Great Texts of the Bible
Bearing Christ’s Cross
And they compel one passing by, Simon of Cyrene, coming from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to go with them, that he might bear his cross.—Mark 15:21.
Art and legend have done not a little to fill up the pathetic picture for us of our Lord’s carrying His cross to Calvary. But the Evangelists have not been altogether silent on the subject. Doubtless much occurred on the way which the Christian world would gladly have known, and which they could so well have told us. Two of them at least, St. Matthew and St. John, were in all probability eye and ear witnesses; and St. Mark and St. Luke must have often heard Apostles and others, for whom the day of Jesus’ death would have an imperishable memory, telling of all they had that day seen and heard. Yet how sparing of incidents they have been except where their Master was specially concerned. St. John, at any rate, who was a witness of the trial in Caiaphas’ house, was not likely to have been absent from the crowd that saw his Master going with His burden of shame to the place where He was to die. He must have been a keen and deeply interested observer of all that took place on the way. He must have had incidents and impressions of the scene stored up in his mind and memory which he would retain to his dying day, and which the Church would willingly have possessed. But from him we have not even one. He has nothing to add to what the other three Evangelists have given. Each of those three has preserved for us the story of Simon of Cyrene, and of his touching service to Jesus; the third, the Evangelist St. Luke, has added that of the weeping of the women. These two incidents are all that are recorded of a scene on which the Christian imagination has ever fondly dwelt.
The Evangelists have told their story as honest, simple minded men to whom the truth was dearer than their lives. There is nothing more marked than the contrast between their rapid, and sometimes bare, mention of facts and the string of legends, piled up with miraculous events, of other writers. Here, at this tragic stage of the progress to Calvary, was an opportunity, had they wished it, of intensifying the drama by giving prominence to the touching picture of this unknown Simon and Christ. But no, the central figure to them is Christ; they are too eager to follow Him to the end to think of pausing by the way. From their ample stores of knowledge and experience they have selected just what was needed to fulfil their great purpose in writing, which was to lift up Christ crucified, worthily and as He really was, to the view of the world through all ages.
Have you ever thought what a number of people there are whose names we know, and in whom we are interested, but of whom we should never have heard if they had not had something to do with Christ? At this time of day, the names of kings and governors, say of Herod and Pontius Pilate, might indeed have been known to a few scholars and students, but who outside of the circle of the learned would have known of their existence save for the fact that they crossed Christ’s path? Even men and women who made a great stir in their own day would have been utterly forgotten if it had not been that their names are mentioned along with that of Christ, or along with those of His Apostles. But of course this strikes us more when we think of those people who were quite obscure, and who led quite unnoticed lives in their own generation, but whose names are embalmed in the Gospel history, and who, though never heard of during their lifetime outside their native town or their small circle of friends, are quite well known now over the whole Christian world. Is it not strange that we to-day should be interesting ourselves in a humble man belonging to a town in the north of Africa, who lived nearly two thousand years ago, and all because, by what seems the merest accident, he happened to meet Christ on the way to Calvary, and was forced to carry His cross for a few minutes in the hot noontide sun?1 [Note: E. B. Speirs.]
We may consider the subject in three parts—
Simon the Cross-Bearer
Christ the Sin-Bearer
Simon and Christ
Simon the Cross-Bearer
i. Simon the Cyrenian
Who was he? What does history tell us about him? Beyond his name, the name of his native town, the name of his two sons, and this one fact that he helped to carry Christ’s cross, we know absolutely nothing, at least with any certainty, of this man Simon; and yet that little is quite enough to make him interesting to us.
1. Cyrene received a Jewish settlement in the time of Ptolemy I., and the Jews formed an influential section of the inhabitants. At Jerusalem the name of Cyrene was associated with one of the synagogues (Acts 6:9), and Jewish inhabitants of Cyrenaica were among the worshippers at the Feast of Pentecost in the year of the Crucifixion (Acts 2:10), whilst a Lucius of Cyrene appears among the prophets and teachers of the Church of Antioch about a.d. 48 (Acts 13:1). Whether this Simon had become a resident at Jerusalem, or whether he was a visitor at the Passover, it is impossible to decide. St. Mark alone further describes him as “the father of Alexander and Rufus.”
2. This additional statement of St. Mark adds greatly to our interest. He speaks of the sons, Alexander and Rufus, as if they were well-known disciples of the Lord; and St. Paul, in his greetings to the Christians at Rome from Corinth, sends special words of love to Rufus and his mother, who had acted in a peculiarly tender and motherly manner to him: “Salute Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.”
