The gospels' focus during Jesus's crucifixion is rightly on our Savior Jesus Christ. His suffering for our sins as foretold by Old Testament prophets is told in frank terms in every gospel. It is a sobering story which we would do well to think about often. Jesus died in our place. However, during the inspired record of his suffering and death, each of the gospels includes the names of others who were also there: Peter, Pilate's wife, Barabbas, the thief on the cross, John, Jesus's mother Mary, his aunt, Mary of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, the mothers of James and John, and Joseph of Arimathea to name a few. Each of these people is mentioned in the gospels for a reason. They were eye-witnesses of what happened and were affected by what they experienced.
But there is one whom I have not yet mentioned. His name is recorded in each of the Synoptic gospels (Matt. 27:32; Mark. 15:21; Luke 23:26). As Jesus was being led up to Calvary to pay the price for our sins, a Roman soldier "pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross" (Mark 15:21). When Jesus was physically unable to carry the cross anymore, Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it up to the place of crucifixion. But who was he and why was he forced to do this?
Who was Simon of Cyrene?
People of that day were often referred to by their city or country of residence. Note that they referred to the Lord as Jesus of Nazareth. Simon was from Cyrene in northern Africa.
"Cyrene was situated in modern-day Libya, on the northern coast of the African continent. Settled by the Greeks in 630 B.C. and later infused with a significant Jewish population, Cyrene was the capital of the Roman district of Cyrenaica at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. By then, Cyrene was home to a large number of Greek-speaking, or Hellenistic, Jews."1
While some believe that Simon was a black man because he was from northern Africa, it seems more probable that he was a Jew who had "come to Jerusalem to attend one of the great festivals (in this case Passover), as was the custom of many Jews, including those from Cyrene (Act 2:10)."2 Many loyal Jewish believers who lived in other countries would make this trek to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover each year. This is evidenced by the large number of Jews from foreign countries who were still around at Pentecost to hear Peter's speech (Acts 2).
Why was Simon forced to carry the cross?
Simon was seemingly in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a mere passerby who was heading for the city when he was called upon to help Jesus carry the cross. Simon was there when Jesus needed him.
Jesus, too, carried his own cross (John 19:16, 17), but not for long. Sheer physical exhaustion made it impossible for him to carry it very far. Consider what he had already endured within the last fifteen hours: the tense atmosphere of the Upper Room, the betrayal by Judas, the agonies of Gethsemane, the desertion by his disciples, the torture of a totally hypocritical trial before the Sanhedrin, the mockery in the palace of Caiaphas, the denial by his most prominent disciple, the trial before an unjust judge, the terrible ordeal of being scourged, the pronunciation of the death sentence upon him, and the seven-itemed abuse by the soldiers in the praetorium! Humanly speaking, is it not a wonder that he was able to carry the cross any distance at all?2
Simon was exactly where he needed to be at the right time. At the time when Jesus needed him the most, Simon was walking by. Isn't it amazing how things like this work out? In the midst of Jesus's suffering on our behalf, he allowed Simon (someone with no connection to Jesus) to minister to him. What seemed like an imposition became an experience that would change the life of Simon forever.
I say this because it would appear that this "chance" meeting with Jesus made a permanent impact on his and his family's life. Mark describes Simon as the father of Alexander and Rufus expecting his readers to know who they were. "The identification, not necessary for the story, implies that his sons had become persons of some distinction in the church."3
While it is difficult to make hard and fast statements about Simon's conversion, is it a stretch to assume that his meeting with the Lord Jesus led to the conversion of him and his family members? Probably not. Not only were his sons known by Mark's readers but a "Rufus" and his mother were mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:13. There he ends his letter by saying, "Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine." This man, Rufus, was probably Simon's son who, by that time, become a spiritual leader. Paul also refers to his mother in endearing terms as she had probably ministered to him at some point. It is also interesting to read how men from Cyrene later preached the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch (Acts 11:20). Perhaps Simon and his sons were a part of this missionary endeavor.
While there are only a few mentions of Simon and his family in the Scriptures, there is no doubt in my mind that meeting Jesus on that day made an impact on his life. The meeting which was forced upon him by the Roman soldiers was unexpected, but it caused him to consider what was happening and who Jesus was. I am glad for his sake that God worked out this providential meeting and am encouraged that the God who arranged that meeting can do the same for many others in the future. That in itself should encourage us to keep speaking the gospel to those we meet as "chance" meetings are often ordained by God for good.
1"Who was Simon of Cyrene?" as viewed at http://www.gotquestions.org/Simon-of-Cyrene.html on 11/13/2015.
2 Hendriksen, William, Mark, (Grand Rapids: Naker, 1975), 648.
3Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Gospel of Mark, (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 450.