Three men meet Jesus
Three men meet Jesus. One meets Him walking towards Calvary’s hill, another meets Him hanging on a cross, and the last one meets Him at the foot of the cross.
Three men meet Jesus. Three men from different backgrounds: an African farmer, a thief, and a Roman centurion.
Three men meet Jesus. Simon, the compelled one; the thief, the crucified one; and the Roman centurion, the calloused one.
Three men meet Jesus. Their circumstances are different from ours, but the lessons of their lives are fresh and new, and they sparkle like the morning dew. Their stories become our stories, and as we walk in their footsteps, we walk the pathway of Golgotha. We find that their lives are not so much different than ours after all—their hurts, their heartaches, and their longings are also ours. Their desires become our desires. They found Him then and there, and we can find Him here and now.
Although our lives are distant from that place, and although almost 2,000 years have elapsed, these stories of Scripture are forever new and fresh. They come with power and dynamism. They speak to our hearts.
Simon, the compelled one
“As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross” (Matthew 27:32).* Who was this Simon? Mark gives us a clue: “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (Mark 15:21). Simon, then, was married and had two sons. Mark mentions their names because Alexander and Rufus must have been familiar to the Christian community at the time he was writing the Gospel that bears his name. Ellen White provides an added insight: “Simon had heard of Jesus. His sons were believers in the Saviour, but he himself was not a disciple” (The Desire of Ages, p. 742).
We can imagine that Alexander and Rufus, Jews in Jerusalem, had heard of Christ feeding the 5,000. They heard of Christ opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. They knew of Christ forgiving the woman caught in adultery. They listened to the stories of forgiveness. They were amazed at the demoniacs as they were transformed by Christ’s power. They became followers of Jesus. They were there for the Sermon on the Mount. They were with Him in the crowded streets of Jerusalem. They begin writing to Dad. “Dad, I think we’ve found Him,” Alexander writes. Rufus writes, “Dad, He’s the Promised One, He is the One who heals the sick, raises the dead. He’s the One who walks on water. Dad, this is the Messiah.”
The letters reach Dad in Cyrene, a small town in Libya in northern Africa. And Simon is concerned about his boys. “Are my sons following some wild-eyed fanatic? Have they become part of some cult movement? Are my boys headed for death? They’ve left the faith of our fathers and Jewish orthodoxy. I better go to Jerusalem and straighten them out!” And so, with his thoughts confused, in curiosity and doubt, Simon comes to Jerusalem.
The streets of Jerusalem are filled with worshipers. It’s the Passover season. All of Jerusalem is astir with the crucifixion of a Man who’s been tried—a so-called Messiah who’s condemned to death. In rounding a corner in a crowd-filled street of Jerusalem, Simon comes face to face with Christ, crushed under the oppressive weight of the cross. And Jesus’s eyes and Simon’s eyes meet, only for a moment. Simon’s heart is drawn out in compassion, tenderness, and love. And a rude Roman soldier pointing to Simon says, “If you have such compassion on Him, pick up the cross. Take it upon your shoulder.”
The Scripture says that Simon did not take the cross by choice. The burdensome, agonizing weight of the cross was forced upon Simon’s shoulders. Bending over, he picked up the cross and stumbled under its weight as they climbed the hill called Calvary. I suppose the splinters of the cross rubbed his shoulders raw. I see him there, his back stooped. I hear his panting. I see the beads of sweat stand out on his forehead. I listen to his grunts and his groans in agony. I watch as his knees buckle. I see him stumble. And I watch Jesus smile, and Simon is strengthened to carry the Saviour’s cross. Simon met Jesus that day carrying the heaviest load of his life. But the burden became a blessing, a bridge to meet God.
Are you carrying some burden in your life? Are things at home or at work not going well? Do you have a burden rubbing your shoulders raw? Are you carrying the burden of a schedule that keeps you constantly tired? Are you carrying some health problem? Are your studies heavy, challenging your faith? Do you have difficulty observing Sabbath in the pursuit of your goals? Are you discouraged or lonely? Are you compelled to bear a cross? Bear it with dignity, like Simon did. Seize it as an opportunity, because in the crosses that life inflicts upon our shoulders, they become a blessing if Jesus is near us. Our scars become stars. Our trials become triumphs, because it is in the pain of life that we meet Him.
