“And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross” (Matthew 27:32).
by David Hrechuk
This small detail of our Lord’s crucifixion experience — the bearing of Jesus’ cross by Simon the Cyrene — leads to the question, “Why was this event recorded in three of the Gospels?” Here we suggest several lessons that come from meditating on this event.
All writers tend to include or exclude facts surrounding their narrative in accord with their own perspective. Facts are mentioned if they enhance the narrative in the author’s eyes. For example, whether the day was sunny or rainy is only mentioned if it factors into the events being described. Three of the Gospel writers saw fit to record that Jesus had help carrying his cross. What did Matthew, Mark, and Luke want us to gain from this detail?
From just one verse in each of these Gospels, we are told that a man by the name of Simon, who originally came from the country of Cyrene (present-day Libya), was compelled by the soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross part of the way to Calvary. Evidently we are not to look along doctrinal lines for an explanation of this event as John pointedly says, “And he [Jesus] bearing his cross went forth” (John 19:17). Theologically, we understand that Jesus alone “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). Simon the Cyrenian’s actions had no relationship to our Lord’s sacrificial offering. So then, from what perspective were Matthew, Mark, and Luke writing?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, he entered a new phase of his ministry. His prior work of proclaiming the kingdom to the nation of Israel was accomplished. Now his ministry was focused on preparing his followers for the long period of his absence. Many of Jesus’ teachings and experiences had a broader application than the immediate present. They
pointed forward to the Gospel Age. From this perspective the Gospel writers wanted us to consider the bearing of Jesus’ cross by Simon.
Three Questions Considered
(1) How could this experience of Jesus have intended lessons for his followers? Part of the narrative detail of each of the Gospels is that Simon was compelled to carry the cross. The implication seems to be that it was mere coincidence that Simon was there when the soldiers picked someone from the crowd. We are told nothing of the soldiers’ motivation for this order or of Simon’s feelings on the matter. This suggests that the focus of this picture is not Simon, but Jesus.
When Jesus was at his weakest, when his cross became too heavy to bear, help was provided so that his course could be finished. The process of laying down his life could continue. The pain, the thirst, the mockery, the shame, the turning away of God’s face, still awaited him. The aid Jesus received by the carrying of his cross enabled him to lay down his life fully
Clearly, Jesus’ inability to carry the full weight of the cross was not a picture of unfaithfulness or shortcomings in the performance of his consecration vows. Rather it was illustrative of the fact that just as our Head, Jesus, required help, so also each of his body members would sometimes need the help of their brethren to make their calling and election sure.
The idea of the “body of Christ” was a new concept to the disciples. For it was only at the last supper that Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34). The carrying of the cross was meant to teach that while none of us were in the position to help our Lord in the laying down of his life, it would be the
privilege of all of his followers to help each other as they lay down their lives. We can then see why the Gospel writers drew attention to this incident in order to highlight our dependence
upon each other.
(2) Do we recognize the necessity of brethren in our lives? Our relationship with the Lord is by virtue of our position in the body of Christ. We cannot have a full relationship with the Heavenly Father outside of this arrangement. In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul likens each of us to specific body parts. He does this to illustrate that we cannot operate independently.
If we find it difficult to look to our brethren for help, we should ask ourselves, “Could it be an element of spiritual pride that is preventing us from being vulnerable before brethren?” If so, let us remember that it was our Lord himself who needed help with his cross. All who would be a follower of Christ must “take up his [own] cross” (Matthew 16:24). Are we more able to carry our own figurative cross than the Lord?
There is a practical side to relying upon brethren for strength. It means that we must be in contact with each other. If the scriptures tell us that we need the help of brethren to make our calling and election sure, we must ask ourselves, “Are we taking full advantage of our opportunities?” If we are physically near brethren, are we “assembling ourselves together” with them (Hebrews 10:25)? If we are not physically near brethren, are we using the many ways in which we can communicate with each other?
What a privilege it is to belong not just to a community of believers but to a family of believers! The brotherly love that we share means that we have a place where we belong. It is a place where we are valued, and where our victories and our setbacks are alike understood. It is within the brotherhood that the exhortation “we then that are strong ought to bear the
infirmities of the weak” takes place (Romans 15:1). Sometimes we are the strong ones and sometimes we are the weak ones. But whichever condition we find ourselves in at the moment, it gives us a role to play within the body of Christ.
