The Death Walk
Passion of Christ, Luke
There are some images so horrible they mesmerize us. Think about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the Challenger explosion, the Tsunami in Japan, the flooding in New Orleans, and videos of tornadoes bringing incredible damage. All of these things are horrible images, but we find ourselves almost unable to turn away because they are so mind-boggling.
I think the crucifixion of Jesus is one of those kinds of images. As horrible as it is we watch as in slow motions and try to “take it all in”. This morning we look at the journey of Jesus to the cross. In the following weeks we will look at Jesus as He is crucified and then we will look at his death and burial.
It’s important to understand that crucifixion was meant to be horrible. This public means of execution existed for the express purpose of making a statement to deter others. Over the years the Jews practiced public stoning, the Romans sometimes sent people to the Lions in the Coliseum, there have been public hangings, guillotines, and people burned at the stake. In Colonial days people were sometimes displayed in stocks. They were all designed to send a simple message: do not disobey the law.
The process of crucifixion took a rather routine pattern,
- The criminal had to carry the crossbeam to the point of execution. The crossbeam could weigh as much as 100 pounds. The place of execution was likely just outside the walls of Jerusalem at a place called Golgotha or the place of the Skull. It is named that because the place looked like a skull. The criminal would be marched through the city to the place of execution. (Deterrents work best when people observe what was happening.)
- The main stake was usually already fixed in the ground at the point of execution. The condemned person would be bound to the crossbeam either by ropes or (in the case of Jesus) nails or spikes. The crossbeam would then be lifted by forked poles and fastened to the upright pole or dropped into a slot at the top of the upright beam. The crossbeam was high enough off the ground so the condemned could not reach the ground with their feet (which would have helped them to breathe).
- A tablet specifying the crime would often be carried in front of the person as he carried the cross and then was either hung around the accused or fastened on the pole to indicate the crime of which the person was convicted.
- The person being crucified would experience great agony and eventually die of either exposure or asphyxiation. Criminals might hang on the cross for a few days.
We pick up Luke’s account in this first stage. Jesus was carrying his crossbeam to the place of execution. He encountered several people along the way.
26 As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.,
Jesus Could Not Carry His Cross. Jesus had been up all night, beaten and taunted by the soldiers, He had a crown of thorns pushed into his scalp and then was whipped by Pilate. It is possible that Jesus was whipped with the dreaded flagellum whip which contained pieces of bone and lead. Even if he was not whipped in the most violent fashion Jesus was weak and even disfigured from all he had been through. He tried to carry the crossbeam, he just was too weak. We are reminded of His great suffering.
Simon is Pressed into Duty. Since Jesus struggled with the cross the soldiers determined to have someone carry the crossbeam for Jesus. Roman law stated they could enlist anyone they wanted for any duty. They picked Simon.
What we know about Simon is that he was from Cyrene which is in modern Libya in the northern part of Africa, just west of Egypt. Today the city of Cyrene is called Tripoli. Because of the distance, it is possible that Simon was making his first visit to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Who knows? Simon may have saved for a long time to make this trip and would have been filled with eager anticipation as he came toward Jerusalem (think about someone heading into a baseball stadium or a NASCAR track, or lining up for Macy’s fireworks show). It’s possible Simon was so preoccupied he didn’t even notice what was happening in the city until it was “too late.” He was conscripted to carry the cross for Jesus.
Why do the gospel writers tell us about Simon? I think there are two reasons. Simon’s cross-bearing provides us a striking image. Remember these words of Jesus?
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
The image of Simon carrying the cross behind the Savior is a powerful picture of the way we are to live our lives. It is a story that should spur us on like George Washington’s courage, Abraham Lincoln’s honesty and Winston Churchill’s determination. Simon is a picture of the nature of true discipleship.
Sadly many in our day have a cross-less Christianity. We look at the cross and thank Jesus for dying in our place. We cry at movies like the Passion of the Christ, we are moved by the sacrifice and grateful for what Jesus did in the past. However, there is no cross in our discipleship. A cross-less Christianity emphasizes smiles, blessing, abundance, prosperity, and victory. The idea of denial and sacrifice is scorned as being a lack of faith . . . even though Jesus clearly says it is a part of faith.
The result is that we present a message that is hollow to those who struggle (which is most of us). We seem to say others are failures at faith because they struggle or because discipleship is hard.
