There is a man who gets the briefest of mention in three of the Gospels but who was a notable witness at the execution of Jesus and whose family were most likely significant members of the early Church.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that when Jesus – having endured savage beatings from the Jews and a merciless flogging from the Romans – was on his way to Golgotha bearing his cross the soldiers forced a man – one Simon from Cyrene – to carry the cross for him.
Mercy did not feature in the code of a Roman soldier, especially those carrying out this particularly barbaric form of execution, and we can only assume that the body of Jesus was so broken and exhausted by the torture he had received that he could no longer drag both himself and the cross to the place of crucifixion. Hence Simon, in line with Roman policy in lands they had conquered, was pressed (it appears somewhat unwillingly) into service.
Who was this man? Since Cyrene was located in modern day Libya, it has been suggested that Simon was a dark-skinned African man who had come to Jerusalem to worship during the Passover. George Stephen’s movie, ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, reflects this tradition by having the black actor, Sydney Poitier, play Simon. However, since the New Testament only specifies his hometown, and many Jews lived in Cyrene during this time, Simon’s ethnicity is not known for certain.
Simon came to worship
What we can be certain about is that Simon of Cyrene was a worshipper of the God of the Jews. This most likely meant he was a dispersed Jewish man who had returned to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. The fact that the evangelists name him shows that he was known to the community of the early Church.
What’s more, Mark’s comment that he was ‘the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (Mark 15:21) makes it clear that the two sons, if not the father, were probably still alive and known to the community of the early Church at the time of writing. Indeed they may even have been old enough (twelve or older) to travel to Jerusalem with their father and to have therefore witnessed the events of Jesus’ crucifixion for themselves. If so, it makes them, and their father, probable eye-witnesses which the early Church – and later the Gospel writers – drew on concerning the events of that first Good Friday.
We know that people from Cyrene were among the first Christian believers at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10); so perhaps Simon, Alexander, and Rufus were among those who heard and believed? There can be little doubt that such contact with the Lord’s broken body would have made a deep impression on a devout Jew like Simon and this, together with the testimony of disciples concerning the resurrection on the Day of Pentecost, may have been the occasion he came to a living faith.