A Day with Simon of Cyrene
A Day with Simon of Cyrene
My time on the road of history was brief. I came suddenly and left just as suddenly. But it was an important time. It was that time. For you to understand what it was like, you must understand something about who I am. I'm a Jew, but I did not live in the land of our fathers. My name: Shimon (Simon to you), from the Roman province of Cyrene.
I was raised both Greco-Roman and Jewish
Now, everything was a Roman province in my time. We tolerated the Romans, of course; you could do little else but tolerate Romans. If you didn't tolerate them, they got rid of you. But I lived in Cyrene, to you, North Africa. And as I said, I was Jewish by birth and by upbringing.
There was another side that made me, in many ways, two people. It was the cultured side, the side of the empire. Not the Roman Empire. Those Romans could do nothing but collect. No, the culture of our world was Greek. I was called a Hellenistic Jew by our countrymen in Palestine, and being both Jew and Greek caused me some concern. We had to go on this particular year to the Feast of Passover of unleavened bread, and we would stay the fifty-some days afterwards for the Feast of Pentecost. The Law of God said that every Jewish male was to go up to the Holy City three times a year; in the fall for the Feast of Booths, and in the spring to the Feast of Passover and the Feast of Pentecost. And so we went.
Now in those days the safest way to go was by ship, if you could call it that—those big tubs that the Romans had, which were run by Phoenician sailors. It would usually take us two weeks. Now, that was a good two weeks for me, for it gave me hours to read the Holy Scriptures.
From my youth, of course, I had known the Scriptures. I knew well the first five books of Moses. (Certainly you know at least that. I mean, anyone with any culture can know the first five books of Moses … I see you don't know them. I'm speaking to an uncultured group. I will work with you.) I had memorized much of them, but there were other things that I learned, and they disturbed me. As we would travel, I would think of the things that Isaiah and other of our prophets said. And there would always bring into my mind the question that comes into every Jewish mind: Could these things really be so—the things about the kingdom and of the greatness of Israel, which would be restored as in the days of our great King Solomon? I wondered about it. It raced through my mind. And then the things about the Anointed One, the Mashiach, the Christos, to you, the Messiah, the Christ.
My Greek side said: Certainly, these things are ridiculous. They cannot be true. They're only fables and myths. That's what the Greeks said. Everything to the Greeks was fables and myths. But my Jewish side said: Certainly not. These are true. Do not listen to your Greek side. There was this great argument at all times within me, as with every Jew that was a Hellenist.
I saw the young rabbi for the first time
As always, we came to the port of Joppa and took our journey up to the Holy City. Our journey to the Holy City was almost the most difficult time, for on land we had to travel by foot for two days. And we climbed. You could not find, borrow, beg, or steal even a mangy donkey. And so we walked with others and we thought. But the day came when we came to the crest of the hill and looked, and there before us was our ancient city. (You see, I'm becoming more Jewish already! It was our city Jerusalem, the City of David.) Perhaps this year it would happen. Perhaps this year the Messiah would come, and would it not be wonderful if he came while I was there?
With others we poured toward the city. Staying inside the city itself, of course, was out of the question. Only the very wealthy stayed in the city. And I am just a man of average means. We would camp out on the ground outside of the west wall. Others were outside the east wall. From there, we would go into the city for the celebrations of the various days, for the reading of the Scriptures in the various synagogues. We had a synagogue of Cyrene. It says so in what you call the New Testament. Some of my countrymen had moved to Palestine, and we would go there.
On this particular feast, I went into the city for the first time with my two sons, Alexander and Rufus. As we went into the city, I sensed something—there was an excitement. It was different than before. I tell you, as we walked in we could feel it from all sides. It's always exciting to be in the city at a feast time, particularly the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The excitement did not come from our priests and our Levites. I could never understand how these men could take something as exciting and marvelous as the exodus from Egypt, the deliverance of God through the seas, the Passover, and make it dull—but they managed. There was something else this time.
I suppose it was the rumors of the young rabbi from the Galilee, a carpenter by trade. This young man had caused a great stir. It was said that he actually performed miracles. In fact, it was said that he had raised people from the dead, and if you were to go to the little village of Bethany, you could see one of them. My Greek side said, "Certainly this cannot be true," but I had to admit it was exciting.
