Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

223. The Road to Golgotha (Matt. 27:31-33; Mark 15:20-22; Luke 23:26-33; John 19:17)*

"And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull.

It is perhaps not as fully appreciated as it might be that when Jesus was led out to crucifixion he was in the very last stages of physical and nervous exhaustion. There are several indications pointing to such a conclusion. And it is by fhese that an apparent contradiction between the Gospels is harmonized, for whilst John describes Jesus bearing his own cross (with obvious intention of making comparison with Isaac bearing the wood on which he himself was to be the offering), the other evangelists all tell how Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service to carry the cross after Jesus.

Simon of Cyrene

Details in Luke and Mark help to make the picture clearer. Luke says that Simon was to bear the cross "after Jesus", i.e., behind him. The word used by Mark means "lift up" rather than "carry". Thus it would appear that Jesus was too exhausted physically to take the full burden of the cross, so after a while Simon helped by bearing the hinder end of it. A further detail in Mark might suggest that, even with this help, progress was so slow that after a while the impatient soldiers picked Jesus up bodily and carried him to the place of crucifixion. The word translated "bring" (Mk. 15:22) normally means "bear" or "carry". It may well be that Jesus collapsed altogether, his physical strength completely exhausted. His death on the cross within the remarkably short time of six hours supports the idea, for crucified men were often known to linger alive and wretched for days (see Mk. 15:44). However, the conclusion is not certain.

The verb about the compulsion applied to Simon has the specialised meaning: "to press into service for the work of the king." It is the word used in Matthew 5:41 "And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." Although it was by the command of Caesar's centurion that Simon was conscripted, yet it was to help King Jesus that he bore the cross. In days to come the early church almost certainly saw Simon as a vivid illustration of their Lord's requirement that the true disciple must take up the cross and follow him (Mk. 8:34 and 10:21). Indeed, the symbolism may have been taken even further, the name Simon of Cyrene being understood to suggest one who hears and so becomes the Lord's man —bearing his cross and thus learning to bear his own.

He was just come "out of the country" (Jn. 11:55). He was a Jew of the Dispersion who had just now arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover, or else he was an immigrant to the Holy Land. Either way he is seen as a Jew who took his religion seriously.

One can imagine how at first he would fret and fume at this vexatious and distasteful interruption of his plans. It could well be that he had now but little time left before the Feast, and he had yet to make arrangement about where he should eat it, had yet to make his purchase of the lamb, the wine, the herbs and the various other things needed for the Feast. And now he must needs waste valuable time as well as suffer provoking humiliation carrying a cross for some Galilean nobody who was on his last legs.

Yet Simon was to learn before the day was out that God had provided himself a Lamb who would yet be remembered through many a Passover with awe and thankfulness. For it may be taken as practically certain that Simon's conversion to Christ dated from that day when he was dragged away from the observance of the Law of Moses to bear a cross behind Jesus.

Simon would not be mentioned by Mark as "the father of Alexander and Rufus" if these two sons were not people likely to be known to his readers. Years later when Paul sent greetings to the church at Rome (and Mark, it is fairly certain, wrote for Roman readers) he included this: "Salute Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine" (Rom. 16:13). If, as seems likely, this is the son of Simon, in what finer way could Paul have alluded to him? One short phrase, and the mind of all readers would be back at Jerusalem, remembering how Roman soldiers laid rough hands there on Simon, choosing him haphazard from the crowd to carry the cross of Jesus. They little realised, those hard men, that in that very act they had been the instruments of Almighty God, to choose Simon, and through him Alexander and Rufus and their mother too, for the fellowship of the elect of God.

In Romans 16 the wife of Simon was greeted by Paul as "Rufus's mother and mine." How so? It would seem from Acts 13:1 that in earlier days before the family moved to Rome, they had been for a good while in Antioch, and there Paul had stayed under their roof. Simon's wife (her name is written in the Book of Life!) had been a mother to Paul in those days, supplying that same motherly hospitality in Christ that is happily not unknown in these days also. "Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen . . . and Saul." This Simon, mentioned along with another man of Cyrene, had a nickname "Niger", i.e. the darky (Song of Songs 1:6). Evidently he had a very swarthy complexion, as well he might have, coming from semi-tropical North Africa.

