Everything about crucifixion was designed to humiliate the victim and to warn onlookers: this is what happens to any who go against the might of Rome. It was usual for condemned criminals to carry the cross-bar of the cross to the place of their execution, just to rub salt in the wound. Jesus started off by carrying the cross-bar: ‘Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull.’ (John 19:17)
However, Jesus has endured so much physically, emotionally and spiritually that he is totally drained and it seems the Roman soldiers realise that he might not make it to the execution site, so they press a passer-by called of Simon of Cyrene to do this job. This is another reminder to us of just how brutally he has been treated. In Gethsemane, the stress upon his soul was so great that his sweat was like droplets of blood. After that, he was mocked and beaten and then scourged. Scourging itself was severe as the lead and bone tipped whip would rip into the back of the victim, often right to the bone. It is no wonder that Jesus is so enervated.
1. An unexpected task
What can we say about this man Simon of Cyrene? Cyrene is found in modern day Libya, in North Africa. It must have been humiliating for Simon to be coerced into this gruesome task. I’m sure that was the last thing he had been expecting that day. And yet, it was God’s sovereign plan for him to carry Jesus’ cross for him. Simon becomes one of the closest eyewitnesses of Jesus’ last hours, seeing how Jesus behaved and what he said. We cannot be certain, but it seems likely that through these events, Simon becomes a follower of the Lord Jesus.
In the parallel account in Mark’s Gospel: ‘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) If Mark names the children of this unknown African man, then surely, they are well-known figures in the church, suggesting the conversion of their father, Simon. And in Paul’s letter to the Romans we read: ‘Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.’ (Romans 16:13) It seems to me, that at the point when Jesus is too exhausted to stagger forward even another step with the cross-bar, at a point of such weakness, God is breaking into the life of this African man, and will do a work of amazing grace, both in his life, and that of his family. At the time of great weakness, we are also see the saving power of the Kingdom of God at work.
Simon of Cyrene is also a vivid picture of Christian discipleship. Perhaps we rarely think of him that way. However, if we visualise this man being press-ganged into this task, what exactly does he have to do? He must take up the cross and follow Jesus. This is a portrayal of the Christian life.
Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ (Luke 9:23)
‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:26-27)
Simon must literally experience the weight of the cross and the humiliation of carrying it.
Our lives as Jesus’ followers must involve humiliation, sacrifice and self-denial, and if this never happens then it is unlikely that we are following Christ at all. There must be a daily dying to our own wants and desires, and a surrendering to the will of God, even when this leads us to difficult places. Following Jesus necessarily involves radical self-denial for each and every one of us.
When we stand up for Jesus in the secular context of Scotland in 2023 we are likely to be mocked and marginalised at the very least. We might be overlooked for promotion. We might be missed out in other ways. And if we are to live for Jesus, then we cannot put our family above him, or money, or career, or our own ease and comfort. Galatians 2 v 20: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…’ (Romans 12:1)
Of course, those who humble themselves shall ultimately be exalted, and perhaps we see something of that in the spiritual blessings poured out on both Simon and his family. Yes, we live lives of cross-bearing now, but for all eternity we shall enjoy the glories God has in store for us.
1. An unexpected plea
Luke’s attention quickly moves from Simon to a group of mourning women whom he calls the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem’. We only read about this in Luke’s Gospel, and it gives us the only words uttered by Jesus between his sentencing and his crucifixion. What’s going on here? These women seem genuine in their sympathy for Jesus. They’re not Jesus’ followers who will remain with him until the very end, but another group. These women would attend crucifixions in order to comfort the dying and to offer opiates and drugs to relieve the pain of those being crucified.
To their astonishment, Jesus, battered and bloodied and hardly able to walk and heading to his death is not consumed with himself. In fact, he is thinking of them. He is thinking of these women and all whom they stand for- the inhabitants of Jerusalem. He turns to them and makes an unexpected plea: ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.’ (Luke 23:28) I don’t think Jesus is rejecting their act of mourning for him here. Rather, Jesus wants them to look beyond the present moment and into the future, where Israel will be divinely judged for rejecting the Messiah. In other words, it’s not so much tears of sympathy that Jesus wants from them, but tears of repentance. Only as they mourn over their own sin, and place their trust in Jesus shall they escape the Judgment to come.