Some, too, have thought that Symeon, surnamed Niger, might be identified with the cross-bearer of Christ—for Symeon and Simon are the same name—and he is noticed with Lucius of Cyrene as one of the prophets and teachers in the Church at Antioch. If this were true, he would assume the new name of Christian, which we know originated in that city. Well might Simon extol the strange arrangement of Providence which brought him to the place where he should meet Jesus, at the very time when they were leading Him out to be crucified. Well might he bless the rough violence of the Roman soldiers, who compelled him to bear the cross for his weary and fainting Master. The bondage of man proved to him the liberty of Christ; the shame of earth turned into the glory of heaven. How grateful must he have felt afterwards that he had this unique honour; that it was given to him to alleviate in some small degree the unparalleled sufferings of his adorable Redeemer—to share with Him the ignominy and the degradation of the cross. When he was afterwards called by the name of Christ at Antioch, he could indeed clothe himself with the shame of the cross as with a royal robe, and say with the great Apostle of the Gentiles, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
3. Imagination helps us to fill in what tradition tells us about this victim of brutal power who was compelled to take part in the crucifixion of the Saviour. He may have been a proselyte who had come all the way from Africa to observe the Feast of the Passover at Jerusalem. He had, perhaps, never previously heard of Jesus of Nazareth, and was not thinking of Him at the time when he saw Him on the way to execution. Probably, instead of pitying the sad case of the Sufferer beside him, he was occupied with the hardship of his own case, and filled with resentment on account of the odious service so ruthlessly exacted of him, including even Jesus in his indiscriminate wrath. But forced, in spite of himself, to accompany our Lord to Calvary, bearing the hated cross, he was made a witness of all the memorable incidents of the transcendent tragedy that took place there. He saw the Divine meekness and patience of the Sufferer; he heard the wonderful words of love and pardoning mercy that flowed from His lips; he beheld the supernatural darkness gathering round the cross, and felt the ground trembling under his feet; and, dismayed by these awful portents, he heard the loud cry with which Jesus gave up the ghost. And when the darkness cleared away, he saw the centurion transfixed with awe before the central cross, glorifying God, and exclaiming, “Truly this was the Son of God.” All this could not but have deeply impressed the mind of Simon. He must have learned enough in the brief companionship of a few hours with the Prince of Sufferers—in such unexampled circumstances—to change the current of his whole life. He must have been one of the first who were drawn to Christ when lifted up upon the cross in fulfilment of His own words. Coming to Jerusalem to keep the Passover, he found in the cross of Christ the true fulfilment of the great historical rite; he found in that dying life a perfect example, and in that death an atoning sacrifice. Simon of Cyrene, the cross-bearer of Christ, was the first-fruits of Africa to Christianity.
From all thou holdest precious, for one hour
Arise and come away,
And let the calling Voice be heard in power;
Desert thyself to-day;
If with thy Lord for once thou turn aside,
With Him thou’lt fain abide.1 [Note: J. E. A. Brown.]
ii. A Forced Disciple
1. The Chance Meeting.—It was the time of the great Passover feast, and Simon, no doubt, had come all the way from his busy and beautiful town in North Africa to keep, like a pious Jew, the sacred festival in the holy city. At such seasons Jerusalem was always densely crowded, and many of the pilgrims who could not get lodgings in the city itself stayed in the huts and booths which were erected on the hills or in the valleys outside, or put up in some of the quiet villages like Bethany, which were within easy reach of the capital, and, above all, of the Temple. Simon had either not been in the city the night before, and so had not heard of the arrest and trial of the prophet from Nazareth, which had caused such excitement amongst those there, or else, if he did know of it, he cared so little about it that he was not in the slightest hurry to get back to Jerusalem and hear the news. He was walking quietly and leisurely towards the town, ignorant of, or utterly uninterested in, the tragic events which were happening there, knowing nothing of the Nazarene, and not troubling himself about His guilt or His innocence, when his attention was arrested by the approach of a strange procession. He had no doubt seen executions before, but there was something about this procession which roused his curiosity. The soldiers marching by the side of the malefactors, who bore their crosses fastened to their shoulders, the rabble who followed after, were no strange sights to a man from a big and busy town like Cyrene; but Simon had never before seen scribes and priests and doctors of the law demeaning themselves to join the riff-raff, who were always ready for a day’s enjoyment of this sort. He had never before heard criminals followed by such fierce shouts of “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” He had never before seen a long string of women bringing up the rear of such a dead march, and giving way to their grief in bitter weeping and loud lamentations.
Just as the crowd comes close to him there is a sudden pause. One of the prisoners falls beneath the weight of His cross, and Simon comes near to look at Him. The officer, seeing that it is useless to force the fallen King of the Jews to carry His load farther, casts his eye on the stranger, and struck, perhaps, by his stalwart appearance, and seeing doubtless that he was but a common man, orders the soldiers to seize him, and to bind the cross of the Nazarene on his shoulders.
And so Simon meets with Jesus. Was it chance? Do we say, “What a singular providence that this stranger should have arrived just at the nick of time to meet the procession, and to take so prominent and unpremeditated a part in it?” It was the same wonderful coincidence that the funeral procession at Nain should be passing through the gate at the very moment when Jesus and His disciples were entering in. How often do events, upon which the whole course of our natural and of our spiritual life turns, seem to hang upon trifles! The Providence of God arranges not only the great, but also the small, occurrences of human life and destiny.