Now, we'd had many, many rabbis predict that a messiah would come. In fact, every year they would say, "Yes, yes, he is just around the bend." But with the Romans, the bend kept getting bigger and bigger. The kind of rabbi they predicted was very different from this young man. We had plenty of messiahs who came—or rather men who claimed they were the Messiah, just as our leadership predicted, men who had come to rid us of Rome and rule over us. The only difficulty was, usually Rome defeated them, and sometimes it was even better to have Rome than to have them.
But, this one was different. He did not come claiming to defeat Rome. In fact, early in the week that we arrived, he did a very strange thing. Now, I did not see it myself, but it was said that he rode into the city through the east gate, claiming messiahship, on the back of a donkey. But how could our Messiah ride a donkey? Rome had horses. I know the prophet Zechariah said he would come on a donkey, and the people shouted "Hosanna" as Zechariah said they would. But our rabbis told us this was all symbolic. Really he would not ride a donkey. He would be mighty. I could never understand why that part was symbolic and the ones about his might and power weren't, but that's what they said, and I wanted to believe that. As a cultured Greek I would believe it. Certainly a man riding a donkey could not be Messiah.
So the week went on. It was a wonderful time. We heard the Holy Scriptures read again in the Hebrew language. It was marvelous music to my ears. As the days went by, he, too, created quite a stir. He would argue, I am told, in the temple area. In fact, at one point we saw him at a distance. Always a crowd around him. He would argue with our religious lawyers. (We called them scribes.) He would argue with the priests. It seemed like everyone wanted to argue with him. I thought again and again that week about the Messiah, because that's usually what I think about when I come.
But this time, I thought of this one who was so everyday, so average, almost a very humble man. (Which, to us Greeks, is not a good thing.) I thought of what he said and did and the stir he created, and I had to say to myself: Certainly he cannot be the one. He would not be that way. But at the same time, some of the words of the prophets would come back about a humble Messiah. Then there was something else that always disturbed me. Every one of our feasts, we were told by our rabbis, symbolized the Messiah in some way. Every one. And Passover, what was it? It was the slaying of the Passover lamb. But how could the Messiah fit in with that? And then it would come back to me again. The writings of the prophet Isaiah, "wounded for our sins … a sheep before his shearers is dumb …" All of these things were confusing my mind as I thought of him.
I had to carry the cross of this young rabbi
Then it was Friday. This was the day that we celebrated the Passover in the evening. It was the day the Passover lamb was killed following the Judean tradition, which we in Cyrene followed. And before the third hour, I went into the city. It was already hot and sticky for the spring, but, sweat pouring off of me, I went. There was excitement. I was going in to prepare to kill the Passover lamb, which was killed somewhere between the ninth and eleventh hour. I would kill it with my friends and then that evening we would take the Passover together. There was a great crowd going into the city and I was sort of pushed along with them. I was thinking about what I had heard this week, about the Messiah and all of these things.
We walked through one of the western gates and onto the worn stones of the street. I was so deep in thought, I didn't notice that as I walked the crowd was no longer walking with me. They had peeled back against the wall. Suddenly I looked up as if waking from a dream, and there they were: Romans. But not just any Romans. I knew what they were about. It was an execution detail. We saw too many of them in our day. First would come the centurion riding his horse—arrogant, proud, Rome. Then would come a man who holds a sign marking out the crime. I could not see that. Then there would come the four foot soldiers, and in their midst the prisoner. I tried to leap to the side. They would run me down and think nothing about it. But as I did, I looked between the soldiers and I saw the prisoner, not his face, and I knew how this one was to die.
You see, in our day, Rome killed men in many ways. Some they beheaded. That was the death of a high official, but the highest was strangulation. Then there was the pillar to be shot with arrows, and they would even stone. These were considered to be good ways to die. Then there were lesser ways, like being fed to animals. But this man would enjoy none of those, for he would die by what we consider as Jews to be the most wretched way to end life; he was going to the crucifixion. (I know you wear the little crosses around your neck. To us, that would be a shock. Oh, you should honor it today, but we didn't.)
