Women wept for Jesus as He carried His cross to Calvary. Why did He tell them to weep rather for themselves and for their children? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke to describe the grave judgment that awaited Israel for its rejection of the Messiah.
This morning I will continue our study of the gospel according to Saint Luke. I will begin at Luke 23:26–36. I will ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
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?”
This is Luke’s account of the events preceding the crucifixion of Jesus, supervised, superintended, and inspired by God the Holy Spirit. This is the truth of the Word of God. Please receive it as such and be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, when we consider the events of that day, when the greatest sacrifice ever made for humankind was offered in the perfect atonement of Christ on His cross, we shudder and tremble within ourselves to even think about it. Now, our Lord, we ask in this hour that the Word we have heard, the preaching we will hear, and the text will be so clear to us that in all these things You and You alone will be glorified. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Execution in the Outer Darkness
We read in Luke 23:26 that they led Jesus away, presumably from the judgment hall, alby way of the Via Dolorosa, also known as the Way of Sorrows. This route was taken to make sure that He would go outside the walls of Jerusalem to where He would be executed at Golgotha.
This was necessary to fulfill all the Old Testament symbolism with specific reference to the Day of Atonement. After the priest laid his hands upon the back of the scapegoat, symbolizing the transfer, or imputation, of the people’s guilt to the back of the goat, they would then drive the scapegoat into the wilderness, into the outer darkness, outside the camp, outside the place that enjoyed the presence of God. In all these details of fulfillment of the prophetic messages of the Old Testament, it was necessary that Jesus be killed outside the holy city of Jerusalem, in the land of outer darkness.
The Romans made it necessary for Jesus to carry His own cross, as was the custom for criminals who were to be executed, but Jesus had been more severely beaten than the average criminal. The scourging He endured was so mutilating to His flesh that the bones of His body could be clearly seen beneath the flesh. He was in a state of total exhaustion, and He simply did not have the strength to make the journey carrying the cross to the site of His execution.
So, Jesus stumbled, presumably just as He got outside of the gate of the city, within full view of perhaps tens of thousands of people gathered there for the spectacle of this execution. Just an aside, my guess is that of all the crucifixions that ever occurred outside the city of Jerusalem, this was almost certainly the most well-attended. Tens of thousands of people were there to celebrate the Passover. When the news moved through the crowd that this famous Jesus was about to be executed, people likely came from every corner of the city to witness the event.
Remember when we looked at the musings of the men on the road to Emmaus, when Jesus walked with them. They were talking about certain things regarding His execution. Jesus questioned them as if He did not know what had gone on or what they were talking about. Jesus said, “What things?” They looked at Him and said, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem that doesn’t know what happened there?” Of course He knew better than anybody else what had happened, but that was an indication of the size of the throng of people that gathered to witness the spectacle of His execution.
Simon of Cyrene
One of those people who had come in from the country was Simon of Cyrene. Presumably, he still lived in Cyrene, which was on a plateau about ten miles from the Mediterranean Sea, which is now in Libya. He was a pilgrim who had come, presumably, for the Passover, and he was standing on the roadside as a spectator of this gruesome event.
We do not know what the state of his soul was, but tradition tells us that at this time in his life, Simon of Cyrene was not a converted man. We know very little about him, but later we learn from Mark and the Apostle Paul of his two sons specifically mentioned, Rufus and Alexander, and of his wife, who were an integral part of the Christian community that later settled in Rome. Somewhere after the time of his being impressed into the service of carrying the crosspiece for Jesus, Simon of Cyrene was converted to Christ.
The tradition is that when Simon came to that scene and finished the task of carrying that piece of wood for Jesus, he observed what happened on the cross. He listened carefully to the words Jesus spoke from the cross, and (the tradition says) it was there and then that he became a Christian. I do not know if that is true, but there are certain elements of the text that we know are true without dispute.
The first thing we know is that Jesus of Nazareth was not crucified on a stick. The crosses that were used were heavy pieces of wood, huge beams of enormous weight, so heavy that Jesus was not able to carry the burden Himself. When He stumbled and fell on the ground, I am sure there was an audible gasp from those gathered around, who saw Him in the ignominy of His humiliation.
It was not as though Simon of Cyrene jumped into the gap and said, “Let me help, let me carry this cross beam for You.” No, he was probably a reluctant intercessor when one of the soldiers, who had the authority, commanded him to pick up the crosspiece Jesus dropped and carry it the rest of the way.
Why did the soldier choose Simon of Cyrene? I am sure it was spontaneous for the soldier. There had not been a lottery. There was no external compelling reason for this soldier to choose Simon of Cyrene. Clearly, he would not choose a ninety-seven-pound weakling for the task. He would look through the group to find someone who would have the strength to do that task.
God Chose Simon
The secondary cause for the choice of Simon by the soldier was whatever the soldier saw in Simon in order to choose him. Behind the scenes, however, in the eternity of God’s providence, in the secret hand of that mystery, the primary cause of the selection of Simon of Cyrene was the eternal, determinate counsel of God Himself. It was God, not the soldier, who ultimately chose this man, Simon, to carry the cross of Jesus.
There is something odd about this in the intention of God the Father. It would be only a few moments until He would pour out His unmitigated wrath upon His Son and pronounce a curse upon Him in the sacrificial offering He was about to make. Still, even moments before this event, there was a tenderness in the heart of the Father, who condescended to provide help for His Son to bear the cross.