If Simon had started from the little village where he lived five minutes earlier or later, if he had walked a little faster or slower, if he had happened to be lodging on the other side of Jerusalem, or if the whim had taken him to go in at another gate, or if the centurion’s eye had not chanced to alight on him in the crowd, or if the centurion’s fancy had picked out somebody else to carry the cross, then all his life would have been different. And so it is always. You go down one turning rather than another, and your whole career is coloured thereby. You miss a train and you escape death. Our lives are like the Cornish rocking stones, pivoted on little points. The most apparently insignificant things have a strange knack of suddenly developing unexpected consequences, and turning out to be, not small things at all, but great and decisive and fruitful.
Let us look with ever fresh wonder on this marvellous contexture of human life, and on Him that moulds it all to His own perfect purposes. Let us bring the highest and largest principles to bear on the smallest events and circumstances, for we can never tell which of these is going to turn out a revolutionary and formative influence in our life. And if the highest Christian principle is not brought to bear upon the trifles, it will never be brought to bear upon the mighty things. The most part of every life is made up of trifles, and unless these are ruled by the highest motives, life, which is divided into grains like the sand, will have gone by, while we are preparing for the big events which we think worthy of being regulated by lofty principles. Look after the trifles, for the law of life is like that which is laid down by the Psalmist about the Kingdom of Jesus Christ: “There shall be a handful of corn in the earth,” a little seed sown in an apparently ungenial place “on the top of the mountains.” Yes! but what will come of it? “The fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon.” The great harvest of benediction or of curse, of joy or of sorrow, will come from the minute seeds that are sown in the great trifles of our daily life.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
2. Compelled to bear the Cross.—“They compel one Simon to go with them that he might bear his cross.” The question at once presents itself, By what right, from what cause, did they seize on this stray traveller and force him into the degrading position of bearing this shameful cross? For let it be remembered that then it was a shameful cross. What is now our ornament and pride, the symbol of all that is worthiest in man and divinest in God, was then the badge of shame and lowest degradation. So that it was an outrage and an insult of the very last degree that was inflicted on Simon the Cyrenian when they compelled him to bear the cross of Jesus Christ. The vilest of that howling Jewish mob would have shrunk from touching it, it would have been pollution; while the lowest Roman soldier would have regarded “bearing a cross” as an unspeakable degradation. Then how came they, how dared they, inflict this insult on Simon the Cyrenian? Was it the swarthy hue, the dusky complexion, the slave mark on skin or dress, which singled him out as one who might be safely wronged? This seems to be the most probable opinion, for Simon was a Cyrenian, that is, a native of North Africa, and though we may not, perhaps, say positively he was a “man of colour,” yet there might be enough to mark him out the slave. Was it for that reason they dared to inflict on him this wanton insult, and compelled him to bear the cross of the doomed Nazarene?
When Cyrus, the Persian king, conquered Palestine, he introduced into it several of the customs of his own country. One of the most remarkable of these was what might be called the postal service, which forwarded the messages of the government to all parts of the land. It was called the Angareion, from a Tartar word which means compulsory work without pay. Herodotus gives an interesting account of this custom; from which we learn that, in order to transmit messages with the utmost possible speed, relays of men and horses were kept ready at intervals along the principal roads, which handed on the despatches from one to another without pause or interruption, whatever might be the inclemency of the weather, and by night as well as by day. Such mounted couriers were further empowered to press into the service, should it be found necessary, additional men and horses, even if they had to leave their own work in the field for the purpose; and boats, if they had to cross a river or an arm of the sea. It can easily be imagined that such a system could be used by a government as an engine of oppression; and the people who were compelled to render this gratuitous service, often at very inconvenient times, and at great risk and loss to themselves, would doubtless feel very keenly the injustice of it. In Palestine it was greatly disliked, for, besides its own inherent evils, it had the additional one of being a foreign custom imposed upon a conquered people. The Tartar word for this disagreeable labour, having been introduced into the language of the Jews, came to be identified by them with every oppressive service. Our Lord used this peculiar word when He laid down the duty of self-denial and goodwill, even towards those who act oppressively towards us. “And whosoever shall compel thee”—as the mounted courier compels the farmers and labourers along the way to help him in forwarding the despatches of the government—“whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” And here in the text the word which is employed to denote the action of the Roman soldiers in compelling Simon the Cyrenian to carry the cross of Christ for Him, is the same word as was borrowed from the old postal service of Persia. The Romans, who too readily made their own any instrument of oppression which they found among foreign nations, were familiar with the word, which crept into their own language, and with it the custom which it represented. No more appropriate word could have been used. It is a most picturesque, and at the same time gives a most touching pathos to the occasion. It links this single act of tyranny with the whole gigantic system. The world has been familiar with forced labour from the earliest days. As far back as we can go in the sorrowful history of our race, we find the stronger tribes making slaves and beasts of burden of the weaker, and of those whom they conquered in war. The brick-making of the Israelites, under the intolerable cruelty of which they groaned and died, was not by any means the first oppression in Egypt. Ages before that, we find proofs of the reckless disregard of human life shown by the Pharaohs, compelling thousands, without wages or even food, to construct for them those enormous monuments, the ruins of which excite the astonishment of every traveller. Nor can any modern race lift up a stone against those ancient oppressors; for there is no nation that has not been guilty of similar practices. Our own country cannot plead guiltless to the charge. It brought upon America and upon the West Indies the curse of slavery, which could be removed only by a tremendous sacrifice of blood and treasure. Within the memory of this generation men have been carried away from their homes and pursuits, and forced into the naval service of our country by the ruthless press-gang. As the cross of Christ represented the sins of the whole world laid upon the Redeemer, it may be said, therefore, that that cross, laid upon the unwilling shoulders of Simon the Cyrenian, represented all the oppressive burdens which man has laid upon his fellow-men. It was the Angareion of the world.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan.]
