[K:NWTS 24/2 (Sep 2009) 3-11]

A Mini-Markan Sandwich:
Simon of Cyrene Pressed Between Jesus and His Cross

Mark 15:20-22

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The Kidron Valley lies on the east side of Jerusalem and divides the city of David proper from the Mount of Olives. You may recall that it was across this valley that Jesus walked on the night in which he was betrayed by one of his disciples (John 18:1). In 1941, while excavating an ancient cemetery in the Kidron Valley, archaeologists unearthed an ossuary with an intriguing inscription etched into it. An ossuary is a clay or limestone box or chest used for holding the bones of the dead. On this particular ossuary were written the words: “Alexander, son of Simon.” You will notice from our text that Simon of Cyrene had a son named Alexander. Is the ossuary, discovered in 1941, the bone-box of the bother of Rufus and the son of the man press-ganged into carrying Jesus’ cross? Is it? Perhaps; perhaps not.

Cyrene or Cyrenaica was a country located in North Africa, next door to Egypt on the west. We call it Libya today. More than three hundred years before Christ, the Egyptians under their King, Ptolemy I, had captured and relocated some Jews from Palestine to Cyrene. These Jews became part of a flourishing North African Jewish community—the most famous center of which was in Alexandria. Later, some of the Jews of Cyrene returned to Jerusalem where they established a synagogue in connection with other North Africans from Alexandria and Asians from Cilicia and Asia Minor. You will find this story in Acts 6:9. It is possible that the Jews from Cyrene who were present at Pentecost (Acts 2:10)—an occasion on which they heard Peter’s powerful sermon in which three thousand souls were converted—it is possible that the Jews from Cyrene at Pentecost were guests of the Cyrenaican synagogue in Jerusalem. And perhaps some of those Cyrenaican Jews were converted as well by Peter’s sermon, because we read in Acts 11:20 and Acts 13:1 that men of Cyrene came to Antioch where they preached the Lord Jesus to the Jews.

Simon—In and Out

Simon of Cyrene is described in Mark 15:21 as coming in from the country or from the field (as some versions put it). That Simon worked fields outside of Jerusalem suggests that he was a native of Cyrene, who, with other Jews from that North African locale, had migrated to Palestine. He was undoubtedly part of that synagogue in Jerusalem which included African and Asian Jews. Of the gospel writers, Mark alone tells us about his sons, Alexander and Rufus. That the evangelist names the boys is significant—especially when he names very few of the minor characters in his gospel. (You may recall the woman with the alabaster vial in the previous chapter—the unnamed woman of Mark 14. She remains anonymous, though she acts magnanimously and affectionately.[1]) These two boys are known to us by name, though we know nothing more than their names. No; that is not quite accurate. Alexander and Rufus are known to Mark’s audience—to his readers. How do I know that? Well, Mark mentions them, albeit parenthetically, by name because the names Alexander and Rufus, sons of Simon of Cyrene—these men of this family would be recognized by Mark’s readers as Christians—followers of the crucified Savior. Mark is writing to his readers; “You know Alexander and Rufus; you know these men. They are sons of Simon who carried the cross of our Lord—carried that cross to Golgotha where our Savior was put to death.” And in his characteristically abbreviated, yet open-ended manner, Mark is suggesting the rest of the story in the mere mention of the appellations. Alexander, Rufus, Simon: you know all three as followers of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

Is it for this reason that Luke also tells us that Simon followed behind Jesus on his way to Calvary? “And. . .  they laid hold of Simon . . . and placed on him the cross to carry behind Jesus” (Luke 23:26). Is Luke foreshadowing what Simon would become? a believer, following behind his dying Lord?

Simon joins Jesus, the Roman soldiers and the jeering crowds on a journey out of the city. Simon, coming into the city from his fields, is compelled to do an about face and travel outside the city. Only a few days before, Jesus was coming into the city—coming to Jerusalem and the crowds cheered his advent with branches—branches cut from the fields (Mark 11:8). The fields supply the banner “Hosanna, Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Now the fields provide the bearer of the crossbeam to the accompaniment, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Jesus expelled from the city; Simon compelled to go outside the gate with him. The clash of directional vectors is not only hauntingly ironic—the clash of vectors is theologically  poignant. Who walks the way Jesus walks? Simon of Cyrene. Who treads the path Jesus treads? Simon of Cyrene. Who turns his back—who, with Jesus turns his back on Jerusalem? Simon of Cyrene. Who bears the cross Jesus bears? Simon of Cyrene.