Jesus’ words of warning are shocking. In Jewish culture, children were seen as such a blessing of the Lord, and barrenness was a curse. But Jesus knows the judgment coming in AD 70, when Titus will destroy the city and bring such devastation on its inhabitants that those with children would wish they had none. This is a frightening prospect. The starvation and torture and pain and misery will be so horrific that those left in the city will want to be swallowed up by the surrounding mountains. This is not easy to read, but it is exactly what happened in AD70. If judgment will fall upon the only innocent Israelite, the green tree named Jesus of Nazareth, then imagine the judgment which will fall on the dry wood of Jerusalem, those who have rejected Jesus as their Saviour and King.
Please notice the remarkable way Jesus thinks of others as he makes his way to the cross. Why does he make this dreadful prophecy? Surely, it is a warning for the inhabitants of Israel to repent and believe in him while there is still time. Geldenhuys makes this challenging comment:
“It is not sympathy, but sincere faith in Him and genuine repentance that Jesus expects from us. And whosoever rejects Him in unbelief should much rather weep for his unforgiven debt of sin and for the judgment which will visit all rejectors of the Son of God just as surely as it visited Jerusalem 2000 years ago.”
And so, we can see that Jesus’ unexpected plea comes from a heart full of pity and love for Jerusalem. He does not wish anyone to perish but for everyone to come to repentance. (See 2 Peter 3:9) Let’s just repeat the crux of the matter: Jesus wants tears of repentance from us and not tears of sympathy.
What is your response to Jesus as you see him slowly moving to the cross to be executed? Do you just see him as an example of love, but nothing much to do with your own life? Like the Daughters of Jerusalem, you might have sympathy for Jesus and his teaching, but that’s not what he wants from you. What does he want? He wants you to understand that your life has been full of breaking his rules, and living for yourself rather than God. He wants you to recognise this fact, and with godly sorrow, recognising you have offended almighty God, cry with tears of repentance, and place your trust in Jesus. This is a sobering message, but one coming from the lips of Jesus Christ.
We must see the difference between feeling sorry for ourselves about a situation, and feeling sorry before a holy God, realising we’ve offended him. ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.’ (2 Corinthians 1:10) You might feel sorry for yourself because you have hurt others or others have hurt you, or because your life is not easy. But do you know about godly sorrow? Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
3. An unexpected prayer
Next, Jesus reaches the place of his death. The gospel writers don’t go into the detail of all that happened to him physically during the process of crucifixion. Luke just says: ‘They crucified him there.’ But we must never lose that sense of shock as to what the human race did with the perfect Son of God: ‘Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left.’ (Luke 23:32-33)
Clearly, Jesus is being treated as a criminal; he’s right in the middle of the criminals, as if he is the worst. This fulfils the prophecy in Isaiah 53: ‘… because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’ (Isaiah 53:12) Why was Jesus numbered with the transgressors? Isaiah plainly states that he died in order to bear the sin of many. This is the language of sacrifice, and of substitution. He is dying in the place of others. He is numbered with the transgressors so that we might be numbered amongst the children of God.
We shall return to this glorious theme of Christ crucified next time, but for now I’d like us to end by considering Jesus’ unexpected prayer: Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34) Again, this fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘… and made intercession for the transgressors.’ Once again, we see the remarkable love of Jesus, praying for others in his time of crisis. And not just praying for others, were that not impressive enough, but praying for those who had just tortured and crucified him. The others who were dying hurled abuse at their torturers: Jesus intercedes for them with unparalleled love. I love J C Ryle’s comment here:
“Let us see in the Lord’s intercession for those who crucified Him, one more proof of Christ’s infinite love to sinners.”
The soldiers acted in ignorance, because they did not know the identity of the one they were crucifying.
Let’s apply some logic to this amazing grace: if there is a path of forgiveness for even the very soldiers who executed Jesus, then God will be willing to forgive you your sins if and only if you turn from your sins and ask for his forgiveness, based on what Jesus has done on the cross. This is yet another example in the Bible of the fact that no one is too wicked to be saved. Think of the things in your life you are most ashamed of. God is able to forgive you if you repent. There is a path of forgiveness back to God. You are invited to bring your sin to Jesus.
Jesus’ prayer is also an example for us to follow. ‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.’ (1 Peter 2:21-24)
Are there people who have asked for your forgiveness but you have not forgiven them? Jesus says: ‘…I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’ (Matthew 5:44) These are not just empty words from Jesus: he practices what he preaches. And he has set us an example to follow.
Let’s be honest – do you find it hard to forgive others? Do you harbour resentment about the past? Are you slow to forgive others? What should you do? You need to come back to the example of Jesus on the cross and pray for a heart like that: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Christ has forgiven us an enormous debt, and so we ought to forgive others when they repent. We must we ready and willing to forgive others.