It was this Simon, who found himself— against his own inclination —carrying the cross after Jesus. Thus, all unsuspecting, he provided for all succeeding generations a dramatic illustration of the words of Jesus: "And whosoever doth not bear his own cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple." And was it with vivid memory of the same incident that Peter wrote, years later: "Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps," as did Simon? And what of Hebrews 13:12,13: "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him, without the camp, bearing his reproach (the cross)," as did Simon.

Readers of the gospels may be fairly sure that Jesus, who in his extremity of weariness and pain from flogging could yet bring himself to speak words of commiseration and warning to the women who lined his route, would also have something equally arresting and rewarding for the man who bore his cross, and thus Simon would have his thanks. He had been compelled to go a mile with Jesus, and he went with him not just twain but all his life (Mt. 5:41).

Women lamenting and lamented

Lining the road through the Damascus gate there was "a great company of people," the crowd which inevitably gathers to witness anything sensational or ghoulish. The gospels suggest that their interest was specially in Jesus rather than in the two followers of Barabbas. The women "bewailed and lamented him." These were not disciples, as the words of Jesus to them make clear. They were women whose sympathies inevitably went out to one going forth to such a ghastly fate. So Jesus stopped in his slow progress to Golgotha and "turning to them," he bewailed and lamented the unhappy destiny that was theirs. From the time of Adam it has been true, both in the evil and in the good, that "we are members one of another." These folk sorrowing over the prophet of Galilee were of a different stamp altogether from the coldblooded wilful rejectors of the Christ of God; nevertheless they too were to suffer—with what extremes of wretchedness—in the vile and vicious vortex of trouble that would inevitably centre on Jerusalem in the unhappy days of impending judgment. Out of pure pity these women wept for Jesus, yet their own plight was infinitely worse.

In a long and moving prophecy which was fulfilled in his own day, and which was to be fulfilled yet again in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, Jeremiah had anticipated the horrors of retribution which were yet to come upon his people: "Yet hear the word of the Lord, O ye women, and let your ear receive the word of his mouth, and teach your daughters wailing, and everyone her neighbour lamentation. For death is come up into our windows, and is entered into our palaces, to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets. Speak, Thus saith the Lord, Even the carcases of men shall fall as dung upon the open field, and as the handful after the harvestman, and none shall gather them" (Jer. 9:20-22). The entire chapter should be studied with reference to Jesus and the A.D.70 destruction of Jerusalem.

Appropriating the ideas and words of the prophet, Jesus bade them: "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children," All through this day of wretchedness the mind of Jesus was on others, and not on his own plight and sufferings. At his trial he had been concerned for Pilate; here, for the people of Jerusalem storing up judgment on themselves: he prayed for the Roman soldiers crucifying him; he gave special care to his mother, and to the malefactors crucified with him, and in all things he sought to fulfil the will of his Father. Earlier in his ministry he himself had wept over Jerusalem and for their children (Lk. 19:41), because of the fate of horror which rejection of him had made inevitable (Lk. 19:44). It was a fate which had been light-heartedly invoked by their fellows at his trial (Mt. 27:25), and he knew from the writings of the prophets with what dire suffering it would surely come to pass. And it would be on themselves and their children because even in this the sign of the prophet Jonah must be fulfilled: "Yet forty years and Jerusalem shall be overthrown." How ominous, too, the warning of judgment on their children, since at that Passover they would be celebrating the deliverance of Israel when the firstborn of Egypt were slain. Ironically enough, it was celebration of Passover which packed Jerusalem with Jews in A.D.70, and brought disaster instead of deliverance.

Prophecies of judgment

With wide foreknowledge of what was in store Jesus continued his lamentation and warning: "Behold, the days are coming in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us" (Lk. 23:29,30). Jesus had already said the same thing to his disciples: "Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people" (Lk. 21:23). The fantastic climax of human suffering which was to be the experience of this generation, guilty and innocent alike, bore on the soul of a weary Jesus more than all his own pain and shame and misery. One wonders whether there were any in that crowd who did take heed and flee the city before wrath came to the uttermost.

