This morning, our subject is the bludgeonings of chance and I think many of you will recognize that phrase. That title comes from the well known poem by William Henley which many of you learned in school, Invictus. You remember how it starts,
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
We’re not going to dwell on the philosophy of that poem which is thoroughly devilish, but I am struck by this phrase,
the bludgeonings of chance as a very apt expression of those unwelcome intrusions that coming into our life force us suddenly to change our plans. Shakespeare calls them
the slings and arrows of outrageous fate and who of us has not experienced them from time to time. Have you ever planned a trip and just as you were ready to leave, a few hours or so before, the baby comes down with mumps. Or you plan a quiet evening at home hoping to relax and read a good book perhaps, and your relatives show up with seven kids in tow. Or you worked out a very careful itinerary, as Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary was telling us the other night, and just as you are ready to begin on it you break your arm, or your mother-in-law arrives for an unexpected visit, or the washing machine breaks down on Monday morning. You have a job offer that you have been hoping for suddenly cancelled, the car blows two tires, the commute trains stop running because of a strike, or you discover to your sorrow that the house is being rapidly destroyed by termites. What do you do with these things?
These are the bludgeoning of chance that come into our experience that make us suddenly reverse all our plans, we have to change everything and we resent them. How do you regard these, what do you do with them? Now in this series of studies from the scriptures on Bible characters, I hope we have seen at least one thing, that the Bible is eminently practical in these matters. The characters of the Bible, the men and women of scripture are, as James well puts it,
men of like passions with us. They enter into the same circumstances and face the same problems. And today we are going to look at the story of a man who was forced to bear the cross of Jesus and what happened to him as a result of that unwelcome interruption of his plans.
We’ve read this story and some of the verses that refer to it in the passage this morning and there are four movements to this account. It begins first with this intrusion that was met with anger on the part of Simon, the Cyrene. Verse 26 of the 23rd chapter of Luke:
As they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross to carry it behind Jesus. This little incident in the account of our Lord’s journey from Pilate’s judgment hall to the site of the crucifixion, the hill of Golgotha, is mentioned by Mark, Matthew and Luke, all three of the synoptic writers, and therefore seems to be regarded as a very significant incident.
We read that Simon of Cyrene who was a stranger in Jerusalem at that time was drafted to carry the cross. Cyrene was one of the chief cities of the Roman colony of Libya over in North Africa. And because this man is an African some have suggested that perhaps he is a Negro, although there is nothing that confirms that at all. As we well know in reading the scriptures none of the color distinctions that are such an issue in our day had any significance at all in the ancient world. We see nothing of color distinctions in the scriptures themselves, so it’s impossible to tell whether this man is indeed a Negro or not.
It’s far more likely however that he was one of the Jews of the Dispersion. These Jews scattered abroad throughout the face of the earth at the time of Babylonian captivity that had settled in the even pagan cities of the Roman Empire all through the extent of the empire. And at the Passover time when the crucifixion of Jesus took place, the Jews of the Dispersion would gather in from all parts of earth, the population of Jerusalem which was normally about 250,000 much as it is today, would swell to well over a million during the weeks of the Passover season. And evidently Simon of Cyrene was one of those persons who had come in making the long and wearisome journey from Cyrene on the north coast of Africa to Jerusalem. Evidently, from what we are told here, he found lodging outside the city limits. Again, all the inns and hotels of the city were filled and he found some lodging on the outskirts of the city. So he was coming in from the country on the morning of our Lord’s crucifixion, coming into town evidently planning to spend the day in the temple as was the wont of those who came in for this religious pilgrimage from the far reaches of the earth.
But when he saw the crowds, stirred by a natural curiosity he went closer to see what was happening. And as he ran to look, shouldering his way through the crowds into the center of it in order that he might see what was taking place, suddenly he found himself impressed into service. A Roman soldier clapped his hand upon his shoulder and ordered him to pick up the cross of Christ. Now tradition tells us that at this point in our Lord’s journey to Calvary, He stumbled and fell. There’s nothing in scripture to support that idea, it never mentions that Jesus stumbled. But He must have been very close to stumbling if he did not actually fall at this place. He was staggering along, dragging the cross as best He could. And any survey of what He had gone through in the previous hours would indicate why He had come to this point of physical exhaustion. You remember He had nothing to eat or drink since the evening before when He sat with the disciples in the upper room and shared the Lord’s Supper together. From that He went out into the Garden of Gethsemane where for some considerable period of time He experienced the mysterious and unexplainable agony of the garden when His Spirit was so pressed upon, so heavily burdened, that as you remember one of the writers said His sweat fell like drops of blood onto the ground. He went through some tremendous, indescribable agony. And following that He was taken, captured by the soldiers and taken into custody and brought into Pilate's judgment hall where He was cruelly scourged by the awful Roman scourges. He was beaten, the crown of thorns thrust upon His head, and then was kept awake all night long, taken to Herod’s judgment hall and back again to Pilate, so He had no sleep throughout the entire night. And now in the heat of the day, as the morning sun is beating down on the hot streets of Jerusalem, He is dragging the heavy cross through the dusty streets on His way to Calvary and it’s no wonder that He almost collapsed and fell.
