************ Sermon on Mark 15:21 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 3, 2011
"Simon of Cyrene"
I Simon, Cyrene, and the Jewish Passover
A As we continue our observance of Lent, I want to spend some time looking at Simon.
Scripture makes clear where Simon came from. He was from Cyrene in North Africa – what we know today as Libya. With one hundred thousand residents it was one of the two largest cities in Libya. Cyrene also had a sizable Jewish population.
B We also know what Simon was doing in Jerusalem. Acts 2 tells us there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven; they were there for the Jewish celebration of the Passover and Pentecost. One of the nations specifically mentioned is Cyrene (Acts 2:10).
The journey from Cyrene to Jerusalem was not a simple one day trip on a plane or train. It was a three week journey of over a thousand miles by land through desert and Egypt and Philistia and robber-infested areas. Or, it was a week's journey by sea followed by a trip from the coast to Jerusalem. However one went, it required commitment and time and money and dedication and sacrifice.
Simon of Cyrene was in Jerusalem during the Passover and Pentecost. Telling us what? Telling us that Simon was either born a Jew or was a Jewish convert. And, further telling us that Simon was a very pious believer because he was willing to spend the time and money to travel to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple.
The morning of our Scripture reading Simon was on his way into Jerusalem – our text tells us he "was passing by on his way in from the country" (Mk 15:21). Simon knew nothing of what had happened during the night. He knew nothing of Jesus' agonies in Gethsemane, the trial before Pilate, and the screams of the crowd to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus. He knew nothing of how the soldiers flogged Jesus and mocked Jesus. We can safely assume that Simon had spent the night sleeping. He woke up early that morning to say his prayers – the same as all orthodox Jews. He was dressed, cleaned, and almost into the city before nine in the morning. He was on his way to the Temple. He was on his way to participate in the Passover.
If Simon had been three minutes earlier or later, of if he had entered Jerusalem by a different gate, we would never have heard of him. But, in the providence of God, Simon was at the right place at the right time. And, as we shall see, his life was changed forever because of it.
II Jesus Needed Simon's Help
A We are told that the soldiers forced Simon to carry the cross of Jesus (Mk 15:21). Usually those being crucified had to carry their own crosses so why was Simon forced to help Jesus?
We need to remember that Jesus, as a man, was completely worn out at this point. He had spent hours of agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane where His sweat fell like great drops of blood falling to the ground; in other words, He was becoming dehydrated. Keep in mind that the last time He ate and drank was at the Last Supper. Keep in mind that He prayed instead of slept.
Then there was the trial before Annas, followed by the trial before the high priest. After that came Pilate, Herod, and then Pilate again. Jesus still did not eat, drink, or sleep.
Think of the physical pain the Lord had experienced. Slapped. Beaten. Spat upon. Flogged. As I said last week, a Roman flogging was a brutal beating. The prisoner was stripped, often tied to a post, and beaten on the back by several guards using short leather whips studded with sharp pieces of bone or metal. No limit was set on the number of blows. Often the flogging was enough to kill a prisoner.
In addition to this, Jesus had gone through mental anguish and pain. Think of His agony in the Garden as He thought about the cup of suffering He soon would drink. Think of His pain as three times He finds His three closest friends sleeping instead of praying. Think of His pain as Judas betrayed Him. Think of His pain as Peter denied Him. Think of His pain as the crowd that acclaimed Him on Palm Sunday wanted Him dead on Good Friday. Think of His pain as He carried on His shoulders the weight of the sin of the whole world – sins past, sins present, and sins future. No one but the Son of God could have carried that weight.
Why am I saying this? So you realize the man on the way to Golgotha was already half dead by the time Simon crossed His path. He was a pitiful sight with the crown of thorns on His head, His face swollen, His back torn and raw and bleeding. He was weak, tired, dehydrated.
B Scripture tells us the soldiers "led him out to crucify him" (Mk 15:20). Sounds so simple. But there is far more in these words then we first realize.
We know two criminals were brought up out of their dungeon and placed with Jesus. Each of the prisoners was given a cross to carry – the cross upon which they would be nailed. At a signal from the commanding officer, a platoon of legionnaires armed with spears formed a box around the prisoners so they could not escape.
When everything was ready, the centurion in charge, a Roman officer usually mounted on a horse, shouted, "Forward march." And the solemn procession headed for the skull-shaped hill of Calvary. Leading this procession was a man carrying a sign. The large black letters on the sign read: "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Jn 19:19). Behind the man with the sign was the officer. Behind the officer was the platoon of soldiers with the prisoners in the middle.
The road at the beginning of the Via Dolorosa was about twelve feet wide and led up a hill before it sloped down toward the Damascus Gate. Jesus, with the heavy cross on His shoulders, would have been walking slowly at this point. After what had already happened to Him there was no way He could have walked quickly.
As the newly formed procession moved towards Golgotha, there were crowds of people watching from the streets, the stores, the houses, the city walls and gates. Some of the people mocked. Some were silent. Some yawned. Others giggled and laughed.
In that crowd, however, there were also people who wept at the sight of Jesus carrying the cross to His own crucifixion. Some of these had seen Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead (Jn 12:9, 17). Some had witnessed and even experienced Christ's other miracles. There must have been people in the crowd whom Jesus had healed of blindness, leprosy, deafness, or some kind of crippling disease. You can almost hear them crying, "No! No! You can't do this to Jesus. He healed me." But all these tears and cries were drowned out by the other cries – "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" All these other cries were drowned out by the mocking and jeering and taunting.