This is not Christianity! Jesus reached out to the hurting; He told us to reach out to the thirsty, the imprisoned, and the naked. Paul exhorted us to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans. The apostles talked about the privilege of suffering in the name of Christ. Jesus tells us to “count the cost” before we ever claim to be His follower. Simon of Cyrene shows us the true nature of true faith. It involves taking up our cross and sacrificially following our Lord Jesus.
Second, the story of Simon is recorded because it is a great story of a changed life. To understand this we need to do some detective work. In the Gospel of Mark, Simon is identified as the “father of Alexander and Rufus.” It is fair to conclude that Mark mentions his children because the early believers were familiar with these two men.
In Romans (16:13), Paul wrote, “Greet Rufus, outstanding in the Lord, and his mother and mine.” I believe this is the same Rufus mentioned by Mark. That would make his mother the wife of Simon, who carried the cross of Jesus.
We have to speculate to imagine what happened. It is likely that Simon resented the intrusion brought to Him by having to carry the cross of Christ. Simon (and perhaps his sons) walked behind Jesus and may have watched as they nailed Him to the cross and perhaps they remained and witnessed the incredible love and grace of this one who was being crucified. Perhaps they were witnesses of the earthquake and darkness.
I’m sure Simon heard about the resurrection of Jesus. I suspect it was a big story that spread quickly. Somewhere along the line Simon and his family came to personally trust Christ as their own Savior. If Simon was like most dads, I suspect he told the story of the man whose cross he carried over and over again. As Paul wrote, Simon’s family were well known members (and perhaps even leaders) in the church.
This is the way life often works. In the times of greatest burden, in the very things we often initially resent, God is working to bring about the greatest blessings and effect real transformation in our lives. Keep this in mind as you face the trying times of your life.
A Large Number of People
Luke also records,
27 A large number of people followed him
The trek to the place of execution was very public. The crowds took notice. It is reasonable to think that in this crowd were a number of different kinds of people.
- Those who loved Jesus and believed He was the Messiah…they followed out of devotion and anguish.
- Those who hated Jesus and were part of the scheme to have Him executed.
- Those who were attracted by the spectacle. They may not have known or perhaps even cared who this man was who carried the cross, but it was an event and they watched and talked about later but were not personally involved.
If you think about it, this describes the make-up of any group of people in a church.
- There are some who have surrendered their lives to Jesus and want to live their lives in conformity to His direction. They are true believers.
- There are others who are in the church because of social convention. They have heard that “going to church” is the thing good people do, so they go to church but do not know, understand, or truly care about Jesus.
- There are those drawn by the crowd. Sometimes you ask someone, “Why are you attending a particular church” and they respond, “Because it is really big” or “Everyone goes there”. They are attracted to the “event” and not necessarily the Savior.
The question we should all ask is this: Which group do we belong to?
Luke singles out one other group that was part of this crowd which included,
women who mourned and wailed for him. 28 Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then
“ ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”
and to the hills, “Cover us!”
31 For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
On the surface Jesus sounds a little rude doesn’t He? We need to understand that these women were not the same women who helped support the ministry of Jesus or who came to the tomb on the Day of Resurrection. They were most likely professional mourners who were moved by the suffering of Jesus. This is a reminder that it is possible to “brought to tears” by a story, touched by a song, or moved by some great need, yet still not be a genuine follower of Christ.
Jesus said to these women: “Don’t weep for me . . . .weep for the judgment that is going to come on you!” Jesus isn’t being mean; He loves these women and is warning them that they need to see the implications of what is happening to Him. Jesus was being rejected as the Messiah and this was going to bring fierce negative consequences. Jesus warned that there was coming a day (in 70 AD) when the Judgment would be so fierce that women would be glad they did not have any children because it would save them the anguish of watching their children suffer.
Jesus adds a somewhat enigmatic statement, “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (31) I think Jesus is saying, “If people war against the Kingdom of God when it is before them in the person of Christ . . . how much more will they war against it when he is no longer walking among them?” Humanity was never been closer to God than when Jesus lived on earth and we killed him!
The point is simple: Rather than mourning for His suffering they should be repenting and seeking God! People are always upset when we talk about the Judgment of God. They rant and rail at the Biblical notion of Hell. But the main reason people find this so offensive is because it declares that we will be held responsible for our choices! They want a discipleship with no responsibility!
