26. Now as they led Him away, they laid hold of a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, who was coming from the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus.
Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest of the low, and most commonly for rebels against the Roman Empire. Thus every facet of it was designed to cause the maximum pain and humiliation. The first step was to cause the condemned to carry his own means of execution to the site where he was to be crucified. We know that the Lord started out doing this, for we read in John 19:17, “And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.” Yet the Lord Jesus had already been beaten and abused to the point where it seems the Romans concluded that it was impossible for Him to continue carrying the cross Himself. The tradition is that He stumbled under the burden, and that this is what caused them to seek out someone else to bear His cross. However, there is no word to confirm this in Scripture. All we know is that, for whatever reason, these soldiers sought someone else to bear His cross partway through the journey to the place where they were going to crucify Him.
No Roman soldier would want to carry the cross for any condemned prisoner. So now the soldiers exercise their legal right to recruit any citizen of the empire to carry a burden for them. The law actually stated that they could require a citizen to do this for approximately one mile. Thus they latch unto a man who happened to be passing by named Simon, a Cyrenian. He was coming from the country. Probably he had come to Jerusalem for the feast. Not being able to find lodging in the city, he was staying in the country, and returning to the city during the day. This is what we have seen that the Lord was doing as well.
Because Simon is said to be a Cyrenian, and Cyrene is in Africa, tradition has made Simon out to be a black man. However, this tradition was formulated without considering the Biblical facts. Simon was in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This would indicate that he was probably a Jew. Moreover, since we know that there were many Jews “dwelling in Jerusalem” from Cyrene (Acts 2:10, compare verse 5,) it is even quite likely that Simon was one of these. Statistics suggest that there were probably around 100,000 Jews from Cyrene, or about the same number as were in Rome, at this time. Thus, though it is remotely possible that Simon was an African proselyte, it is much more probable and Biblically sound to believe that he was an ancestral Israelite who had been born in Cyrene, but who since had returned to the land of his forefathers.
So the Romans pick out this Simon of Cyrene, and compel him to carry the cross for the Lord. Many romantic stories are made up about this Simon, but really we know nothing else about him other than what we read here. We would like to think he became a believer someday, but there is no way of our knowing this for sure.
27. And a great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also mourned and lamented Him.
Since morning has now come, and the followers of the Lord are all waking up, it seems that now word is getting out to them of the terrible events of the night before. They are greatly in sympathy with the Lord and of course are greatly sorrowful to find out what has taken place. Especially the women among them, it seems, express their grief by weeping and lamenting. This was a very different scene from that which a criminal condemned to death on a cross would usually encounter. These were often the worst of men, and as they carried their crosses they would be met with contempt and mockery by those they passed by as they went with their crosses. Thus we have another proof of how the common people loved our Lord. Perhaps such a thing had never been seen in Jerusalem before. Yet many concentrate only on the multitude that appeared before Pilate during His trial and called upon Pilate to release Barabbas. They accuse all Israel of being in on this, and act like all the people were in sympathy. Yet they utterly ignore this multitude here. To what depths do our ignorance and anti-Semitism drive us!
Though many of the Lord’s followers are now alerted, yet it is already too late, and there is nothing the followers of the Lord Jesus can do at this point to reverse the results of His trial. His enemies have pushed this all through during the night in a highly illegal trial. Now, the Romans have the Lord, and Israel is under the Roman rule. For the Lord’s followers to try to rescue one accused by Rome would be nothing short of rebellion. The people are used to being crushed under the Roman heel by now, and are not likely to rise up unless something sparks them to do so. If the Lord even now would urge them to this, they might gather their courage and do it, but He does not. Thus the chief priests and scribes seem to have won, and there is nothing the many lovers of Jesus Christ can do but follow Him and weep.
28. But Jesus, turning to them, said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.
The Lord Jesus turns to this sympathetic crowd and addresses these weeping women among them. He urges them not to weep for Him, but rather for themselves and for their children. This was a grim word indeed!
29. “For indeed the days are coming in which they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, wombs that never bore, and breasts which never nursed!’
The Lord warns these women that the days are coming in which they will bless those who never had children, or whose children died at birth so that they never nursed. The reason the Lord says this is because these were the women of Jerusalem He was speaking to. It was about forty years after this, and in this very same city, when the Roman General Titus came to Jerusalem and destroyed it. The horror of what happened then was so great, and the ways that the women of Jerusalem had to watch their own children die were so terrible, that they would have to admit that it would have been better if they had never had children at all, than that they should have to see them die such horrible deaths. Thus the Lord urges them not to weep for Him, but for themselves and this awful fate that would yet come upon them in the near future.