3. We can imagine the feelings of shame and indignation and bitterness which must have filled Simon’s heart. To have come all the way from Cyrene to worship in the Temple of his fathers, to refresh his faith by taking part in the great feast, to see the sights of which he might tell to his wife and children at home, to meet the friends whom he had not seen for years, and then to have come through such a bitter, degrading experience! How could he go into the city now without feeling that every one was looking at him and saying, “There’s the poor wretch who carried the cross of the Nazarene?” How could he go home with nothing to tell but this story of how he had been insulted and degraded and shamefully treated? Such a thing could hardly have happened to him even in Cyrene, where the Jews had full Roman rights; and yet in Jerusalem, the joy of the whole earth, the city of the great King which he had so passionately longed to see, he had been treated like a criminal and an outcast, and branded before a crowd of fellow-countrymen with the mark of shame—the curse of the cross. If, as he read in his Bible, he was cursed of God who hung upon a tree—was not he too cursed upon whose shoulders the tree hung? Had the soldiers branded him with a red-hot iron, as runaway slaves were treated, he could hardly have felt a deeper sense of degradation in man’s sight, and in God’s as well.
And yet for Simon we have no pity, we have only congratulation, almost envy. He who shared for a few minutes Christ’s cross and its dishonour, has now an honoured name in the Church and throughout the world. His dishonour has changed into an honour which many a saint might covet. For these myrmidons of the Roman government who knew not what they did, we have much compassion even to-day, for be they what they may, in whatsoever world, suppose them to be forgiven and redeemed in answer to the Saviour’s prayer, yet they must pass for ever, as long as thought and memory last, as those who laid a sacrilegious hand upon the Saviour of the world, who spat in His face, and struck Him on the head, and bowed their knees to mock the Son of God!1 [Note: R. F. Horton.]
4. Simon had to be compelled to take up this burden for Jesus. We might have wished this had not been necessary. We should have liked it to be at least one bright human touch in the otherwise dark picture of our Saviour’s passion had Simon been so moved with pity, as he passed by, at the sight of Him struggling along under His heavy cross, that he had freely offered to bear it for Him. When we think of the Man of Sorrows on His dolorous way, of the brutal soldiery, with the ruthless mob hurrying Him to His awful death, and then of what He had been, and of all the good He had done—how He had borne the sins and sorrows of others, and lightened every man’s burden but His own, it seems incredible that there should have been no one to befriend Him in His day of sorest need, no one to spare Him a single indignity, no one to bear His cross for Him, even for a little, but this Simon who had to be compelled.
Where was that other Simon? Had he not said, “I will go with thee both into prison and to death”? This man’s name was Simon. What a silent and yet strong rebuke this must have been to him. “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” Another Simon took thy place at the last hour! Where was the beloved disciple? Where were they all? Holy women were gathering round, but where were the men? Sometimes the Lord’s servants are backward where they are expected to be forward, and He finds others to take their place. If this has ever happened to us it ought gently to rebuke us as long as we live. We learn this lesson from the Cyrenian. Keep your place, and let not another Simon occupy it. It is said of Judas, “his bishopric shall another take,” but a true disciple will retain his own office.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]
Christ the Sin-bearer
i. The Way of the Cross
1. “Jesus went out, bearing the cross for himself” (John 19:17). One special indignity connected with the punishment of crucifixion was that the condemned man had to carry on his back through the streets the cross upon which he was about to suffer. In pictures the cross of Jesus is generally represented as a lofty structure, such as a number of men would have been needed to carry; but the reality was something totally different. A soldier was able to reach up to the lips of Christ on the cross with a sponge on a reed. It was not much above the height of a man, and there was just enough wood to support the body. But the weight was considerable, and to carry it on the back which had been torn with scourging must have been excessively painful. Another source of intense pain was the crown of thorns, if, indeed, He still wore it. We are told that before the procession set out towards Golgotha the robes of mockery were taken off and His own garments put on; but it is not said that the crown of thorns was removed. Most cruel of all, however, was the shame. There was a kind of savage irony in making the man carry the implement on which he was to suffer; and, in point of fact, throughout classical literature this mode of punishment is a constant theme of savage banter and derision.