And at this point the soldiers lay hold of Simon. Now you can imagine the feelings of this man. We get impatient sometimes if there are unexpected delays in our plans. If we have to sit through a change of traffic lights we grit our teeth all through the time and if we miss the first section of a revolving door we go around mad all day. But here’s a man who had planned to come into the city and to spend the hour in delightful religious service and worship. He had come a long, long journey in order to do this. He was a man who evidently took great pleasure in the things of God and things concerning worship and faith, and here he is on the way to the temple and suddenly his plans are drastically revised. He’s dragged, protesting and struggling into the street and made to shoulder the cross. It’s obvious from some of the other writers that he protested this. It says he was compelled to bear the cross. And the Roman soldiers had the right to do this according to Roman law. They could impress anyone into carrying a burden for them, and here is this man suddenly arrested this way.
Now imagine the frustration of his heart, the smoldering resentment that would be his, the bitter thoughts that would come to him toward the Romans as he was forced into carrying this cross down this way. The cross was of course a despicable thing to the Jews and to the whole Roman world; it was regarded as the worst possible opprobrium to be associated with this form of death. And here is this man, evidently a respected, honored man, made to be a public spectacle, exposed to the ridicule and misunderstanding of the crowds. I don’t think we need to be told how he felt. He simply seethed with frustrated rage, gnashing his teeth in frustrated resentment against this unwarranted intrusion into his plans as he is forced to drag the cross through the streets.
Now right at this point a second incident occurs, the second movement of our story, an incident that must have startled and amazed Simon, for the procession drew outside the gates of the city and as they passed through the city gates the noises of the crowd were less, and there came upon Simon’s ears the voices of these wailing women who had accompanied the procession. And as he heard these women crying, the blood soaked pathetic figure that was stumbling along ahead of him as he bore his cross for him, suddenly stops and speaks and addresses these women. And in what Simon heard from the lips of Jesus, he gained at this point an insight that was born of amazement. We read, Luke says:
There followed Him a great multitude of the people and of women who bewailed and lamented Him. But Jesus turning to them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children for behold the days are coming when they will say, Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck. Then they will begin to say to the mountains, fall on us; and to the hills, cover us. For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?
Now we must see this through Simon’s eyes. Here he is, his own heart filled with self pity, just constantly thinking of nothing but his own misery and his own degradation as he is dragged along here in this humiliating experience. Now perhaps he felt a pang of pity for the sufferer, the criminal that was to be executed, though nothing is said of it. Undoubtedly, he regarded him as utterly deserving of this death, and unquestionably he heard the weeping of the women who were moved here with sympathy. But now suddenly the prisoner stops and rejecting the sympathy of the women for Himself, in tender tone He warns them of the need of weeping for their own selves in view of the coming terrible days of misery for the nation.
The key to our Lord’s words here is in the last sentence. The green tree and the dry tree gives us a key to His meaning here. The green tree was the nation with Himself, with Jesus in its midst. The nation was like a tree, it is often likened to that in scripture. And here He is as the very life of that tree in the midst, with all the glory of His life available to the nation imparting strength and joy to whomever He touches. And He’s saying now, if they do this, these cruel and inhuman things when the tree is green, when I’m in the midst, think what they are going to do to each other when I’m gone and when the evil in every human heart breaks out in unrestrained viciousness against one another. Unquestionably our Lord was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem that followed forty years later when in a simply unprecedented time of disaster and distress the city fell into the control of the Roman armies under Titus, and was destroyed. It’s one of the most terrible accounts in history. I’ve referred to it before in our studies of the Olivet discourse, but also unquestionably our Lord is looking on to the days are yet to come, for He refers to this time when men will say to the mountains, fall on us, and to the hills, cover us.
And you recall in the sixth chapter of Revelation we have the fulfillment of that recorded for us. That is the time when Revelation says the kings of the earth and the great men, and the generals, and the strong men and the weak, free and slave alike will run unto the hills, into the caves of the mountains and cry out, fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for His wrath is come and who is able to save? So our Lord is predicting here the results in human history when His offer of grace and light to men is rejected.
