Pilate made a decision, one he did not want to make and argued against in a simple and foolish manner, but made anyway. He was the legal decision maker and the Jews could do nothing about his legal decision once made. Yet, he listened to the arguments, the accusations against Jesus, heard the charges against him change and change again, determined Jesus was not guilty, then agreed to have him executed. “So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted” [Luke 234 ESV]. But his giving in was not limited to murdering and innocent man. He exchanged Jesus’ life for that of a known murderer, one who justly deserved execution. “He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will” [Luke 23:25 ESV]. Those men who represented God’s law, a law which they concluded made them righteous before their Creator, asked someone they hated to release a man who would have been condemned under God’s law, who stood condemned under Roman law, so Jesus would be murdered. Caiaphas, the High Priest, and his fellow Jews, the religious leaders of God’s people, wanted Jesus murdered and argued for his execution.
Without belaboring the spectacle, Jesus was already half dead. He had been arrested in the middle of the night by a group of Temple guards who took him first to Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest, Caiaphas his son-in-law. While in their custody Jesus was abused physically, emotionally and verbally. He was then delivered to Pilate who sent him to Herod, whose guards continued the physical and verbal abuse. Jesus was beaten and slapped and hit and spit upon. Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate who had him scourged by trained sadists, men who knew how to inflict the maximum amount of pain without causing immediate death. By the time Jesus is led away from this mob he is bleeding from wounds covering most of his body, is quivering from exhaustion, sliding into shock and had he been abandoned, left alone from then on, would probably have died anyway. But he is not dead. It is Roman custom the condemned, those facing crucifixion, carry their cross, or the cross-beam upon which they will be nailed with spikes, to the place of their execution. Jesus is forced to pick up a heavy beam and lug it through the streets of Jerusalem from Pilate’s judgment hall to the hill upon which he will ultimately die.
Jesus hasn’t the strength for this final act.
Roman soldiers have an authority throughout their territory, given them by the Emperor, which allows them to grab anyone they see, any of the local residents, and compel them to carry their load for a mile. This is something which was done daily in Rome’s Middle Eastern territories. Jesus is physically unable to carry his own cross-beam so the Roman guards snatch a by-stander, someone completely unawares, and force him to carry the burden. “As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross” [Matthew 27:32 ESV].
Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims this time of year, all coming to celebrate Passover in their “city of God.” Simon, probably one of these pilgrims, a Jew from Cyrene, is in the city, probably with his family because he is devote and wants to be there to worship his God. Cyrene is in Northern Africa, in Libya and is modern day Tripoli. He has come a long way, either on foot or by boat. I can only assume his mental and emotional state of mind and heart. It is the day before Passover, the reason he has come to Jerusalem. Called Preparation day, it is a day when devote Jews prepare their homes according to the teaching of Scripture to celebrate a historical fact in a way which helps them remember who they are before God. Not only are they to prepare their homes they are to prepare their hearts to worship God. Simon is doing this. He is in the streets of Jerusalem, not as a tourist but as one who will experience the moment of a lifetime before returning to his home. He may never come back. But then, he may have moved to Judea with his family so he and his would become more closely identified with their heritage. We do not know the circumstance if his being in Jerusalem. We can assume he was not there to witness, let alone participate in, a crucifixion.
As he moves through the streets of Jerusalem a crowd forms and he hears the shouts of a mob coming toward him. Curious and cautious he moves to one side. It is never a good idea to get in the way of a Roman procession, especially if the Roman troops have their swords drawn. Coming by him, he hears the weeping of women, the groaning of men condemned and the exhausted steps of one carrying a heavy load. If he is normal he will see Jesus, beaten and bleeding, bowed under the weight of a cross-beam and know the man is going to die horribly soon. Looking at him, shocked by what he sees, for no one deserves the treatment Jesus has endured, he watches as the man stumbles and falls. New to the city he may not know who Jesus is and certainly would not immediately recognize him if he did know. Turning toward the crowd a Roman soldier grabs Simon, points to the cross, and tells him to pick it up. If Simon resisted he would have been beaten or killed immediately. He picks up the piece of wood and shoulders it while the Romans drag Jesus to his feet and force him to move toward certain death. Simon will carry Jesus cross the rest of the way, its weight pressing into his shoulder, its rough splinters poking his hands and arms and cheek, its stink assaulting his nose, bringing tears to his eyes. Carrying this cross-beam, probably having been used before to execute others condemned by the Romans, made Simon unclean. He came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Now, he could not.
If Simon did not know who Jesus was before he soon discovered who he was now. I cannot imagine anyone being thrown into his circumstance not wanting to discover all he can about the man driven behind him up a hill to his death. We know little about this man, but the document written by Mark, an eye-witness to the events, alludes to knowing him and at least two of his sons. “And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross” [Mark 15:21 ESV]. Is there any reason to disbelieve what is described in these documents? Is there a reason to suggest someone named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was not compelled to carry the cross-beam by the Romans as they drove Jesus to his death? Only those who do not want to believe the historical facts disregard the records and eye-witness testimony. Simon was a real man, carrying a real cross-beam so a real man named Jesus would be nailed to it with real spikes and dies a real death. This is all we know of Simon’s story but it is enough.