Simon rolled over as he heard the rooster crow. It was still dark outside. He lay there recalling the dream from the night before. It was the same recurring dream he’d had over the last year, since the previous time he had visited Jerusalem. He had dreamt of the man they called Jesus, who had so captivated his attention. This man who attracted such large crowds, and was somehow able to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf, had invaded his dreams. And just as all the other dreams, he would hear the voice of Jesus saying,
“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?”
Through his dreams over the last year, those words from Jesus had become so familiar to him. But he wondered, what did they mean? Take up your cross? Follow Jesus? Give up your life? Good News? What good news? Gaining the world? Losing your soul?
He lay there pondering… wondering… and then the rooster crowed again.
He jumped up and hurriedly dressed. He had a busy day ahead of him. But as was his custom each morning, he opened his small scroll. On it he had written key passages from the prophets that had always been an encouragement to him. He skimmed down the parchment and read these words from the prophet Isaiah:
“He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:3-7)
Some had told Simon this passage referred to Israel’s coming Messiah but he struggled to understand why He would be oppressed. If only Simon’s Messiah would come during his lifetime. What a joy that would be.
Simon reached for some bread as he left the small inn he frequented when visiting Jerusalem. He needed to take care of some business while in Jerusalem that day. Tomorrow he would visit the Temple for Passover before beginning his journey back to Cyrene the following week. He was eager to return to his family, and be reunited with his wife and sons, Alexander and Rufus.
The sun was shining through the clouds as Simon made his way into Jerusalem. While there were always many people coming and going, he detected that something was different. There was a huge commotion up ahead and he quickened his pace to draw closer to see what all the yelling was about. He rounded a corner in the road and all of a sudden he came face to face with a threatening group of Roman soldiers. They were stopped and screaming at a man who had fallen to the ground with a large wooden cross pinning him to the ground. The man hardly looked human, and his clothes were soaked in blood as he struggled and moaned.
As Simon took this all in, he heard the taunts and yells of many of the religious elite along the road. He recognized some of them from his time in the Temple. He wondered what would cause these men to express such anger and hatred towards the man who had stumbled and fallen beneath the weight of the large cross he was bearing.
As he was processing all of this, Simon was immediately jolted from his thoughts by one of the foreboding Roman soldiers, who grabbed Simon by the arm. The soldier’s grip was powerful. Simon was tempted to confront the Roman, but he quickly thought better as he counted the number of Roman soldiers that surrounded him.
The soldier barked out his order: “Hey! You! Get down there and pick up that cross. Give a hand to Israel’s King and Messiah,” the soldier mockingly jeered. The order was clear and threatening. Simon had no choice. It was either acquiesce or perhaps meet the same fate as this poor soul, who was clearly headed for his own demise soon.
Simon leaned down, pickup up the wooden cross, and began to heave it onto his broad shoulders. Simon was no small man, but the weight of the burden was a challenge, even for him. As he began to rise, he caught a quick glimpse of the disfigured and bloody man who was attempting to get back up to his feet. He looked familiar. Had Simon seen him before? How could he have?
Simon fell in behind the condemned man as the soldiers led the way up the hill. As Simon trudged along, all of a sudden the wounded, struggling man in front of him spoke out:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children…”
The man continued speaking but Simon was no longer listening to his words. Rather, he was trying to place where he had heard that voice before. The face was familiar. Now the voice was also. Simon struggled under the load of the cross…
The cross! That was it!
Those recurring dreams all of a sudden burst into Simon’s mind. The voice and face in his dreams. They were the same ones as the man struggling to walk in front of him. Could it be that this was Jesus, the one whom Simon had heard over and over in his dreams, yet he had never met?
As they turned a corner, the bloodied man in front of Simon turned ever so slightly and Jesus’ eyes caught the eyes of Simon for a brief moment. In that millisecond he knew that Jesus understood everything about him. The battered and bloodied man knew Simon’s innermost thoughts, secrets, struggles and failures. Simon shuddered. He felt ashamed. He felt needy. It was as if God Himself had just peered into the very recesses of Simon’s heart and soul. Yet, he also sensed a deep love from that glance from Jesus. But how could that be?
As Simon neared the hill that everyone knew as Golgotha, he realized that this was their destination. He wondered how it was that the man who had performed such wonderful deeds and miracles for so many could now be facing this brutal fate? What could Jesus have done that could have been worthy of death by crucifixion?
