God’s Word for You
Luke 23:26 They placed the cross on him
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, June 12, 2019
26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country. They placed the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.
Executions were supposed to happen outside the city (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35). So we see, for example, the innocent Naboth taken out and stoned to death outside of Samaria (1 Kings 21:13); likewise the innocent Stephen (Acts 7:58). The author of Hebrews made this application: “The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:11-14).
There is no way to determine the route Jesus took through the city to bear our sins. For one thing, the location of Golgotha is disputed. Was it to the north, or to the west? There are good possible locations in both directions. Even if we know that Pilate’s verdict was presented in the Antonia Fortress near the temple, without knowing the destination of Jesus’ walk, we can’t say any more. There are many people who claim with impressive certainty that they know the route. They will talk about the cardines (north-south streets of Jerusalem) and the decumani (the east-west streets), and that Jesus must have taken the northernmost decumanus from just north of the temple on a zig-zag mid-city and out to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but we need to be careful about making these sorts of claims.
It was the Roman way to force the condemned to carry their own crosses. There is no basis in the text to imagine that Jesus only carried the cross-bar. He bore the stauron (σταυρὸν), the full cross, but he was unable to go very far due to his mistreatment by the soldiers and the Sanhedrin, his lack of sleep, and the flogging. When Jesus collapsed, the soldiers grabbed a bystander who was forced to carry the cross for Jesus.
The bystander’s name was Simon, a businessman from Cyrene, a city of North Africa, the capital of the province with the same name west of Egypt. Today we call this region Libya. His city was just about due south of Corinth, across one of the narrower parts of the Mediterranean, opposite Greece. Simon’s sons Alexander and Rufus are mentioned in Mark’s account (Mark 15:21), which suggests that they were living in Rome when Mark wrote his Gospel. In addition, Paul’s greeting in Romans 16:13 might be to this same Rufus and his mother “who has been a mother to me, too.”
Simon carried nothing but the lumber of the cross. We cannot say that he did anything toward the bearing of our sin or helping Jesus under the wrath of God. If someone wanted to argue in favor of Simon somehow helping Christ, and that by extension anyone living today could somehow “help” Christ bear our sins (by doing good works and lessening the number of sins?), then why not count the Roman soldiers as helping Christ bear our sins, since their tortures and injuries inflicted on the flesh of the Son of God surely sped up his death and therefore lessened his pain in some way. “But,” someone might argue, “the soldiers were unbelievers, and did not do what they did out of faith.” If that becomes an argument, then where is the faith of Simon of Cyrene? Where is the testimony of the text? Did the soldiers interview the bystanders to find out whether one of them showed sufficient faith to enable him to carry the cross? Of course not. Simon’s family shows signs of faith later on—but this shouldn’t surprise us, since their father was caught up in the supreme moment of history; he was there, forced to participate against his will, when the Savior of the world was walking outside the city of Jerusalem to be put to death to atone for the sins of all mankind. No, the cross creates faith. The story of the cross is what converts. It’s much easier to understand Simon’s family and their faith if we simply take it for granted that Simon would naturally have asked the group weeping at the foot of the cross who this man was, and why were they weeping? Did Jesus’ mother Mary tell him the story herself? Or one of the other Marys, or Joanna? Or John the Apostle? Surely this is how the family came to know Jesus. The cross is not the result of faith, it is the cause of our faith.
Simon carried the cross behind Jesus. He followed the Savior without knowing who the Savior was. We follow Jesus knowing full well who he is, and what he has done for us. All of Christ’s kingdom is there under the cross. Sometimes, portions are brought out and revealed in God’s service to combat the kingdom of Satan, but for the most part, all the other portions of the kingdom remain hidden under the cross, or hidden under our temporary crosses which we bear with patience until they are removed from us in death. But all of our sinfulness was atoned for once and forever by Jesus’ own, personal agony.
Centuries, millennia, before, a young man was told by his father to carry a bundle of wood up this same hill. That, too, happened early in the morning. The boy’s father had told the servants, “Stay here. We will worship, and then we will come back to you.” But on the way up this hill, the boy had asked, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” The father answered: “God himself will provide.” Now, as the other man followed Jesus out of the city and up the hill, the miraculous would take place. Jesus was going to provide the sacrifice for more than one offering. He was about to be the sacrifice which would substitute for every single one of our sins. After God gave Abraham a substitute for Isaac, Abraham called the place Yahweh Yireh, “The LORD Will Provide.” And people would say, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided” (Genesis 22:14).
There is our Savior, fulfilling Abraham’s prophetic words. The “it” of “It will be provided” is at last revealed: It was the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, provided for by the Lord God himself, with his own flesh.
Pastor Timothy Smith