It was a terrible way to die. First they would take the victim, after he was condemned, and beat him, kick him, and spit upon him again and again. Then they would lay on him the cross—which is how I knew this man would die by crucifixion—not the whole cross; just one beam, a crosspiece. And he would carry that to the place of execution. But as he went, a soldier would administer flagellation. You know flagellation—whipping, but not with any normal whip. It was a whip that had a number of long leather thongs, and imbedded in and decorating each one were bits of metal and bone. One lash of this would lay a man's back open to the bone itself. Many men died under that alone.
As I looked at this man, I knew that he had already received flagellation. His back was bloody and stuck to the undergarment. He was bending under the great beam. He had not fallen but it looked as if he might. Whether he ever would have, I don't know. As I pushed to the wall, the Roman soldier who was closest to me raised his whip as if to strike the prisoner and then he thought better of it. He looked at me and he said, "Pick it up!" He wanted me to pick up the crosspiece. And I thought in my mind: I will not pick that up.
The Romans had this terrible law: They can ask you to carry anything they like for one mile, what is considered a reasonable load. They call it the law of conscription. We called it other things! We did not like it. Now, he was asking me to pick up that piece of wood that this man had carried. Though we hated the Romans, if someone was being crucified, even a Jew knew that this man must be cursed by God and had done a terrible thing. If I touched that wood and put it on my body, I would be unclean, and then I could not kill the Passover lamb or take the Passover. I would not carry it.
The Roman looked at me in a way that Romans have which says: You will carry it! So I lifted it. But as I did, the prisoner turned and looked at me. And my heart stopped. It was him. It was the young rabbi. Though his face was beaten as now I know the prophet Isaiah said it would be, I saw him. I looked into his eyes and it surprised me; there was no fear. If I were going to crucifixion, I would be fearful. There was pain and sorrow but no fear. I lifted the piece as if in a dream and began to walk with him.
He spoke only once during the time that we walked out of the gate and to the place of execution. Jewish women were following us lamenting. They cry and moan. It's terrible, but they do it to say that they are sorry someone is dying. They're not really sorry; they just do it. It's just part of our culture. I felt it was not right with this one, even though he must have been a terrible criminal who had done something I had not heard of. Finally he turned to them and he said, "Weep for yourselves." And then he uttered a terrible prophecy about the destruction of our city and of its people. I thought, by the beards of the prophets, This must be the words of a bitter man. But it didn't seem as if he were bitter. It seemed as if what he was saying would happen.
Outside our ancient city to the west is a great garbage dump. It is on a hill that is appropriately called The Place of the Skull. Rising from it is a series of posts, some higher than others. That is where Rome puts to death its most desperate criminals. Already a crowd was there. The piece was taken from me, and I was shoved back into the crowd. I was so glad; I was ready to go and wash and take ablutions. But somehow, I couldn't go. I stepped back into the crowd and watched.
It is never pleasant to watch a crucifixion. I have seen dozens in my lifetime, but I have never gotten used to it. First, the hands are stretched on the great beam and a spike is driven through the hand. Then, the victim is hoisted and the top of one post has the beam placed on it. The man's legs are stretched, and he is tied into place. His feet are put together, and then a huge spike is driven through his feet. Then the agony begins. People walk by and they taunt the prisoners. They spit upon them and yell at them, and he was no different. The difference was that it was our leaders who were doing this. Our priests! "Others he saved; himself he cannot save," I heard some of them say. I couldn't hear it all, but I heard enough.
He spoke, too. I remember one thing he said. It shocked me. He said, "Father, forgive them …" and I didn't hear the rest of it. But I thought, Forgive them? You should be praying for your own forgiveness and you're praying for these? A man as guilty as you should be fearing to meet God. Then as if by a voice, something inside me said, "Unless, of course, he is innocent and they are guilty."
Time went on, and then at the sixth hour it happened. It is what you call the noon hour, when the sun is highest in the heavens. The earth was blackened. A darkness came. I have seen sandstorms, rainstorms, snowstorms … every kind of storm in my life. I have never seen the likes of this! It was as if suddenly the sun were taken from heaven and it got very quiet. It was as if the world had stopped. The soldiers around him became very quiet and the color began to drain from their faces.
