Luke 23:45 “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”
Three of the gospel writers record this event. In the rhythmic words of the Authorized Version Mark declares, “And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom” (Mk. 15 38). We approach this second miracle that accompanied the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, with fear and fascination. The first was the darkness at noon and now there was the mystery of the torn curtain.
WHAT WAS THIS TEMPLE CURTAIN?
There were certain features of the Temple in Jerusalem which had been added by human tradition and inference. I am thinking of the various courts that surrounded it, concerning which there is little in Scripture. I am referring to the three or four courts of the Gentiles, the Women, the Men and the Priests with their ascending orders of exclusiveness, and then there are also such architectural features as balustrades and porticoes and the pinnacle of the Temple. The curtain of the Temple was not like any of those. It went right back to the original Tabernacle in the wilderness designed by God and given by him to the people as he told them that this was the way he desired to be worshiped. You have it in the Exodus account. Let’s rustle some pages of our Bibles and read these descriptions of the temple curtain. You find it in Exodus chapter 26 and verses 30 through 33: “Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain. Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman. Hang it with gold hooks on four posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold and standing on four silver bases. Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the Testimony behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place.”
So this curtain was designed by God and hung in this pace at the command of God. The fabric and colours were all God’s choice, not Moses or the women who are experts at curtains, or even the craftsmen that made this curtain. God set up this curtain, and he intended it to make an impact when the people heard and talked about it, because they would never see it any more than we saw it. The priests alone were permitted to enter the tabernacle and the temple. They alone saw this curtain or any of the furnishings of the temple, but all the Israelites knew about it in exactly the same way as we know about it today that the inside of the Temple has been described in such full and exact detail in Scripture.
The curtain of the temple was a magnificent piece of linen fabric, richly embroidered with red, blue, and purple thread. Its function was to separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, also known as the Holy of Holies. That Holy Place was twice as long as the Most Holy Place whose dimensions were exactly a cube. In the Holy Place there was found the table of showbread, the altar of incense, and the lampstand. It was there that the priests performed many of their duties, replenishing the oil for the golden lampstand and offering cakes full of frankincense on the altar of prayer, using the many golden vessels that were kept there, dishes and spoons and bowls of gold. The Most Holy Place was strictly off limits for the priests. The room behind the curtain was the most sacred space in the world. There was placed God’s throne, the ark of the covenant. On its top was a tray of gold, the ‘mercy seat’ Tyndale beautifully called it. The top of the wooden ark needed a metal cover to protect it, because the High Priest sprinkled it with the sacrificial blood of the covenant to make atonement for the people of God. He was the only person who ever went inside the Holy of Holies to meet with God, and he went behind the curtain just once in a year for less than an hour, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and he never went inside this Most Holy Place without bringing with him the blood of the lamb. There was no way that he would dream of pulling aside that curtain to enter the presence of God without the blood. Even when he had the sacrificial blood, and was dressed in the most ornamental of his High Priest’s robes with the pomegranates and bells all around the bottom still he went fearfully. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and he knew the spiritual temperature of the country. Consider the High Priests who had served God during the 400 years of the judges when there was chaos in the land, the people serving God and serving Baal, all men doing what was right in their own eyes. Then the High Priest still had to go once a year as their representative into the presence of the living God who is light, in whom is no darkness at all, the God before whom the seraphim hide their eyes, the God who cannot look on iniquity, and he was representing this iniquitous people; he was standing in solidarity with them, and entering the Holy of Holies to stand before God. Was it not with fear for his life, a churning stomach, weak knees and a deep breath that he pulled back the curtain and stepped inside? How many of the High Priests had been struck down? They thought they could go through the motions and do it all by the book without any grief and confession for their own sins and the sins of the people. They were eating and drinking damnation to themselves.
So to impress on the people of God the barrier that existed between him their Creator and them as creatures – the barrier raised by sin between the Spotless One and these pathetic spotty people – God decreed and designed this thick curtain to separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. It blocked access to everyone except the token hint of something better to come in the entry there of the High Priest for an hour a year on Yom Kippur by the blood of sacrifice. You may not say, “Well I think of God like this,” and you may not dream of going to God in your private way, in the way you had invented and you had worked out to your own pleasing. God determined how the people were to approach him saying, “This way, no other, and but not you, your representative whom I appoint. Thus far, but no further. This long, and no longer.”