Jesus—In and Out

Jesus, who had freely come into the city, now compelled to go out. And that duplicated in Simon—freely coming into the city, now compelled to go out following Jesus. The intersection of these lives—Jesus’ and Simon’s—the intersection of these lives is bound together, intimately woven together, interfaced and mirrored, bracketed together. Yes, Jesus and Simon, bracketed together. It is there in the text—the pronominal brackets—the pronouns which surround, enclose, fold in Simon of Cyrene. The third person singular pronoun “him” in verse 20; and again in verse 22, “him”. It is Jesus—unnamed here!—it is Jesus who brackets Simon—Simon, the one named here. Mark puts Simon’s name between the anonymous Jesus. Simon surrounded by him; Simon enclosed by him; Simon enveloped by him whom they intend to crucify—him whom they plan to nail up on the Place of the Skull. Simon sandwiched between an about-to-die Jesus. Even as Jesus will be sandwiched between two about-to-die criminals. How Mark’s spotlight shifts from Simon to Jesus, from Jesus to Simon—ever so briefly the one mirrored in the other.

Simon Framed in the Picture

But you will notice, it is not only the third person personal pronoun referring to Jesus which frames Simon’s story here in Mark’s gospel: it is also the cross. Mark places two purpose clauses around the presentation of Simon of Cyrene. At the end of verse 20, they led him out “for the purpose of”, “in order to” crucify him. At the end of verse 21, they seized Simon “in order that”, “for the purpose of” bearing Jesus’ cross. Do you see it? Simon is not only bracketed by the person of Christ (Jesus enfolds him); Simon is also bracketed by the cross of Christ (the death of Jesus enfolds him). Simon of Cyrene is placed by Mark at the center of a twofold, duplicate inclusio—the person of Christ and the cross of Christ. Something marvelously significant is occurring here! Mark’s tiny sandwich here in 15:20-22 is a tiny cameo of his entire gospel—this gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). Are we to see here in Mark 15:21 a brief interlude with a man from far off Africa folded into the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth? Surely there is more here than that! Are we to read over this verse, jot down in our memories that Jesus collapsed on his way to Calvary and that Simon was pressed into carrying the crossbar on which Jesus would be nailed—a curious fact? Surely there is more here than that! Are we to log Mark 15:21 away in our memory so that we can retrieve it for a Bible Trivia game? Surely there is more here than that!

Yes, there is much more in the brief appearance of Simon—much more! Simon’s story is a tiny cameo of your story—each one of you who has been encircled by Jesus—each one of you who has taken up his cross.

Simon as Disciple

At the virtual center point of this gospel is Jesus’ statement in Mark 8:34, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Now that statement of our Lord is a cameo summary of discipleship—what it means to follow Jesus. Becoming a disciple, being a disciple of Jesus means coming behind him, denying yourself, taking up the cross and following him. And what do we find in the case of Simon of Cyrene? He comes behind Jesus, denies himself (albeit initially by force), takes up the cross and follows after Jesus. When all the disciples of Jesus have forsaken, denied and abandoned him, Simon, from outside the band of disciples—Simon acts like a disciple! In the most unexpected way, an outsider to the person and the cross of Jesus—a non-disciple—an outsider takes on the role of a disciple—takes on the role of an insider, following the bringer of the kingdom of heaven. In Mark 15:21, an outsider assumes the role of a disciple—an insider—he is pressed down into being enveloped by Jesus, taking up his cross and following the dying Savior.

