As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.
None of the gospels describes the actual crucifixion in detail. The details were well known; there was no point in dwelling on its horrors. But the gospels do tell what happened. Matthew begins with the fact that a man from the north African town of Cyrene was drafted by the soldiers of the execution detail to carry Jesus’ cross. His name was Simon. It was usual for a condemned person to carry his own cross. So if Simon was drafted, it can only have been because Jesus was too weakened by his scourging and beatings to do it. When he staggered and possibly fell, the soldiers seized upon the first able bodied man they could find, who just happened to be Simon.
Simon is an interesting person. Mark calls him the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), who may be the persons referred to in Acts 19:33 (Alexander) and Romans 16:13 (Rufus). The sons must have been known to the church for which Mark wrote or he would have had no reason to have mentioned them.
William Barclay thinks of this as one of the great “hidden romances” of the New Testament. Simon was a Jew who, like all Jews, would have hated the Romans. To be pressed into service by a Roman soldier and be forced to carry the cross of a condemned man must have been a bitter experience for him. But something important may have happened to Simon that day. Instead of merely flinging down the cross at Golgotha, Simon must have been struck by the person of Jesus, stayed to watch the crucifixion, and either then or shortly afterward must have been converted. After the Passover he would have returned to Cyrene and would have told his family about Jesus. It is not unlikely that the family would have become Christians through his testimony.
William Barclay goes farther, remembering that “it was men from Cyprus and Cyrene” who came to Antioch and first preached the gospel to the gentile world (Acts 11:20). Was Simon one of the men from Cyrene? Turn to Ephesus. A riot is instigated by people who served Diana of the Ephesians, and the crowd would have killed Paul if they could have gotten to him. Who stands out to face the mob? It is a man called Alexander (Acts 19:33). And when Paul sends greetings to the Christians in Rome in the last chapter of Romans, two of the people he addresses are “Rufus… and his mother” (Romans 16:13).1 Are these the same people? We do not know, but stranger histories have unfolded. It may be that this happened as a result of an apparently chance encounter between Simon and Jesus on the road to Calvary.
If Simon remained by the cross that day, he would have seen the details accompanying the crucifixion that Matthew reports. There are six of them, and most are fulfillments of specific Old Testament prophecies, mostly from the Psalms. Matthew frequently cites Old Testament passages that were fulfilled by Jesus, but surprisingly he does not call attention to these specifically. Was he aware of them? Probably. Was Simon? Probably not, at least at this time, though he may have come to understand the Old Testament in this way later through good Christian teaching.
“Wine…mixed with gall” (v. 34). Each of the gospels has a reference like this, but it is likely that two different acts were involved. Matthew and Mark describe an offer that Jewish sources say was customarily made by wealthy women of the city as a compassionate attempt to deaden pain. The wine mixed with gall was offered at the start of the crucifixion, and Matthew and Mark both say that Jesus refused to drink it, presumably to experience the fullness of his suffering and retain a clear mind to the end. John seems to refer to something the soldiers did later. He reports that when Jesus said, “I am thirsty” (in order to fulfill Psalm 69:21), the soldiers soaked a sponge in cheap wine, put it on a staff and lifted it to his mouth, and that this time Jesus took what was offered. This happened at the end of his ordeal, for immediately after this, Jesus said, “It is finished,” and gave up his (John 19:28-30).
1 William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Saint Andrews Press, 1969), pp. 236, 237.