READ : Luke 23:26-33
Jesus carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha, where he was crucified. If we would be his disciples, we must take up our cross and follow him.
After condemning Jesus to death by crucifixion, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate turned him over to his headquarters guard. The soldiers amused themselves for a while by mocking him. They dressed Jesus up in a purple robe – after all, he was supposed to be some sort of king – stuck a stick in his hand for a scepter, and jammed a bunch of sharp thorns on his head as a crown. Then they all had a good laugh at his expense. The Romans were a hard lot, and soldiering is a tough life with few compensating pleasures. It doesn’t tend to produce refined and sensitive people. Small wonder if these legionnaires turned Jesus’ execution detail into a bit of cruel entertainment.
After they had their little joke with the defenseless prisoner, the guards led Jesus off to the place of execution, which was known by the appropriately gruesome name of Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull.” The Hebrew “Golgotha” was rendered in Latin as “Calvary,” the more familiar name. This “Skull Hill,” where the Romans crucified their condemned prisoners, lay just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. This is what happened along the way as Jesus was being taken there:
As they led Jesus away, they took hold of Simon. Simon was from Cyrene. He was on his way in from the country. They put a wooden cross on his shoulders. Then they made him carry it behind Jesus.
A large number of people followed Jesus. Some were women whose hearts were filled with sorrow. They cried loudly because of him.
Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children.
Two other men were also led out with Jesus to be killed. Both of them had broken the law. The soldiers brought them to the place called The Skull. There they nailed Jesus to the cross.
Luke 23:26-28, 32-33 (NIrV)
THE VIA DOLOROSA
There is a street in the city of Jerusalem still known today as the “Via Dolorosa.” The name means “Way of Sorrows.” It is the route Christ is believed to have followed when he left the judgment hall of Pilate and made his way, under guard and carrying his cross, to Golgotha. Several things happened along this “way of sorrow,” the way of the cross. In later centuries, especially during the Middle Ages, pious Christians who wished to commemorate Jesus’ journey through the streets of Jerusalem elaborated on the rather sparse accounts of the four Gospels. Jesus fell three separate times along the way, it was said, and while passing down that street he met and spoke to his mother. The story also developed that a woman named Veronica took pity on the fallen Jesus and stooped to wipe his bloody brow, whereupon an image of Jesus’ face miraculously appeared on her cloth.
Legends aside, what do we know about what actually occurred along the Via Dolorosa, the way of Jesus’ sorrows? Three of the Gospels give little or no information. John says simply that Jesus carried his cross out to the execution ground. The Romans customarily forced condemned criminals to carry their own crosses as an added cruelty and humiliation. Normally they would not carry an entire cross as we think of it, but only the horizontal timber. The vertical post was usually fixed permanently at the execution site. The first three evangelists all mention the role a man called Simon of Cyrene played in carrying Jesus’ cross for him. Apparently, Jesus, weakened by his all-night ordeal and by the loss of blood that resulted from his various beatings and whippings, wasn’t strong enough to make it to Golgotha with the cross beam on his shoulder. So the soldiers grabbed a man from the crowd to help him – Simon, an African from the city of Cyrene in Libya. The fact that Simon’s name is noted particularly in the Gospels, and that Mark even mentions the names of his two sons (Mark 15:21), is an indication that this man and his family were known to the early Christians. Apparently, Simon, who only met Jesus when he helped carry his cross, somehow came to know him in a deeper way later on, and became a Christian believer. Could it have been what he saw on that Good Friday that made Simon commit his life to Jesus Christ? It very well might have been.
Luke also reports an encounter Jesus had along the way with some women of Jerusalem. Moved with pity at the sight of Jesus’ suffering and the thought of the even more awful torture that lay just ahead, they mourned and wept for him. But Jesus made a strange reply to them. “Don’t weep for me,” he said, “weep for yourselves, and your children.” Why did he say that? What did he mean? Well, on one level Jesus was thinking of the horrors that lay in the future for the people of Jerusalem. He knew that Jerusalem and Judea were doomed. Jesus himself had prophesied the city’s destruction only a few days earlier, on an occasion when he had done what he told these women to do – he wept over the city. On the previous Sunday, the day we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus had entered Jerusalem in triumph, with great cheers and honor from the crowds. But Luke describes how he paused as he drew near to the city:
He approached Jerusalem. When he saw the city, he began to sob. He said, “I wish you had known today what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden from your eyes.
The days will come when your enemies will arrive. . . . They will surround you and close you in on every side. You didn’t recognize the time when God came to you. So your enemies will . . . destroy you and all the people inside your walls. They will not leave one stone on top of another.
