And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:50-51)
What exactly is the curtain of the temple? Why did three of the four Gospel writers think it significant enough to record it? And most importantly, what are the implications of this event?
The curtain, or veil as some translations have it, was the partition between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. The Holy Place housed the menorah and the table of the bread of the Presence and was where the Old Testament priests performed the daily rituals. But in the Most Holy Place stood the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat on top of it, where God's presence dwelt. Only the high priest could go in once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and he had to bring blood as a sacrifice for his sins and those of the people of Israel. According to tradition a rope was tied around the high priest's leg in case he was struck dead by the Lord for wrongdoing and the people had to retrieve his body.
The curtain was a very clear testimony to the fact that God and his presence were separated from the people because of their sin. If a sinner were to enter into the Holy of Holies he would be immediately struck dead by the justice of God. In Jesus' time, the veil in the Temple was 60 feet high and 4 inches thick; a very sturdy reminder of the separation of a sinful humanity from a holy God.
So why is the ripping of this partition so important? There are many reasons, but a few that strike my soul and reveal Christ's glory are: 1) It shows the uselessness of the Temple and the Old Testament system it represented. 2) It shows that Jesus was the true temple of the living God. and 3) It shows that the separation between God and man caused by sin has ended in Jesus.
If God established the Old Testament sacrifices, then how are they useless? Becasue they were never meant to atone for sin, period. The Old Testament system and all it entailed was intended by God to be a type, or prefiguration, of the sacrifice that would truly take away the sin of the people; the Cross of Christ.
"For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." (Hebrews 10:1-4)
When Jesus died, the true Lamb had been offered once for all and God indicated this by tearing the curtain of the now obsolete Temple. The Sacrifice to end sacrifice was slain. The true Form had come; the shadow passed away. Ultimately this was completed by the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. "You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2)
And Jesus is not only the sacrifice but also the true temple of the Lord; he is the Presence of God on earth. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus cleansed the Temple by driving out the money changers. When the Pharisees asked him what sign he would do to prove he had the authority for this, Jesus said...
"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
John makes it clear right after this that Jesus was talking about his body, and not the building right next to him. By claiming to be the temple, Jesus is making a radical statement that the true followers of God are to come to him, not to the Temple. No longer is the worship of God to be centered in Jerusalem, but in the Person and Work of Christ.
"Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.' The woman said to him, 'I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.' Jesus said to her, 'I who speak to you am he.'" (John 4:21-26)
If He is the true temple, of which the Jerusalem temple was but a picture, then the torn curtain also pictures something about Jesus himself. What did the ripped veil symbolize in relation to Jesus' death?
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." (Hebrews 10:19-22)
The curtain also points us to Jesus' human nature, and shows us that in having his body torn, like the veil, he has opened the way to the Presence of God for us. We no longer need to stand outside the veil apart from a holy God; in Christ we are brought near to God, and God is brought near to us. We can approach the throne of a the perfectly just Creator because Jesus is our torn curtain, mediator, and substitute who bore the wrath of divine justice in our place so we would be made a royal priesthood with access to the Most Holy Place and eternal communion with Yahweh.
And the most amazing grace of God is seen in that we sinners, who were once enemies and haters of God soiled in our own filthiness, are in union with Christ by faith sanctified stones being used by God to build his everlasting temple not made with hands, but with the Holy Spirit.
"As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:4-5)
As the Church of Christ all those who trust in Christ for complete salvation are both the priests of God and the temple of God, because Jesus is first. He is the true High Priest and the everlasting Temple, and in Him we are true priests and everlasting temples.
On this Good Friday I pray that everyone sees that the true Curtain, Jesus, is the most precious broken Object ever known because He was torn so we don't have to be. May this Curtain fall on you and be a beautiful garment to cloth your naked lack of righteousness before God.
Believe that Christ was torn for you.