Simon of Cyrene’s encounter with Christ on the way to the cross left its mark on his whole family. Is the cross imprinted on our lives and ministries as well? Alistair Begg reminds us that, in the cross, the presence of God connects with the pain and sin of a broken world. In response, God is not looking for sentimental sympathy, but for faith in the one truly innocent man whose death brings about salvation for the guilty.
Our reading this morning is from the Gospel of Luke and from verse 26 of the twenty-third chapter. Luke 23:26. And in the music that’s just been playing, we’ve been reminded of the cross of Christ, and now we have Luke’s description of Jesus’ movement in the direction of the cross:
“As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, “Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then “they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?’”
God, as we study the Bible, we ask for your help in speaking and in listening, in hearing and understanding. We look alone to you, and we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, we’re dealing with Luke’s record of Jesus’ final steps towards the cross, and having gone through the twenty-two and a half chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we are by this time fairly familiar with the ministry of Jesus. He has been, for some three years now, touching and changing lives. The people who had been walking in darkness have seen a great light. He has declared himself to be the Light of the World. Some people have been illumined by this light and have walked into its orb and have been transformed by it, but the majority of the people have chosen darkness instead of light. And of course, Jesus had said that that would be the case, and they merely fulfill by their own inclinations what he said would be true of them.
But now, at this juncture, the teacher from Galilee who had turned the other cheek, who had walked the second mile, now finds himself being led away outside of the city to be crucified. That’s the opening phrase of verse 26; it sets the context: “As they led him away…” We’ve reached in Luke’s Gospel a defining moment, a pivotal event. Indeed, world history will never be the same again, and the history of the individual lives of men and women also will be altered for all time. It’s a definitive moment, it’s a pivotal moment in history, and I found myself, as I was writing in my notes, reaching for what is no longer contemporary song lyrics but actually ancient song lyrics—the song lyrics known only by grandparents. And I wrote down in my notes,
The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast,
And the slow one now will later be fast,
And the present now will later be past,
The order is rapidly fading,
And the first one now will later be last,
For the times they are a-changin’.
Now, these are the words of Bob Dylan, as some of you who have had an unfortunate childhood will know, and they actually concur with at least part of what Jesus said—namely, that the first would be last and the last would be first. And he has called people again and again through the course of his ministry to a defining moment in their lives. And in the events that have just unfolded, we’ve seen how Pilate has responded to the challenge of Jesus.
Simeon, back in chapter 2, had predicted, taking the baby Jesus in his arms, that this child would be the cause for the rising and falling of many in Israel. In other words, he would be the cause of division. People, said Simeon, would be divided on the basis of Jesus. In the events that are before us now, it almost appears as though Simeon was wrong, because the people seem to be uniting rather than dividing, and they are uniting against Jesus. Herod and Pilate had been antagonistic to one another, but now they’ve become friends. Why? Because they are actually united against Jesus. The Roman authorities and the Jewish officials, who have frequently been at loggerheads with one another, are now working in cahoots with each other. Why? Because they are united against Jesus.
But as the story unfolds, it will become apparent all over again that the ministry of Jesus is oriented towards and is embraced by those who live beyond the margins of religious orthodoxy. And it’s going to be a centurion in a couple of weeks who says, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” It’s going to be the bystanding crowd who beat their breasts and say to themselves, “There was something dreadfully wrong here.” And it is a reminder to us—a brief reminder in passing, but a necessary reminder—that the whole orientation of the gospel in Luke’s unfolding of it is that Jesus is reaching out to the least and the last and the left out. He has not come to put together a group of religious professionals. He has not come to put together a marina full of evangelical boats that are all sailed around in the harbor, where we can all point at one another’s little craft and comment on one another’s articulation of our sailing principles. Rather, he has called a people to himself in order that we might go out and wrestle with those who are on the troubled sea—that we might follow the pattern of [C. T. Studd] when he said, “Some seek to live within the sound of church and chapel bell, but I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” And Jesus here is rescuing men and women and continues to do so.
Now, with all that by way of introduction, we come to these five verses. They’re not the easiest of verses; at least they weren’t for me. You may find them easier than I did. I made three headings in my notes, and I’ll tell you what they are in the hope that it might help you along.
