Text: As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. 28 Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then
“‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”
and to the hills, “Cover us!”’
31 For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals — one on his right, the other on his left.
The Via Dolorosa: “The Way of Sorrows.” It stretches for about half a mile as it weaves its way through the old city of Jerusalem. It is purported to be the same road on which our Savior took his final steps to Golgotha. For that reason, thousands upon thousands of religious pilgrims, hoping to retrace our Savior’s steps, walk the Via Dolorosa each year. During Holy Week and especially today, on Good Friday, that road will be wall-to-wall with people.
The walk will be slow because there will be a traffic jam of pilgrims, many of whom are kneeling at the stations of the cross. These locations are carefully marked with large Roman numeral plaques, and the title Via Dolorosa is on street signs you can’t miss. These stations are a series of 14 pictures or carvings depicting various events from the passion of the Christ: events starting with our Savior’s condemnation by Pontius Pilate to our Savior’s lifeless body being placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The exact locations of these events have nowhere been recorded in Scripture but have been added by tradition. Some of the events themselves aren’t recorded in Scripture. It almost seems as if a few may have been added for the questionable purpose of providing a relic. For example, there is a station where Veronica supposedly wiped the blood and sweat from Jesus’ face when he fell. The cloth she used, the Veil of Veronica, became a relic with supposedly miraculous qualities. Absolutely nothing like that is recorded in Scripture.
Today, on the Friday we call Good, we walk the Via Dolorosa. We are guided by the relatively sparse record of the inspired writer Luke. We walk beside our Savior in spirit and see how His Final Steps Led to the Place of the Skull. 1. On the way, Simon helped him. 2. On the way, women wept over him. 3. On the way, two criminals accompanied him. 4. And at the Place of the Skull, he was crucified.
It’s all a little bit much on Good Friday for Christians like you and me to ponder Luke’s matter-of-fact account. “As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus” (Luke 23:26). The Roman soldiers were assigned to supervise our Savior’s execution. How many crucifixions they did before and how many they did after — that we don’t know. But we do know the centurion and those who were assigned to guard Jesus were so moved by Jesus’ crucifixion that when our Savior hung his head and died, they cried, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
I’m not sure any of them had felt that way just hours earlier when they “led him away” (Luke 23:26) from the stone pavement where Jesus stood in front of the crowds as Pilate announced to them, “Here is the man!” (John 19:5). A man who had been brutalized by the guards — scourged, struck in the face, spit upon, and mocked. A crown of thorns smashed on his head for good measure and a purple robe draped over his bloodied back and shoulders. A sight so pitiful Pilate hoped it would move the crowds to mercy, but all it did was incite them to shout all the louder, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” (John 19:15).
So, they did. But the man who had been brutalized within an inch of his life was too weak to walk that half a mile to the Place of the Skull while carrying the crossbeam on which he would hang. How many times did our Lord stumble and fall? How many times did his guards goad him to get up? Until they lost patience. Until, perhaps, the centurion himself looked out over the crowd and spotted someone who looked burly enough, strong enough, to get this half-mile trip over with and done! Simon of Cyrene — Cyrene was a Greek city in Libya in North Africa. Historians tell us that some 100,000 Jews had been forced to settle there around 300 B.C. during the reign of Ptolemy Soter, ruler of Egypt. Simon, likely a Jew, was in Jerusalem, like so many other religious pilgrims, to celebrate the Passover. Mark, in his record, also informs us that Simon had a son named Rufus (Mark 15:21). All these little details taken together assure us that the gospel records of our Savior are not “cleverly devised stories” (2 Peter 1:16) but eyewitness records, divinely inspired, guaranteed to be correct down to the smallest detail!
And yet, when it comes to Simon of Cyrene, father of Rufus, I have to wonder. Why is our Lord so specific? Why make sure we know these names? I wonder because about 25 years later, in his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul greets a believer named Rufus (Romans 16:13). If this is the same Rufus, then can it be that a shocking twist of events and a heartrending, nightmarish chore led Simon’s family into the Lord’s family of believers? We’ll have to wait until we get to heaven to know for sure. But for now, we stay on the Via Dolorosa. His final steps led to the Place of the Skull.
I don’t know if the Good Friday crowds equaled the crowds on Palm Sunday, but I am fairly certain that many of the observers along the way on Good Friday weren’t concerned about taking the coats off their back or cutting palm branches to smooth our Savior’s final steps. These were, after all, the crowds who had just made Pilate’s hall ring with their bloodthirsty cries, “Crucify! Crucify!” So, I suspect many were following because of the ghoulish prospect of a free front-row seat for a Roman execution. Romans loved their circuses where gladiators often died.
But on Good Friday, not all were there for the show. Not the “women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:27). How many women? I don’t know. The gospels don’t tell us. How loud were they? We might be able to guess that because this was Jewish mourning, Jewish wailing, as an expression of grief. It was not the restrained grief many of us practice at funerals for our loved ones — when we seek to swallow our sobs or stifle them with a handkerchief, and when we can’t, we leave the room to find a private place to let all of our grief come tumbling out!
