“But going out, they found a man from Cyrene who was named Simon, they pressed him into service in order that he might bear his cross. And they were going up to the place called ‘Golgotha,’ which is called the Place of the Skull.”
“And they pressed into service one passerby, Simon the Cyrene, who was coming from the countryside, the father of Alexander and Rufus, in order to bear his cross. And he carried it to the place, Golgotha, that is translated as the Place of the Skull.”
“And as he was led away, they seized Simon the Cyrene who was coming from the countryside and laid on him the cross to carry behind Jesus.”
Sometimes people see these verses as being at odds with John’s passage above. Many will also note that the Scriptures are entirely silent as to whether or not Jesus stumbled or fell on the way to Golgotha under the weight of the cross. Let us begin with the first objection and then move to the second.
First, John harmonizes easily with the Synoptic Gospels if you order the chronology as I have here. After the trial, Jesus is sent off to be crucified. Originally, in good Roman tradition, Jesus has the cross (or perhaps a portion of the cross) placed on his shoulders. Yet, on the way out to Golgotha, the soldiers grab Simon from the crowd and compel him to finish carrying the cross the remainder of the walk.
Why would the soldiers do this? Remember, everything about crucifixion was meant as a deterrent to those who might become a threat to the Roman rule. The sentenced one was beaten, humiliated, and paraded through town so that all could see. This served as a warning. Even the honor of dying on a cross was meant as a reminder to passersby (crucifixions were carried out alongside of main roads and thoroughfares. There was no question as to what crime these people were guilty of and if you were considering an insurrection, the crucified bodies were clear warnings about what the consequences would look like.
So…perhaps Simon (being from the countryside) looked like a potential troublemaker. This might be a way of dissuading him from acting out even before he committed his crime. Perhaps the Romans were simply making a point to those city folks who had just asked for Barabbas to be released…beware. Perhaps Jesus was moving too slowly and they wanted to expedite the process. Perhaps, because of Pilate’s reluctance to crucify Jesus, the captain of the guard chose to show Jesus a small degree of mercy on the way up to his execution. Leo (known as “The Great,” a 5th century church bishop) suggested that Simon’s inclusion was symbolic of the Gentiles being brought into the suffering of Christ (see Romans 8:17). Or, perhaps, most simply, Jesus stumbled and was unable to bear the physical weight of the cross.
We don’t know for sure. Church tradition has held that Jesus stumbled and fell under the cross’ weight. That is not only understandable, but also emphasizes the humanity of Christ as he was being tortured and murdered. Now, obviously the tradition is non-canonical, but it is supported by reason, so while we must not be overly dogmatic here, the notion of our Lord falling is a reasonable explanation for why Simon was pulled out of the crowd and impressed into service.
Who was Simon? Cyrene is a region that is located in what is modern-day Libya, so much like the Ethiopian eunuch, we find an early African Christian being involved in a very significant way. Africa became a place of refuge for the child, Jesus, as his parents fled king Herod, and now an African becomes a minister of grace to Jesus as he walks to the hill on which he will die. It is considered that this man is one and the same with Simeon who was called “Black,” found in Acts 13:1. What a profound impression this must have made on this man as he followed Jesus with the cross on the way up the hill to Golgotha. It may also be suggested that this influence touched Simon’s family as well, for Rufus is mentioned in Romans 16:13 as a friend and acquaintance of Paul’s (clearly, by the mention of their names, Mark’s audience was familiar with these men).
And, so our Lord, still in the lead, was followed with Simon carrying the cross. What a sad day in the history of mankind…yet, what wonderful hope and promise comes from this, not only that our Lord would be willing to bear such pain for us, but that he would privilege us to bear sorrow and pain as well so that we might appreciate our Lord’s sorrow and pain that much more profoundly.