2. There is evidence that the imagination of Jesus had occupied itself specially beforehand with this portion of His sufferings. Long before the end He had predicted the kind of death He should die; but even before these predictions had commenced He had described the sacrifices which would have to be made by those who became His disciples as cross-bearing—as if this were the last extreme of suffering and indignity. Did He so call it simply because His knowledge of the world informed Him of this as one of the greatest indignities of human life? Or was it the foreknowledge that He Himself was to be one day in this position that coloured His language? We can hardly doubt that the latter was the case. And now the hour on which His imagination had dwelt was come, and in weakness and helplessness He had to bear the cross in the sight of thousands who regarded Him with scorn.
To a noble spirit there is no trial more severe than shame—to be the object of cruel mirth and insolent triumph. Jesus had the lofty and refined self-consciousness of one who never once had needed to cringe or stoop. He loved and honoured men too much not to wish to be loved and honoured by them; He had enjoyed days of unbounded popularity, but now His soul was filled with reproach to the uttermost; and He could have appropriated the words of the Psalm, “I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men and despised of the people.” The reproach of Christ is all turned into glory now; and it is very difficult to realise how abject the reality was. Nothing perhaps brings this out so well as the fact that two robbers were sent away to be executed with Him. This has been regarded as a special insult offered to the Jews by Pilate, who wished to show how contemptuously he could treat One whom he affected to believe their king. But more likely it is an indication of how little more Christ was to the Roman officials than any one of the prisoners whom they put through their hands day by day.1 [Note: J. Stalker.] And so Jesus, in company with the two robbers, issued from the gates of the palace and passed along the Via Dolorosa.
The traditional scene of Christ’s death, over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built, is inside the present walls, but it seems to have been ascertained that the present Church is beyond the second of the ancient walls. The whole question is still sub judice. It is quite uncertain outside which gate of the city the execution took place. The name Calvary, or Golgotha, possibly indicates that the spot was a skull-like knoll; but there is no reason to think that it was a hill of the size supposed by designating it Mount Calvary. Indeed, there is no hill near any gate corresponding to the image in the popular imagination. In modern Jerusalem there is a street pointed out as the veritable Via Dolorosa along which the procession passed; but this also is more than doubtful. Like ancient Rome, ancient Jerusalem is buried beneath the rubbish of centuries. From the scene of the trial to the supposed site of the execution is nearly a mile. And it is quite possible that Jesus may have had to travel as far or farther, while an ever-increasing multitude of spectators gathered round the advancing procession.1 [Note: J. Stalker.]
ii. The Suffering Saviour
When we speak of “the Cross” we do not mean only the cross which Christ bore to Calvary and on which He suffered; we mean the very sufferings of Christ Himself. But do we really think of what we mean when we speak of the sufferings of Christ, the Sin-bearer of the world? Christ, we know, voluntarily took His cross. He gave Himself for us. He laid down His life for us. Even when the weight of the cross was taken from Him for those few moments, while Simon bore it, He was most really bearing it. His soul was wounded; His spirit was crucified. He lays down the cross which may be seen, the instrument of torture, at the bidding, of others, that He may the more truly bear the inward cross.
Very reverently, and with few words, one would touch upon the physical weakness of the Master. Still, it does not do us any harm to try to realise how very marked was the collapse of His physical nature, and to remember that that collapse was not entirely owing to the pressure upon Him of the mere fact of physical death; and that it was still less a failure of His will, or like the abject cowardice of some criminals who have had to be dragged to the scaffold, and helped up its steps; but that the reason why His flesh failed was very largely because there was laid upon Him the mysterious burden of the world’s sin. Christ’s demeanour in the act of death, in such singular contrast to the calm heroism and strength of hundreds who have drawn all their heroism and strength from Him, suggests to us that, looking upon His sufferings, we look upon something the significance of which does not lie on the surface, and the extreme pressure of which is to be accounted for by that blessed and yet solemn truth of prophecy and Gospel alike—“The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
iii. Christ’s Cross and Ours
1. We are wont to speak of trouble of any kind as a cross; and doubtless any kind of trouble may be borne bravely in the name of Christ. But, properly speaking, the cross of Christ is what is borne in the act of confessing Him or for the sake of His work. When any one makes a stand for principle because he is a Christian, and takes the consequences in the shape of scorn or loss, this is the cross of Christ. The pain you may feel in speaking to another in Christ’s name, the sacrifice of comfort or time you may make in engaging in Christian work, the self-denial you exercise in giving of your means that the cause of Christ may spread at home or abroad, the reproach you may have to bear by identifying yourself with militant causes or with despised persons, because you believe they are on Christ’s side—in such conduct lies the cross of Christ. It involves trouble, discomfort, and sacrifice. One may fret under it, as Simon did; one may sink under it, as Jesus did Himself; it is ugly, painful, shameful often; but no disciple is without it. Our Master said, “He that taketh not his cross and followeth after me is not worthy of me.”
2. “There are three things,” says Vaughan,1 [Note: Sermons, xv. 149.] “which make a ‘cross’—shame, and suffering, and self-mortification.”
