Mark 15:21-22

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 15

21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). 

One of the characters that stands out as strangely memorable in the events of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is a man named Simon, the man who was made to carry the cross of Jesus on the way to the hill of Calvary.  That Simon is so memorable is strange in the sense that not a great deal is said about him in the gospels.  Yet there he is, thrust right into the middle of the most important events in all of human history.  He is named and he was there, so we remember.  But Mark gives the fascinating detail that he was a father of two sons, and Mark names his sons.  Furthermore, Mark, as is his custom throughout his gospel, appears to use his words and images very strategically, linking the small episode of Simon of Cyrene with earlier episodes in the life of Jesus in order to make more important points.  Finally, there are tantalizing clues elsewhere in the New Testament about Simon:  what became of him and also even the effects of his carrying the cross of Jesus on his own household.

Simon of Cyrene is a picture of the glorious direction-change that Jesus makes in our lives.

The first way that we know that a larger point is being made about Simon is a directional point.

21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull).

Simon’s name, as recorded by Mark, includes where he was from.  Cyrene was a city in the eastern portion of the country we today call Libya.  Thus, Simon was African, from north Africa.  Mark tells us further that he was “a passerby.”  We know that Cyrene had a large Jewish population at this time.  Thus, that Simon was “a passerby” to the events of Jesus’ crucifixion lets us know that he was a foreigner and a Jew who was coming “in[to]” Jerusalem but not, of course, to see a particular Jewish troublemaker crucified.  If he was passing by the events of the crucifixion of Jesus and going into the city of Jerusalem, then what was he going to?  He was going to his Passover observance.

Remember:  this is the time of Passover.  Jerusalem was bursting at the seams with religious pilgrims who had come up to Jerusalem to participate in the events of this sacred and holy season in the life of the Jews.  Thus, this Simon, a man from Africa, was passing by the violent spectacle of Jesus carrying the cross so that he could go into the city, do his religious duty, observe the sacred traditions, and, in so doing, please God in the traditional ways.  He was walking, in other words, into Jerusalem, into the sacred city, into his religion.

And it is en route to his religion and his religious duties that he is grabbed, “compelled” even, to enter into a scene of which he most certainly could not have wanted to have any part.  Not only was his religious pilgrimage disrupted, and not only was it disrupted by a shocking act of coercion by which he found himself part of a criminal’s grotesque execution, but the whole direction and movement of this horrifying sideshow (in Simon’s estimation) was the direct opposite of the direction that he wanted to go!  Notice the startling juxtaposition in the directions:

21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull).

He was going into Jerusalem but now he is going outside of Jerusalem, for Jesus was crucified outside the city.  If Simon has traveled all the way from north Africa, if he has been anticipating his entry into Jerusalem all of those long miles, and if he was gripped upon seeing that city by the awesome privilege of being able to honor God in God’s sacred place, then how jarring this disruption must have been for him!

He is caught in a violent and most unpleasant u-turn that he did not want!  And it is not only that he is now having to carry this cross out of the city.  It is also that each step out of the city is a step away from the temple itself and, thus, away from the presence of God and the high priest, and atonement for his sins!

Directionally, these unfolding developments were, in Simon’s mind, utterly repugnant and no doubt initially infuriating!  He wanted to move toward his traditions, toward his religious duties, toward his own plans, toward forgiveness, toward the sacrifice of the great high altar of the temple, and toward his own people, the Jews.  But now…now!…He is moving away from his plans, away from his people, away from forgiveness as he conceived of it, and, indeed, away from God as he understood Him!

And why?  Because some criminal named Jesus had the bad fortune of crossing somebody the wrong way and of being crucified right here in the midst of Passover!

Simon was going that way.

Now Simon is going this way.

All because he met Jesus and His cross.

And while this u-turn undoubtedly agitated and disturbed Simon, he would come soon to see it as the most glorious turnaround that ever could have happened to him.

Church, Jesus and His cross have a way of turning our lives, our plans, our conceptions of God, and our quest for forgiveness upside down on their own heads!  Jesus’ love is a disruptive love, a plan-shattering love, a direction-changing love!

So clear is scripture on this that if anyone were to say, “I was walking where I wanted to go and met Jesus and He just tagged along with me and my plans were in no way disrupted,” you can be sure that that person is lying.

Jesus changes everything!  Jesus changes our direction!  Our lives are forever altered when we meet Jesus while going on our way.  If His way is to become our way, this alteration simply must happen!  We may resent it, but we should not!  We may seek to avoid it, but Christ calls to us!

His disruption of our lives and plans is a disruption of fierce love and of relentless grace.  It is for our good.  For even as we stand in the rubble of what we thought we were going to do, we find Christ calling us to a beautiful life that we never could have imagined.

Simon of Cyrene is a picture of true discipleship against a backdrop of failed discipleship.

Simon of Cyrene is a picture of the glorious direction-change that Jesus makes in our lives.  He is also a picture of true discipleship.

21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull).