Insiders, Outsiders

This is no mere fortuitous and coincidental story. In a gospel full of the transition which takes place when outsiders become insiders by the power of heaven’s kingdom—in a gospel where lepers (outsiders) are healed and sent to the temple (to become insiders); in a gospel where a woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage (outsider) touches Jesus’ robe and miraculously becomes an insider (“daughter, go in peace”); in a gospel where a naked demon-possessed man (outsider) sits at the feet of Jesus, clothed in his right mind (an insider); in a gospel where a Syro-Phoenician mother (outsider) is content with crumbs thrown to the dogs at the table of the kingdom (an insider)—in such a wonderful gospel of the transition Jesus brings with the coming of the kingdom of heaven (those outside the kingdom are brought into the kingdom by the love, grace and power of Christ Jesus)—in such a wonderful gospel, are we surprised at the presence of an outsider—at the presence of Simon of Cyrene—on the Via Dolorossa? Are we surprised that Simon is portrayed as a cameo disciple following Jesus by taking up his cross? No! we are not surprised because that is exactly why Mark has included Simon’s cross-bearing story in his gospel. Simon is the definitive example of a disciple at the definitive crux of Mark’s story of Jesus. He does what a true disciple does: he comes after Jesus, denies himself, takes up his cross and follows the crucified one. The cameo of Simon is the cameo of a disciple in a gospel about discipleship.

But there is more to discipleship in Mark’s gospel than following Jesus. Yes, discipleship is following Jesus, but it is more than that. The transition of being pressed down into following Jesus includes being conformed to his death and resurrection. In that same 8th chapter of Mark, verse 35, Jesus says, “whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Losing one’s life for Christ’s sake is death. It is death to self; it is death to pride; it is death to the ego; it is death to the guru mentality; it is death to the control-freak attitude; it is death to the power-broker agenda; it is death to the “if you don’t preach by my canons, you have denied the heart of the gospel.” Losing one’s life for Christ’s sake is death, suffering, agony, crucifixion, ridicule, mockery, ostracism, being taken outside the gate. Christ is saying: “being my disciple means jeers and sneers and hatred; means suffering—agonizing, excruciating, heart-breaking suffering.” Christ is saying, being my disciple is being pressed down into participation with my death. Union and identification; participation and conformity to death on the cross—that is what being my disciple means. It means you must let go—let go of life—lose your life; it means you must let go of it—allow it to be crucified; let it die so that from the tomb of your dead life may arise life from the dead. The transition in genuine discipleship is the transition from death—death on the cross—to life—life from the dead. “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake . . . will save it.” Save it? How? by resurrection from the dead! The life of a disciple is pressed down into, united to, identified with, participates in the death of Christ; and the life of a disciple is pressed down into, united to, identified with, participates in the resurrection of Christ unto new life. Discipleship begins in death and resurrection—crucifixion with Christ, resurrection with Christ. Discipleship continues with death and resurrection—crucifixion with Christ daily, resurrection with Christ daily. Discipleship consummates with death and resurrection—death unto reception by the Lamb that was slain and resurrection from the dead (at last) when we shall live body and soul before the face of Jesus in heaven for ever and ever.

Jesus as Disciple

But what about Simon of Cyrene? He is not crucified to death and raised up from the dead. He only appears in this tiny cameo of one verse in a gospel of over six hundred verses. Where is discipleship as death and resurrection in the case of Simon of Cyrene? The answer to that question is in the masterful inspiration of the Holy Spirit working upon the mind and pen of Mark. It is the mission of Christ in Marks’ gospel “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He will ransom them by taking their place—substituting himself on their behalf—vicariously identifying with them. So if death is their lot, he too must die. If suffering is their lot, he too must suffer. If being treated as an outsider is their lot, he too must be treated as an outsider. The Substitute must take the place of the guilty, the condemned, the ones worthy of death—those whom he has enveloped in himself.

And so he begins his trek in participation with them: his trek to death, he begins by denying himself, taking up his cross, following to the place of execution. In Mark 15:20, the Master becomes the disciple; the teacher becomes the follower; the one who makes the condition performs the condition. Jesus becomes what he requires—he becomes the incarnate disciple. Jesus in Mark 15 becomes the eschatological disciple.