30. “Then they will begin ‘to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’
Here the Lord quotes the words of the prophet Hosea in Hosea 10:8. This prophecy was originally spoken of the coming destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and their capital Samaria in the day when the Assyrians would conquer the land. Yet the Lord here applies this to the coming destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans. Indeed, the same kind of terrible situation would come to pass then. History reports that, among other horrors, thousands of crucifixions took place at the destruction of that city. They had a terrible future indeed.
31. “For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?”
The Lord states His reason for proclaiming this. It seems that He does it by repeating a common proverb of the day, which it is difficult for us to understand. He is no doubt referring to Himself as the green wood. Green wood is living or recently cut wood, and the Romans were doing these things to the Living Word Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. The dry wood then is dead wood, and appears to apply to the rulers of Israel in Jerusalem, the very ones who had put the Lord to death. If the Romans had chosen to burn a green tree like the Lord Jesus Christ, Who had never given Rome any trouble or difficulty until the Jewish leaders bothered them with Him, how much more eagerly would they act to burn up the dry wood of these leaders, who often acted in their own best interests, even if it meant acting directly against the will of Rome? Certainly, the Romans who put the Lord to death against justice would not hesitate to justly bring punishment against the leaders in Jerusalem. So it seems again that Christ is predicting the destruction that would come on Jerusalem and upon these leaders.
32. There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death.
The word for “criminals” in Greek is kakourgoi, and indicates “evildoers.” This probably means that these men were rebels who were being crucified for treason against Rome. Remember, this was the same thing Christ was accused of by the Jews, although by Pilate’s admission He was innocent of it.
These evildoers are not to be confused with the “robbers” who were crucified, not along with Him, but after the dividing of His garments and so forth (Matthew 27:38). The Greek word lestai in that instance indeed means “robbers,” and thus indicates a different crime from that those crucified along with the Lord Jesus were accused of. Thus a careful student can see that, contrary to popular belief, five crosses, not three, stood upon Golgotha the day Christ was crucified.
33. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left.
Notice again that these criminals are led out with Jesus and crucified along with Him, unlike the robbers, who were crucified later. They are led to a place called Calvary. This has almost become a beautiful word in English, due to the many sentimental songs that have been written about it. Yet the word meant “A Skull,” and probably indicates that a human skull had once been found there. This would render the place unclean according to the law, and so because of its location along this road this was the perfect place for the Romans to carry out their terrible executions. Traditionally this place is thought to have been a hill, yet there is no indication of that in Scripture. It is always just called a “place.” A hill would make sense, for that would increase the distance from which the crosses could be seen. However, there is no evidence in the Bible to indicate that this place really was a hill.
Now that the march to the crucifixion site carrying the cross was completed, we come to the next step in the terrible punishment of crucifixion. Now the accused was nailed to his cross. This is traditionally shown as being done through the hand, but the place depicted is highly unlikely, as anyone hanging from a nail placed there would be likely to tear right off the cross. Some solve this difficulty by suggesting that they were tied on with ropes as well, and that the nails were more for effect than to hold them up. Yet it seems more likely that the Romans had figured out the exact right spot to drive the nail, first of all so that the victim would not tear off the cross, and secondly so that he would not bleed to death. This place was in the wrist, and was a special spot between two bones and where no major arteries exist.
The victim was then pulled up into the air. The crosses were probably as tall as they could make them (depending on the wood available,) and were placed upright with the help of ropes. The goal here was ultimate humiliation, as well as a grim warning to all who saw them. These crucifixions were done along the main highways so that all passing by could see. Jesus Christ and those crucified with Him were hung along the highway, as we see from the mention of “those who passed by.” (Matthew 27:39) With the crosses themselves being high in the air, those hung upon them would have been visible from far down the road, in kind of a grim version of a highway sign advertising the penalty for disloyalty to Rome.
Now the victim begins to grasp the horror of his position. First of all, he discovers that hanging that way he cannot breathe, as his handing body pulls his lungs closed. In order to breathe, he has to pull himself upwards, and the only way to do that is to either pull against the nails in his hands or push against the nails in his feet. Thus every breath is an agony. Then there came the realization of being trapped. So high in the air, the victim no doubt felt isolated, cut off from everyone and everything below, alone in a public spectacle of pain and agony. Moreover, with hands and feet nailed down, the victim would begin to realize his own helplessness. No hand could be lifted to ward off scavenging birds, who no doubt would be drawn to these strange, high structures. They might peck a victim’s eyes out, and he could not raise a hand to stop them. Not only that, but the victim had no protection from the elements on a cross. Rain might pour down upon the head, the sun might beat down until one was delirious, yet no protection could be found while hanging up on a tree.