My first heading was simply “A strange thing happened on my way to the city.” “A strange thing happened on my way to the city.” If that makes you think of “[A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum]” then your mind works as mine does too. These words I’m putting into the mouth of Simon, who is the principle figure here in verse 26 and 27—a gentleman with a wife and at least two children, because they are identified as being Alexander and Rufus; Mark tells us their names in his Gospel. And this man Simon had left his home, a place Cyrene, or “Cy-ree-nee,” which won’t mean much to many of us until we take an ancient atlas and compare it with an atlas of the contemporary world, and then we will realize that Cyrene is Tripoli in modern day Libya. And that’s where this man came from. He was presumably a Jew living in part of the Diaspora in Tripoli in Libya, in Cyrene. And when he left his home in order to journey to Jerusalem, he surely could not have had in mind what would take place in his life on this particular visit.
And as he made his way finally, as Luke tells us, from the country into the city of Jerusalem, he was confronted by commotion, and not only was he confronted by this crowd following this sorry individual who was at this point bearing the crossbeam of his symbol of execution, but he was grabbed—somewhat unceremoniously, presumably—by the soldiers, and they said to him, “Hey you! Hey you! Carry this!” And before he knew what was involved, he was walking behind the bloodied body of this Galilean carpenter, whom, if he had not known before, he quickly discovered was none other than Jesus of Nazareth. And there is nothing to suggest that he had gone to Jerusalem on anything other than a routine journey. And here, in a moment in time, his life is completely scrambled, and he is walking behind Christ.
Incidentally, the interest in the soldiers transferring the crossbeam from Jesus to Simon is presumably not compassion but rather a concern that they will be able to complete the execution. They don’t want him dying or succumbing on the way to the Skull Hill. And since Jesus looked to be in such dreadful physical condition, they grabbed the passerby and thrust him into the action.
So, as I say, if grandfathers tell stories to their grandchildren, as they do, then this was probably right up at the top of the list in years that followed, when he sat with his grandchildren and he said, “You know, I want to tell you that there was a day when I went to Jerusalem, and it was the strangest day of my life. A very strange thing happened to me on my way into Jerusalem.”
The very fact that his boys are mentioned in Mark’s Gospel points us in a direction— admittedly, we need to be careful about this kind of conjecture, but I think there is a basis for it. The reason that Mark mentions that he was “Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus” is presumably because “Alexander and Rufus” was known to the early church. The Gospels were written, and the early church received them, and when the people read them—the initial group that read them—it wasn’t for them. They weren’t saying, “Oh, where’s Cyrene?” They knew where it was. When it said that it came from Mark, they knew who he was. And when it identified Simon as being the father of Alexander and Rufus, they knew who those boys were too. And presumably the reason that they were included is because they also were part of the believing company, and that somewhere along the line, Simon, who had been press-ganged into bearing the cross, had come to believe in who Jesus was and what he’d done, and he had himself become a cross bearer. He had taken seriously, then, the words that he discovered that Jesus had spoken: “Who[ever] does not carry [the] cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” And it may well be that in sharing the story of that with his boys, Alexander and Rufus, they too had become followers of Jesus.
If that is the case, it’s a wonderful little touch on the part of the Gospel writers. It’s kind of an insider piece of information for the early church, allowing them to read it and recognize that when Jesus was at his weakest, when Satan was at his strongest, when hell was unleashed in all of its fury, the grace of Christ was working in a silent way in the life of this little family.
Now, whether there is substantial basis for that or not, what we have to recognize is that Simon carrying this cross behind Jesus is a reminder to us, in these final moments, of what it means actually to be a believer. That Jesus has already explained that discipleship is about carrying a cross. That the disciples of Jesus were not individuals who dressed in a particular way. There’s nothing to suggest they did. That the disciples of Jesus were not marked by particular songs that they liked to sing. They would’ve sung the same songs as many of their contemporaries. It wasn’t that they listened to Christian music. The disciples of Jesus were not known because they carried around books with them, and in the flyleaf of the book they had written their name and declared the fact that they were believers in Jesus. They never had any books to carry around with them; they had nothing in which to write their names or declare their testimony.
No, the disciples of Jesus were identified as being the people of the cross. The disciples of Jesus were cross carriers, at least metaphorically. They understood that the story of Jesus was a story that centered in this pivotal event, that Jesus was moving inexorably towards the cross, and there in his death was the answer to their sins. But they recognized too that the story of the cross was not, if you like, “the messy bit,” which afforded them personal forgiveness and then you could forget about it—you know, the story of the cross was to get you to realize the wonder of Jesus’ atoning death, and then, when you’ve done that, then you sort of put that behind you, and then you carry on with your life. No, they understood that the message of the cross was actually imprinted on their lives. They were forever to be identified with Jesus, who had borne their sins on the cross. And to the extent that that was true in the first century, it’s supposed to be true in the twentieth century, and in the twenty-first century.
