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Encounter on Golgotha Road

God is always at work, leading us to times and places where we might meet him.

From the editor:

We recently posted an Easter message by John Ortberg, because the themes like atonement, the Cross, resurrection, etc. are never out of season. This week we're posting another Easter sermon for the same reason. This is a unique message, brought to us by one of our featured preachers, Bryan Wilkerson. Wilkerson reflects on the work of Christ from a first-person narrative, more specifically, from the perspective of Simon of Cyrene, the man charged with the task of carrying Christ's cross when Christ was too weakened to carry it himself. This one can work at any time because it's a wonderful look at one man's struggle to find life within religion, discovering instead that life is found in relationship to Christ. Also, here's a great example of how to do first-person narrative in a really effective manner. Powerful stuff!
This sermon was offered on Good Friday, so there's only a relatively brief mention of the Resurrection. Those who want find ideas in this message for crafting their own message might want to add a little more in there about the empty tomb.
One final note: if you want to listen along as you read Wilkerson's sermon, click here.


Greetings! Grace and peace to you, friends. I'm honored to be with you today, and quite impressed by the size of your assembly! I've visited many cities in the empire these past months, sharing my story with all kinds of people. But I have never had such a large audience. To my fellow Jews in the crowd, I bring you greetings from the Holy City. And to those outside the house of Israel—to the Greeks and the Romans—I also say, "Welcome!" One of the many wonderful discoveries I've made is that there is room in the kingdom for everyone.

I suppose I should be used to it by now after telling my story so many times to so many people, but I still feel unworthy of all the attention. I understand it was a remarkable thing that happened to me—a privilege. But I take no credit for it, as if it was an act of compassion or courage. I wish it had been! The truth is I resisted it. I wanted nothing to do with it. As far as I was concerned, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now I know different. Now I know it was God who put me on that very road at that very moment. If it hadn't been for that seemingly random encounter, I would never have carried the cross of Christ. And after what happened to me that day, I have come to believe that there are no random encounters. Rather, God is always at work, leading us to times and places where we might meet him. In fact, your being here today could be just such an occurrence.

A religious man

Let me tell you my story. My name is Simon. I am a Jew by birth, but my family left Judea when I was very young. We settled in the region of Cyrene, in northern Africa. I was raised in the Jewish community there. Though we were far from our homeland, it was a close-knit community. Mine was a very devout household. Every Sabbath we went to the synagogue. From the age of 12, my father taught me the Torah. We observed all the holy days. And like every Jewish boy, I dreamed that one day I would celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.

I grew up to be what you would call a "religious" man. You know the kind I mean: devout, respectable, faithful—and not very much fun to be around! "Do you know Simon?" someone would ask. "Oh, yes. Simon," they would say. "A fine man. Very—uh—religious!" Then they would change the subject. That's how it is when you are religious. People don't really know what to do with you, so they keep a safe distance.

I soon married and had two fine sons. I found honorable work that provided a good living, and was well-thought of in the community. But in my middle years, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with my life—particularly with my religion. My beliefs and practices gave structure to my life, but somehow they never satisfied my deep longing for joy, peace, and nearness to God. I continued to keep all the laws and customs of my people. How could I not, after all those years? But they held less and less meaning for me.

Take Passover, for instance. It celebrates the greatest event in the history of my people—our deliverance from Egypt. You know the story: Pharaoh hardened his heart again and again, and would not allow the Hebrews to leave. God sent the angel of death through the land, taking the life of every firstborn male. But a provision was made for the people of Israel. Every household was required to slaughter a lamb and place the blood of that lamb on the doorframes of their houses. They were to put blood on the sides and blood on the top of the doorframe. When the angel of death passed through the land, it passed over the houses with the blood, and they were spared. Pharaoh finally relented, and our people went free. Every year, for thousands of years, our people have remembered that event with seven days of feasting and ceremonies. Every household offers a sacrificial lamb. But over time, I started to wonder, Why? What does it mean for us, this many years later? These traditions gave shape to my life, but my soul wasn't satisfied. Have you ever found it to be that way with your religion?

To Jerusalem

A year or so ago, I had to travel to Jerusalem to conduct business for several weeks. But I was determined to make it more than a business trip. As it turned out, I was going to be there for Passover. Maybe in the Holy City, at a holy time of year, I would finally discover what was missing from my experience with religion. I was tired of going through the motions. Maybe in Jerusalem my religion would at last become real to me. Maybe then I could live my faith with my whole heart. If nothing happened over my time in Jerusalem, I felt like I would have to give the whole thing up.