Yet, the idea of a final judgment actually affirms the value of life! It proclaims that what we do now actually matters. The popular approach of “living for the moment” is short-sighted and ultimately diminishes the value of life because it makes it simply a mad sprint that is heading nowhere. Jesus is trying to help us see the big picture.
Ultimately we will all stand before God and have to either give an account for every act of rebellion or indifference toward God or we will cling to Jesus as our substitute and our Savior. When we realize this, we will stop playing at faith as if it were merely a hobby to enjoy when we are “in the mood” or “have time”. Instead we will re-orient our lives around the One who will enable us to stand on that Day of Judgment. The words may sound harsh but they are truly the most truly loving words we can speak to others. We must repent, turn, and hide ourselves in Christ.
Take Home Points
I see three applications to this short section. First, Jesus calls us to take up our cross and following Him. We need to fix this picture of Simon clearly in our heads. This is what true discipleship looks like. God calls us to sacrifice our time, resources, and even our lives for the cause of the gospel.
Let me be brutally honest. I like and prefer “convenient” discipleship. I want a faith that makes no demands yet offers all kinds of benefits. Unfortunately, this idea of “fitting Christ into our schedules” is from Satan, not from God. This notion that God knows how busy we are and is grateful for whatever part of our life He can share is sheer delusion. He calls us to “deny ourselves (which we do very poorly), take up our cross (which we try desperately to keep hidden), and follow Him (even though we prefer that He follow us).” We are not really following Christ unless we are living with this attitude.
We are not to follow Christ because of what He can add to our life . . . we must follow Him because He IS our life! So, the next time we start to whine about how “hard” it is to be a follower of Christ, let’s remember this picture of Simon. Perhaps then we will stop the complaining and start following with our eyes on Jesus rather than on ourselves.
Second, we must confront the reality of superficial faith. In the gospel of Luke we have seen many people who looked faithful but missed Christ. The Jewish leaders had titles and they were masters of the Law but they still missed the Messiah sent from God. The crowds wanted Jesus to bless them (i.e. do stuff for them) and when they did not get what they want they abandoned Him. The women mourners seemed sincere but missed the point.
It is possible to know the right words, to have lots of information, to be a diligent student of the Scriptures, and even to have had some great experiences . . . yet still be closed off to the work of God in your life! We can put our faith in our experience and knowledge rather than in Christ!
The only way to combat this is to remain soft and open and to seek Him with all we have. So, listen to those who may have had a different experience than you. Don’t merely own Bibles . . . study them. Examine what others say and see if it is the true teaching of the Word of God. Always be willing to subject your preferences, beliefs, and traditions to revision based on the truth of God’s Word.
The moment you feel you have everything figured out is the same moment you will begin to drift. You will put on blinders no longer be able to learn. You will become arrogant and judgmental and you will effectively push more people away from the gospel than draw people to Christ. We must keep our ears and our hearts open. Faith is dynamic! It is growing! It is intimacy with the Lord. Be attentive! God tends to speak in unexpected ways. Certainly God speaks through humble teachers and those who have pondered the deep truths of the faith. However, He may also speak through a child, a new believer (who often sees with fresh clarity) and He can even speak through someone with whom we don’t agree! When we stop listening and learning . . . we start dying spiritually.
Finally, we must heed the warning about the coming Judgment. Jesus is not only rebuking, He is also inviting. You may look at your life and recognize that if there is a Day of Judgment, you are in deep trouble. You may feel hopeless. However, the great news of the gospel is that Jesus went to the cross to pay the price for our sin. His sacrifice is meant to cover our sin. Things are not hopeless. If you will truly embrace Him; if you will count the cost and follow Him; you will stand in the Day of Judgment not in your strength, but His.
It is possible to be so captivated by the story of Christ; so moved by what takes place here; that we miss the point! Do not merely “feel the pain of Jesus”, don’t simply “marvel at His courage” or His spirit. Hear the summons to faith. Get off the treadmill of futility and follow Him on the road that leads to life.
Captivating images are powerful. They evoke strong emotions. They may even move us to write a check, go to church, or say a prayer. But sadly, after a few weeks we often go back to our lives completely unchanged. My hope is that this will not be the case as we ponder the cross. May God by His Spirit change us forever because of the cross.