Therefore, in seeking to live out the message of the gospel in our culture, our methods, as well as our message, need to be cross shaped. If we are going to make an impact in our culture along the lines that Jesus says to do in the Gospels, then this picture of Simon moving behind Jesus under the burden of the cross is a good picture to have in our minds as we anticipate another Monday morning. Because it is to our shame that we present to our culture a crossless Christ, that we are tempted to present to our culture a crossless Christianity.
What would a crossless Christianity look like? It would look like this: it would be expressed in terms suggesting that real Christianity means being successful, having it all together, knowing all the answers to the questions, never making mistakes, and striding through the world as if we owned it. Now, are you listening carefully to me? A crossless Christianity, impacting twenty-first century suburban and greater Cleveland, looks like this: it emerges from lives that walk into the culture saying to men and women by lip and by life, “Let me tell you what real Christians look like. Let me tell you what real Christianity is. Real Christianity is being successful, having it all together, knowing all the answers, never making mistakes, and striding through the world as if I own it.”
In other words, my dear friends, crossless Christianity is a lot like contemporary evangelical Christianity, whereby our presentation to our culture is largely made in terms of the categories I have just given you. And it is inept, futile, useless, dangerous, and catastrophic. Because it conveys to our culture a standard by which none of us live. Right? Do you know all the answers? You don’t even know all the questions! Is your life completely together? No, I speak to a congregation of those who live their lives in quiet desperation. And yet our presentation to the culture so often is made in terms of these categories. So we convey a standard that we do not live by, and we make zero contact with those whose lives are broken and buffeted and fallen and downhearted, who feel themselves not to know the questions or the answers, who feel that the world is crushing them, who feel that they have no hope and no possibilities. And the last thing in the world they need to meet is some self-satisfied, smug, know-it-all clown who emerges from the walls of Parkside Church to present a crossless Christianity!
As I drove to the airport Friday night, about eleven o’clock—I told the people yesterday when, as leaders, we met for prayer—I think it was 102.1, and there’s a lady plays music, and she plays songs to encourage you and lift your spirits. I was there by chance, not by design—and not that I needed my spirits lifted. And as I listened, I only heard one call and one song. The call came from a young lady; she identified herself as Amber. The nice voice with music playing underneath it said, “And where are you tonight, Amber?”
“I’m at home.”
“Well, what is home like for you?”
“Well, I’m a single mom.”
“Uh-huh. And how old are you, Amber?”
“And how long have you had a baby?”
“So, how’s it going tonight, Amber?”
“Not very well. I sometimes feel completely overwhelmed,” she says. She’s crying out from nowhere in her home to a radio station!
This morning on my cell phone, a message left to me by someone hundreds of miles away from here, successful in the world’s eyes, rich, by any standards wealthy. The message says in a faltering voice, “Will you pray for me? Will you ask people to pray for me? I ran away from the center in which I’m trying to deal with my addiction. I’m in my home trying to do it cold turkey. I need your prayers.”
Now, what use do they have in a crossless Christianity? What does it have to say to them? Nothing at all.
“Yes, a strange thing happened on my way to the city. I took up my cross, and I began to follow Jesus.”
Secondly, I wrote in my notes, “Don’t weep for me, Jerusalem.” If it sounds like “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” then your mind also is warped and works like mine. Yes, that’s it.
The shouts that had been coming from the crowd of “Crucify!” have now abated. Their mission has been successful. Pilate has sent him to his execution. And now you only have the ambient sound of the interaction of the people, the shuffling through the streets, the pressure into the narrow thoroughfares there around the Via Dolorosa as they begin to move into the street that will lead them finally to Skull Hill. And in the middle of the throng that follows him, there is, says Luke, a number of women among the people, and these women were mourning and wailing for Jesus.
There’s no suggestion here that these are the peculiar friends of Jesus. Remember that there were a number of women who accompanied the disciples, ministered to Jesus in all kinds of practical ways. There’s no indication from Luke that that’s who’s here; rather, that these are simply being addressed as ordinary inhabitants of Jerusalem. He turns to them and addresses them in that way: “Daughters of Jerusalem,” he says, “children of Jerusalem, people of Jerusalem…” And they have been stirred; their sensibilities have been shocked by the way in which this itinerant preacher, who never did anybody any wrong—that was what people would’ve said: “He didn’t do anything to anybody. I don’t know why they’re doing this to him, why the authorities are treating him so mercilessly.” And so it’s no surprise that hearts that have been touched and moved in that way would express it in their mournful wails.
