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Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross. 

Matthew 27:32

The gospel narratives record the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion in great detail. Some of these details we might pass over as being unimportant. No doubt many who were eyewitnesses of our Savior’s agony did just that. But the very fact that the holy writers were inspired to record these details in the gospel narratives indicates that these details are of great importance.

One such detail is the fact that Jesus did not have enough strength to carry His cross to the place of execution. And so the Roman soldiers compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry it for Jesus. Had we been eyewitnesses of these events and were moved to write about them, we probably would have left out this detail. Of what significance is this? Yet Matthew is moved by the inspiration of the Spirit to record this incident for us. In this incident we will learn a great deal about our Savior and our calling to be His disciples.

A humiliating task!

What an ordeal Jesus had been through for the past twelve hours.

He had been betrayed by one of His own disciples, Judas Iscariot. He had been abandoned by the rest of His disciples. The most prominent disciple, Peter, had even publicly denied that he knew Jesus.

Jesus had also been arrested and subjected, by the Jewish council, to a grueling trial that lasted all night. During this trial, false witnesses had brought horrible charges against Him. It all climaxed with a death sentence on the charge of blasphemy.

Then Jesus had been brought to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. The Jewish leaders charged Jesus with high crimes against the Roman state.

The crowds that gathered before Pilate’s palace vehemently rejected Him. These were the people to whom He had ministered. He had taught them the gospel of the kingdom. He had performed many mighty miracles of healing among them. But they rejected Him, preferring that Pilate release to them the despicable Barabbas.

Finally, Jesus was publicly condemned to death by Pilate, after which He was whipped and mocked.

And now Jesus was being led away to be executed.

The Roman form of capital punishment was crucifixion. The Roman place of execution for the area of Jerusalem was a skull-shaped hill, called Golgotha, just outside of the city.

And so Jesus was led through the streets of Jerusalem to be executed outside the city.

The writer to the Hebrews sees in this the gospel of salvation. “For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate” (Heb. 13:11-12). The Old Testament law required that on the great Day of Atonement the carcass of the sacrificial animal, whose blood was shed on the altar for the sin of the people, be taken outside the camp (city) and burned. The writer to the Hebrews sees in this a picture of Jesus offering Himself as a sin offering for the people of God outside the city. Jesus, the Lamb of God, would not give Himself an offering for sin on the altar of the temple. He would do so outside the gates of the city. And so we must see Jesus being led outside the city as the Lamb of God. He was being led to Golgotha to die the accursed death of the cross that would atone for the sins of the church.

As Jesus was being led through the streets of Jerusalem, the Roman soldiers found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to carry Jesus’ cross.

It was the custom that the one to be crucified must carry his own cross to the place of execution. The prisoners were generally led through the most populous streets of the city. The place of execution was near a highway, where many people would congregate. This was to shame and humiliate the victim.

Jesus, however, was not able to carry His cross the entire distance. Jesus was 33 years old, in His physical prime. Yet the ordeal of the past hours had sapped Him of His physical strength. Repeatedly Jesus stumbled. Finally, He could go no further. No amount of beatings and curses by the soldiers could move Him forward.

And so the Roman soldiers forced Simon to carry Jesus’ cross.

Simon was a man of Cyrene. This means that he was born in Cyrene, a city in northern Africa (present day Libya), about fifteen miles inland from the sea.

Simon was most likely a Jew. This is suggested by his Jewish name. Also, there was a large colony of Jews in Cyrene.

Perhaps Simon was in Jerusalem for the Passover week. Or he could have been a resident of Jerusalem. There were a number of Cyrenians living in Jerusalem. There was even a synagogue of Cyrenians in the city (Acts 6:9).

Evidently, Simon was nearby when Jesus fell and was not able to continue. A quick search of the crowd led the soldiers to Simon. We read that they “found” him.

Him the soldiers compelled to carry Jesus’ cross. Certainly the soldiers would not carry His cross. This task was thrust on Simon. Perhaps it also delighted the soldiers to force another Jew to carry Jesus’ cross. The result was that Simon followed Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem and then outside the city to the place of execution—carrying Jesus’ cross.

A beautiful picture!

We have here a picture of true discipleship.

To be a disciple of Jesus one must take up his cross and follow Him. Jesus made this clear in Matthew 16:24: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” If you will come after Jesus as His disciple, you must follow Him. You must follow His teachings. You must also follow the example He gave for godly living in the service of God. If you will follow Him, you must also take up your cross. To take up one’s cross is to suffer for Christ’s sake. It is to endure the same hatred and opposition that Jesus endured, which hatred and opposition led to His crucifixion. This is the inevitable result of following Jesus. And the cross you will carry is really the cross of Jesus.

We have a beautiful picture of this discipleship with Simon. Yes, the cross Simon carried was Jesus’ cross. Yes, Simon probably carried Jesus’ cross unwillingly. The soldiers compelled him to carry the cross. However, Jesus’ cross temporarily became his cross, placed on his shoulders by the soldiers. And with the cross Simon followed Jesus, sharing in Jesus’ shame and humiliation. What a graphic picture of discipleship!

The discipleship that was only pictured in Simon’s actions that morning may well have become a spiritual reality later on his life. There is evidence to suggest that this same Simon later became a true disciple of Jesus. Mark, in his account of this incident, identifies Simon as the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). The mention of Simon’s two sons suggests that they were known to the readers of Mark’s gospel. The testimony of the early church fathers is that Mark was written initially to the church of Rome. And there was a Rufus in Rome. Paul writes in Romans 16:13, “Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.” All this suggests that Simon was later converted and, along with his family, became a member of the church of Rome. It is very well possible that Simon had already passed on to glory by the time that Paul wrote to the church of Rome. Paul mentioned Rufus and his mother. If this is the case, Simon most certainly carried a heavier cross than he did to Golgotha. It was the cross of hatred and opposition for Christ’s sake that every true disciple must carry.

A necessary requirement!

Will you also be a disciple of Jesus?

If you will be Jesus’ disciple, you must follow Him in faith. By faith you must embrace His teachings and confess them before men. By faith you must also live as Jesus lived—in all godliness in the service of the living God.

And then be ready to carry the cross of Jesus. What you teach will be offensive to many. It will exalt God rather than man. The unbelieving world will hate you for this. How you live will also be an offense. It will condemn those who walk in sin. Many will hate and oppose you, as they also hated and opposed Jesus. It is not easy to be Jesus’ disciple. It is the way of self-denial and cross-bearing.

But it is of extreme importance that you live as Jesus’ disciple.

We have seen that Jesus was led outside the city to be crucified as an offering for sin. This offering was necessary for our salvation. We have all sinned and are guilty before God. Jesus’ crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem is the only sacrifice that can cover our sins and secure our salvation.

But that salvation is only for the true disciples of Jesus. The salvation of the cross is received and enjoyed by faith only. That faith is the faith of discipleship. It is the faith that follows Jesus and carries His cross.

How heavy the disciple’s cross can be.

But how great is the salvation of those that carry it!