Now these words must have fallen with astonishing impact upon Simon’s ears for he could not help but be utterly amazed at this occurrence. He must have been struck with the amazing authority of this one who speaks. Obviously Simon had taken Him for what he appeared to be: an ordinary criminal, a common peasant arrested for some mortal crime and taken out to be put to death quite justifiably. And imagine the amazement to this man’s heart when suddenly this man stops and with the air of regal authority He speaks these tremendously impressive words to the women of Jerusalem reminding them of what was coming, Simon must have been greatly impressed as well at the utter selflessness of this. The first note our Lord strikes in this amazing interlude is to reject the sympathy of the daughters of Jerusalem for Himself.
Weep not for me He said, don’t waste your tears on me. And how this must have fallen with shattering impact on Simon’s heart, for his own heart was so filled with self pity. He must have felt ashamed of himself. And I’m sure it had one affect, I’m sure that Simon never went back to the planned program he had for that day. That when he finally laid down his heavy burden on Calvary’s hill he stuck around to see what happened and stayed at the cross to see this whole strange story through to its final tragic end.
And now we read no more of Simon in the Gospel, but we can be almost certain that he did not leave Jerusalem for many days, for the next clue is found over in Acts, the second chapter where we have the stirring account of the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God was suddenly outpoured upon a great crowd, a crowd of 120 or more believers who I believe were gathered in the temple court. Now there are many scholars who feel that they were in the upper room, but it seems to me to be far more likely in comparing this that they were in the temple courts when this took place. In verse 2 we’re told,
Suddenly a sound came from heaven like a rush of a mighty wind and it filled all the house where they were sitting. That is the temple courts where they were sitting.
And it appeared to them tongues as of fire distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now we read,
Now they were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. Now at this sound the multitude came together and they were bewildered because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, Are these not all these who were speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear each of us in his own native language? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the residents of Mesopotamia and in Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia. Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes. Cretans, and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. And all were amazed and perplexed saying to one another, What a dramatic event!
What does this mean?
And you notice one geographic area is peculiarly outlined for us here? In an unusual detail, here is a listing of all these who came in from far parts of the earth to the city on that day, but there is a spotlight on one point. Do you see it?
...the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene. Is this not certainly saying to us that Simon of Cyrene was there as well? And for this reason this has been particularly highlighted for us? You can see again Simon coming into the city from the country and the villages where he has his lodging and his heart must have been filled yet with the amazing things he had seen on Calvary’s hill and the rumors that had been rife through the city about something strange that had happened to the Galilean and how He had disappeared from the tomb and all these strange stories that were rampant around town about what had happened, how He had risen from the dead.
And now he comes and sees a crowd again, and perhaps he is a little more cautious about joining it, but he joins them and he sees this remarkable collection of people from all over the world watching a group of men standing out in the middle of the temple courts and speaking to them in a most amazing way! And as he listened he heard the wonderful works of God declared in a way he’d never heard them before, parts of scripture being illuminated and exposed to them as he had never heard it before. And the wonderful works of God, especially in redemption, declared. But the amazing thing was that every now and then one of this group would stand up and speak in a foreign language and it was obvious that someone in the crowd would recognize it as his own and be simply astonished to hear what he was saying. And with almost artful ease each one in the crowd, in the group in the center would take their turn doing this so it seemed that any one of them could speak any language at any time. There was obviously something supernatural going on and as Simon listened, he was utterly arrested by this. And as he watched he saw one of them stand up and begin to address them. We have this great address of Peter, I won’t go into it in detail, you’ve read it through many times.
But as Simon listened, he heard Peter speak about the promise of Joel, that God would pour out His Spirit in just this way and it would be the beginning of the mighty Day of the Lord which would culminate at last in the heavens turning into darkness, and the moon to blood, the sun to darkness and all these tremendous things. And I’m sure Simon would have been caught by that as he remembered the words of the strange speaker in the streets that had spoken of the day when the mountains would fall on men. And then Peter would go on speaking to the men of Israel saying that they had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, how He’d gone among them, how He had done mighty works in their midst and God had shown great signs through His ministry and they had taken Him with wicked hands, had crucified Him, put Him to death. But God had raised Him from the dead, and he quoted the prophet David to show that this was predicted. And he comes to the culmination of his address when he says,
Let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God had made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you have crucified. And at that point someone breaks out in that crowd tremendously moved by Peter’s address and says,
Men and brethren, what must we do? And there is a tremendous display of interest in the message of peace so that by hundreds they began to confess their belief in Jesus of Nazareth. And on that day we’re told in that scene in the streets of Jerusalem, three thousand men were added to the church in Jerusalem.
