expect it.
Simon of Cyrene is a representative or manifestation of this grace. The lives and exploits of the ‘heroes’ of the early church are well-documented. They stand boldly as figures of courage and faith, breaking new ground, urging us on to great things for God. Yet Simon remains a household name. This simple man, who just happened to be perfectly placed to help the saviour carry the cross, will never be forgotten. He is as well known, at least by name, as Paul, Peter, John, Luke, Matthew, Barnabas, and all the others. A simple act – literally a ‘one-liner’ in the great drama of the Christian faith – has preserved his name for eternity. We know almost nothing about him, but we know his name and we know he helped to carry the cross.
We can make all kinds of assumptions about how the incident must have changed and affected him. We can imagine a transformation, an inspiration, even some satisfaction. It may well be that being there beside Jesus, taking up His burden, left an indelible mark on Simon of Cyrene, though we will never really know the full story. What we do know is that him being there at that particular place and time enabled the greatest event ever recorded in the history of mankind. A simple man – even a stranger, we might say – was used by God to carry the cross to its ultimate place of purpose. It is unlikely, as he took up the cross that day, that Simon was even aware of the magnitude of the gesture or of its eternal repurcussions. Yet he – even unwittingly – played a critical role in an event that changed heaven and earth.
It’s a sobering thought, but also comforting. We don’t know, when called upon by God to do something seemingly random and plainly inconvenient, what the impact of our obedience may be. Those things that seem pointless, or which cause personal hardship or require discipline and endurance, when we’d really far rather be doing something ‘useful,’ may well prove to be a pivotal point in God’s plans. The reality is that we may never even see the outcome or what it means. It’s human nature to want to be involved in the ‘big’ things, those that can be seen to make a difference, those which reveal the power and grace of God in mighty, even miraculous ways. Who wants to – honestly – lug a heavy cross down a dusty road when we have other plans? There will be those times when to carry the cross for another may seem like a complete and utter waste of valuable time and ability.
Simon could not do what Jesus did. He could not go to the cross for you and I. He could not bear the full weight of the sin and punishment of the world. Only Jesus could do that. But God reveals a comforting truth, especially for those moments when we feel we cannot go on. Even the Son of God, in His ‘greatest’ moment, needed help. He needed someone to carry the cross to where it needed to be. To some, this truth may seem to diminish Christ, but we must remember that the Son of God came as the Son of Man. In His ‘real’ identity as the King of Heaven, Jesus needs nothing. As the Son of Man, however, He was subject to the same frailties that we face. We need not beat ourselves up over our weakness in those extreme moments. Instead, let us rather be encouraged by the knowledge that, just as God provided help to Christ, so He will bring those to help us when we are called to carry the cross.
Suffering is a terrible thing to contemplate, one we would far rather avoid. But Jesus went to the cross with spiritual resolution, His fixed on fulfilling the will of God and His purpose in His life. That is our role model. But God is merciful, and He is gracious. Everyone called to carry the cross will have a Simon, and every Simon will have a cross he is called to help carry. We can be assured by the certainty that the right person will be in the right place at the right time. It might not be one we expect or even really recognise. It could be a complete stranger. We may expect it to be one in centre stage, or at least one of the faithful who stand beside us. But to help another to carry the cross is a particular ministry. It takes strength, courage, humility, and obedience, and it takes a willingness that asks for no reward in return. Even if this is the only thing that God ever calls us to do, it is a purpose that will stand in eternity.
Gracious Father, we thank You for the Simons of this world. We ask that You bless them and touch their hearts with the faith and courage You need for their particular purpose. Help us to recognise them when they come alongside to help us carry the cross. And if, in Your perfect wisdom, this is the purpose to which we are called, grant us the grace and humility to carry the cross with gladness and faith, even if it is only for a little while to ease the journey of another.