Simon, Mark tells us, is “compelled…to carry [Jesus’] cross.”  R.C. Sproul notes that “the language Mark uses speaks of the way in which animals were forced to go to their slaughter.”[1]  This is, in other words, an act that any ancient person would have found repugnant, this being compelled to carry a cross.  The very word “cross” in Latin (crux) was an obscenity, a word not to be spoken in polite company.  And for a Jew going up to Jerusalem for Passover observance to find himself suddenly carrying a cross was indescribably horrific.  As a result of this imposition, Simon’s worship had been disrupted, his plans had been destroyed, and, worst of all, he had been rendered unclean by being put under the weight of a cruel pagan instrument of torture reserved for the guiltiest of the guilty!

Yet here Simon is, carrying a cross!  Even so, Mark appears to have rendered his account of this startling scene in such a way as to make a significant point.

Kelly Iverson has noted the “curious” fact that the verb form of Mark’s description of Simon of Cyrene as “a passerby,” parago, is only used two other times in Mark’s gospel.  Both of these other two usages are episodes in which Jesus called his disciples to follow Him.[2]  Consider:

Mark 1

16 Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”

Mark 2

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

Do not miss the verbal chain that ends in the critically important point.

  • In Mark 1:16-17 Jesus is passing by the Sea of Galilee and calls Simon and Andrew to drop everything and become His disciples.
  • In Mark 2:13-14 Jesus passes by Levi and tells him to leave his tax collecting and become his disciple.
  • In Mark 15:21 Simon of Cyrene is passing by Jesus when suddenly he finds himself carrying the cross of the Lord.

Throughout Mark’s gospel he links “passing by” with true discipleship, with becoming a real follower of Jesus.  What is more, Mark’s account of Simon of Cyrene seems to be intentionally linked to Jesus’ famous definition of discipleship with cross-carrying in Mark 8.

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

What is most fascinating here is that Mark’s account of Jesus’ words at the end of Mark 8:34 (“take up his cross”) parallel Mark’s description of Simon of Cyrene’s charge in Mark 15:21 (“to carry his cross.”). In fact, James A. Kelhoffer has pointed out that Mark 8:34c and Mark 15:21c are so similar that Mark’s description of Simon of Cyrene taking up the cross is an “unmistakable” “allusion” to Jesus’ definition of discipleship in Mark 8 as carrying the cross.[3]  Thus, Simon of Cyrene, in taking Christ’s cross, is acting out (unwittingly at first) the very definition of “disciple” as defined by Jesus.

This powerful depiction of true discipleship is rendered shockingly ironic when we consider that Jesus’ disciples have all fled and none stand with him while this foreigner who just happens to be passing by fulfills Jesus’ own definition of true discipleship!

Mark, then, seems to be condemning the faulty discipleship (in that moment) of those who had abandoned and denied Jesus while showing us in the most unexpected of places and in the most unexpected of people a true and authentic depiction of discipleship!

Put in yet another way, Mark seems to be making in no uncertain terms the point that flee Christ’s call though we will and deny Christ’s hard call though we might, the definition of a true disciple and follower of Jesus stands firm and clear.  Disciples are those who stand with Jesus and take up the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ!  Disciples are those whose plans are shattered by the cross of Jesus and whose live are irrevocably redefined by Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection.

And if this is what Mark is doing in the way he recounts this episode, then it means Mark is trying to get us to see ourselves in this story.  Will we stand with Jesus?  Will we take up the cross?  Will we, if need be, suffer with the Lord who suffers triumphantly for us?

Simon of Cyrene, though initially compelled by the Romans to take the cross, becomes for us a corrective, a rebuke, a challenge, and an alternative to our own selfish desires to have the benefits of Christ without taking the cross of Christ.  Simon, with the cross on his back, seems to be saying to us, “This is what it means to be a Christian!  This is what it means to follow the Lord!  I was confused at first, but now I see:  take up your cross, lose it, and you will find it afresh and anew in Jesus!”

Simon of Cyrene is a picture of the impact of radical discipleship upon the watching world.

And this, of courses, raises the question of what ultimately happened to Simon of Cyrene.  To this point, Mark, and, as it turns out, Luke gives us some clues.

21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.

Many have asked over the years why it is that Mark names Simon’s two boys:  Alexander and Rufus.  After all, there are lots of names that Mark does not give us that we would probably like to know.  But here, Mark names the sons of Simon of Cyrene?  Why?  There is a practical reason that partially explains it.  Kirsten Marie Hartvigsen rightly observes that the naming of Simon’s children “may indicate that the…narrator assumes that at least some audience members are more familiar with the latter male characters than with Simon of Cyrene himself.”[4]

This makes sense.  Remember that the gospels were written some years after the events they report.  If you hear somebody reference a man and then they add, almost parenthetically, that the man being referenced was the father of two sons that they then mention by name it is not unreasonable to think that the people being spoken to may know the sons not the father.  Mark’s gospel was written to a Christian audience that presumably knew his boys but had never met Simon himself.