And then, the ninth hour came. He cried out in the language of the Greeks, "Tetelestai ("it is finished")! And I thought, What is finished?
Then he said, as he bowed his head, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." He put his head on his chest, and suddenly the earth shook as if God took it in his hand and shook it. And we stood trembling in fear. No one taunted. And then he was gone. The sun came out again. People came out of their shock. Life went on. Merchants went by. And I went back to my camp.
I finally believed at the Day of Pentecost
I planned just to forget it. I would wait fifty days for Pentecost, and then we would go home. But I could not forget it. Some may have walked away, but Simon of Cyrene could not walk away from it; I have never understood from that day to this how men can. I thought as the days went by. Was he the Messiah? Could the prophet Isaiah be right that he was "wounded for our sins?"
Oh, there were the rumors in the city. You see, he was buried in the tomb of one very rich man, Joseph of Arimathea. But we were told that the tomb was empty! The line from our religious leadership was that his disciples had stolen the body. Even I had to laugh at that. Have you ever seen his disciples? They weren't brave enough to stand with him at the cross. They certainly would not come and defy Rome and their nation to steal a body. That was ridiculous. Maybe these poor simple Jews would buy that, but a cultured Greek would not. But if they didn't steal his body, what happened to it? Then there were the other rumors. They were far more disturbing—that he had come back to life.
Now, at least some of us believe in resurrection. It was said that he had risen. He had been seen. I tell you, I did not have a night's sleep. The city itself became tense. His death solved nothing. Day after day it went on, until finally the day of Pentecost came and I thought: Now I can leave and it will be over. I went with others into the city that day to go to the festival. It is a happy festival, but as I went I had a feeling: Something is going to happen.
And suddenly there was a great commotion and people began to run toward a certain area of our city, not toward the temple. I have thought about this much since that day. I did not know it, but God was through with the temple for our time. So I ran with others to see what was happening. We came to a very plain square, but there in the middle of it were some of the very men who had followed him. I knew who they were. I had heard. They began to speak and miracles happened, but I needed no miracle. As I stood there and listened, I knew.
Finally, one Simon of Galilee, a big, ugly fellow, a fisherman, who somehow led them (I could never understand how they could put up with such a leader. It was said that he actually denied him. He turned his back on him. He was a traitor) stood up in the midst of all of them and he began, there in the city of Jerusalem, to talk about this wondrous Jesus of Nazareth. I tell you, it was a marvelous thing! As I listened, my heart beat so loud and hard that my garments began to move. He told about how this one had lived a perfect life, how he had been sent from God, how he had done great miracles, and then how he had died because we the Jews had crucified him.
"But he was the Messiah!" he said. "Because of that God has taken him from death to life. He has come out of the grave, bodily, and we were there." I knew it was true. As we stood there, I could see him looking at me as I picked up that cross. I listened to him, and it was as if he himself were talking to me again.
Simon said finally, "House of Israel, let it be known to you that God has made this one whom you've crucified the Lord and Christ."
Someone said, "What must we do?" And I was there, "Yes, what?"
He said, "Trust in him. Believe in him as the Messiah."
In that moment I believed, and that cross I had carried became a wonderful load, a life-giving load. For in that moment I understood that on that day I went into the city, it was not his exhaustion, it was not a Roman's cruelty that caused that Roman to say, "Pick it up!" Instead it was God himself who had chosen to confront Simon of Cyrene.
And that is how it happens as you walk through life. That is why you are here. You are not here to hear Simon. You are here to meet Christ, who was crucified. For as we walk through life, suddenly we turn the corner and there he will be. He will say to you, "Will you accept my cross?" And when he offers us the cross, he is saying, "Let my death be your death. Or will you die for yourselves and be cursed by God?" His death became mine and his life became mine, and Simon of Cyrene was a man born in a new way.
That is my story. I came to let you once again face him. You're not facing me. You are facing the one who carried the cross. He is coming to each one of you this morning. And if you have not accepted that cross, if you have not trusted him, he is saying to you, "Here is your chance." You may not have another. I passed him once. I would not pass him again. This is your opportunity. Do like Simon. Trust in this Jesus who went to the cross. Take his cross and his life to yourself as Simon of Cyrene did.
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?
James Rose served as pastor or Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan, New York.