(3) What specifically am I trying to accomplish by helping brethren? Remember, Simon did not take away Jesus’ cross. He merely enabled Jesus to continue so that he could die on that very cross. Likewise, we are not trying to remove trials from the lives of brethren. Instead, we are endeavoring to help brethren bear up underneath the weight of suffering. It is important at all times to keep in mind that brethren must work out their own issues. We cannot do it for them. None of the
Lord’s followers can bypass suffering.
It takes wisdom to effectively help the brethren because we want to influence them correctly. Our intention should always be to look out for their highest spiritual interests. This means that we are not just offering unlimited sympathy. There are times when we are suffering for Christ’s sake, but there are other times when we may be “suffering as busybodies in other men’s matters” (1 Timothy 5:13). Those who suffer for Christ deserve brotherly assistance, the other may require a different response.
We also want to be very careful that we do not automatically attempt to assuage the guilt that brethren are feeling. Guilt may be an indication that there is something weighing on one’s conscience. We should not encourage others to ignore such matters. The proper approach would be to encourage brethren to deal with these matters and take them before the Lord.
The question naturally follows: “How do I develop the skill of cross-bearing?” One of the guiding principles must be humility. The Apostle Paul described his attitude in witnessing: “Unto the Jews, I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews and to them that are without the law, as without the law,” etc. (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). Paul changed his approach and method based on the individual. We can follow that example by approaching brethren in a way that is most helpful in their particular circumstance. We should be willing to put ourselves in the background.
What one may find strengthening when they are struggling is not necessarily what would strengthen others, because of different temperaments and different stages of development. Wisdom dictates that we consider the disposition of those we are trying to help. We should tailor our communications, our words, and our actions to the individual.
We must ask ourselves, “How can I lessen this brother’s burden as seen from his perspective?” Just because our words may be true does not mean it will be comforting at the time. Our sympathy should extend from a heart that enters into the experiences of others, even if those experiences are unfamiliar to us.
Another guiding principle in helping others in cross-bearing is discretion. There is a time to speak and a time not to speak. Some brethren undergo trials that are so deep and complex that we are ill-equipped to enter into their experience. A wrong word only adds to their burden. In such cases, we should not feel compelled to say anything. The Apostle Paul writes that
sometimes we cannot even find the words to pray for ourselves, while our new creature has “groaning too deep for words” that are understood only by our Heavenly Father (Romans 8:26 ESV). Sitting in silent sympathy, the grip of a hand, weeping for their sufferings, can be all that is needed to enable these brethren to continue on for another day.
Other brethren have been so buffeted by trials that their hold on faith is loosening. Expressions of their discouragement and battles with doubt should not necessarily be met with rebuke and admonition. Our role is to strengthen these brethren to work through this issue for themselves. It takes heavenly wisdom to know how to encourage these without encouraging their doubts. We must be careful not to stumble one of these little ones. In such cases, silence speaks volumes and careful speech is rewarded.
Remember also the great influence the flesh has upon our new creature. Physically suffering can overwhelm the mind, causing spiritual thoughts to recede into the background. Thus another aspect of assisting others may be addressing temporal needs. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one … says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good
is that?” (James 2:15,16 ESV). However, because this is not spiritual aid, it must be done with much forethought and discretion.
When trying to help others, things do not always work as planned. What do we do when we encounter difficulties? It can be discouraging when our efforts to help brethren are not well received. Assisting in cross-bearing is a skill that is developed over time as we mature spiritually. Instead of feeling rejected, we should consider the experience as from the Lord and use it as an opportunity to gain further insights into ourselves and others.
Remember the long-suffering of Jesus toward us. It may take time to appreciate some lessons. God does not give up on us and we should not give up on brethren. We may recall interactions with brethren in which we did not respond appropriately. It may have been weeks, months, or years later, that those words and actions became blessed memories that even now provide strength. Brethren may never know what influence they have had on another’s life. This is a natural result of unfeigned love for brethren, not seeking reward or recognition.
Assisting others in cross-bearing comes at a cost. It requires the sacrifice of our time and our energy. When we take on the burdens of others we may even come under its crushing weight. Our hearts become heavy for them. Our minds become strained with their troubles. Our strength begins to be depleted as we care for others. This is the result of laying down our lives for brethren. It is a life-long work that increases as the new creature grows at the expense of the old mind and body.
There is one last aspect to this Memorial meditation on Simon the Cyrene that provides food for thought. In the Gospel of Mark, Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus are mentioned as if they were known to brethren. The implication is that carrying the cross of Jesus was a life-changing event for Simon and his family. Perhaps, once he witnessed the death of a man who was like no other, he took up his own cross, denied himself, and followed Jesus.