Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.
(Matthew 27:27-32 ESV)
After mocking Jesus the soldiers led Him away to crucify Him. The entire process surrounding crucifixion was meant to provide maximum pain and maximum humiliation in a public display that would deter others from committing the same offense. To that end, after being whipped to within inches of their life, the crucifixion victim was then forced to carry his own cross through the streets of the city to the place where he would be crucified.
In Jerusalem, this would mean walking what has come to be known as the Via Dolorosa – the Way of Suffering – to a place called Golgotha so called because it looks like a skull. The Latin word “Calvary” is derived from the Latin word “calvaria”, which is a translation of the Aramaic “Golgotha”. Both words mean “skull”. This location is known today and is just beyond Jerusalem’s northern wall.
It may be that the victim carried only the crossbeam, although he may have carried the entire cross which would have weighed over 200 pounds. To increase the humiliation, the victim would be naked as he walked through the streets in full public view. He would also have the charges against him written on a sign that hung around his neck. That sign would be affixed to the cross above the victim’s head to identify his crime as he slowly died.
Considering the trauma of being excessively whipped just moments before, it was often difficult for the victim to actually carry his cross. This is precisely what happened with Jesus.
It should be remembered that nothing the Romans did was out of compassion. They did not remove the cross from Jesus because they felt bad for Him. They removed it because He was moving too slowly, probably stumbling and falling often. Jesus was taking too much time, slowing things down, so they compelled a man named Simon, from Cyrene, to carry Jesus’ cross.
Cyrene was a Greek town in north Africa. It had a sizeable Jewish population. Since Simon is a Jewish name we can conclude that Simon was a Jew living in a Gentile land who came to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover celebration. How his feelings must have changed after being pressed into non-voluntary service by the Roman soldiers.
We don’t know much about Simon, but we do know that two of his sons, Alexander and Rufus, were believers and were well known to the early church [Mark 15:21]. It’s possible that Simon was a believer as well. It’s also possible that this experience led him and his family to faith in Christ.
Simon walked behind Jesus to Golgotha [Luke 23:26]. He would have seen Jesus’ back – stripped of its skin and covered in blood. He would have seen Jesus stumbling along the cobblestone streets and up the hill to where He would die. This is precisely what those of us who claim to be followers of Christ are called to do – take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Just as Jesus identified with sinners [Matthew 3:14-15; Mark 2:15-17] we are to identify with Jesus by taking up our cross [Matthew 16:24-26]. We must willingly die to self, enduring the world’s ridicule as we live a life that does the will of God. When we do our lives will impact others.
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