Simon of Cyrene is famous for being the man who carried Jesus’s cross. However, we don’t know much about Simon other than what Matthew, Mark, and Luke say of him in their gospels.
As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. Matthew 27:31
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. Mark 15:21
And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. Luke 23:26
Who is Simon of Cyrene? We know his name, where he is from, and that Alexander and Rufus were his children. We can also surmise that, like many thousands of Jews, Simon and his family were in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover during the most monumental week in human history—the days leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Nobody, including Simon, understood the immensity of that fateful week as the events unfolded. Nor did Simon know that he would become part of the supporting cast in a cosmic drama that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.
Tradition says more about Simon of Cyrene. For example, some say that he had dark skin because he was from Cyrene, which was located on the northern tip of Africa. Throughout church history, most art images depict Simon of Cyrene as a black man.
Actually, we don’t know the color of his skin. Apparently, the Holy Spirit did not think the color of the man’s skin was significant enough to mention in any of the gospels. At a time when people in our world make too much of skin color, we should learn from the Holy Spirit’s silence on the matter.
The fact is that many Jews relocated to Cyrene during the intertestamental period—the four hundred years between Malachi and Matthew. By the time of Jesus, nearly 100,000 people lived in Cyrene and the surrounding areas, including Simon and his family.
What little we know about Simon of Cyrene raises at least three questions.
Do you have ears to hear the gospel?
The name “Simon” literally means “he who hears.” Simon was in a unique position to hear much on the day Jesus was crucified. We can imagine him hearing the Savior’s painful groans as He walked along the way of suffering. Did he also hear Mary weeping for her son? Did he hear the crowd mocking Jesus? Did he stick around long enough to hear Jesus wailing as cruel malefactors drove spikes into his hands and feet? Did he hear Jesus’s last cries from the cross?
Tradition says that Simon was also among those who heard Peter preach the gospel on the day of Pentecost. Let’s fast forward the story to fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection.
And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” Acts 2:7-11
I find it interesting that people from Cyrene, perhaps including Simon and his family, were among those who said on the day of Pentecost, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
On the birthday of the church, three thousand people heard enough from Peter’s preaching to believe. Perhaps Simon—also known as “he who hears”—heard enough on that prophetic day to believe, along with his family. Some say the Rufus mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Romans was Simon’s son (Romans 16:13). We don’t know for sure, but it’s worth considering.
Do you feel the weight of your sin?
Jesus collapsed under the weight of the cross He carried, which was probably only the crossbeam, weighing approximately fifty pounds. The full cross would have weighed more than 130 pounds. But historians believe that convicted criminals only carried the crossbeam to the execution site, which was certainly enough to make the journey more difficult for those facing crucifixion.
Fifty pounds might not sound heavy for a grown man to carry, unless his body is writhing from a Roman flogging, also called scourging. The whips with small pieces of metal or bone at the tips shredded a man’s skin and tore apart his flesh. The painful loss of blood was enough to kill some convicts before they ever made it to the crucifixion site. As Jesus walked the way of suffering to Golgotha, He lost more blood and grew physically weaker by the moment. When Jesus collapsed, the soldiers seized Simon from the crowd and forced him to carry the wooden cross the rest of the way.
At that moment, the man from Cyrene went from a passerby to a participant. The Bible says they “compelled” Simon. One translation uses the word “forced.” Did the soldiers look at Simon in a commanding way that made him step out from the crowd? Did they threaten or manhandle him physically? We cannot be sure. We do know that the Roman soldiers were not asking for a volunteer. Their goal was to execute Jesus speedily, and His inability to carry His own cross was slowing things down.
Soldiers quickly hoisted the crossbeam onto Simon’s shoulders. With each step, it grew heavier as he climbed the hill that historians say looked like a skull.
Picturing Simon carrying the heavy crossbeam reminds me of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, who carries a burden on his back until he loses it at the cross. Simon, for the remainder of the journey, carried what must have felt like the weight of his own sin until he released the wood beam to the soldiers who placed it back on Jesus.
Did the weightiness of your sin bring you to Christ? The Bible says there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1); but Jesus said, “Whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). I ask you again, apart from Christ do you feel the weight of your sin?
I doubt that a person is truly saved who did not feel the guilt, shame, and burden of sin, which repentant sinners can and must leave at the cross of Christ. Frankly, the cross of Jesus Christ is mere foolishness without the burden of sin.
The late R.C. Sproul said, “In our day, the weightiness of the Gospel itself has been eclipsed. I doubt if there’s a period in the history of the church in which professing evangelicals have been as ignorant of the elements of the biblical Gospel as they are today.”[i] Referring to Pilgrim’s Progress, Sproul goes on to say, “The crucial moment in Christian’s life is when he comes to the cross. We read the description:
‘He ran thus till he came to a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and little below in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back; and began to tumble, and so continued to do so until it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.’”
Does Bunyan describe something like how you came to Christ when He relieved you of your sin burden? The hymnwriter says, “Cast your care on Jesus today, leave your worry and fear, burdens are lifted at Calvary, Jesus is very near.” Worry and fear are great burdens to carry. However, the greatest burden Calvary lifts is the sin that weighs us down like a condemned criminal.
Will you take up your cross and follow Jesus?
One more detail is worth noting from Simon of Cyrene’s story. Luke says they “laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus” (23:26). As tedious as it sounds, note that Simon carried Jesus’s cross while walking behind Him, not in front of Him. By following Jesus as he carried a cross, Simon provides for us a visual of the Christian life, which Jesus described to His disciples, saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
This is when I let my imagination run like wild horses. I picture Jesus, followed by Simon, arriving at the crucifixion site called Golgotha, the place of the skull. Exhausted, Jesus turns to him and says, “Thank you, Simon. I’ll take it from here.” Good Friday is a reminder that Jesus, using His own body, nailed our sin burden to the cross, paying the full price for our redemption.
[i] R.C. Sproul, “Christian Loses His Burden” Accessed on April 13, 2022, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/christian-loses-his-burden