Cops and the Cross – An Easter Story
I’ve repeatedly taught that Easter places a front sight focus on two of the three most significant events in human history: Christ’s death on the cross (Good Friday) and His resurrection (Resurrection Sunday). Interestingly enough, the “cops” of Jesus’ day played a huge role in both of these events (and as a quick aside, they also played a horrific role associated with His birth — see The Massacre of the Innocents — and yet another reason for our need of The Savior).
Regarding His trials, death and resurrection, our law enforcement counterparts of Jesus’ day — the Roman military civil “peacekeepers,” King Herod’s “secret police” and the Jewish Temple “police”) — all played key roles. Accordingly, let’s open our Bibles and explore this life-changing and thoroughly profession-relevant concept through the following points:
(1) The Police at Gethsemane (Luke 22:52-71): Here the Temple Guard — the Jewish “municipal cops” of Jesus’ day — arrested, beat, and mocked our Savior.
(2) The Police at Jesus’ Trials (Luke 23:6-11 and the other Gospel accounts): After His initial arrest, Jesus endured 6 trials (3 civil, 3 criminal). There were “police officers” (the Jewish Temple Guard, Herod’s “secret police” officers, and the Roman military “peacekeepers” who were the “Feds” of that time period) at each, and all treated our Lord with contempt and cruel, excessive force.
(3) The Police at Christ’s Scourging and Torture (Matthew 27:25-31): Without any doubt, the Roman “feds” (federal police and corrections officers) were responsible for the unimaginable scourging (unimaginable torture) Jesus endured because of OUR “crimes” (sin).
(4) The Police at the Cross (Luke 23:33-47): It was the Roman feds who nailed our Savior to the cross, mocked him and gambled for his clothing. But it was also a Roman centurion — a respected, ranking officer (akin to a modern-day police Sergeant or perhaps even a Lieutenant) and the officers with him who, when faced with the overwhelming evidence of what they witnessed, praised God and exclaimed Christ’s innocence (v. 47) and Godhead (Matthew 27:54 — “Surely this is the Son of God.”). Many believe that these “cops at the cross” literally surrendered in faith to Christ. On this, a career military chaplain wrote the following that I’m pressed to re-share with you here: “A Centurion’s Perspective.”
Now understand, without the Cross, the Resurrection would not have any real impact, and without the Resurrection, the Cross would have just been another Roman execution. Dr. Michael Youssef rightly (biblically) points out that the cross serves four key purposes for us both then and now:
(a) Jesus died on the cross to satisfy His own Divine sense of justice. God’s Word says that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). When we break God’s Law, there is a just, righteous penalty (the DEATH PENALTY) that MUST be paid. Jesus, the only Sinless One, paid that just penalty on the cross for OUR (yours and mine) sin!
(b) Jesus died on the cross to redeem His children (meaning all who would repent and surrender to Him in faith — Mark 1:15). He delivered us from sin and death. Every one of us is born into enmity with God, but God has provided the way back to Him through the Cross.
(c) Jesus died on the cross to justify believers. It was an act of gracious justice. God does not excuse our sin as a minor concern, but He forgives and restores us when we come to Him in repentance and humility through faith in Jesus Christ. God gives us salvation from sin and death as a gift (history’s most costly gift).
(d) Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us to the Father. Sin creates a wall between us and the Father, and ONLY Jesus can breach that wall. When we are reconciled with God, He transforms us from being His enemies to being His children: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life” (Romans 5:10).
(5) The Police at the Resurrection (Matthew 27:62-66, 28:11-15): The officers assigned to guard Christ’s tomb were likely no ordinary lot but rather part of an elite, military police “SWAT” unit who understood that failure meant death. They had to have major muscle to roll a stone weighing up to 2 tons down into a depression in front of the tomb entrance. They then applied an official “seal” (likely using a Roman invention — cement) that would not have been easily broken (and to do so was a death penalty offense). Falling asleep while on duty was also a death penalty “IA” offense and thus out of the question (stay with me here).
So why the Resurrection? As LEOs, evidence is everything and the evidence pertaining to Christ’s resurrection goes hand-in-hand with what occurred on the cross (again, the cross has no lasting value without the Resurrection). Here are but three indisputable, evidence-based facts for your consideration:
FACT #1: The Broken Roman Seal
The first obvious fact was the breaking of the official Roman seal that stood for the power and authority of the Empire. As I stated above, the consequences of breaking the seal were extremely severe. When an official Roman seal was broken, the “FBI” of the Empire would be called into action to conduct an investigation to find those were responsible and punish them accordingly — typically automatic execution by being crucified upside down. In the case of Christ’s tomb, it was likely sealed using a Roman invention — cement — and no one dared break it (again, on penalty of death)!
FACT #2: The Two-Ton Stone is Rolled Away
On that Sunday morning the first thing that impressed the people who approached the tomb was the unusual position of the two-ton stone that had been lodged and sealed in a depression in front of the tomb entrance.. All the Gospel writers mention it. Those who observed the stone after the resurrection describe its position as having been rolled up a slope away not just from the tomb entrance, but away from the entire massive sepulcher as well! It was in such a position that it looked as if it had been picked up and carried away. Now, I ask you, if the disciples had wanted to come in, tiptoe around the supposedly sleeping cops, break the seal, roll the stone up hill, and then steal Jesus’ body, how could they have done that without the officers being aware? It would have taken more than just human muscle to be sure (most likely hammers and chisels to break the seal and ropes and SWEAT, and tackle and horsepower to roll the stone out of the depression and up the slope).
FACT #3: The Tomb Guard Goes AWOL
The “watch” (coustodia in the Greek — from which we get the word “custodian”) guarding the tomb fled their post! How can their attrition he explained when Roman military discipline was so exceptional and that failure meant a horrendous death? One way in which a soldier who failed in his duty or disobeyed an order was executed was by being stripped of his clothes and then burned alive in a fire started with his own garments. If it was not apparent which soldier had failed in his duty, then lots were drawn to see which one would be punished with death for the entire unit’s failure. Would they have all therefore just fallen asleep and then go AWOL (“Absent Without Leave”) with that kind of threat hanging over them? Dr. George Currie, a student of Roman military discipline, wrote that fear of punishment “produced flawless attention to duty, especially in the night watches.”
Folks, the indisputable EVIDENCE presented both to the cops of Jesus’ day and to us here today, is “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” (an incredibly powerful resource from renowned atheist-turned-Christian, Josh McDowell)! And in light of this evidence, where do YOU stand today? The centurion and those with him made a decision based on the evidence before them. Likewise, we must do the same!
Oh but you’ll argue that today’s cops are nowhere near as “bad” as those of Jesus’ day. Are you sure about that? Again, take the “Good Person Test” below and let me know how you do!
So here’s the point of all this: Easter is about US. God made a way for the officers of Jesus’ day to be first hand, expert witnesses to EVIDENCE that does in fact DEMAND a verdict? What say you then? And if you DO know Him as Lord and Savior, why are you not sharing the “Good News” of Easter with those who do not (backup that carries eternal consequences)? See below for more!
Let me close by sharing the following “eyewitness account” from a “cop” at the first Good Friday via Max Lucado. Now I don’t always agree with Max, but this is much on point for us today!
The day began as had a hundred others—dreadfully. It was bad enough to be in Judea, but it was hell to spend hot afternoons on a rocky hill supervising the death of pickpockets and rabble rousers. Half the crowd taunted, half cried. The soldiers griped. The priests bossed. It was a thankless job in a strange land. He was ready for the day to be over before it began.
He was curious at the attention given to the flat-footed peasant. He smiled as he read the sign that would go on the cross. The condemned looked like anything but a king. His face was lumpy and bruised. His back arched slightly and his eyes faced downward. “Some harmless hick,” mused the centurion. “What could he have done?”
Then Jesus raised his head. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t uneasy. His eyes were strangely calm as they stared from behind the bloody mask. He looked at those who knew him—moving deliberately from face to face as if he had a word for each.
For just a moment he looked at the centurion—for a second, the Roman looked into the purest eyes he’d ever seen. He didn’t know what the look meant. But the look made him swallow and his stomach feel empty. As he watched the soldier grab the Nazarene and yank him to the ground, something told him this was not going to be a normal day.
As the hours wore on, the centurion found himself looking more and more at the one on the center cross. He didn’t know what to do with the Nazarene’s silence. He didn’t know what to do with his kindness.
But most of all, he was perplexed by the darkness. He didn’t know what to do with the black sky in mid-afternoon. No one could explain it… no one even tried. One minute the sun– the next the darkness. One minute the heat, the next a chilly breeze. Even the priests were silenced.
For a long while the centurion sat on a rock and stared at the three silhouetted figures. Their heads were limp, occasionally rolling from side to side. The jeering was silent… eerily silent. Those who had wept, now waited.
Suddenly the center head ceased to bob. It yanked itself erect. Its eyes opened in a flash of white. A roar sliced the silence. “It is finished.”1 It wasn’t a yell. It wasn’t a scream. It was a roar … a lion’s roar. From what world that roar came the centurion didn’t know, but he knew it wasn’t this one.
The centurion stood up from the rock and took a few paces toward the Nazarene. As he got closer he could tell that Jesus was staring into the sky. There was something in his eyes that the soldier had to see. But after only a few steps, he fell. He stood and fell again. The ground was shaking, gently at first and now violently. He tried once more to walk and was able to take a few steps and then fall… at the foot of the cross.
He looked up into the face of this one near death. The King looked down at the crusty old centurion. Jesus’ hands were fastened—they couldn’t reach out. His feet were nailed to timber, they couldn’t walk toward him. His head was heavy with pain, he could scarcely move it. But his eyes…they were afire. They were unquenchable. They were the eyes of God.
Perhaps that is what made the centurion say what he said. He saw the eyes of God. He saw the same eyes that had been seen by a near-naked adulteress in Jerusalem, a friendless divorcee in Samaria, and a four-day-dead Lazarus in a cemetery. The same eyes that didn’t close upon seeing man’s futility, didn’t turn away at man’s failure, and didn’t wince upon witnessing man’s death.
“It’s all right,” God’s eyes said. “I’ve seen the storms and it’s still all right.”
The centurion’s convictions began to flow together like rivers. “This was no carpenter,” he spoke under his breath. “This was no peasant. This was no normal man.”
He stood and looked around at the rocks that had fallen and the sky that had blackened. He turned and stared at his soldiers as they stared at Jesus with frozen faces. He turned and watched as the eyes of Jesus lifted and looked toward home. He listened as the parched lips parted and the swollen tongue spoke for the last time.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Had the centurion not said it, the soldiers [MC — “police officers”] with him would have. Had the centurion not said it, the rocks would have—as would have the angels, the stars, even the demons. But he did say it. It fell to a nameless foreigner to state what they all knew.
“Surely this man was the Son of God.”
– M.C. Williams, police lieutenant (ret.), chaplain, The Centurion Law Enforcement Ministry