But as he goes—as the eschatological disciple goes the way of self-denial, shouldering his cross—as he goes, he draws another into his story—draws him into the drama he himself experiences. The eschatological disciple mirrors himself in the semi-eschatological disciple. Do you see it? Simon becomes a substitute; Simon of Cyrene becomes a substitute for the Substitute. Simon is folded down into, united to the story of the eschatological disciple; and in that union begins to participate in self-denial, cross-bearing, following after Jesus, death and resurrection. In the gracious plan of God, Simon of Cyrene becomes identified with the eschatological disciple; and his former Jewish life dies even as his new life as a Christian rises from the dead.

Jesus, you see, has laid hold of Simon. Without ever touching him, Jesus has drawn Simon’s story—Simon’s life—into ineffable union with his story—his life. Jesus is saying to Simon, “Simon, today you are learning about death and life. Simon, today you are learning about substitutionary, yea vicarious, death and life. Simon, today you are learning about me—experiencing following me. Simon, it is about dying and rising again. Simon, you are now presently substituting for me, taking up my cross, denying yourself as I too have taken up my cross, denying myself. Simon, you are going for me, carrying my death, carrying my cross to Calvary. Simon, you are being pressed down, molded into, substituting for me.”

“But Simon, you and I will reach a place where only I can substitute for you. Simon, we will reach a place on that hill called ‘The Place of the Skull’—we will reach a place where I must take your place. And in that place, I will die for you. In that place, I will lay down my life a ransom for you. Simon, you must join me in taking up the cross, but Simon only I can hang there in your place so as to save your life. And dear Simon, as you see me hang there upon that tree, you will see yourself die the death. And Simon, in that hour, you will know that your former life has died when I breathe out my last. And dear Simon, you will also see yourself raised up from the dead on that third day when I rise again. Simon, I will live—I will live again. And Simon, you too will live. In me, you will be raised up to newness of life with me. Simon, our lives—your life, my life—are indelibly mirrored. You are reflected in me, Simon; I am mirrored in you.”

The Believer Sandwiched

Reader, I leave you at the point of transition—enclosed, bracketed, enveloped by Jesus and his cross. I leave you stooping with Simon of Cyrene, denying yourself, shouldering the cross and following Jesus to Calvary—to Calvary and beyond—to the garden of the resurrection. I leave you with Simon of Cyrene and participation—participation in the kingdom of heaven. I leave you mirrored in the eschatological disciple, Jesus Christ, who died for you and was raised again from the dead for you, that you might be his semi-eschatological disciple.

Enveloped by the person of Christ, arrogance—puffed-up, egocentric arrogance is crucified, so that humility, bowed-down, lowly humility may be raised up.

Sandwiched by the cross of Christ, factious, party-spirit divisiveness is crucified, so that union—sweet union and communion of the saints may be raised up.

Enfolded by Christ and his cross, vicious, biting name-calling is crucified, so that dear brothers and sisters (however imperfect) may be loved as Jesus loved them—loved as followers of the Savior.

Cocooned by Jesus’ death and resurrection, abuse—verbal, emotional, even physical abuse is crucified, so that the lambs of Jesus—Jesus’ weak and helpless lambs may be raised up and carried on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd.

Enfolded by Christ and his cross, measuring faithfulness to the gospel by yourself is crucified, so that the Word of God may be raised up.

Surrounded by the cross of Christ, false, simpering piety which veils a ruthless, reckless and brutal disregard for weak and tender consciences—false simpering, veiled-fisted piety is crucified, so that genuine devotion without deceit and pretense may be raised up.

Encircled by the person of Christ, stubborn attachment to men and man’s fallible agendas, systems and typological paradigms is crucified so that Christ—Christ—may be set forth to the eyes of faith.

I leave you sandwiched by the true and final disciple, so that you may fall down before him at the foot of the cross. Even as you embrace his nail-scarred hands and his wounded side. Even as you do what Jesus’ disciple, Simon of Cyrene, did.

[1]  Cf. James T. Dennison, Jr., “The Unnamed Woman and Jesus.” Kerux: The Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching 10/2 (September 1995): 41-47. Also available at kerux.com.