Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/21/1996
Luke 23:26 And when they led him away, they laid hold of one Simon of Cyrene, coming in from the country, and placed on him the cross to carry behind him. 27 And there were following him a great number of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for me, but weep for yourselves and your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘cover us!’ 31 For if they do these things in the green tree, what will happen in the dry?”
As we follow the sufferings of Jesus Christ, who, like Paul, “finished the course and kept the faith,” we are come to the very last lap: the “Via Dolorosa.” This is that sorrowful path that will lead directly to Golgotha, to the cross. Every detail that is recorded about our Lord’s steps on that path is laden with significance and tells us why he was going that way. Let’s look at a few of them together today.
The conscription of Simon out of the crowd to bear the cross speaks volumes about the exhaustion being suffered by our Lord on this last lap of his journey. He had had no sleep the night before. He had been mocked and beaten by Herod’s soldiers and scourged by Pilate’s preparatory to the crucifixion itself. The scourging was done with a whip of nine thongs that had bits of metal and rocks imbedded in them. It would literally rip chunks of flesh out of your body. Some people did not survive the scourging. The centurion had to be careful that his men did not get carried away, because it was considered a blot on the squad’s escutcheon if the prisoner did not survive for the crucifixion itself. They had made it into a kind of game—let’s see how badly we can beat the prisoner up and still keep him alive for the execution!
Jesus had therefore been beaten so badly and lost so much blood that the centurion in charge was afraid he might not make it. Otherwise he would have been forced to carry his own cross, his own instrument of execution, the symbol of his crime and his criminality, as a final form of humiliation. Jesus was so weak by this point that the centurion grabbed Simon out of the crowd, not out of mercy but out of fear that Jesus would not make it to Calvary otherwise. Jesus was not able to carry his own cross as normally prescribed by the Roman crucifixion ritual. Not only had the preliminary torture been more than what was normally born—two beatings instead of one, loss of a night’s sleep because of the hurry-up nature of the whole affair—but the burden of the psychological and emotional suffering of being the innocent sin-bearer (which we saw in Gethsemane) was also weighing him down. It is impossible for us ever to fully grasp the whole nature of the sufferings of Christ for us.
What are the implications of these facts? For one thing, it is one more nail in the coffin (if you’ll pardon the expression) of the “Swoon Theory,” the favorite liberal idea that Jesus did not really die but only lost consciousness on the cross and was later revived in the cool of the tomb, causing people to mistakenly believe he had been supernaturally resurrected. It is one of those theories that explains everything except the actual facts. I hope you know some of the standard answers to this silly idea. When the soldier checked Jesus to see if he was dead by thrusting the spear into his side, “blood and water” came out. In other words, the solid parts of his blood and his plasma had already separated, a clinical sign of death. Then there is the incredible expectation that a man whose wrist and ankle bones had been shattered by the spikes could somehow move the stone door from the inside of the tomb, when it took four whole and strong men to do it from the outside—with handholds! And here let us remember that we are asking this of a man who by the time of Easter morning had not eaten in three days and who had already lost so much blood and become so weak through the beatings he had received before even being nailed to the cross that a professional executioner was concerned that he would not even make it to Calvary. I reject the Swoon Theory because, quite frankly, believing it requires more faith, and a more gullible faith, than believing that God raised his Son supernaturally from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy!
The Swoon theory is dead, and if people would just think critically about the facts of the case, it would never be resurrected again. But there is a more profound implication here than that. For we must not leave this moment without some appreciation for what it contributes to the humiliation of Christ as part of his sacrificial sufferings for us. This One who before his incarnation had known omniscience, this One whose will upholds the stars, now needs help even to die. I simply pause on it for a moment as one more small insight into the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ for us.
We can learn a lot from thinking about what this moment meant to Christ. But we do not exhaust its meaning until we think about it from the viewpoint of Simon of Cyrene too. He had not known Christ before this happened. But apparently as a result of this encounter, he came to! Mark 15:21 mentions that Simon was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”—as if every one of Mark’s readers would have known who those people were. They were apparently fairly prominent members of the early church. This is confirmed by the fact that in Romans 16:13 Paul greets “Rufus and his mother,” who was apparently still living in the late fifties, though apparently by that time Simon himself had died. It would seem that something about this encounter with Jesus convinced Simon that he really was the Messiah, for his family was still active, indeed, well known, in the early church two decades later.
Therefore, just as Barabbas is the perfect picture of the doctrine of penal substitution, of the vicarious substitutionary atonement as we saw last week, so Simon of Cyrene is the perfect picture of the Christian life. For how had Jesus defined the Christian life back in Luke 9:23? “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Simon did this both literally and in its spiritual meaning too. And what was the result? Jesus would not have made it to Calvary without either a miracle or Simon. God could have sent a miracle, but he chose to send Simon. Without the help of a weak mortal, the work of the Omnipotent would have been incomplete. And so today, Christ will not normally make it into the hearts of people without someone to tell them about the Gospel. God is not dependent on us; he could send a miracle. But he rarely does. He could send a miracle, but he usually sends a man. What does Paul say? “How then shall they call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15). God could send a miracle, but he usually sends a man. And it is costly. That is why we need to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. That is what the Christian life is all about.
