Sunday, April 16, 2017

Shall Simon bear the cross?

Thomas Shepherd (1665-1739) was a minister in England. He preached for a church in Essex for 40 years. The church began meeting in a barn. He published several books, including Penitential Cries, in 1693, a book of poetry "begun by the Author of the Songs of Praise [John Mason, rlv], and carried on by another hand [Shepherd, rlv]. Stanza 3 of hymn No. XXIII called "Universal Obedience" in Penitential Cries appears as follows:

Shall Simon bear the cross alone,
And other saints be free?
Each saint of thine shall find his own
And there is one for me:
Whene'er it falls unto my Lot,
Let it not drive me from
My God; let me ne'er be forgot
Till thou hast lov'd me home.

Rather than the familiar "Must Jesus bear the cross alone," Shepherd was writing about an incident mentioned in only one verse in three gospels. A man named Simon was forced by Roman soldiers to bear the cross of Jesus.

The three texts
Matthew 27:32 And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross.
Mark 15:21 And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.
Luke 23:26 And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus.

Considering John's information in 19:17 ("And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha:"), from Pilate's hall, going out of the city of Jerusalem, Jesus began carrying the cross towards Golgotha, or Calvary, but soon Roman soldiers compelled into service one Simon, a man in Jerusalem from Cyrene (a city in Libya, cf. Acts 2:10). The soldiers, bent on efficient execution, probably compelled this man into service to make sure (in their minds) that Jesus did not collapse die before reaching Golgotha, or to speed up the pace of the march to the location of the crucifixion. As hardened executioners, they did not do it as a favour to Jesus. Perhaps their motive was to mock this king as too weak to carry his own cross. "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." (Proverbs 12:10 )

The texts combined
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John combined yield us this story of the compelling of Simon: And he (Jesus) bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull; And as they led him away, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name, the father of Alexander and Rufus, passing by, coming out of the country; they laid hold upon him, and on him they laid the cross, and they compel him that he might bear it after Jesus.

What we know about Simon
He was a man from Cyrene, a city or region in Libya (Libya in North Africa). He was probably a Jew who came to Jerusalem for the Passover, who was staying outside the city. He was passing by, perhaps to get a glance at the sight of prisoners led to crucifixion. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, Simon's sons Alexander and Rufus were well known to those to whom Mark wrote his Gospel.

The suffering Saviour, the ordained offering for man's offense
The text teaches us of the humanity of Jesus Christ. Jesus was God, who foreordained and controlled the situation. "Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin." (John 19:11; cf. also John 18:6) Jesus the eternal Word, the Son of God, submitted himself to the frailty of humanity and identified completely with man.  "And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." (Philippians 2:8) "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man." (Hebrews 2:9) As God Jesus could have launched the cross by his word into the very place he would be lift up between heaven and earth. As man, beaten, battered and bloody, he struggled under the weight of the cross. "As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:" (Isaiah 52:14; cf also John 19:1-3; Matthew 26:67; 27:26, 29-30).

The harried hamal, a coincidentally constrained carrier of Jesus's cross
The lesson is ironic, as Jesus freely goes to the cross as man's substitute, the Romans press into service a man to substitute for Jesus carrying his cross. May it teach us some lessons about "bearing the cross."
  • Matthew 10:38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.
  • Matthew 16:24 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Luke 9:23 And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
  • Philippians 3:10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;
  • 2 Timothy 2:12 If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us:
  • Galatians 5:11; 6:12 the offence of the cross...suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.
Matthew Henry wrote, "We must not think it strange, if crosses come upon us suddenly, and we be surprised by them."

The incident is also illustrative of the providence and purpose of God -- what we humanly refer to as "being in the right place at the right time (positively, or the wrong place at the wrong time, negatively)." We speak of things that "just happen," "was an accident," and so forth, and the Bible recognizes our form of speech (Cf. e.g. Ruth 2:3; 1 Samuel 6:9; 2 Samuel 1:6; 20:1; Luke 10:31). These things we attribute to happenstance for we have made no plans regarding them. Just because we have made no plans, it does not follow that God has made none. Simon was in God's place at God's time!

It seems God designed Simon to carry the cross to demonstrate that Jesus was physically fully human, that Christians are to be cross-bearers, and that nothing is too minor to miss the purpose of God (and no doubt other designs that I am too dull to notice). 

Thomas Shepherd did not find this incident too minor to notice! "Shall Simon bear the cross alone?"

No comments: