The Road to Golgotha
Well, it’s been a long time since we interrupted our studies in Luke’s Gospel. So long ago that some of you might have forgotten all about it – after all the most recent sermon in that series was preached all the way back in November 2018. And my hasn’t a lot happened since then?
Back in Nov.2018 we thought about the verses in Lk.23:18-25 and today, well over two years later, we’re going to carry on where we left off and look at the verses that follow. So today we’ll be focusing our thoughts upon Lk.23:26-31.
Now because the last sermon was preached so long ago you probably don’t remember much of what was said then - so as we come to our text this morning I want to begin by briefly reminding you just how we got here.
How we got here
In order to understand the events that took place and which are recorded for us in the words of our text, we need to back up a little and remind ourselves just where we are in the annals history.
For some three years Jesus had been publically exercising his ministry. From the very outset he had divided opinion – while the common people heard him gladly the leaders of his own nation hated him and tried hard to counter his growing influence. For a considerable period of time these leaders seemed to be getting nowhere but then their fortunes changed: they found a traitor in Jesus’ inner circle and they quickly paid him a bribe which led to Jesus being arrested.
It was a foregone conclusion that the Jewish council would condemn Jesus but it wasn’t so clear how the Roman authorities would react. Their reaction was important for they were the only ones who had the necessary authority to condemn a man to death.
A hearing was speedily arranged before Pilate – but Pilate didn’t want to play ball. In fact Pilate thought that Jesus was innocent and said so on three separate occasions; he didn’t want to execute this man. In an attempt to avoid taking responsibility for what would happen next, Pilate sent Jesus off to Herod. Herod too found Jesus not guilty but this didn’t stop him and his soldiers mistreating their prisoner before returning him to Pilate.
Under renewed pressure from the Jewish authorities Pilate finally crumbled. In his attempts to free Jesus Pilate had offered to punish him, an innocent man, but now he felt obliged to do more. Not only would he punish this man but he would see to it that he would be executed: Jesus would be crucified.
The place where criminals were executed lay just outside the city walls. Its name in Aramaic was Golgotha – “the place of the skull” – we perhaps know it better by its Latin name “Calvary”. It would only be a short trip – the place of execution was just a few hundred metres from Pilate’s headquarters.
It was normal practice back then for a condemned man to be immediately taken away and put to death; there was no stay of execution and no chance of appeal. It was also usual practice to oblige such a condemned man to carry the cross to which he would soon be nailed and hung up to die.
And so to our text today. I’ll read the verses to you again: Lk.23:26-31.
“And 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. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus 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 nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
A fresh person arrives on the scene.
Something unexpected now happened and we are introduced to a new character. This was Simon and he came from a Greek city on the coast of North Africa by the name of Cyrene. There was a sizeable Jewish community in Cyrene and it is likely that Simon himself was a Jew. He was probably in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover though it is possible that he lived there. There were after all sufficient Cyrenian Jews in Jerusalem to have their own synagogue in the city.
It doesn’t appear that Simon had had anything to do with what had taken place earlier that day in Jerusalem. He had been out in the country and was only now just coming into the city. He was a mere passer-by, an innocent bystander, who was suddenly caught up in what was going on. He was press-ganged into providing an unwelcome service, co-opted by the soldiers to carry a cross. How humiliating that was! After all the people who carried crosses were convicted criminals on a one way journey, a journey from which there was no return.
And the cross that Simon was forced to carry was Jesus’ cross.
We’re not specifically told why Jesus didn’t carry his own cross but at least two reasons are not difficult to find.
Firstly, Jesus had already suffered a great deal in the preceding 15 hours or so. A sleepless night, the emotional effects of betrayal and abandonment, harsh horseplay at the hands of rough soldiers and finally a severe punishment had been endured. Scourging was vicious and violent and strong men had been known to die from being scourged. In such circumstances it would hardly be a surprise to find Jesus already sufficiently weakened as to make the physical carrying of his own cross a hugely difficult task if not an actual impossibility. Hence the need to coerce another person to bear that burden for him. Simon of Cyrene was the man – from the soldiers’ point of view the right man at the right time. From Simon’s perspective he probably thought he had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A second reason can be found in the plan of God. It was God’s purpose for Jesus to die and specifically to die on a cross. Jesus himself knew this and had taught his followers that he must be crucified; he would be lifted up in the same way the brazen serpent had been lifted up on a pole for all to see.
After Israel had escaped from Egypt at the time of the Exodus the tribes had spent some 40 years roaming in the desert where they often tried the patience of God. On one occasion the people spoke so harshly against God that he sent fiery serpents amongst them (you can read the whole story in Num.ch.17). Nevertheless in his grace God also provided a remedy for anyone who might be bitten. When such a person looked at that brazen serpent on the pole he was healed and spared. Jesus was to be lifted up, not on a pole but on a cross, so that needy sinners might look to him and be delivered of their greater needs – no, Jesus must not expire before he arrives at the cross!
So Simon was pressed into action.
We don’t know a whole lot about this Simon of Cyrene though it is highly probable that he was later to be converted and become a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is referred to in Mark’s gospel as being the father of Alexander and Rufus who were presumably well-known to the Christian community otherwise why mention them at all? (Rufus would later be a member of the church in Rome).
It would seem though that this event was to have a profound influence on Simon’s life, one we could even describe as life changing, and it all began with Simon being forced to do something he probably would steered clear of if given half a chance.
If you’d asked Simon at the beginning of the day if he fancied being made to carry a few hours later you’d most likely have received a very curt reply. You see to carry a cross carried a stigma. The people who carried crosses were criminals, men who had been convicted and sentence to death. What would friends and neighbours say? What would people think? In the culture of the day no-one in their right mind would want to carry a cross!
Yet in God’s good providence it brought Simon to Jesus – what on the outside looked so bad turned out to be so good for Simon.
Now, let’s stop and think a little. We are living in days when we can’t do what we might like to do and we’re obliged by the government to do things we would probably rather not do either. Who really wants to stay 2 metres away from friends you like to think of as close friends? Who delights in putting on a face mask whenever you enter a building that’s not your own home? It looks pretty bad on the outside doesn’t it? But maybe God has something special planned for you as he did for Simon. Maybe coming to terms with your inability to do things the way you’d like to do them will make you think of your inability to do things the way God would like you to. Maybe the extra time on your hands and the less socialising you can do will lead you to think about how you might “socialise” with God, your Creator, Judge and Redeemer. Are you using any of the extra opportunities you’re having to spend time with Jesus, that friend who sticks closer than any brother?
In the OT Joseph was forced to live many years of his life away from his family, serving in a foreign country. His early years there were spent as a domestic servant before he was unjustly thrown into prison. Looking back over his life he might have blamed his brothers for their role in his exile but he didn’t did he? No, he trusted that God knew, and had known all along, just what he was doing. Do you remember how Joseph put it when he spoke to his brothers about the poor way in which they had treated him?
Gen.50:20 “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
There are so many examples in the Bible and in everyday life that demonstrate the truthfulness of this statement and some of our hymns celebrate it too.
I can quite imagine Simon being happy to sing some of these with us:
Whate’er my God ordains is right,
Though now this cup in drinking
May bitter seem to my faint heart,
I take it all, unshrinking.
My God is true, each morn anew
Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart;
And pain and sorrow shall depart,
And pain and sorrow shall depart.
Hereafter he will make me know,
He was too wise to err, and oh,
Now those two hymns were written a long time ago but the same sentiment can still be found in more recent songs such as this one that I came across this week:
All things work for our good
Though sometimes we can't see how they could
Struggles that break our hearts in two
Sometimes blind us to the truth
Our Father knows what's best for us
So when your pathway grows dim
And you just can't see Him
Remember, He's still on the throne
God is too wise to be mistaken
God is too good to be unkind
So when you don't understand
When you don't see His plan
When you can't trace His hand
Well it’s time to move on.
A Great Crowd
As they move along with Simon now shouldering Jesus’ cross Luke tells us that a large crowd was following along behind them and the crowd included a significant number of women. The women in the crowd weren’t quiet either they were wailing and lamenting – how sympathetically inclined they were towards the Lord Jesus!
Again let’s pause a moment. All the early part of this chapter in Luke’s gospel could have left us with the impression that everyone was negatively disposed towards Jesus but this description of the crowd and particularly of this group of women suggests that that was not the case. There were at least some folk who were not hostile and indeed some were moved with compassion and pity as they considered what was happening to Jesus.
We should learn from this too. How easy it is for us to exaggerate when things are apparently going wrong to imagine that everything and everyone is against us. In this instance there were at least some folk who were sympathetically disposed towards Jesus and the same is likely to be true about us however hard or bleak our situation might appear to us at times.
I’m reminded now of the experience of the prophet Elijah. I wonder if you know to what I’m referring. After a period of intense spiritual engagement Elijah was weary and he allowed himself to feel very sorry for himself. As he sank into discouragement he thought that he was the only person left who was faithful to the Lord. The Lord dealt with him in a kindly and gentle manner but also told him that there were 7,000 more just like him.
Viewing things only from our limited perspective and relying upon our faulty assessments will probably lead us to becoming downcast too!
Let’s come back to the women who were mourning and lamenting as the battered and bruised Jesus made his way towards Golgotha. It is clear that they felt sorry for him but this kind of response was not one that Jesus wanted to encourage. Indeed by his response to them it is very clear that he believed that their behaviour, however well-intentioned it might be, was fundamentally wrong. Listen to what he had to say to them.