(1) Shame.—“Bearing the cross after Jesus” frequently entails misunderstanding, coldness, suspicion, disgrace. To do it is a real pain; and there must be such a victory over self that self is nowhere. No one knows,—but those who have to do it,—what a martyrdom that is to a sensitive mind. No physical pain is greater, and no act of heroism is more honourable. It needs the compulsion of a strong, irresistible motive; of a conscience quickened and kindled by the love of God. That is a “cross,”—ignominy borne for Christ’s sake.
(2) Suffering.—It is the part of every Christian to “know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.” To bear the pain of the Cross of Christ would be a great thing; but to rise above the pain to the joy that is in it, and to turn the suffering to happiness, and the shame to glory, and the death of the natural feeling into the very deliciousness of the higher life,—that is far greater! Such was Christ’s obedience, and such His love! And this is the true and the grand view of every “cross.”
(3) Self-Mortification.—The effort to keep all things in their place involves a mortified life. To stop short of indulgence, to drive away something that we are afraid is beginning to enslave us till we have taught it its proper place and admit it again later into our life as a useful servant; to stand amidst the vast multitude of God’s creatures with which the earth teems—persons, places, things, sorrows, joys, pleasures, and pains—a free man, enslaved by none but using all fearlessly; neither held back by fear nor attracted by mere pleasure, but using and accepting or rejecting each as it comes, in so far as it leads the soul Godward—this is indeed liberty; but such liberty can be purchased only by mortification.
A successful business man kept above his desk the motto, “Do the hard thing first,” knowing, as every sincere person knows, that we are apt to shirk, procrastinate, and delay the most vital issues of life. Now, the Christian must do the “hard thing first.” The way of life, the path leading to eternal day, is difficult, thorny, and rugged. The Christian way is the “way of the Cross,” the righteous path is toilsome and weary, but we have the joy of knowing that
All this toil shall make us
Some day all His own,
And the end of sorrrow
Shall be near His throne.1 [Note: J. H. Renshaw.]
3. But we must be very careful that our cross is not a self-imposed one. It must not be our cross, but Christ’s cross. They compelled Simon to bear Christ’s cross. It was no willing choice. Indeed, a self-chosen cross is very seldom the right one for us to carry. And it is just here we touch the true reason of so much religious failure. We make our own crosses instead of simply carrying Christ’s; we strive to do religious work instead of doing our own work religiously. Yet is it not clear that if Simon had cut down all the trees in Gethsemane and all the cedars of Lebanon, he would but have made for himself a heavier burden, and would have been no true helper of Jesus Christ?
We may remember that sometimes the cross, which we are not compelled to bear, may be put down. Asceticism, pure and simple, is a sin. It is the shadow of suicide. There is no merit in bearing a cross, so far as the mere bearing is concerned. There is no merit in the cross itself. Many speak as if there were some moral worth in being distressed and hampered in the world. There is none. Bodily health is not merely a boon to be striven for, it is in some sense a virtue. Few of us are so well as we ought to be. The laws and precautions for the preservation of health are often very simple and plain, but the observance of them is tedious and troublesome. We might choose that little cross, if you like to call it so, of care and simplicity and regularity in living from love to our Father, that we may have longer time to live and do His work on earth. There are those who bear the cross of ill-health who were not really compelled to do it; the matter was in their own hands. There is not a burden or a trouble in this world, viewed simply in itself, and apart from its associations and what it leads to, which we are not justified in laying down if we can; or, rather, which it is not a positive duty to lay down if we Song of Solomon 1 [Note: T. Gasquoine.]
We shall find our cross; none of us, it is certain, will be excused. Christ had to bear His cross; so must we. “He that taketh not up his cross and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” But mark, that cross which we make our own is, in reality, Christ’s cross, the one He gives us. “Take my yoke upon you.” Simon did not choose his own. We have no right to manufacture and carry crosses of our own selection. Simon was turned back, converted. He was travelling his own self-chosen road once; after he met Jesus he must needs tread in the Saviour’s steps. It is all symbolical. We cannot serve Christ, bear His cross, without conversion. We need to be changed, to take up His cross instead of our own. There is more in this than we think. What makes so many formal, unreal, unhappy Christians, but the failure to appreciate this truth? For instance, what good will the Lenten season do to any person if it be to him merely a season of selfish self-denial, of selfish cross-bearing? Suppose a man leaves off smoking, or taking alcoholic drink, or novel-reading, or suppose he makes a practice of not going to any place of amusement, or of getting up an hour earlier during Lent, that is a cross-bearing, no doubt, for him, in a sense—a useful discipline in certain cases. Indeed, it is to be wished that more might follow it; only remember, it must touch the spiritual life—it must help, not hinder, it. It must not be pharisaical, pretentious; for if it be, Christ has not ordered it. He does not like it in the least. So, too, with sin. How frequently we read amiss our soul’s state, and fondly imagine there is nothing much the matter with us; that our faith, our works, are quite sound, when in reality there is some secret besetting root of evil eating the very life out of us, and drying up completely the springs of earnestness and love. What is needed is Divine advice and succour, a discipline and treatment not our own, but Christ’s. This is the central truth of Jesus’ dealing with Simon. The cross we try to lift must be pointed out, given to us, along with the strength to bear it, by our Lord Himself, not selected, shaped by ourselves. It will be, then,
A hidden cross for daily wear
Along a common road.