Yet the worst part of it all was that in spite of all these agonies, none of them was serious enough to make a person die. The blood would soon clot and stop pouring from the ingeniously placed nails. Drink would be given to the victim from time to time so that dying of thirst was unlikely. And the elements, no matter how uncomfortable, were unlikely to kill, unless the victim was mercifully struck by lightning or fell to heat stroke. Thus, with nothing to kill him, he could hang up there for days, very much alive yet all the time suffering in agony, isolation, and humiliation. This was the brilliance of the ultimate torture of crucifixion.
34. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots.
That the Lord Jesus would forgive those who through hatred, jealousy, and injustice had placed Him upon that cross is amazing! What man could forgive in the face of such agonies? Yet Christ did, and we can be certain His prayer was answered. For these men whom He forgave were all given a chance to submit to God and believe in Christ later on in the Acts period, as we see in Acts 2 and especially in Acts 3. How loving and forgiving our God is, to forgive even those Who placed Him in such a place!
Notice here the dividing of the garments. Here was another facet of the punishment of crucifixion that the condemned would have to deal with. Although we always show Jesus on the cross in our paintings and depictions wearing a nice white under cloth, the fact is that this is more so that our pictures won’t be X-rated than it is out of accuracy. The fact is that crucifixion victims were hung up stark naked. This was yet another way of increasing their suffering. For remember, these men were put up on public display along the major highway into Jerusalem. Up high in the air on these crosses, they could be seen from far off by those using the road who ventured near. And all this while they were unclothed, and could do nothing to cover themselves or express their modesty. O, what a hideous torture the Romans had constructed!
The soldiers who crucified Him were the ones who cast lots for his clothing, as we see from other gospels. They cast lots for His undergarments, as they were woven all in one piece, and to tear them to divide them would have caused them to unravel and become useless. Thus instead of dividing them between them, they cast lots to see who will get to take them.
35. And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God.”
The people stand looking on while their rulers sneer at Him. Notice the clear distinction made between these two groups. The people stood watching, no doubt in stunned disbelief, seeing the One they had hoped would deliver them condemned and hanging on a tree. They stand in stark contrast to the leaders, who mocked Him and reveled in their triumph over this One they had viewed as a threat to their own authority and power.
The rulers sneer at Him, urging Him to save Himself. He could have, of course, but if He had, He could not have saved us. The reason the Lord was able to save others is because He did not save Himself, but rather died for us.
The rulers mock the Lord’s claim to be the Christ, the chosen of God. The word “chosen” here is the Greek word eklektos, which is the only Greek word that is sometimes translated “elect.” The translators did not want to translate it “elect” here, as many want to make out that this word “elect” refers to an elite company elected to be saved by the Lord in advance of them ever believing. However, this word simply means “chosen,” and the rulers know that the Christ is the One Who is chosen by God to be the Savior. Yet the rulers mock the possibility that the Lord Jesus could be this Savior, as He has not saved Himself from them and their schemes.
36. The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine,
The soldiers join in on the mocking. They were taught to view anyone who was crucified as an enemy of Rome, and Rome had many enemies in the land of Israel. They may or may not have known anything about the Lord’s trial. All that mattered to them was that He was condemned to crucifixion, and that was all they needed to know in order to be ready to hate and mock Him.
In their mocking they offer Him sour wine, which we would call vinegar. It no doubt amused them to see the condemned on their crosses eagerly gulp down this horrible-tasting drink as some small relief to their parched throats. Their thirst would have been great due to their terrible exertions and the heat of the sun baking down on their heads. Yet what a cruel kindness was in this sort of a drink!
37. And saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself.”
How can men call the Jews “Christ-killers,” and yet ignore the actions of these Roman soldiers? Why do some call Jews “Christ-killers,” and yet let Italians off the hook, or even revere them? These things are motivated far more by prejudice than they are by fact. But whoever crucified Him, remember that these all were forgiven by Christ’s gracious words, as we saw in verse 34.
We can understand the actions of these soldiers from their words. They knew that the charge against Christ was that He was the King of the Jews. It was an easy assumption to make that He had been setting Himself up as King against Rome, even though Pilate had known well that that was not true. Since the Lord Jesus was being crucified, they would have believed that He must be guilty of treason, and thus were mocking Him out of their own sense of loyalty to the Roman Empire.
38. And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
It was traditional when crucifying a criminal to place a heading upon the cross, up on the central pole that formed the cross. Upon this heading would be written the crime for which the criminal was accused. Remember, the point of crucifixion was not only to torture the criminal, but also to advertise the penalty for disloyalty to Rome. Stating what this person had done against Rome was part of this second purpose. Yet on the Lord’s cross no terrible crime was written as an accusation, but rather only that He was “The King of the Jews.” This was no crime, yet it was all that could be said against Him.
Men passing by would have seen only a Man hanging on a cross with this heading over Him. Yet God saw much more. He saw the sins of the world, including your sins and my sins, hanging there on that cross along with Him. Praise God for His marvelous gift of salvation!