All of a sudden the soldiers barked out some orders and Simon’s thoughts were interrupted. They had arrived at their destination and he eagerly dropped the heavy load on the ground and carefully backed away from the soldiers. As he did so, the words of Jesus all of a sudden resonated in his thoughts: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Simon fell back into the crowd of onlookers. His clothes were stained with the blood of Jesus that covered the cross. His body ached. His mind was swirling. He had literally taken up the cross of Jesus and followed him. But is this what Jesus meant when He challenged so many with those words a year ago and in his dreams so many times? As he continued to try to reconcile the events of the morning with the words of Jesus, Simon heard Jesus pleading from the cross,
“Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
By now it was midday, but for some unexplained reason, the sky was growing dark and black. It was as if night had descended on the world. Fear began to grip Simon, as did many others watching this gruesome execution. Simon could stand it no more. As the tears welled up in his eyes, Simon turned to go down the hill, and as he did, he heard Jesus cry out one final time,
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
As Jesus’ lifeless body hung silent and still, it seemed as if the world was coming to an end. The ground began to shake and rocks on the side of the hill began to split and tumble down. People were running and screaming. Simon was terrified. He began to run as well.
Why was this happening? Did the death of Jesus cause all this? Simon ran back to his room at the inn where he had been staying. He was overwhelmed with emotion and his mind was swirling.
Simon entered his room and collapsed onto his bed, sobbing as if his own soul had been torn in two. As he lay there for what seemed like an eternity, Simon was processing the events of the day. He recalled the soldier mocking Jesus, referring to the bloody man as “Israel’s King and Messiah.”
The words from his scroll that morning came to mind.
“Despised. Rejected. Pierced. Crushed. Beaten. Whipped. The Lord laid on him the sins of us all. He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.”
Over the next three days, Simon remained close to the inn where he was staying. He was overwhelmed with the crucifixion and the role he had played in it. Yet, as he remained transfixed with the event, the mystery was becoming more and more clear to Simon, almost supernaturally.
Jesus was the Messiah! His coming as Israel’s Savior, and death as their Redeemer, was predicted 700 years earlier by Isaiah, the prophet. Jesus had willingly taken up the cross that He knew would ultimately bring His own death. But it was necessary because of Simon’s sins. That’s why he had felt so ashamed, and also loved simultaneously, when Jesus peered into Simon’s eyes along the road to Golgotha, the hill where Jesus died.
But how could a dead man be the Messiah? Jesus seemed to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy perfectly, but if He was dead, what purpose did His death serve? How could Jesus be Israel’s Savior?
Simon decided to revisit the place that had caused his entire life to come to an abrupt pause. Perhaps by returning to the place of death he could make sense of life.
On his way to Golgotha, Simon’s route took him by a garden that he recognized as a place to bury the dead. As he passed the entrance, he tossed a quick glance into the lush garden. But what he saw next stopped him abruptly in his tracks. Just 30 feet away, he saw a large round tombstone rolled away from the entrance to a tomb. At the entrance, a man glowing in a radiant white was speaking to a woman who had fallen down at the man’s feet.
Simon recognized the woman as one of the ladies who had been at Golgotha just three days earlier when Jesus was crucified. She was shaking uncontrollably, but he wasn’t certain whether it was out of fear or joy, or perhaps both. As Simon’s eyes moved from the woman up to the man with the glowing face, he nearly collapsed. His heart stopped. His eyes were affirming that the man he was peering at was Jesus. But his mind could not process what he was seeing. How could this be? He had seen Jesus die. But now here He was… ALIVE!
And then, in a millisecond, Jesus turned his gaze to Simon and their eyes met. In that instant, Simon’s eyes, mind, and heart affirmed the truth of what he was seeing. The same gaze that three days earlier had looked deep into Simon’s soul as Simon bore the bloody cross of Jesus, was once again looking into Simon’s heart. Simon fell to the ground, in submission and adoration, and as he did he yelled out, “Jesus, my Lord and my Messiah!”
The dreams now made sense. Simon understood that following Jesus might mean losing his life, but his soul would be eternally saved. He knew that there was nothing more valuable than his soul… not his business, not the prestige he sought, not even his wife and children. He would pick up his cross from that day forward and follow Jesus, no matter what it might cost him. How could he do less when Jesus had given His all?
Years later, the Apostle Paul referenced a man named Rufus, and his mother, in Romans 16:13:
“Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.”
Tradition suggests that this Rufus was the same Rufus that Mark described as the son of Simon, the Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus, in Mark 15:21:
“A passerby named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the countryside just then, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.)”
So while much of this Easter story involves my own imagination, it’s entirely possible that the personal encounter between Simon and Jesus on the road to Golgotha may have in fact led Simon to “pick up his cross and follow Jesus.” And if so, his example likely led his wife and children to follow Christ as well.
So what about you? Will you this Easter make the greatest decision you will ever make, and choose to take up your cross and follow Jesus?