I wonder if the Good Friday wailing of the women might have been enough to wake the dead! More important, however, was that this wailing got our Savior’s attention. Even though these were literally his final steps, Jesus proved yet again why he willed himself forward to take each one. Because he cared. Because he loved. Selflessly. Sacrificially. Out of perfect devotion to his Father. And because he was the only member of our human race who knew precisely what “love for your neighbor” was all about — even when dying the most agonizing death of all time.
God-pleasing selfless love looks and sounds like this: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:28-31). On the Way of Sorrows, our Savior’s heart broke — not because of what he was going through but because of what the lost would go through! As God’s Son, Jesus could see the future. That included A.D. 70, when the Romans finally got sick of the pain of the province of Judea with its capital of Jerusalem, always a hotbed of unrest. So after a lengthy siege caused mass starvation, the Roman general Titus led his army into Jerusalem, destroyed the city, leveled the temple, and massacred untold numbers of men, women, and children. Jesus’ Good Friday prophecy to the women was so chilling; our Lord knew that caring mothers would rather be barren than bear children only to see them suffer so!
All because the Romans, aided and abetted by the Jewish leaders and also by a sinful human race that includes you and me, were putting to death “the green tree”: Jesus, an innocent man. If that could happen, how fierce would God’s judgment be on the “dry” wood, unbelieving Jerusalem in A.D. 70! And how fierce and complete will the judgment of our righteous God be on all unbelievers on the Last Day!
Pray without ceasing for the dry wood all around us! And pray without ceasing for yourself, your Christian family members, and Christians in this world wherever they may be: because a sliver or two of dry wood still lurks in your heart and mine — our sinful nature! His final steps led to the Place of the Skull. On the way, two criminals accompanied him.
Luke and the other gospel writers share this next detail so matter-of-factly, I think the impact all too often escapes us. “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals — one on his right, the other on his left” (Luke 23:32,33). I realize that Rome usually erred on the safe side when it came to crucifixion. What better way to hold the public in check than by using the most horrific method of execution ever devised and making a public show of it! And yet, generally speaking, you didn’t get crucified for jaywalking through the marketplace or spitting your leftover chewing gum on the street where a Roman soldier’s sandal would find it. Crucifixion was for “criminals.” The word Luke used could be rendered as “villains,” “bad guys” in the full sense of the word, or “evil people.”
It was with criminals that Jesus took his final steps on the Via Dolorosa. And at the end, he was crucified with a criminal on either side. All to keep another prophecy, this one made by Isaiah in his famous chapter 53: he “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
He sure did! That’s why he took his final steps to the Place of the Skull: to be counted not just with but as a substitute for a rebellious sinner like me, sometimes still with a stubborn streak of self-righteousness that runs down my back and raises a stench to heaven that reeks worse than anything skunks have ever shared. “Self-righteous? Us?” Yes! Though we get on our knees with the apostle Paul and confess ever so sincerely, “sinners—of whom I am the worst,” yet there still is a line that part of us wants to draw. We may be “bad,” but really not all that bad. All things being equal, I would prefer never to have my name recorded in a book on a list that goes like this: “Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer, Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, [your name].” God forbid.
And out of pure amazing grace, he did! For Jesus allowed his name to be entered into the Lord’s judgment book in place of mine. Jesus, the only human being who was ever as pure as the driven snow — with every thought, every word, every desire, and every action — in a final, selfless, sacrificial act, allowed himself to be counted with criminals like you and me.
This was always the Lord’s plan — one of pure grace. It’s why his final steps led to the Place of the Skull. And at the Place of the Skull, he was crucified.
Again, Luke’s account is spartan, matter-of-fact, devoid of editorializing. It’s almost as if the words lack passion or feeling. “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals” (Luke 23:33). Yet just one word in that account speaks volumes about the passion of our Lord: “crucified.” Crucifixion. Some would call it the most painful means of execution ever devised. So painful and so horrific that most of us would rather run from this chapel or turn off the livestream than hear the gruesome details as to how someone died because of crucifixion.
There is a series of articles that were prepared by Dr. C. Truman Davis of Mesa, Arizona in 1965, called “The Passion of Christ From a Medical Point of View.” In these articles, Dr. Davis details the physical horrors Jesus endured from the Garden of Gethsemane to that moment when our Savior took his dying breath on the cross. What he describes is brutal. What Jesus endured is almost too horrific to read or think about. Perhaps, you have never seen these articles, but if you watched The Passion of the Christ know what I mean! Crucifixion is a nightmare. Dr. Davis concludes his detailed study by saying that Jesus’ passion gives us a “glimpse of the epitome of evil which man can exhibit toward man — and toward God. This is not a pretty sight.”
No, it’s not. Yet our Savior’s physical agony as he hung on the cross is but a thimbleful compared to the anguish of soul our Savior endured from the torrential flood of punishment his holy God rained down on him that day. “The wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). All of God’s wrath! All of God’s punishment! All of God’s judgment! Every last penny. For you, for me, and for the human race. Jesus endured it all! This is the horror of the Friday we call Good. It had to be hell for Jesus to bring heaven to you and me. That’s why his final steps led to the Place of the Skull. Amen.
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