Now, it would be no surprise if Jesus were to have acknowledged what they were doing and the sounds that were emanating from them—if through his fast-closing eyes as a result of the scourging he’s just received, if he were simply to have glanced at them and squeezed out of his eyes some kind of acknowledgment for sympathy in the midst of so much spite and hatred. But he does more than that. He actually stops, and he turns to them, and he speaks to them.
If Simon was bowled over by having been unceremoniously grabbed and thrust into action, he could’ve been no more amazed than these ladies were when, from the lips of Jesus, he says, “Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.” In other words, he says to them, “Your sympathy is misdirected. You shouldn’t be weeping for me.”
Oh, he’s not saying that it is wrong for them to do so, but rather what he’s saying is that there is something else for which they need to weep with a far greater concern. And you will remember from our studies that Jesus, in his entry to Jerusalem, had wept over Jerusalem because of the judgment that was going to fall upon it. He’d said, “How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you refuse to come to me.” He said, “If only you, Jerusalem, had known what made for peace—but your eyes are closed and your ears are stuffed to me.” And so he says to these women, “Don’t weep for me, ladies. You’re weeping for the wrong reason.”
Indeed, their tender compassion towards the sufferings of Christ could actually prevent them from seeing what awaits Jerusalem if the inhabitants—including themselves—persist in their unbelief. There’s a striking statement back in 19. I’m just going to turn to it for myself; you needn’t necessarily turn to it. But when he speaks about the destruction of Jerusalem in Luke 19:44, he says, “They will dash you to the ground … and the children within your walls. [And] they will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” “Because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” These ladies recognized enough to extend their sympathy towards the buffeted and broken body of Jesus, but they did not recognize the time of God’s coming to them. They recognized that this was a sorry sight, that this was wrong, that this was a travesty of justice, that no person should ever be treated in that way, the very dignity of man demanded that this should not be taking place, and as a result of that, all of their emotions are stirred, and their sympathy is poured out in their mourning and their wailing.
“And so,” says Jesus, “the reason that you should weep for yourselves and for your children is because the coming calamity,” verse 29, “is going to be so severe that it will change the way you view everything, including the way in which you view the blessing of children. In that day, people, instead of commiserating with childless women, will congratulate childless women. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’m very sorry, Mrs. Levi, that you have no kids,’ they’ll say to one another, ‘Isn’t it fantastic, Mrs. Levi, that you have no children? Because although you are about to be destroyed in the moment, you do not have to look on your children and recognize that they are about to experience the same destiny.’ Indeed,” he says, “death will be preferable to the terror that awaits them. They will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” They’re not calling on the hills so that they can hide in them. They’re calling on the mountains so that they will kill them. And of course, as you know, within a relatively short period of time these horrors were to become actual in the destruction of Jerusalem.
So then, “A strange thing happened on my way to the city”—this picture of a cross that marks the followers of Jesus. And then, “Don’t weep for me, Jerusalem”—the danger of misdirected sympathy. And finally, a puzzling punch line. Verse 31: “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” What in the world does that mean? I honestly don’t know. I’m going to give you my best shot, but I don’t know.
I think I got some kind of indication of what it means when last week, along with many of you, I was picking up sticks. As a result of the winds that had come through the previous week and brought down many different bits and pieces in our yard, out we went and found that bending down is not just what it used to be. And as I made my little pile, not as tidy as my neighbor two steps down, I did my best. But what I did not do, I did not break off any saplings. I didn’t get carried away by the gathering of sticks, and when I had finally exhausted the supply that was lying there, dry and broken and ready to crumble, I decided, “Why don’t I just go and break off a few other branches from vibrant parts of the tree?” It would’ve been very strange. But the dry stuff was ready; that’s why it had fallen.
I think that’s the way into this enigmatic statement. Just as it is unnatural for green wood to be burned in the fire, so it is contrary to nature that the innocent man Jesus should face suffering and death. I mean, it’s contrary to nature. Why is this innocent man dying? Pilate knew he was innocent. The Jewish people knew he was innocent. Many bystanders had a feeling that he was innocent. It is contrary to nature that the innocent should die, that the green tree, that the green shoot, should be burned up and destroyed. But if that is going to be the case, if that is what happens, if that is how and when the guiltless suffer, what will it be then for the guilty nation, which, like dry wood, is ready for the impending judgment? Or, in an attempted paraphrase: If the innocent Jesus meets such a fate, what will be the fate of a guilty Jerusalem? If this is what they’re gonna do to an innocent man, what do you think is going to happen in the end, when true judgment is poured out upon the guilty?