Ladies and gentlemen, I do not think that Simon’s act of bearing the cross for Jesus earned him one scintilla of merit before God. There was no good work enough to cause Simon of Cyrene to enter the kingdom of God. It is assumed that it was not even voluntary, that Simon was doing this under duress, and he was perhaps cursing beneath his breath when he was chosen by the soldier to stoop down, pick up that burden, put it on his own shoulders, and plod along behind Jesus. I am sure he could not wait for the journey to be finished so he could rid himself of that filthy instrument of death, drop it at the foot of Calvary, and let the soldiers take it from there to finish the execution.
Yet, at the same time, no human being in the history of the world ever received a greater honor than Simon of Cyrene, because God chose him in His Son’s hour of desperate need and passion to assist Christ in providing the atonement for us. After his conversion, you can only imagine the conversations in the years that followed. At family reunions or any time he would get together with his wife and sons and talk about the past, I am sure the first thing that Simon would say was, “I carried His cross.” What an honor. If he had a grave marker, it probably said, “This man carried the cross of Jesus Christ.”
The Lamentation of the Daughters of Jerusalem
Simon was not the only person Jesus encountered on the road. As the text goes on, we read: “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.’”
We do not know if this was simply a group of women standing by the wayside and observing the misery that Jesus was experiencing, but their hearts went out in compassion to Him. They were mourning and lamenting, and Jesus called them the daughters of Jerusalem.
Some speculate that there was a group of women in some kind of guild in Jerusalem that were named the “Daughters of Jerusalem,” like the “Daughters of the American Revolution” or some such group. It could mean that He addressed them as a group of women who were there and that He called them the daughters of Jerusalem.
I remember the first time I went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is my favorite art museum in the world, including the Louvre. I was able to see a mammoth collection of paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn. My favorite of all the Rembrandt paintings was there. I have two copies in my home; they are not the original, I can assure you. The original was hanging in the Rijksmuseum, a portrait, and the title of the portrait in Dutch was, “Jeremia treurend over de verwoesting van Jeruzalem,” or, “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.”
In that painting, you see the weary, weeping prophet crouched over, leaning on the text of sacred Scripture in a portrait of visceral agony. In the motif Rembrandt is known for, there is a light that comes out of nowhere amid the darkness. If you look closely at that painting, that light in the background is produced by the flames that are swallowing up the holy city of Jerusalem.
In what was called in German by art critics the fruchtbarer Augenblick, the fruitful moment, artists like Rembrandt would make scores of sketches in order to capture the quintessence of a single person in one scene. Rembrandt settled on the scene of lamentation, of Jeremiah sobbing over the destruction of the city.
That word lamentation has a powerful connotation. Jeremiah wrote a whole book by that title: Lamentations. A lamentation is not simply a moment of sadness. It is not only an expression of grief. As I said, it is visceral. It goes into the center of one’s being when a person expresses ultimate mourning and sadness. That is what these women were experiencing when Jesus looked at them. They were mourning, lamenting, crying, and groaning as they beheld the obvious agony of Jesus.
Weep for Yourselves
Jesus turned to them and 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!’”
What was Jesus talking about? Clearly, He was looking to the future judgment of God on Jerusalem, the destruction of Jerusalem where 1.1 million people were killed in the first-century holocaust when Rome destroyed the city—man, woman, and child.
He said, in effect: “That day’s coming. Don’t weep for Me. Weep for yourself. Blessed are those who have never given birth, because you’re going to watch your children be destroyed, and you will wish that they would never have been born.” Then He said, “Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’”
Let me just fast forward for a second to the book of Revelation, where we read in chapter 6:12–16:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 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.”
Do you see how upset I get when I see signs like the one on Interstate 4 that God is not angry, which is an almost universal denial of the wrath of God? Nobody wants to think for a second about the wrath of God.
Jesus was saying: “Don’t cry for Me, because the wrath of almighty God will come on kings, on generals, on the rich, on the powerful, on the slave, and on the free. You’ll all run and scurry and hide yourselves in caves. Then you’ll start to scream. You’ll start to talk to the hills. You’ll talk to the mountains. You’ll beg the mountains and beg the hills to fall on you.”
Why would anybody ever plead with a mountain to fall on them? Jesus gives us the answer to that question. “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 question is clearly rhetorical. Who can stand? The answer is manifestly obvious: no one can stand.
We Are Dry Wood
We are at ease in Zion. We are a troubled nation. We see grief and lamentation all around us, but we still distance ourselves from any confidence that God will ever judge our land. I have a son and a daughter, eleven grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren. I do not know about you, but I can’t remember how many times I have thought, “What kind of a world are we leaving for our children?” Sometimes I almost wish they would never have been born when I anticipate what their future will probably be in the days to come.
Fifty years ago, I heard Billy Graham preach a sermon in which he said, “If God does not judge America, He’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” We are not just post-Christian, we are not just neo-pagan, we are neo-barbarian in the ethics practiced in this country.
I know you get tired of my saying it, but sixty million unborn babies’ blood cries from the earth, and God hears every one of them. We are outraged when five policemen are killed—and rightly so—but are inured by the bloody destruction of our unborn children. How long do you think God is going to put up with that?
Jesus said: “Weep for yourselves. Weep for your unborn children.” Then He said, “For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” It is a cryptic statement, but most scholars believe Jesus was referring to Himself. He was the wood that was not dry. He was the green wood that normally you do not put in the fire to burn. He was not kindling for God’s wrath. His wood was green. Our wood is dry. Jesus was saying, “If God takes Me and exposes Me to his wrath, what will He do to you?” We are the dry wood.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.