Around Good Friday it is fitting that we should think first of all about the Lord of Glory who was crucified for his people (1 Cor 2:8). It is he alone who obeyed on our behalf, as our substitute. He alone is the Savior. He was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25). Nevertheless, as we think about our Savior’s suffering we should notice some of the other figures in the narrative, since the Holy Spirit saw fit to include them both in the history of salvation and in the biblical narrative. Simon the Cyrene is one such figure. Scripture says:
After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him. They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross (Mark 15:20–21; NASB95).
We know little about Simon. None of the Gospel writers tell us who he was or why he was in Jerusalem. Opinion is divided about whether he was a Jew or a Gentile. If he was a Gentle, perhaps he was in Jerusalem for business? There is a tradition in the interpretation of this passage, taught by Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, Leo the Great, and Isidore of Seville which looks to Simon as a type of the conversion of the Gentiles.1 Other interpreters understandably regard him as a Jew, who had traveled from Cyrene (about 100 miles east of Benghazi, Libya) to Jerusalem for Passover. There was a large Jewish community in Cyrene, so it is just as likely that he was Jewish. It is about 1,200 miles from Cyrene to Jerusalem, so it was a major journey in the Ancient world. He must have been in Jerusalem for some significant purpose.
In any event he got caught up in the events. Mark notes that, as he was “passing by” (παράγοντά) he was “pressed into service” (ἀγγαρεύουσιν). He was just coming into town “from the country.” Apparently, Simon was not even an onlooker, a gawker. He really was just a guy from out-of-town. From a human perspective, he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. As they were wont to do, the Romans grabbed him and put him to work. Consider how bewildered and confused Simon must have been. He stumbles upon a crowd and suddenly Roman soldiers are shouting at him, one or two of them manhandles him, and before he knows what is happening, they are tying the the patibulum, the cross-bar, to him and ordering him to carry it the rest of the way up the hill. “Why me? What crime have I committed? Who is this fellow and why is he being crucified? Are they going to crucify me with him?” What a terrifying turn of events for Simon.
Luke adds that the soldiers led Jesus forward while Simon carried the cross-bar behind him. Unlike Jesus, who knew exactly what was happening and why, who from eternity had volunteered to his Father to become the substitute and Mediator for his people (see e.g., Ps 110; John 17), who had orchestrated the events leading up to his arrest and crucifixion (see John’s account), Simon is presented to us as an outsider overtaken by events larger than himself—indeed, greater than all of us—and given a symbolic position.
Mark gives us a tantalizing clue as to why Simon is included in the narrative. He was the father of Alexander and Rufus, who were known to the Roman congregation to whom Mark wrote. It is as if Mark was saying to the congregation, “Rufus and Alexander can verify this narrative. Their father was present for the event.” So, Simon the Cyrene was an eyewitness to the events Peter had proclaimed to them and which Mark had just narrated to them in his gospel. Simon was also witness to Jesus’ true humanity, who had been so tortured by the Romans that he could no longer carry the patibulum. In the narrative, Simon literally took up Jesus’ cross and became his follower. Surely this is not an accident. We know from the work of N. B. Stonehouse and others that the gospel writers were quite deliberate.2 We need not resort to medieval figurative interpretations—Simon as a lazy Christian who was forced to take up his cross—to observe the symbolism of Simon taking up a cross and following Jesus.3 Are we to infer that the Lord new life to Simon so that he became a follower of Jesus spiritually? We shall probably never know with certainty but consider that we do know his name. Why name him, in this context, at this point in the narrative. It shifts the attention, just briefly, away from the suffering Savior toward this otherwise unknown figure. It is not a random detail. The synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) learned his name because his sons were in the congregation in Rome.
The gospel narrative is not about Simon nor about us. It is about Christ but we are meant to find ourselves in the narrative. We are they who cried for Bar-Abbas and for Jesus’ crucifixion. We are they who deserted him at the last moment. We are he who denied Jesus, even as our Lord was being tried and tortured. Jesus came to save all sorts. When Jesus said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) was he not describing all of us? Are we not all, by nature, at enmity with God and blinded by sin? Simon’s appearance here in the crucifixion narrative reminds us that God the Son really was incarnate, that he really suffered for us, and that there were witnesses who went on to tell the story, thus fulfilling Acts 1:8. Simon’s sons became believers and they, with Peter and Mark, carried the story to the center of the Roman empire and we are still giving witness to that story even now.
1. See Mark DelCogliano, “Gregory the Great on Simon of Cyrene: A Critique of Tradition,” Annali Di Storia Dell’ Esegesi 28, no. 1 (2011): 315–24.
2. Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Guardian, 1944).
3. See DelCogliano, “Gregory the Great on Simon of Cyrene” for a survey of such interpretations.