Topical Scripture: Matthew 27:45–54; Mark 15:21
Whom do you trust? Ninety-three percent of Americans say that they and nobody else determine what is and isn’t right in their lives. Eighty-four percent say they would violate the established rules of their religion if they thought those rules were wrong. Apparently, we trust ourselves. However, 91 percent of Americans say they lie regularly. One in five say they can’t make it through a single day without lying.
Who do you trust? You have to trust somebody with your future, your family, your finances, your relationships and dreams and plans. Who will it be?
You expect me to suggest God. But I can’t prove he even exists, or what he’s like. I point to beauty in creation, and you can point to diseases and disasters. I point to good in people, and you can point to scandals and wars. I point to the good churches do, and you can point to church fights.
Who do you trust?
Who was Simon of Cyrene?
The New Testament records that “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” (Mark 15:21).
This Simon was from Cyrene (Tripoli, Libya today) in northern Africa. No doubt he had traveled from that far off land for Passover, saving for years to come. This would be the highlight of his year, perhaps his life. He brought his sons with him for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Then he was pressed into Roman service. Palestine was an occupied country, so that any Roman soldier could tap a man on the shoulder with the flat of his sword or spear and make him do whatever the soldier wanted. What was it that Rome asked of this unwilling participant?
Well, a man had been condemned to die by crucifixion. The convict was placed in a hollow square of four soldiers. In front marched the soldier with the board stating the man’s crime. They took the longest possible way, so that as many as possible would see and take warning. Then the man was crucified on the crossbeam he had carried to his execution.
But this man could carry the cross no further. The convict began the procession carrying it himself (John 19:17) but had now collapsed under its weight. Why?
He had been arrested the night before, dragged in chains before the Jewish Supreme Court, made to stand trial all night, condemned, and beaten by the Jewish guards. He was then dragged in the morning before Pilate, then to Herod, then back to Pilate. Finally, the Roman governor “had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).
His flogging must have been especially severe since he could not carry the crossbeam to Calvary and would die in only six hours on the cross.
So, Simon was forced into his place. He saw firsthand what this man had suffered. How did what he saw affect him? We’ll return to his story in a moment.
How did Jesus die?
Jesus’ death is a matter of historical record. Even without the New Testament, we know that he lived and was executed. Thallus the Samaritan, Mara bar Serapion, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger tell the story fully: he was arrested, crucified by Pontius Pilate, and worshiped as the risen Lord by his first followers.
Research has revealed much about the manner of his death.
Victims were typically nailed to the cross through their wrists, as nails through the hands could not support the weight of the victim. For instance, in 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of one Johanan, a victim of Roman crucifixion during the Jewish uprisings of AD 70. A nail seven inches long was still embedded in his heel bones. Nails had also been driven between the radius and ulna bones in his wrist; the radius was worn smooth by the victim’s pulling himself up to breathe.
If the Romans wanted the person to suffer longer, they could tie the arms to the crossbeam with ropes. They would then nail the hands to the cross, as the ropes would support the body’s weight. Since Jesus was being crucified before Passover, it is likely that the soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists to hasten his death.
Simon carried the cross on which this man died. He likely watched what happened on it. How did what he saw affect him? Again, we’ll return to his story momentarily.
Why did Jesus die?
Why did it happen? Why did Jesus die on the cross? Here’s what God says:
He died to pay the penalty for the sins of humanity: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
God warned Adam and Eve that sin leads to death. The Bible is clear: the soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:4). James teaches that “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Sin leads to death, from the Garden of Eden to today. So, someone had to die as a result of our sin. Someone had to pay the penalty.
He died to substitute for us: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'”(Galatians 3:13).
And so he died to make possible our salvation: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). The Message translates Hebrews 10:14: “It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people.”
Now, what became of Simon of Cyrene, the man who saw it all happen? The man who witnessed Jesus’ scourged and flogged body more closely than any who ever lived? The man who watched his horrific crucifixion firsthand? The man who saw what this One suffered? How does it all connect? And what difference does any of this make?
Mark names him “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” He tells us nothing more about them, indicating that his readers were so familiar with their stories that their names alone were sufficient to identify them. If I were to identify “Rodney” or “Stephen,” you would know them by that name alone though the rest of the world (regrettably) would not.
Now the plot thickens. Mark’s gospel was written first for the church at Rome. In Paul’s letter to the same congregation in Rome he asks, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too” (Romans 16:13). Early tradition held that this was Simon’s son, a man who went on to be of remarkable significance to the church. And that Simon’s wife became Paul’s “mother,” giving him personal assistance and support in his ministry.
Acts 13:1 later lists prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch, among them “Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene.” Simeon is another spelling of Simon; “Niger” means a man of swarthy skin from Africa. Early tradition identified this man as Simon of Cyrene, here with Lucius (also from Cyrene), one of the leaders of the most significant missionary church in Christian world.
So, what happened to the man who carried the cross of Jesus? It would appear that he chose to bear it the rest of his life. He found someone he could trust with his boys, his wife, his future and his eternity. He learned this simple fact: you can trust the One who died for you. You can trust his will for your plans, your possessions, your dreams. You can trust him with your life. And with your eternal life.
Jim Elliott, the missionary martyred by the people he went to serve, wrote in his journal these famous words: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Do you agree?