Let that be the spirit of our life, and the Christ-Cross we carry shall verily “purify our conscience from dead works, and cleanse us from all sin.”1 [Note: G. T. Shettle.]
The bonds that press and fetter,
That chafe the soul and fret her,
What man can know them better,
O brother men, than I?
And yet, my burden bearing,
The five wounds ever wearing,—
I too in my despairing
Have seen Him as I say;—
Gross darkness all around Him
Enwrapt Him and enwound Him,—
O late at night I found Him
And lost Him in the day!
Yet bolder grown and braver
At sight of one to save her,
My soul no more shall waver,
With wings no longer furled,—
But cut with one decision
From doubt and men’s derision,
That sweet and vanished vision
Shall follow through the world.1 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, A Vision.]
Simon and Christ
i. Bearing the Cross with Jesus
1. St Luke tells us that they “laid on Simon the cross to bear it after Jesus.” It seems from St Luke’s account that they did not entirely remove the cross from the shoulders of our Lord, but so arranged its parts that Simon might “bear it after Jesus.” And it is extremely possible that they placed the head of the cross on Christ’s shoulder, while the foot rested on that of Simon, so that when the eye of the man travelled along the cross it rested on the form of the suffering Son of God. The burden was thus borne between the two, but the heaviest end still rested on the shoulders of Christ. And that is the only bearable way for any man to bear the burden of the cross.2 [Note: G. Critchley.]
De Costa3 [Note: Four Witnesses, 415.] offers an interesting explanation of Simon’s service. He says that the cross, being ordinarily fastened to the shoulders of the condemned, was not likely to have been unloosed by the soldiers on the way. He is of opinion that Simon was only compelled by them to lift up the cross, which was proving too much for Jesus’ physical strength, and to walk behind or beside Him bearing it up.
2. The picture forcefully suggests the vicarious atonement of Christ. For when we look more closely, what is the real fact that takes shape? We see a sinful man—one of ourselves—bearing the cross to Calvary, yet, when arrived there, once more yielding it up to Christ. So far, but only so far, he can bear that crushing load; but when the place of death is reached, where man’s sin and God’s judgment meet and merge together, the human instrument becomes inadequate; he must resign it to Another, and step back into the posture of a spectator only. In this detail, as in so many minute points in the Passion-narrative, a suggestion is given of larger truths than appear at first. It seems to tell us, as if by parable, that the cross did not belong to Jesus by right; for in truth it did not belong to Him at all, it became His by choice. The cross was ours; a burden of pain, a righteous badge of shame and guilt allotted as our fit portion; a penalty that in our clearest hours we know was due for each of us: in a word, it was the cross of man. And in Simon we see none other than man’s symbolic representative, by his presence and his service unconsciously declaring that there Jesus took on Himself a chastisement not His own. In that hour we were healed by His stripes. We are typified in the Cyrenian. In visible act he did what we must do in thought and feeling, if the infinite virtue of that death is to avail for us. We too must take up the cross, and in person deliver it up to Jesus Christ, in the sense that by trust and penitent sympathetic imagination we realise that it belongs to, and befits, every sinner, that it stands for the punishment we deserve, and that we should have been abandoned to endure it, had not that great love intervened. Thank God that Jesus took the cross from Simon on Calvary!1 [Note: H. R. Mackintosh.]
3. Then another and equally real sense holds good in which we are summoned to perpetuate Simon’s act. Not merely is the cross the gateway of the Christian life; it is its signature and distinctive mark ever after. Vicarious atonement by no means implies that we never have anything to bear. Many people think it does, thereby bringing great discredit on the Gospel; but it is a mistake born of simple ignorance, for no one can help noticing, and feeling the significance of, the fact that in the New Testament practically all the allusions to Jesus as our Pattern are given in direct connection with His Passion. Because He suffered, therefore we suffer with Him. So, again, St. Paul speaks of fellowship in the Lord’s sufferings as that after which he more and more aspired; and in this mixed world there will be no need to manufacture occasions of endurance; they will meet us in plenty, provided only we do not shrink from them. In each life meriting the Christian name there will be found self-denial, sacrifice, loss, humiliation, that would have been impatiently, or even indignantly, thrust aside, had Christ not chosen them, but which are made welcome, even if it be falteringly, for His sake. Do we understand what these things mean? Have we learnt that they are no accident in the devout life, but its essence? Is it even now dawning on us that there is a price to pay for fellowship with Christ? Well, if we are wakening to these vast, but sometimes forgotten, truths, and if at times the price seems very costly, let us not fail to recollect what it means for Christ that we should pay it. Simon of Cyrene bore the cross, and thus spared the Lord some pain; let us bear ours as He appoints it, in the world, and in the redeeming toil of His Kingdom; and that too will spare Him pain—the pain of seeing others lost whom we might have helped to save, and the pain of beholding our so fruitless and barren lives. Nay, rather, it will fill the cup of joy that was set before Him when He Himself endured the bitter cross, “despising the shame.”