Why do we fear taking up our cross? It is taking up the cross that gives meaning to your life! It transformed Simon of Cyrene from a nobody to the head of one of the most prominent families in the Roman church, a family of pillars who were important enough to be mentioned in Romans. If he had not taken up the cross, we would never have known or cared if any of them had existed. And what of you and me? When I was young I was for some reason very ambitious. I wanted to do something very big and important with my life. My earliest dream was to be an astronaut, and I was bitterly disappointed when it became plain that I was going to grow too big to fit the size limitations demanded by the Space Capsules of those days. Then I decided I wanted to be the next C. S. Lewis. Yes, I know, pretty ridiculous. I pass for a scholar, a writer, and an apologist in our debased times, but I know full well I am not even worthy to have sharpened Lewis’s pencil. But supposing I had achieved all that without Christ? What would it mean? Nothing. Or supposed that, being faithful to him, I achieved absolutely nothing (by the world’s standards). What would that mean? Everything! It is taking up the cross, and nothing else, that gives meaning to your life. Simon’s last service is to remind us of the old couplet,
Only one life: ‘twill soon be past; Only what’s done for Christ will last.
There is another group of people Christ met along the Via Dolorosa: the weeping women. Not all of the multitude forsook him. God always preserves a remnant of the faithful. Elijah thought he was alone when there were seven thousand prophets who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Athanasius earned the nickname “contra mundum,” Athanasius against the world. But he was brought back from exile and saw the victory of orthodoxy over Arianism. Martin Luther was accused of innovation, but he found kindred spirits not only in Wycliffe and Huss and the early Fathers but also in Melanchthon and others as his recovery of the Gospel gave rise to the Reformation.
Do you ever feel alone? I know I do. A figure from Greek literature that I strongly identify with is Cassandra, whose curse was that she would always tell the truth but never be believed. We live in a day when the truth of the Gospel is being co-opted by the spirit of the age even within what we thought were conservative churches. The liberals are dying on the vine, but so are the teachers of sound doctrine. What prospers is heretical aberrations like the Health and Wealth gospel. It is easy to feel alone and isolated. That’s why I love the reply of one of Flannery O’Connor’s characters who, when told, “People have quit doing that,” said, “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.” Don’t give up! If we are the faithful remnant, then we know that God will preserve us. We cannot all live in an age of church history when real revival is in the air and the true Gospel and sound doctrine are in the ascendancy. God may send such a time again; he may not. What matters is that we be found faithful in the day in which we are called to live. They ain’t quit doing it as long as we’re doing it!
Jesus’ response to the women is easy to misunderstand. I don’t think it was a rebuke to them so much as an expression of love and compassion for them. At this moment when Jesus needs help even to die, he is more concerned for them than for himself. For he foresaw the judgment that was coming on Jerusalem. Normally the barren were looked on as cursed. For them to be seen as blessed is a great reversal and an indication of how abnormal, how terrible, those times would be. A green tree is one that is not ready for burning. So what Jesus is implying is, “If this is what happens to an innocent lamb now, what will happen to the wicked then?” He is looking ahead with a double perspective, both to the troubles that would come to Jerusalem in AD 70, and to the Great Tribulation and the Final Judgment. So, don’t weep for me, Jesus is saying; weep for your nation and for the judgment that will be faced by all who by rejecting me are not covered with the blood I am about to shed. If God’s judgment for your sin doesn’t fall on me now, it will fall on you then. Now that is something to weep for!
It is easy to give when all of your own needs have been met. But what do you do when you are hurting, discouraged, beaten to a pulp and at the end of your rope? Do you give in to self pity or are you still more concerned for others than for your own problems? Our Lord was. And so he calls us here to look beyond the ends of our noses. These ladies were sad to lose the Lord that they loved, but they really had no understanding of what was going on around them. They did not understand that the judgment of God on human sin was falling on Christ, and that it is coming for the whole world unless they put their faith in him and in what he was doing there.
When we take Communion, we weep for the suffering of our Lord and for our sins that caused it, and rightly so. But we should also look beyond that to the Resurrection and the Great Commission and the coming Judgment. Therefore, maybe what the Lord is saying to us is, “Do not weep for me. Weep for your own generation—and then do something about it!” And so let us recognize the love of our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated here for us. It was a costly love, a love with commitment that calls on us to take up the cross like Simon and weep for our generation like the women. Therefore, as we remember that love, let us respond to it in kind.
African theologian Philip Muinde puts that response this way: “Following the despised Galilean means a willingness to say, ‘Lord, I will follow whithersoever thou goest,’ not only to be excited about the Triumphal Entries but also to travel the Via Dolorosa. It is voluntarily to embrace a faith which exposes Self to fresh denial, disgrace, and death. It is also to acknowledge and identify with the Lordship of Jesus Christ at every moment, whatever the cost. It is to be crucified with Christ, and continually to unlearn Self and learn Him.” Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Related content: DTW's review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.