I had no family in the city, but when I arrived, I found some Cyrenian Jews in town for the feast. It was a thrill to join thousands of pilgrims at the Temple and to watch as our sacrifice was offered, the smoke rising toward heaven. The words of the priest were familiar and comforting. It was a beautiful ceremony. It truly was. But it did nothing for me. Here I was, in the Temple, at the highest, holiest time of the year, but I felt no closer to God.

That was my problem! Religion wasn't enough. I wanted God! I wanted to know him. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca—these people knew God. Moses met God in the desert through a burning bush. David wrote about walking with God through green pastures and the valley of death. That's what I wanted—a God I could talk to, a God who would meet me, a God who would walk with me. But if I couldn't find him in Jerusalem at Passover, where and when?

On the road

As it turned out, my work took me out of the city for a couple of days, to the country. But I had arranged to be back in time for the end of the feast. My negotiations took longer than I expected—don't they always—so I found myself hurrying in from the country on the very eve of the Sabbath. I was still hopeful I would find my answer before the Passover ended. Soon the walls of the city and the Temple were in view, and I felt that surge of pride that every Jew feels at the sight of Mt. Zion. But as I came to the top of a rise in the road, something sent a chill down my spine. On the crest of the hill, just off to the side of the road, some soldiers were at work. They were digging holes, laying out timbers and ropes, and beside them was a pile of spikes. It was the hill the locals call "Golgotha"—the Place of the Skull. It was clear that they were preparing for a crucifixion.

The mere mention of the word "crucifixion" makes us cringe. We are all familiar with that barbaric form of execution. We know too well how the Romans have used it to terrorize us and keep us in check. And for those of us who are Jews, it is all the more horrible, because we know that death on a tree signals the judgment of God. I hurried past, not wanting to look, or to imagine the poor souls who would be tortured there that day.

More determined than ever to reach the city, I quickened my pace. But rounding a bend in the road, I came upon a small band of soldiers that were being followed by a wailing band of mourners. In a moment it was clear: these folks were the criminals! They were on their way to their crucifixion. You know how it works: the condemned man is forced to carry the crosspiece on which he will die. There were three men that day, each one surrounded by a quadrant of soldiers. One was carrying a sign with the charges against the prisoner.

I cursed my bad luck. Why did I have to be on the road at this moment and happen on this awful sight? I had no choice but to pass by them. I moved as far as I could to the side of the road and hurried past. The first two apparently were thieves. They were cursing their crosses as the soldiers prodded them on. I wasn't sure who I despised more—the criminals or their tormentors. I just wanted get past them as quickly as possible.

The third group was falling behind the first two. As I drew closer, I could read the words written about him: "This is Jesus," the sign read, "King of the Jews." Jesus! I recognized the name. I'd heard talk of him in Jerusalem. He was a rabbi from Galilee, apparently—but he was no ordinary rabbi. Some said he performed signs and wonders. Others called him a prophet. He had quite a following among the common people, but the religious leaders called him a troublemaker. Could this man be that Jesus? But why would the Romans crucify a rabbi?

Again I moved to the side of the road and tried to hurry past, but as I did there was a sudden scuffle. Jesus collapsed under the weight of the beam. The soldiers were kicking and cursing him, but he clearly had no strength to go on. For just a moment, I actually considered helping the man. But I quickly thought better of it. He was a criminal, after all, and these soldiers were hardened, angry men. The best thing I could do was to get out of there as quickly as possible.

I was almost past them when I felt the weight of a sword pressed on my shoulder—a moment every Jew dreads. Remember we are a subject people, living in an occupied country. Any Roman soldier has the right to impress any Jew into his service. If he is tired of carrying his coat, and he tells you to carry it for him, you must. For one mile. It's the law! I was not interested in carrying anyone's coat that day, so I pretended not to notice and continued on my way. But the solider pressed harder with his sword, knocking me to the ground. What did he want with me? I didn't do anything! Another step or two and I would have been out of his reach!

"You! Carry his cross!" the soldier said.