C At the city gate – right where Simon was coming into the city – Jesus must have stumbled and fell. He was exhausted. He could carry the cross no further. He could hardly put one foot in front of the other anymore.
The centurion was now in a dilemma. He could not order one of his soldiers to carry the cross. Every soldier was needed for guard detail. Nor could he order a Jew to carry the cross on this holy day. For if a Jew even touched the cross, he would be defiled and unable to partake of the Passover. And, Roman officers were forbidden to interfere with the religious practices of their subjects.
How come no one came forward to help Jesus? Surely a couple of His followers in the crowd could have stepped forward? Where was John – after all, he followed Jesus to Golgotha? And, Peter, he had been at the palace of Caiaphas a few hours before – where was he? But no one came forward to pick up the load for Jesus.
Just then Simon of Cyrene came walking by. Minding his own business. On his way to the Temple. The commanding officer grabbed him. Telling us what? Telling us Simon could not have been a Roman soldier. Nor could he have looked like all the other Jews intent on practicing their religion – or else the officer would never have stopped him. His skin could have been lighter or darker. Maybe he had blond hair while everyone else had dark hair. Maybe it was the color of his eyes. Whatever it was, Simon did not look Jewish to the Roman officer. Which tells me Simon was a convert to the Jewish faith.
So, the officer grabbed Simon and made him carry the cross of Jesus. The task Simon was ordered to do was not a very spectacular one. He merely had to carry the cross a few hundred feet. Yet, it must have upset Simon's plans for the day! What a way to start the Passover season. He had traveled a thousand miles to worship at the Temple and now, almost within sight of the Temple, all his plans come to nothing. He was almost to the Temple and ends up in a procession to a crucifixion. Just to touch the cross, as I already said, was to be defiled, so his day was ruined. And, I am sure some in the crowd began to mock Simon for carrying the cross like a condemned prisoner. So, what Simon did came with a price.
III Simon was Changed/Converted
My next point might surprise you. It certainly surprised me. Scripture tells us that Simon was forever changed by what he did. Simon carried the cross of Jesus and was forever changed.
Where do I get that from our text for today? Buried deep within our text is a little detail, a detail we often overlook, a detail we might wonder about for a moment but then forget and neglect. What is that detail? Simon, we are told, is "the father of Alexander and Rufus" (Mk 15:21).
Remember what we say and believe about Scripture? That every word is inspired. That every word comes from God. That every word has meaning. Obviously, it is important that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus.
Let me backtrack a moment and tell you that Mark's Gospel was written for the Romans – especially for those in the church at Rome. Which means that Mark's Roman audience must know Alexander and Rufus or else Mark would not record this detail. Sure enough, this fact is confirmed for us at the end of Paul's letter to Rome: "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too" (Rom 16:13). It becomes clear that the early Christians knew Rufus and Alexander and their mother – all from Cyrene. And, the early church knew them to be Christians. In fact, the whole family was saved!
They were not the only Christians from Cyrene. Acts 13 tells us about prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch – included in that number was Lucius from Cyrene (Acts 13:1).
Where did all these Christians come from? Is it possible all these converts are the result of Simon? That is the only conclusion we can come to when we are told Simon is "the father of Alexander and Rufus."
That is why I say Simon of Cyrene was changed because he carried the cross of Jesus. We would say he was converted. He was one of three converts that day: there was Simon before the cross, the thief on the cross, and the Roman centurion after the cross. All of them outsiders. All of them showing us that Jesus came for all sinners.
Simon, who was a convert to Judaism, now became a convert to Christianity. Simon was one of the first pagan converts to the Christian faith. He went back to his city and his home and told others all about Jesus – especially his own family.
A "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16). So, what is the point of the verse in front of us this morning? What does it teach us?
First, Simon played a key role in God's plan for our salvation. Simon was privileged to help the Savior to the cross and death. As I already mentioned, Jesus needed the help of Simon or someone like Simon. And, without that help, our Savior would not have died upon the cross. Rather, He would have died some other way – bleeding to death on the pavement, or run through by a sword or spear, or whipped to death. God's plan for our salvation, remember, required the cursed death upon the cross. Simon assisted Jesus in carrying out that plan.
Which means the church of all ages owes Simon a word of thanks.
B There is also a second lesson. Simon shows us what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Mk 8:34).
Now, what is cross-bearing? What really is cross-bearing? Mark's audience knows exactly what it means to be a cross-bearer. They know the cross means persecution, pain, suffering, and death. We know that Mark's gospel was written to Christians living in Rome during the time of Nero's reign as Caesar. During Nero's reign, Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith. Peter has been crucified. Paul has been beheaded. Others have been burned to death.
Let's suppose you are one of those Christians who still worship Jesus, in spite of Nero, in spite of what happened to Peter and Paul. You attend a worship service. A letter from Paul is read, prayer is offered, the Lord's Supper is celebrated, a song is sung. You know the Roman storm-troopers could come through the door at any time. Yet, you worship Jesus anyway. That is cross-bearing.
That is what Simon did. That is what Rufus and Alexander and their mother did. That is what was done by Lucius. They bore their cross for Jesus. Can we do any less?
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