Now, let me just say a word and wrap this up. The words of Jesus to these women—and through them, if you like, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem—need to be seen for what they are. They are essentially two things. They are a word of warning. They are a word of warning. “Look out. You don’t want to go there.” That’s what he’s saying. “Don’t get caught up in weeping for me. Let me tell you what you should be bemoaning and wailing about—namely, the impending judgment which will fall on the unbelief of men and women. I’m giving you here,” he says, “a word of warning. And I’m giving you at the same time a word of invitation. You don’t need to go to that place of judgment. I’m telling you this now in order that I might direct you in the proper way, in order that I might direct you to the place of repentance and faith.”
You see, now as then, Jesus is not calling us to sympathy. He’s calling us to faith. You may be one of these people; you certainly will know one of these individuals: a very religious person. They will have religious art in their home. They may have books on their coffee table that depict the sufferings and passions of Christ. They may routinely put themselves in a place where pictures or portraits or sculptings of a crucified Messiah are there for their focus and for their attention, and it is not unusual for them to be stirred to great paroxysms of emotion, to be concerned as they look upon this Christ and realize what a dreadful thing took place—reminding us that it is clearly possible to have an interest in Jesus which is, if you like, nothing more than a condescending sympathy, but without ever believing in him as my Lord and my Redeemer and my Savior and my Friend.
Jesus doesn’t need anybody’s sympathy. Jesus is not on a cross this morning. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father on high, and next up on his calendar of events is his return in power and great glory to receive those who are ready to meet him and to banish for all eternity those who, like the stiff-necked residents in Jerusalem when he called them as a hen would gather chicks, said, “We don’t want to come. We’d rather feel sorry for you and keep you at arm’s length than face up to the fact that we need to feel sorry about our predicament and come to you in repentance and in faith.”
That’s why, you see, religious art can only take us so far. That’s why films that depict the passion of Christ, unless they are framed within the prophecies of the Old Testament and the clarifications of the Epistles, will have people coming out of cinemas weeping and wailing and moaning and saying, “Oh, that was so dreadful! That was so horrible! I can’t believe that even happened!” Okay. Then what? “Well, I don’t know what.”
Well, Jesus says, “Don’t weep for me, Cleveland. Weep for yourselves, if you remain in the position of unbelief. For on that day…”
And indeed, the very same terminology is used, interestingly—and with this I finish—in Revelation 6, when John looks forward to the seals being opened, and the great seal of judgment is opened, and then it says,
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, [and] the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. [And] they called [on] the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
You see, on that day there will be no refuge from him. There is only refuge in him.
Well, that’s the best I can do with these verses. “A strange thing happened on the way to the city”—a picture here of what it means to have a Christianity that is about the cross. “Don’t weep for me, Jerusalem”—the danger of a condescending sympathy that makes us feel that because we somehow or another feel something in our tummies or in our hearts about what Jesus did upon the cross, that we must ipso facto be believers, when in point of fact, we are no more believers…
I can’t convey this. It’s not my job to convey it. I can only tell you this is what the Bible says. It is only the Spirit of God that will convince you, my dear, stubborn, rebellious, unbelieving, dear attender of Parkside Church. It is only the Spirit of God that will convince you that you have an appointment with God that you must face. And it is only the Spirit of God that will convince you that Jesus died on the cross not to induce your sympathy but to take your place, and he calls you to repentance and to faith. I can only do my best to tell you that that’s what the story is. That’s this Gospel. That’s what Luke is articulating. But I cannot convince you. You should cry to God and ask him to convince you, and then ask him to convert you.
Let us pray together:
Our God and our Father, “The line it is drawn, and the curse it is cast,” and the first will be last, and the last will be first. Thank you for the defining nature of the work and words of Jesus. Although by our many words we may run the risk of confusing the issue, the clarity of who Jesus is and what he said is unmistakable and ultimately undeniable. Save us from a misdirected, condescending sympathy, and bring us to faith. Save us from a smug, self-satisfied, crossless Christianity that makes liars of us and removes us from those who are crying out for help.
And when we come to the puzzling parts of the Bible, help our puzzlement only to remind us afresh that the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things, and to rest again in the wonder of your redeeming love.
And may grace and mercy and peace from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See Isaiah 9:2.
 See John 8:12.
 See Matthew 5:39, 41.
 Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1963). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30.
 See Luke 2:34.
 Mark 15:39 (NIV 1984). See also Matthew 27:54; Luke 23:47.
 Quoted in Norman P. Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 170. Paraphrased.
 See Mark 15:21.
 Mark 15:21 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 14:27 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 13:34 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 23:37.
 Luke 19:42 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 6:15–17 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.