I think of the Cyrenian
Who crossed the city-gate
When forth the stream was pouring
That bore Thy cruel fate.
I ponder what within him
The thoughts that woke that day,
As his unchosen burden
He bore that unsought way.
Yet, tempted he as we are;
O Lord, was Thy cross mine?
Am I, like Simon, bearing
A burden that is Thine?
Thou must have looked on Simon;
Turn, Lord, and look on me,
Till I shall see and follow
And bear Thy cross for Thee.1 [Note: H. R. Mackintosh.]
ii. The Symbol of Shame turned into Glory
Behold one of life’s divinest transfigurations. When they placed the end of the cross upon the shoulders of the slave, they meant to put fresh dishonour on the Christ. But the cross has grown to be the supreme uplifting power of all those of whom that slave was the representative and type. Not only has it rescued the name of Simon the Cyrenian from oblivion but it has done far more, for it has broken the fetters of the slave well-nigh throughout the world. When these men made the slave the helper of the Saviour, they unconsciously proclaimed “liberty to the captive.”
The Christian freedom which Simon found in his degrading bondage, may be regarded as the earnest and the guarantee that similar Christian freedom will be enjoyed by all in the dark lands who have been compelled by their fellow-creatures to carry the cross of toil and shame. The transportation of the slave to other countries, in a manner as providential as the coming of Simon to Jerusalem, has often been the means of bringing him within the reach of Christian influences, so that his bondage has proved to him life from the dead. In bearing his compulsory cross, he has heard of the Crucified One, and now knows Jesus of Nazareth as his own Redeemer, and the truth has made him free indeed. And so it will go on—until there shall be no compulsory labour under the sun, and every oppressed one shall enjoy the glorious liberty of the sons of God. Christianity has put its own higher meanings and purposes into the common language of men. The wild weeds brought into its garden, under the culture of grace, display a beauty and fruitfulness before unknown. The use of the Angareion, or compulsory service, of the Persians is ennobled in the service of the Christian religion. Like the other Persian word “paradise,” which signified originally a park or pleasure-garden, in which wild beasts were kept and beautiful foreign trees grew, but which our Lord employed to describe the blessed heavenly world into which the dying thief should be immediately translated—“To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise,”—so the original Persian word for “compel” is transformed by being used in connection with the cross-bearing of Christ. In this Divine usage it becomes the vehicle of far higher truth than any which it knew at first, and is divested of all its former disagreeable associations. Blessed are those who are compelled to bear the cross of Christ, for in so doing they are bearing the instrument of their own redemption; and the following of Christ that is at first enforced, that is done in pain and shame and toil, ends in walking with Him at liberty, running with enlargement of heart in the way of His commandments.
Do you see that young Jewish Rabbi flashing along the Damascus Road, hating the very name of Christ, and loathing the story of His cross? His life is all laid out, his position is secure, his renown is safe among the generations of Israel. But there comes one blinding flash, one awful, crushing revelation, that sweeps away the purpose and the dream of Saul for ever, and Paul stands upon his feet, the bondsman of Jesus Christ, chained for ever to the cross he once despised. Henceforth he lives a life “constrained,” “compelled,” but it is glorious living, and the mighty influence of that man, compelled to bear the cross of Christ, will last longer than the world.1 [Note: G. Critchley.]
Who speaketh now of peace?
Who seeketh for release?
The Cross is strength, the solemn Cross is gain.
The Cross is Jesus’ breast,
Here giveth He the rest
That to His best belov’d doth still remain.
How sweet an ended strife!
How sweet a dawning life!
Here will I lie as one who draws his breath
With ease, and hearken what my Saviour saith
Concerning me; the solemn Cross is gain;
Who willeth now to choose?
Who strives to bind or loose?
Sweet life, sweet death, sweet triumph and sweet pain.2 [Note: Dora Greenwell.]
Bearing Christ’s Cross
Cameron (A. B.), From the Garden to the Cross, 302.
Clow (W. M.), The Day of the Cross, 157.
Critchley (G.), When the Angels have Gone Away, 101.
Hutchings (W. H.), Sermon Sketches, i. 145.
Mackintosh (H. R.), Life on God’s Plan, 242.
Maclaren (A.), A Year’s Ministry, 2nd Ser., 45.
Macmillan (H.), The Mystery of Grace, 48.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, i. 285.
Speirs (E. B), A Present Advent, 192.
Spurgeon (C. H.), The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxviii. No. 1683.
Stalker (J.), The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ, 125.
Stanford (C.), The Evening of our Lord’s Ministry, 313.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), 15th Ser., 149.
Christian World Pulpit, xviii. 85 (Gasquoine); xlvii. 392 (Horton); lxxvii. 140 (Renshaw).
Churchman’s Pulpit, pt. 9 (Holy Week), 363 (Shettle).