This is intriguing, but, first, let us consider whether or not the rest of the New Testament sheds any light on Simon of Cyrene himself.  As it turns out, it might.  In Acts 11, Luke tells of a group of Christ followers who came to Antioch some years later preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to great effect.  Listen closely to who these people were:

19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.

Fascinating!  These were men “of Cyprus and Cyrene,” Simon’s own country.  Keep that in mind, the Cyrene-Antioch connection.  Two chapters later, in Acts 13, we read of a group of men who were “prophets and teachers” in Antioch.  Listen to their names:

1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

Did you catch that?  “Simeon who was called Niger.”  “Niger” is the Latin word for “black,” which is likely a reference to the color of Simeon’s skin.  So this appears to be a description of a teacher and prophet in Antioch who was called Simeon, which is another spelling for Simon.  And the possibility of this Simeon called Niger being Simon of Cyrene is heightened further by the fact that the next name on the list is “Lucius of Cyrene.”

Was Simeon called Niger the same person as Simon of Cyrene?  Very possibly so since we know that a delegation of Cyrenian Christians were in Antioch.  And notice that in both Acts 11 and Acts 13 these men from Cyrene are seen as true and good and effective preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

While we cannot say for certain, it is very possible that we have here a picture of Simon Cyrene, a follower of Jesus Christ and now a preacher of the gospel of Jesus who had helped to take the gospel to the nations!  What is more, Romans 16 may contain a reference to Simon’s son, Rufus, as well as to Simon’s wife!  Romans 16:13 reads:

13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.

When we keep in mind that Mark’s gospel is thought by many to have been written to Roman Christians and that Mark’s reference to the children of Simon was likely included in his gospel because his audience knew Simon’s children but not Simon, the case is greatly strengthened that the Rufus of Romans 16 is the Rufus of Mark 15.  And what do we know of this Rufus?  We know, Paul tells us, that he was “chosen in the Lord” and that his mother was a mother to Paul himself!  Not a biological mother, to be sure, but a mother figure of Christian nurturing and care.  In other words, she was a truly great woman indeed!

All of which is to say that we have tantalizing, provocative, and not-too-flimsy clues that Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus, became as a result of that experience a champion of the gospel of Jesus Christ who brought his children and wife to the Lord, who went as a missionary to Antioch and likely elsewhere, and who established a legacy in the church of Jesus Christ that went from him to his family and on down through the ages.

Our need to be careful and not dogmatic about these possibilities should not cause us not to marvel at these clues.  Regardless, carrying the cross of Jesus would have changed Simon of Cyrene’s life forever, whether these later references are pointing to him or not.

There is a last point to be made, one that is, I believe, symbolic of a greater point, and that involves the names in our text:  Simon of Cyrene, Rufus, and Alexander.  “The names Simon, Rufus, and Alexander are Hebrew, Latin, and Greek names, respectively,” writes David Garland, “and hint at the universality of the gospel, which will reach across cultures to the ends of the earth.”[5]

It is another small thing that gives us pause.  When the Roman soldier grabbed Simon of Cyrene out of the crowd to carry the cross, he had no way of knowing that he was grabbing hold of a man the names of whose household pointed to the peoples of the world.  Nor could that soldier have possibly known that names in the household of the man they pressed into service pointed to the peoples of the world in the same way that the sign that—who knows?—possibly this very soldier nailed above the head of Jesus on the cross did.  John 19 gives us a fascinating insight into the wording of that mocking sign that the other gospels do not give us.

19 Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.

Yes, Jesus Christ lays down his life for the world.  On the way there a man named Simon is made to help him, a man whose household names reflect the peoples of the world.  Jesus would be crucified beneath a sign written in the languages of the world.  And afterwards, somehow, and I would say very likely through this Simon, the good news of what Jesus had done reaches Cyrene in north Africa.

A single life is changed.  Then a household.  Then a community.  Then the nations.

Why?  Because Simon encountered the cross of Jesus Christ.  Not Christ the giver of material wants.  Not Christ who takes away all changes and trials.  Not Christ who says you will never have to carry a cross.

No, Simon encountered Christ and Christ crucified.  And, unwilling at first though he was, Simon found himself carrying a cross alongside the Lord Jesus Christ.  While we dare not dogmatize about what exactly happened to Simon of Cyrene, the Church throughout the ages has believed that he became a great man of God through Jesus Christ, and that not without reason.

Regardless, in his carrying of the cross, Simon becomes a reminder and a challenge of what true discipleship really entails:  taking our cross and following Jesus the Christ.


[1] R.C. Sproul, Mark. St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary. Logos Version.

[2] Kelly Iverson, Gentiles in the Gospel of Mark. (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2007), p.129.

[3] James A. Kelhoffer, Persecution, Persuasion and Power. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. Vol. 270 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), p.207.

[4] Kirsten Marie Hartvigsen, Prepare the Way of the Lord. (Bonston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2012), p.500.

[5] David E. Garland. Mark. The NIV Application Commentary. Logos Version.

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