Now is it too much to believe that Simon was one of them? For here he was, again a part of this scene with the events of Calvary still before him and in this he undoubtedly experienced an illumination which led to acceptance. Well, you say, there is some doubt to this. No. there isn’t for all of this is confirmed to us by the last movement of our story, which through the use of certain other scripture references ties together information which unfold the aftermath. In Mark’s gospel we read in 15:21 concerning Simon. that he was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Now obviously Mark would not write that if it were not true that Alexander and Rufus were well known men. Mark’s gospel was written in Rome and was intended for Roman ears, that’s why it’s so short and pithy and to the point. And among the Christians of Rome, evidently Alexander and Rufus were very, very well known Christian leaders. And when Mark comes to recounting the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, when he mentions Simon he calls him
the father of Alexander and Rufus. We get another clue to who these boys are in Paul’s letter to the Roman church. Paul’s letter to the Romans, that last amazing chapter when he speaks of so many of his friends there in Rome and gives them greetings, in verse 13 he says:
Greet Rufus, imminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine. Now there’s no mention of Alexander here, but tradition tells us that Alexander was one of the early Christian martyrs and he laid down his life for the sake of his testimony of the cross, but Rufus became one of the prominent Christians of the Roman Church. When Paul wrote this letter to him he greets him and adds a personal note that is very instructive to him. He says,
Greet Rufus and his mother, and mine. Suggesting that here is some motherly care extended to Paul by Rufus’ mother that made her very precious to the heart of Paul so that he speaks of her as his own mother, some unrecorded hospitality to Paul himself.
Now as we put these pieces together we see the whole story. What Simon thought to be the day of his deepest humiliation and most frustrating interruption turns out to be the beginning of the highest honor he could possibly have for it was through that intervention that he himself was saved by wondrous grace. And going back to Africa and telling the tremendous story of his experiences in Jerusalem, his wife comes to know the Lord, and his sons accept the gospel. And Alexander and Rufus journeying to Rome become outstanding leaders in the early church in Rome, one of them even dying as one of the early martyrs of the church. And their mother, Simon’s wife becomes a second mother to the apostle Paul.
What an amazing story! And why is this story here? None of these stories appear in Scripture simply to entertain us; they are all there to instruct us, as we’re told. Why is this story here? Can you not see as you read through this story that here is a picture for us, acted out in life of the process of taking up our cross in our own experience? Remember Jesus’ words?
If any man will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. And here’s a man who took up his cross, took up the cross of Christ and followed him, not only figuratively, but literally. It’s given to us to indicate our Lord’s meaning in this way, to illustrate it for us.
If any man will come after me, He says, he must deny himself. That is the beginning of the Christian life. You never come to Christ without finding that that coming has done a revolutionary radical thing in your relationship to yourself. When you surrender to Jesus Christ, He becomes your Lord. He replaces yourself as your final authority. That’s denying yourself.
But the Christian life is lived on that principle as well.
He must deny himself and take up his cross daily. Now what does that mean? I think many of us have pondered and puzzled over it, wondered what that is. What is this taking up the cross daily? I think the answer is clearly given to us here in Simon’s experience. The fact that our Lord used the word
daily suggests that these experiences are not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. These are the interruptions which coming into our life challenge our egos, the kind that we could do nothing about except fume and fret. And what he’s saying is these are the things, accept them, taking them up daily as they come to us in the unraveling of time, the source of blessing and of strengthening to us. This is taking up the cross daily, see? The daily experiences, small or great, a crisis of suffering, of loss, of frustration or of deep desire. Thomas Chilcot, who was a great English musician, compared the crisis in the individual life to an octave in music. He says we strike a note, then we follow right through. Every experience following that initial one is like an octave advancing, until we reach the last note. And then we either begin the first note of a higher octave or we drop back to begin the same octave over again. Many a life is lived like this, just a continual repetition of the same old octave over and over again.
Now there are three things we can do when these frustrating things come into our lives, for all of us have them, Christian and non-Christian alike. We can do one of three things. We can either break out, that is we can rebel against them and this covers everything from the temper tantrum to the criminal activity, the violation of law. We can break out, or we can break down. We become neurotic, and this is the sick headache to the nervous breakdown. Or we can break through! We can accept them as from God; we can fall back upon His wonderful words to the disciple:
Your sorrow shall be turned into joy.