What did he say? I thought. Carry his cross? Oh no! Anything but that! I want nothing to do with this man's cross, this man himself, or this whole scene. I don't belong with people like this! I'm just a business man, on my way to a holiday! But these soldiers were in no mood for a hard time, so I hoisted the wooden beam, rested it across my shoulders, and began walking toward Golgotha.

Again I cursed my bad luck. If only I'd taken a different road! If only I'd left a few minutes earlier! If only a number of things had or hadn't happened, and I would never have run into this Jesus!

But it was too late for all that now. All that was left was to get it over with. As soon as we reached the hill I would drop that cross and get out of there. I knew that if I hurried, I could still make it into the city before nightfall, in time for dinner with my friends.

Glancing sideways, I got a good look at the condemned man. It was obvious he had already suffered a great deal. The robe on his back was soaked with blood, as if he'd been whipped. His face was puffy and bruised, and blood oozed from a circle of wounds around his head. As I labored under the weight of the cross, I wondered how he had carried it this far in his condition. He didn't speak, but at one point our eyes met. I expected to see anger or defiance—what I had seen in the other condemned men. Instead I saw gratitude. I also saw a sense of certainty in his eyes—as if he'd been expecting me. And while he must have been in great pain, there was no defeat in his eyes. Instead, there was courage. There was a resolve I could not understand. It was as if he was determined to do this. Who was this man, and what had he done to deserve death by crucifixion? I thought to myself. And we settled into a strange rhythm, he and I, as if we were in it together.

On the hill

When we arrived at Golgotha, the soldiers were already at work on the other two crosses. With grim efficiency they set about their task. The wooden beams were laid out on the ground, the victims were forced onto their backs, and the victims' arms were stretched and held down while a soldier pounded a spike through their hands. The men cursed and screamed with each blow, but the executioners didn't flinch.

The soldiers directed me to the center space, and they told me to drop the cross. When I let it go, my body rose involuntarily and I nearly lost my balance. "You're free to go!" the centurion barked. But I wasn't. For some reason, I just couldn't leave Jesus. After carrying his cross all that way—walking beside him, exchanging glances—I felt like I knew him and he knew me.

Within moments they had nailed him to the crosspiece, though I heard no cries or cursing. Quickly they raised the cross off the ground. Then the worst moment came: when they dropped it into place in the hole, and all his weight came to rest on his nail-pierced hands and feet. You could hear the flesh tear and his shoulders pop as they were pulled from their sockets. A great rush of air escaped his lungs, and from that moment on, he was gasping for breath. Blood began to run from his hands and feet, and the color quickly drained from his face.

A crowd had gathered by this time. I thought to myself, What kind of twisted curiosity would attract people to such a scene?But these people were not just watching. They were mocking him. Not the other two victims. Just Jesus. They were laughing at him and calling down curses on him. What had he done that they should despise him so? He clearly wasn't like the other men. They were as foul-mouthed and hateful as their tormentors. But all the while, Jesus was calm and controlled. No matter what they said, he didn't retaliate. If anything, there was kindness in his eyes. When he did speak, it was not what you expected to hear: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Forgive them? Forgive who? Forgive soldiers? The crowd? All of us standing by silently in the face of such wickedness and injustice? And who was he to call God his Father?

Gradually the crowd dispersed, and the hill grew quiet. The only sound was the labored breathing of the dying men and the bickering of the soldiers as they gambled for the men's belongings.

Soon darkness descended, even though it was the middle of the day. Suddenly Jesus shouted: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" For the first time he seemed to be losing control—as if the anguish of it all had overtaken him. Still, he was talking to God. It was as if something was happening between the two of them—something deep and powerful.

After about three hours of darkness, there were only a few of us left. Some women were there, and one man who appeared to be one of Jesus' followers. All afternoon I studied the sign above his head: "This Is Jesus." The name means "savior." But what kind of savior was he? Who was he saving by dying on a cross? And then there was the rest of the title: "King of the Jews." I'm a Jew. Was this my king? I thought to myself, I would be honored to have such a man for my king!

Jesus had been quiet for some time, but then he spoke again: "It is finished!" It was as if he was on some sort of mission.

After he spoke, we watched him closely. Many minutes passed, and he stopped breathing and died. But he did so calmly—as if he meant to.

As sundown approached and the Sabbath drew near, I wondered who would take his body down. I had heard that he had a large following and a small band of disciples, but where were they all? Finally, a couple of older men came, and with the help of some women, they lowered his limp body, wrapped it in cloths, and carried it away.