Although Simon carried his cross, there was One walking beside him. There was One smiling to cheer him on the way. When Simon laid the burden down at Calvary, Jesus bore the cross alone. So you can simply lay your burden down on the One who carried it then and the One who carries it now.
The thief, the crucified one
The thief meets Him. The cross of Jesus was placed between two thieves. The two thieves represent all humanity and all humanity is faced with the choice about this Christ. One thief says, “‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” (Luke 23:39). One thief thinks only of himself, only of the here and the now. The other thief thinks of eternity. As one thief is mocking Him, the other thief looks at Him and says, “‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’” (Luke 23:42).
Who was this thief? Obviously he wasn’t a Roman. Had he been a Roman, he would not have been crucified. The thief must have been a Jew. In fact, Ellen White, in The Desire of Ages, gives us some interesting insight on this thief. He was most likely a follower of Barabbas—a false messiah who attempted to overthrow the Roman government in Palestine. I imagine that the thief was brought up in a Jewish home that respected Friday evening and kept the Bible Sabbath. Probably as a youth he attended a rabbinical school. His diet was orthodox; no pork at all. He anticipated the coming of the Messiah. The major problem of the thief was spiritual carelessness. Brought up in a religious environment meant little or nothing to him. One compromise followed another. Carelessness led to compromise, to sin, to guilt, and to shame. As I see the thief hanging upon the cross, he represents spiritual indifference and carelessness.
I can identify with that thief. Charles Swindoll in his book, Intimacy With God, tells of an incident. He was to preach to a group of pastors, and a clergyman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Chuck, after the meeting I need to talk to you.” And so Swindoll met with this pastor personally and this is what the pastor said: “Nobody around me knows this, but I am operating on fumes. I am lonely, hollow, shallow, and enslaved to a schedule that never lets up.”
Today’s desperate need, both in the church and in the world at large, is not for a greater number of intelligent people or gifted people, but for spiritual people. Spiritual carelessness leads to subtle compromises of character, and eventually to shame and guilt. But take heart. In his spiritual carelessness, ashamed by his inner compromise, the thief found forgiveness and mercy, and assurance of eternal life in Christ. Likewise, throw yourself at the foot of the cross and see yourself anew and hear the gentleness of Jesus giving you forgiveness, new power, and new hope.
The Roman centurion, the calloused one
Standing beneath the foot of the cross, a Roman centurion found Jesus. Who was this Roman? I can imagine the official order that came to his post of duty that morning: “Execute this man in the usual manner. But make sure there are no riots in Jerusalem today. So whether you need a hundred Roman soldiers or 200 or 500, they’re at your disposal. Get rid of Him!” It was all in a day’s work. And while the Son of God was dying for the world, a calloused centurion stood beneath the cross. Callousness in the midst of divine things is one of the greatest sins.
All of us run the risk that, in handling divine things, habit becomes so routine that we may lose our spiritual excitement and energy. It is possible to be callous, routine, and ordinary, standing at the foot of the cross; to be indifferent like the Roman centurion who coldly observed the Man on the cross. It’s possible to sing Christian hymns with the lips in worship and let the mind wander, thinking about business or studies or the potluck dinner. It’s possible to read the Bible sleepily before falling asleep. It’s possible to be callous and indifferent and to allow the routine overshadow the sublime.
But as the Roman centurion hears the dialogue between Christ and the thief above the mocking shouts of Christ’s enemies, as he listens to His agonizing prayer, and as he observes the thick darkness that unexpectedly covers Calvary, something mysterious and marvelous happens to him. Mark writes, “When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39).
As I stand at the foot of the cross with Simon, Jesus strengthens me to carry my burden. As I see the thief dying there, my shame and guilt are gone. As I stand with the Roman centurion, I see Him anew. He breaks through the routine and touches my life, and again I find spiritual energy. Christianity is more than a routine. It’s more than all in a day’s work. It is knowing Jesus. It’s having my heart broken with Him. It’s being passionate about Him.
Mark A. Finley is a well-known Adventist evangelist and the director-speaker of It Is Written, an international television program. His address: P.O. Box 0; Thousand Oaks, California 91360; U.S.A. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(*) All Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version.