(For the background to this post, please read Mark 15 and click back to this post.)
Sometime later, probably around eight in the morning, Jesus and two other prisoners were marched through the narrow streets of the city out to the place of execution. Coming into town was a North African Jew from Cyrene named Simon. It had been his dream for years, as it was the dream of every Jew living outside Israel, to visit the Holy City for Passover. He and his family had probably spent the night outside the city, because of the huge crowds. The next morning, on his way into town, he met a procession of Roman soldiers and criminals carrying their crosses, along with mourners and gawkers, on their way to a crucifixion.
I can imagine him trying to keep his young children from seeing it. But that proved impossible when, right in front of them, one of the criminals fainted from loss of blood. Suddenly the butt of a Roman soldier’s spear tapped Simon on the chest (this would be verse 21). “Carry it for him,” the soldier barked, and Simon could do nothing but obey.
Think of how he must have felt. All his life he had wanted to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had finally achieved his dream, and now here he was carrying some criminal’s cross for these despised Romans. He would have cursed his luck. He would have said to himself, “Why me?”
That is all Luke has to say about Simon, but it is not the end of the story. In Mark’s gospel we learn that Simon had two sons, Rufus and Alexander. Now why would Mark, writing his gospel for the church at Rome some twenty-five or thirty years later, even mention the names of Simon’s sons? I can think of one reason: because people in the Roman church knew them.
There is more. From Paul’s letter to the Romans, we learn that at the time Mark wrote his gospel there was a prominent man in the church at Rome named Rufus. In fact, Paul calls him chosen in the Lord and says that Rufus’ mother “has been a mother to me” (Romans 16:13).
Here is what might have happened. On that terrible day, Simon saw something in the Nazarene that he could not ignore. He was, perhaps, only a few feet away when they nailed him to the cross; heard him say, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”; saw the sun grow dark and the earth shake, and heard a grizzled Roman soldier say, “Surely this is the son of God.” Perhaps this Simon became a follower of Jesus, as well as his wife and his sons, Alexander and Rufus. William Cowper was right: “God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.”
They reached the place the Jews called Golgotha, and the Romans, Calvary. It was known as “the place of the skull,” though we don’t know why. Some people think that the place was a skull-shaped hill, hence songs like, “I believe in a hill called mount Calvary” or, “On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross.” But Scripture nowhere says that Calvary was a hill. One scholar suggested that it got its name because the Romans left the skulls of their victims there as a warning to others. But that is highly unlikely. Such a place would be ceremonially unclean, and Jews would not go there, particularly on a holy day, as was the case when Jesus was executed.
When they reached the place, Jesus and the other two prisoners were forced to the ground by the soldiers who guarded them. They were quickly and efficiently nailed to their respective crosses, which were then hoisted and dropped into place. It was part of the religious leader’s strategy to have Jesus executed alongside notorious criminals. In the court of public opinion, they wanted to convict him of guilt by association. But in so doing, they unwittingly fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah: “He was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).