The story of Jesus’ crucifixion involves a number of characters, some of whom we know much about, and some of whom we know almost nothing. Simon of Cyrene is one of whom we know very little, yet his recorded actions are a most memorable moment of Jesus’ story. Simon of Cyrene was the man who helped carry the cross of Jesus up to Golgotha (Calvary, in Latin).
The story of Jesus’ crucifixion begins at the Fortress Antonia in the center of Jerusalem. This was the station in Jerusalem for Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Jerusalem and the surrounding district, together with the soldiers assigned to him. Antonia was the place of Jesus’ trial, abuse, and death sentence pronounced by Pilate. So Antonia was the place from which Jesus was forced to pick up the cross and begin to make his way, about a half mile, through the city, outside the city gates, up to the hill Golgotha. It is on this winding route from Antonia to Golgotha that Simon met Jesus.
Simon of Cyrene has just a passing mention in three of the Gospels: Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, and Luke 23:26, the three verses pertaining to carrying the cross for Jesus. While this is the only time he is mentioned in the Bible, it is important enough that he is mentioned by three of the four Gospel writers. These are the three accounts, together with John’s Gospel which does not include mention of Simon:
- Matthew 27:32- As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.
- Mark 15:21 – A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the 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.
- John 19:17- Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha)
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were going out, in other words, headed from the Fortress Antonia to exit the city and climb the hill, Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion. “They” likely refers to Jesus and to all sentenced to be crucified that day.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Why would Mark mention that? Perhaps because the first readers of this Gospel knew who Simon and his children were. A man named Rufus is mentioned at the church in Rome. It is possible they are the same person.
Mark also tells us Simon was on his way in, meaning he was actually headed the opposite direction, and going into Jerusalem while Jesus and the others were coming out.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Simon was forced to carry the cross behind Jesus. Though the Romans had no theological point in so doing, disciple means follower. This became a literal discipleship for Simon in a most profound way. He followed behind Jesus, carrying his cross, covered in blood and gore. Following behind the badly wounded Jesus, Simon could only go as fast and as far as Jesus went, and we know that Jesus was too weak to carry the cross on his own. It appears that Simon, who was literally following Jesus, would eventually become a true follower and disciple of Jesus.
John tells us only that Jesus carried the cross out of the city but doesn’t include the events that happened after Jesus had left the city. This may be the point at which Simon took up the cross.
Cyrene was a city in what is now modern Libya in Northern Africa and had a significant Jewish population. The fact that he is ‘of Cyrene’ tells us that he did not live in Jerusalem where this event took place but had traveled there from his home. We do not know whether he was a Jew or Gentile, but it is likely that he was a practicing Jew, arriving at Jerusalem from Cyrene for the annual Passover festival.
Why did the Romans force Simon to take up Jesus’ cross? There is no indication that Simon knew Jesus or that he had commented on the scene. Roman soldiers had the right to place someone into their service to carry things for one mile. This could be bags, equipment, or in this case, a cross. This is likely the scenario that led Simon to carry the cross for Jesus. We don’t know why Simon specifically was selected for this task, other than the fact that he was there, he looked capable, and it was clear Jesus had become too weak to carry the cross on his own.
Roman crucifixion was a common practice of the Romans as a form of capital punishment and a form of terrorism. Crucifixion was considered too horrible a punishment for Roman citizens, as it was a miserable, humiliating, painful form of death. The Romans reinforced their grip on power through such terroristic tactics. Likewise, the path from the Fortress Antonia through the city to Golgotha, the place of execution, was familiar to the residents of Jerusalem. Jesus was not the first, nor would he be the last, to take that awful journey.
As we read the account of Simon of Cyrene today, we see a man who was thrust into the very heart of the gospel story. It must have been a frightening moment: to be pulled from the crowd and ordered by Roman soldiers to bear the cross of a condemned man. Simon felt the weight of the cross upon his back and walked away with the blood of Christ still upon him, the blood that would in the next moments fulfill all prophecy and take away the sin of the world. That cross, and that blood, carried a weight and a significance that Simon could never forget. When Jesus took back the cross and gave his life upon it, Jesus carried the weight of all our sins.
Simon never imagined that this forced act of carrying Jesus’ cross would be preserved in Scripture to be studied and admired 2,000 years later. Simon’s actions reflect the earlier words of Jesus in Matthew 16:24,‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’.
In the same way, we are called to ‘take up our cross’ and ‘follow Jesus’. We may never know what impact our daily sacrifice will have on others, yet we can be assured that our actions in following Christ will most certainly have an impact on those around us, perhaps on someone seeking Christ and forgiveness.
Lord, help us to remember Simon of Cyrene and how he unexpectedly helped Jesus in his hour of crucifixion. May we be so reminded to daily deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus as his true disciples.