Of the many characters who were involved in some way or other with the crucifixion of our Lord, Simon of Cyrene was one of the few who helped Him. Admittedly this help was forced upon him, but he is mentioned in three of the four gospels so his assistance has not gone unnoticed by the Holy Spirit. What do we know of him?
Well, this may be to stretch a point. The gospels identify him as ‘a man of Cyrene, Simon by name’, Matt. 27. 32; ‘Simon, a Cyrenian’, Mark 15. 21; Luke 23. 26. Cyrene was a place in North Africa, in the country we now call Libya. Tradition has it that he was an African man, who had been born a Gentile (a non-Jew), and that he had been a pagan, but he had been converted to the Jewish faith. We must be careful not to push this point too far. Although Simon was from Cyrene, the apostle Paul before his conversion was known as ‘Saul of Tarsus’, which was a place in what we now call Turkey, but Saul was evidently Jewish by birth, a ‘Pharisee of the Pharisees’, etc. It could be that Simon of Cyrene was no Gentile African, but of Jewish birth himself, yet living in Cyrene. There was, indeed, a large Jewish settlement in Cyrene at this time, and all Jewish males were supposed to go up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, which would explain Simon’s presence in Jerusalem at this time. History tells us the Cyrenian Jews had their own synagogue in Jerusalem, and some Cyrenians are mentioned as being present to hear Peter’s sermon in their own language on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2. 10. Does his name, ‘Simon’, help us to identify whether he was Jewish by birth? No, not particularly. Simon was a popular name at the time, cf. Acts 8. 9-24, and was not given to Jews only. Still, popular opinion has it that he was one of the few from the African continent mentioned in the scriptures, as was Ebed-melech in Jeremiah’s time and the Ethiopian eunuch in New Testament times.
Jerusalem at this time, the feast of the Passover, would have been bursting at the seams with residents of Jerusalem itself, pilgrims from the whole of the nation visiting for the feast and either staying with relatives in the city or filling the inns, pilgrims from around the world – ‘Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites and the dwellers of Mesopotamia, and in Judea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians’, 2. 9-11.1 One can well imagine the huge expense of staying in the city at such a time as this. It would appear as though Simon had managed to find lodgings outside the city, for the scripture records he was ‘coming out of the country’, Mark 15. 21. This may indicate comparative poverty or just lack of good contacts in the city. We would not be too far wrong in suggesting he was just an ordinary pilgrim come to do his duty to God in attending the feast, having found lodgings in a village in the country, travelling into the city every day of the feast.
Coming in from the country on this particular day and, no doubt, minding his own business, perhaps trying to make his way to the temple through the crowds of pilgrims, he was suddenly accosted by Roman soldiers and dragged out of the crowd to stand in the middle of the street. Can we doubt the fear and consternation that went through his mind? ‘What have I done wrong?’ What ordinary, country man would not have been afraid of the Roman soldiers at that time? Why had he been arrested like this? Suddenly, he is brought face to face with a man who has drawn compassion from the crowd standing around him. This man is evidently on his way to be crucified. As Simon observes him, he sees a man whose face has been torn to ribbons where men had tried to pull the beard from His face; a man whose head was surrounded with a crown of thorns, huge sharp spikes piercing the skin and flesh of his face; a man whose back looked as though it were a ploughed field, the flesh torn and ripped from it, blood oozing everywhere; a man who, though evidently strong and muscular in body, was now unable to carry, perhaps even to drag, the cross upon which he was to die, so severe were his wounds and so savage the treatment he had received. Despite his reluctance to be drawn into the situation, and, no doubt, also with the revulsion of having to follow a man to his appalling execution, Simon was forced to pick up the cross of this stranger and carry it behind him to the place called Golgotha.
It was customary for the Romans to take pleasure in humiliating a victim by making him drag the means of his death behind him. John actually records that our Lord had done much of this carrying of His cross already. ‘He bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull’, John 19. 17. Yet Matthew, Mark and Luke all indicate that our Lord was not able to carry it all the way and the Romans, refusing to be involved in this spectacle, compelled this innocent bystander, perhaps strong and tall in himself, to carry the cross for our Lord. No doubt Simon felt this to be neither an honour nor a privilege, yet, by virtue of the fact that he was dragged out of obscurity to do this for His Son in His hour of need, the Father, through the Holy Spirit, has recorded Simon’s service in scripture and he has been made famous. Yet what a wonder for any man to be given such a privilege as to walk behind the Son of God Himself, and to give Him some assistance, some relief, some kindness, on the way to His death! The kindness of certain rich women of Jerusalem is also recorded in scripture by the Holy Spirit. They ‘bewailed and lamented Him’, Luke 23. 27-29; they grieved for Him, and this act of kindness drew sympathy from our Lord to them. Yet let us not forget the relief this simple act of carrying His cross for Him gave to our Lord.
One other surprising touch is added to this record of service. Mark records that Simon was ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’, 15. 21. Now I am convinced that this seemingly pointless comment is, in fact, significant. There would have been no point in naming the children of Simon of Cyrene were they unknown to believers in the early church. The very mention of the names of his children indicate that something else happened to bring Simon’s family to the notice of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, not just his forced assistance to our Lord. Again, we speculate, but it is interesting to note that a Rufus is mentioned in Romans chapter 16 and verse 13 as ‘chosen in the Lord’ and also mentioned is Rufus’ mother ‘and mine’, indicating to us, if the identification is correct, that Simon’s wife as well as his sons have become followers of our Lord. There does seem little point in identifying Simon’s family if they were unknown. Some have suggested that his contact with our Lord in the carrying of His cross brought Simon to hear Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, and that he witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit on that day; remember, there were Cyrenians mentioned as being amongst those who heard the message in their own language, Acts 2. 10. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Simon was one of those who preached the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch, mention of whom is made in chapter 11 verse 20, and that he is the one who is identified as ‘Simeon that was called Niger’ (black) in the assembly in chapter 13 verse 1. Be that as it may, eternity will tell us what impact, if any, this contact with the Christ had upon Simon and his family.
What are we to make of all this? Some may say that Simon was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that he was unfortunate to be made a public spectacle in being forced to carry a man’s cross to the place of his execution, when he was doing nothing but passing by going from the country to the city to do his business. But, as believers, we do not, or at any rate we should not, believe in luck, either good or bad, neither should we believe in fortune. Nothing happens by blind chance. God is in everything, even in the very placing of this man from Cyrene. Let us remember, too, that things that disrupt our day, inconveniences and annoyances, can be a means, under the hand of God, of blessing to others and to us. This act of kindness to His Son was duly noted by the Father and the Holy Spirit, as is any act of kindness you and I do to His people today.
And, then again, though we will never be able to carry our Lord’s cross and follow Him, as Simon did, we are called upon to pick up our own cross and follow Him. ‘And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’, Mark 8. 34-38. Simon of Cyrene carried our Lord’s cross for Him as he followed Him. We are to carry our own crosses as we also follow Him. Dying to sin and self, let us, therefore, follow our Lord every day and all the way.