But supposing we reach the climax of these events and the ego in us refuses to die. That is we don’t reckon ourselves to be dead indeed on the cross. We rebel and we fight, rather than let go and accept what has happened. Or we fight it within, with nervous reactions and biting our fingernails and frustration all the way along. What happens then? Well then, we’re told, all this tremendous energy within us becomes negative and hurls us back into the depths of the trough, and then hate and revenge and frustration and viciousness and bitterness and cruelty take over and we start the whole ugly cycle all over again. It’s either pass on to a higher octave in life or back to the beginning to play the whole gruesome thing through once more. Now this is what Jesus means. Take up the cross. Take up the cross! Accept these unexpected invasions into your plans as from God. And when you do, as Simon did, you discover they are invariably disguises for God’s blessings. A.B. Simpson wrote:
This is the secret of divine all sufficiency to come to the end of everything in ourselves and our circumstances. When we reach this place we will stop asking for sympathy because of our hard situation or our bad treatment while we will recognize these things are the very conditions of our blessings. And we will turn from them to God and find in them a claim upon Him.
Some of you men remember a year or so ago at a men’s retreat, when Mr. John Whittle of the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade was with us. He told us of a young man who came out to the WEC movement in the Congo in its earlier days. A young man who, as a young Englishman growing up in the church at home, had some remarkable ability as an evangelist. He was a gracious, personable young man, and when he gave his life for missionary service everyone at home rejoiced that his gifts could be put to proper use in the dark fields of Africa. He came out to the Congo, and after he arrived and settled a few days, he expected to be sent out to some remote tribal area where he could begin his work. But to his disappointment, the leader of the mission, Mr. C.T Studd called him in and asked him if he would do a particular favor for him. He said,
I heard when you were in England you had some experience as a cobbler. And he said,
One of the distressing things about our life here is the fact that our shoes wear out so fast. We have nobody who can repair them. I wonder if you would mind taking on a bit of a job and repairing some shoes of the people here on the compound? This man, Jack Harrison, said yes he would be glad to do that. So he gathered up the shoes that needed repair and he was astounded at the tremendous pile of them. But he began to work on them and after a week or so he finished repairing the shoes.
When Mr. Studd looked them over he said,
This is tremendous! What a blessing this has been to us, to just simply have this job so well taken care of. He said,
You know some of the men coming in from the field need their shoes repaired too. Would you mind taking them on? And so there came another big pile of shoes at his door, and he worked on those. This went on for two or three weeks, and finally he had enough. So he went to Mr. Studd and said,
I don’t want to complain or anything, but I didn’t come out here to fix shoes. He said,
When are you going to send me out to the tribe? And Mr. Studd said,
Well we do want to send you out; this is what you have come for, I understand, but there are certain needs here that must be taken care of first, and right now it’s impossible to send you out. Would you mind just carrying on for a bit in what you are doing? This man went back to his shoe repairing, and as he told the story later many times, he said as he was working there, his heart was simply filled with frustration and rage. He was seething with resentment. The idea that he should come out to Africa and his supporters at home should invest all this money to send him out with his gifts of evangelism and he would spend his time doing nothing but repairing shoes. But he said as he worked the Lord began to speak to him. He said it was as though the Lord himself said to him,
Are you my servant? And he said,
Yes Lord, I am. Well He said,
Do you think it makes any difference to me if you are repairing shoes or preaching the gospel? He said,
If you are my servant you will do either one, whatever I delight in. And as He talked to him, this man said.
I went through a great spiritual crisis and I had to resolve to accept this ministry as from the Lord or to find myself spending the rest of my time fuming and fretting at Him. So he said to the Lord,
Lord, I am your servant. If you want me out in the field, you know how to get me there. But if you want me to repair shoes the rest of my life in Africa, I’ll do that for you.
With a quite different attitude of heart, he went back to his work and he never said another word about it. The weeks went on and this is what he did, until at last there was another job that needed to be done around the mission and he took that on, and then another, then another... and the result was he never did go out to the field. He spent his whole time in the headquarters in the Congo solving problems that came along. But when C.T. Studd died and the mission gathered all their leaders together to choose someone to carry on the work, it was Jack Harrison that was voted to be the successor to C.T. Studd. You see God has purposes in these
interruptions that we do not see. And it’s this that is the cross, these challenges to our ego, these humiliating things that disappoint us and crush us are sent in order that we may learn that in grasping the cross it is transmuted into blessings and we’re made strong by that.
May we pray? Our Father, we remember in Hebrews how it is said,No discipline for the present seems joyous, but afterward, nevertheless afterward.Thank you for this story of Simon, thy afterward made clear to us. We pray we may learn this principle Lord and cease this senseless struggle against these events we cannot control and disappointments that come. Help us to accept them as thy will, thy place for us and rejoice. In Christ’s name, Amen.