“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 nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
These words begin with some clear instruction concerning what these women ought not to be doing and what they should instead do:
· Don’t do this...
· Do that...
Then Jesus gave the reason why.
We must take some time to reflect on these words. They were spoken at a critical moment of his life when we might have expected Jesus to be preoccupied with what was happening to him. But no, far from being entirely bound up with his own cares he is, as ever, ready to help others. Without his help these women might remain unaware of what their own needs really were and consequently they would fail to do what is necessary to resolve them.
What a remarkable man Jesus is! He’s been rejected by the leaders of his people and abandoned by his closest friends; he’s had his back half ripped off with scourging and is now being led out for the cruellest of executions by crucifixion but he is anything but self-absorbed. He has time for others. In particular he has time for these women and anyone else who will listen. And he seriously explains how they ought to react to what is unfolding before their very eyes and it is not by feeling sorry for him nor for expressing feelings of sympathy for him.
These women Jesus addressed as “daughters of Jerusalem” and they we mustn’t confuse them with those other women who were with Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem. These daughters of Jerusalem along with their children were not disciples yet of Jesus Christ but how they needed to be!
When we look at Jesus’ words more closely, we’ll see that he said what he did in the light of coming judgment. It is as we realise this that we will be able understand just why he spoke the words he did. So it is here we must begin.
Judgment was on the way is what Jesus declared in v.29 “For the days are coming...” he said.
This was not the first time that Jesus had prophesied that judgment was going to fall upon Jerusalem; he had conveyed this message in a variety of different ways and this was perhaps the seventh and final occasion that he did.
Not only is the certainty of the coming judgment reiterated but now its extreme severity is also underlined. We get a sense of just serious it all is when we see hear how the people respond to it:
“Blessed are the barren...” etc. still in v.29
Now generally in the Bible the state of barrenness or of being childless was considered one of the greatest curses there was and yet when this judgment – about which Jesus once again warns – when this judgment comes to Jerusalem that state of cursedness will be regarded as the greatest of blessings!
The general reaction of the people when this judgment begins to come about will be to cry out to the mountains and hills to hide and protect them from it. Anything, anything to get away from this judgment:
v.30 “Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’”
This type of language was first used by Hosea the prophet as the people of his day were confronted with divine judgment. They are used also used in the Book of Revelation where we read:
Rev.6:15-17 “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
The common feature in each of these cases is that this is the reaction of the impenitent, those who have not repented of their sin and will not do so. They refuse to cry out to God for mercy and instead of turning to God to seek forgiveness these folk react by trying to get away from him – they would prefer annihilation to facing up to the wrath of God. But they can’t.
It was in the light of this coming judgment that Jesus spoke to these daughters of Jerusalem. In the light of such coming judgment their reaction of feeling sorry from Jesus and the predicament he was in was totally inappropriate however nice and sympathetic we might be tempted to see it.
You see while Jesus was facing imminent pain and suffering as he was being led away to Golgotha to be put to death his ultimate future was not in the slightest doubt. He knew he was leaving the world to return to his Heavenly Father and he knew he would be welcomed home. His eternal future was secure for even now he was walking in the very centre of God’s will and purpose for his life and the Father’s love for the Son was never stronger for him than when he laid down his life:
Jn.10:17 “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.”
No, don’t feel sorry for Jesus and think that that is what is required of you. He is not the one at risk – but he did come to save those who were and praise his name that he did!
No, the proper reaction is to look to ourselves and those around us:
“Weep for yourselves and for your children”
Not with tears of self-pity but with tears of remorse and tears of repentance. These daughters of Jerusalem would never be saved by feeling sorry for Jesus or trying to express compassion and being nice towards him but they could be saved by repenting of their sin and putting their trust in him.
And the same is true for you this day, this Sunday morning. You may have seen a film about Jesus on TV and you’ve been moved by his physical sufferings and you’ve went a sympathy well up inside as you too have felt sorry for the suffering of this innocent man. But he doesn’t want your sympathy he wants your repentance and your trust. Have you given him that yet? It is a serious matter – repent therefore and believe in the gospel and do it now!
Jesus wanted to press upon those women who heard him that day the gravity of it all. Jesus was shortly to suffer the wrath of God poured out upon himself as he took the sinner’s place and died the sinner’s death. He would do so not because he was guilty himself but because he was offering himself as a substitute for those who were guilty – people like you and me. His sacrificial death would prove to be effective in shielding penitent sinners from the wrath to come – effective for people like you and me if only we repent and put our trust in him.
But what hope will you have if you refuse his gracious invitations? If the green wood of Jesus was consumed do you really think that the dry wood of your life will escape? There is no mountain big enough to annihilate you and so enable you to avoid judgment. There is no hill that can cover you and hide you from God’s all-seeing eye. Ah, my friends, but there is a Saviour who ready stands to save you who is both able and willing to do so. Doubt no more!