Luke 19:41-44 (NIrV)
Jesus’ sad prophecy came true. Within one generation an invading Roman army would completely destroy the city, killing most of the population.
The deepest reason for Jesus’ sorrow, though, is spiritual. He’s weeping at what happens to people who deliberately reject him. These were people whom he loved, whom he wanted to gather to himself (see Luke 13:34). But they did not care about him. They didn’t recognize that, in Jesus, God himself was visiting them and offering them the gift of salvation. Nor did they understand that their time was limited. The time to accept Christ is now! You must respond to him in faith today, when you hear his voice speaking to you, calling you to follow him. You might not have tomorrow to decide.
“TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME”
Jesus’ words on the way to Golgotha remind us of the importance of putting our faith in him and committing our lives to him absolutely and unconditionally. There is a terrible price to pay for rejecting Christ. It ought to make us weep. As surely as Jesus carried a cross through the streets of Jerusalem, we must carry our cross after him. You know, that’s exactly how he once described what it meant to be his follower. Jesus defined real discipleship this way:
. . . “If you want to follow me, you must say no to yourself. You must take your cross every day and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for me, you will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world but lose . . . your very self?”
Luke 9:23-25 (NIrV)
Think about what this means. If you want to follow Jesus, you first have to learn to say no to yourself. Our human tendency is to interpret this command in such a way as to make Jesus’ demand less difficult, less radical. Christians must practice self-denial. But too often we think denying ourselves means giving up chocolate in our diet, or only buying one new outfit instead of two. What self-denial really means, on the deepest level, is saying no to our self. That’s not something we’re good at. We naturally prefer to indulge ourselves, to give ourselves whatever we think we need or want to make us happy, not say no to ourselves. Self-denial somehow seems old-fashioned, out of style, even unhealthy. Nowadays we’re supposed to affirm ourselves, love ourselves, reward ourselves. “Be good to yourself,” we are urged, “that’s the secret of personal happiness.” Self-discipline? Yes, certainly – that makes you even stronger, that serves your self interest. But deny yourself? Say a stern and resolute “no” to self-centered ambitions and goals? That’s a foreign concept to most people. It does not appeal to us.
Jesus says more. “You must take up your cross every day.” The cost of true discipleship involves not only denying self; it means dying to self. “Bearing the cross” is often misunderstood. We think it means to shoulder our share of troubles patiently (“That’s my cross to bear,” we say of some difficulty in our life.) Jesus’ image is much more shocking in its meaning. Everyone who heard him say this had seen condemned people carrying their crosses. It was an all-too-common spectacle in first-century Palestine. The sight of a man walking along a road with a beam on his shoulder, escorted by Roman soldiers, meant only one thing. He was on a one-way trip to execution. In Jesus’ world, a cross-bearing man was a dead man. This is the Lord’s way of saying that we have to die to self if we’re going to be his followers. The apostle Paul put it this way:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.
To be a real Christian means to be living each day only for Jesus Christ. It’s as if I died with him on the cross and now he lives in me.
“Take your cross and follow me.” After the negative descriptions of discipleship -denying self and dying to self – comes the positive. The reason we must so resolutely say no to ourselves is so that we can say yes to Jesus. The reason the egos we cherish and serve have to die is so that Christ can come to live in their place. Discipleship means following Jesus; it means that we try to say and do what he did, always trying to walk in his footsteps.
Saying no to my self, to all my own ambitions; taking up my cross each day as if I no longer had the right to live my own life – it all sounds harsh and painful and dreary, doesn’t it? But the astonishing truth is that it results in the most rewarding and exciting life anyone can imagine. Living as a committed follower of Jesus Christ doesn’t just make you holy; it makes you happy! It’s the most amazing thing! You would think that it would be all sacrifice and suffering, and in some ways it does involve these things. But the suffering always seems to shrink in comparison with the blessings you receive. Here’s a paradox that Jesus liked to draw attention to again and again. If you try to save your life – to live for yourself and for personal pleasure – you end up losing everything. But if you give your life for Jesus’ sake, you get it back again, with happiness thrown in for good measure.
Two very famous women died this year within a few days of each other. One was a beautiful young princess who had everything. The other was a wrinkled old nun who gave up everything for Jesus’ sake. Yet which of them was happier? Strange, isn’t it? Becoming a Christian doesn’t only mean going to heaven when you die. It means enjoying a life of real meaning and satisfaction and service right here. Following Jesus on the way of the cross turns out not to be the way of sorrows but the way to joy.