No random events

It was over, but I couldn't leave. Something had happened on that hill, but I wasn't sure what. A few hours before, I had never met Jesus. I had only heard of him. But having carried his cross—having watched him die—I was sure I could never forget him.

Before leaving the hill, I turned to look one more time at the cross, and what I saw took my breath away. His body was gone, but the bloodstains remained. There was blood on both ends of the crosspiece where his hands had been nailed. More blood was on the upright, where his bloodied head had rested. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. There was blood on the sides and blood on the top—just like the blood my ancestors put on their doorframes that first Passover to assure that when death descended on the land of Egypt, the people of God were spared by the blood of a lamb.

Something had happened on that hill. We had been passed over. Death had come to that hill—the judgment of God—and it had fallen on Jesus. But I—we—had been passed over. This wasn't some religious ceremony. This was real. This was powerful. This was holy ground. Like Moses at the burning bush, I took off my sandals. God was speaking to me, and I spoke back. There was no priest present. No ceremonial words spoken. I just talked to God, just as Jesus had done. I thanked him for bringing me to this place. I thanked him for allowing me to meet Jesus. I asked his forgiveness for my lack of faith, and I asked him to show me more, so that I could know him better. I told him I would take up that cross and carry it every day if it meant I could be closer to Jesus.

My friends, I no longer believe in chance encounters or random events. God is always at work, leading us to times and places where we might meet him. That was my time and my place—the road to Golgotha on the day Christ died. Who knows, but this may be your time and your place. Maybe you sense that God has led you here today—that he's speaking to you. Maybe you are a religious person, like I was, but still searching for a faith that is real. Maybe in this moment you sense God drawing near to you, speaking to you. Look to the cross, as I did. Talk to God. Bring him your questions, and ask him to show you the truth about Jesus. And for those of you who are like me—those who are already followers of Jesus—thank God for leading you to him, and join me in telling your story to anyone who will listen. And when in the course of your journey through life you come upon something that looks like a cross—something heavy, something hard to carry, something that challenges your faith and tests your strength—pick it up and carry it. It will lead you to holy ground. It will lead you closer to Christ.

It was getting late, so I hurried back to Jerusalem just as evening fell. I searched out my friends and told them what I'd seen. The next Sabbath day was wonderful. I worshiped as I had not worshiped since I was a boy! The Scripture, the prayers—they had new meaning to me! God was near. I could sense his presence. We spent the entire day considering the Scriptures—the stories of Passover and the prophecies about the Messiah. All over the city people were talking about Jesus. There were even rumors that he'd been seen. That he was alive! But how could that be? I'd seen him die! I didn't know what to make of all these reports, but I had this great peace that God would make it all clear to me.


A few weeks later, my business was completed. But I decided to stay through the Feast of Pentecost which always comes some 50 days after Passover. I was in the city, on my way to the Temple, when one of my Cyrenian friends found me. "Come quickly," he said. "Something's happening. They're talking about Jesus!"

We ran to a house where a crowd had gathered, and a man was preaching. His name was Simon, like mine, but he was also called Peter. "Men of Israel," he said, "listen to this. Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs. The man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross."

I thought, That's right! That's what happened. I was there!

"But God has raised this Jesus to life," he continued. "And we are all witnesses of this fact. Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah."

Then it was true! I thought. The rumors were right! He is alive! So along with many others, I cried out, "Brothers, what must we do to be saved?"

Peter replied, "Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, and you will receive the forgiveness of your sins, and the gift of God's Holy Spirit."

That was all I needed to hear. Along with thousands of others, I was baptized that day. I soon returned to Cyrene and shared the news with my wife and my sons Rufus and Alexander. They, too, believed and were baptized. We have been following the way of Jesus ever since, and I have been traveling the empire, telling my story to as many as will listen.

To see an outline of Wilkerson's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Related sermons

The Greatest Trial Ever Held

The story of Pilate
Leith Anderson

On the Cross

The account of Good Friday
Sermon Outline:

*First-person narrative (Simon of Cyrene); main headings indicate scene shifts


After my encounter with Christ, I have come to believe that there are no random encounters. God is always at work, leading us to times and places where we might meet him.

I. A religious man

II. To Jerusalem

III. On the road

IV. On the hill

V. No random events

VI. Pentecost