The travail of Israel has dragged from that day to this, with little intermission. And notwithstanding the cocksureness of the modern self-made State of Israel, the day is soon to come when once again, they will find themselves overwhelmed in a sea of affliction. Isaiah 2 used by Paul to describe the Messiah's return in glory (2 Th. U9), describes the ultimate devastation of their human pride; "And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth" (2:19). Only when Israel learn to throw themselves on the Lord will their salvation come out of Zion.

The quotation made by Jesus from Hosea 10:8 is not to be missed, and must not be dismissed as irrelevant. The following are all out of the same context:

Hosea 9:5:
What will ye do in the day of solemn assembly, in the day of the feast of the Lord?
The days of visitation are come (same word in LXX as Luke 21:22).
As for the Prophet, a fowler's snare is in all his ways, and enmity in the house of his God.
They have deeply corrupted themselves, as in the days of Gibeah (Gabbatha): he will remember their iniquity, he will visit their sins (Lk. 19:44).
I saw your fathers as the first-ripe in the fig-tree.
Though they bring up children, yet will I bereave them (Lk. 19:44) . . . yea, woe also to them when I depart from them.
Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts (this is Lk. 23:29).
All their wickedness is in Gilgal (Golgotha-same root): for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters.
Ephraim (=fruitful) is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit (the cursing of the figtree:Mk. 11:20).
My God will cast them away, because they did not hearken unto him: and they shall be wanderers among the nations.
Israel is an empty vine (cf. I am the True Vine).
For now they shall say, We have no king (but Caesar: Jn. 19:15), because we fear not the Lord; and the king (i.e. God's king), what can he do for us?
The glory thereof is departed from it (Mt. 23:38).
The thorn and the thistle shall come up on their altars; and they shall say to the mountains, Cover us, and to the hills, Fallon us (Lk. 23:30).
So shall it be done unto you at the house of God (RVm) because of your great wickedness; at daybreak (Jn. 19:14) shall the king of Israel be utterly cutoff.

Only too plainly, this prophecy —in spite of difficulties—is to be read as having Messianic intention. The coincidences cannot be written off. The marvel is that when Jesus was so weak and distressed, he yet thought in terms of intensely relevant Scripture. It is an amazing witness to the extent to which the written Word had become so much part of himself. He was in truth, in yet another sense, the Word-made-flesh. Yet how many of his disciples either consciously or unconsciously fall back on the power of Scripture as fully as they might when face to face with personal hardship or affliction?

"For if they do these things in a green tree, what ... in the dry?" Yet again Jesus went instinctively to the Old Testament. But what was his meaning? It could be (on the basis of Ez, 20:47, interpreted in 17:24); if the Jews can do such wickedness now, what enormities will they be equal to when the rottenness has spread through the nation? (Jude 12; Mt. 21:19)? Or, is the allusion to Jeremiah 11:16,19, meaning: If the Romans can treat me—the green tree, the righteous one (Ps. 1; Jer. 17;5-8)-in this, fashion, then what will they do with the Jews the sapless dry wood, the dried-up fie, tree, the altogether wicked nation? The verbal connection is closer to the first of these, but the second is easier in idea and more readily fits the context in which Jesus spoke.

Whatever his precise meaning may have been, these words of sadness and warning must have mightily impressed those who heard, it was not only darkness, earthquake and storm which that day sent people to their homes heavy of heart.

Notes: Lk. 23:26-33

Laid hold implies rough treatment. The other "laid" (same verse) is the same as in Gen. 22:6 LXX.

Simon, a Cyrenion Kurenaios might also be read as an echo of kureo, light upon (Mt. 27:32) or of kuriou naos, temple of the Lord.

Bear it after Jesus 14:27; 1 Pet. 2:21; Heb 13:13; Pr.24:16a, where note "riseth up again" (s.w. Mk.5:41). With v.16b cp. Acts 1:18.
Blessed are the barren. What a contrast with 11:27!
Cover us. When at last the Romans captured Jerusalem in A.D.70, many Jews hid in sewers and underground caves. In Rev. 6:16 Jesus uses again the same Hosea prophecy-for a completely different fulfilment, or the same?

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