It is important to know something of the dimensions and texture of the fabric of the curtain. It was roughly the width of this building and also its height, ten metres by ten metres. We are not sure. It could have been taller because Herod’s temple (which he began fifteen or so years before Jesus was born), was ten cubits taller than Solomon’s original Temple built 900 years earlier, from thirty cubits to forty cubits high. So maybe the curtain was actually fifteen metres in length, but certainly it was massive, like the curtain of the Milan Opera House! It would have been between a hundred and two hundred square yards of the heaviest material. The old translations, ‘the veil of the temple’ suggest a flimsy sheet of sheer fabric, but there are some claims that tell us the curtain was the width of a man’s hand, in other words it was almost four inches thick, tightly woven with multiple layers of thread, weighing hundreds if not thousands of pounds, quite impossible for even the strongest men in the world to tear in two with their bare hands.
Preachers often say that Josephus the Roman historian wrote that it was four inches wide, but that is not true. There is no mention in Josephus to any measurement of the thickness of the curtain. This is how he describes it – you are going to hear now a Jewish historian who worked for the Romans, describing the curtain of the temple from interviews he had with Jewish priests. “It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colours without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be signified fire, by the brown fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures” (Josephus’ Wars 5.5.4).” It was some curtain. Then where does this story come from that it was four inches thick. Not the Bible and not Josephus? Edersheim, the 19th century converted Jew, claims that it was the thickness of the breadth of a man’s hand. But where did he get that from? I have tracked it down. The measurement comes from the Mishnah, the Jewish Talmud, early documents of Israel, which are very valuable but not infallible at all. It is the Talmud that explains the virgin birth as Mary having an affair with a Roman soldier. Here is the exact quotation about the width of the curtain; “Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says in the name of R. Simeon son of the Prefect: The curtain was one handbreadth thick.” And so we have to say something like this, “Early Jewish tradition stated that the Temple veil was as thick as the breadth of a man’s hand, although we take that with a pinch of salt.”
Now both Matthew and Mark supply the fascinating detail that this curtain “was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38). Not from bottom to top, notice, but from top to bottom. Think of how a man or a team of men would try to do that. You smuggle into the Holy Place a ladder thirty feet in length or longer, and then you start hacking away at the curtain with an axe or a broadsword. Impossible! There are the watchmen and the priests on duty in the Holy Place. They are worshiping the Lord both night and day. Anyone trying to desecrate the Temple by tearing the curtain entrance to the Most Holy Place would have been seized instantly, and summarily executed for perpetrating a sacrilege. No. So here in the tearing this mammoth curtain into twowe have something absolutely supernatural. Here was a miracle something that only God could do by his power.
This event would have made a deep impression on the priestly community. In fact, there seem to be references in the same Jewish Talmud, dating to around the time of the crucifixion, to certain strange occurrences at the temple. The priests who actually witnessed the tearing of the veil must have scared out of their wits. As they might have been starting their elaborate preparations for the evening sacrifice then the loud long tearing noise filled the silence of the Holy Place. They looked in awe at this vast curtain and saw it being torn, as it were by mighty invisible hands from the top to the bottom and two torn curtains hung feebly down revealing the ark of the covenant and the cherubim above it. And this happened on the Passover, as the highest holiest day was coming to an end, with the heightened sense of spiritual expectancy in the air. Then it was, that without any warning, the great curtain was ripped in half, and the trembling priest working the night shift in the Temple could see for the first time right into the Holy of Holies—the place where God was. Here is a fact of history. Some of you say that if only you could see some supernatural event that you’d believe. If you could hear the voice of God you’d believe, but there’s been the voice of God. If someone was raised from the dead you’d believe in God, but someone was raised from the dead. One day, without any human intervention, the veil of the Temple was rent in twain. Do you believe this? Many of the priests believed it. When they went into the Holy Place and saw the great curtain miraculously torn in two, they knew only Jehovah could have done this. They sensed, “God is doing a new thing.” Later, when they heard about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then they understood that the meaning of the Lamb of God dying and making atonement. The tearing of the veil was a sign of new access to God for everyone who believes. Luke tells us the sequel for the priests in the book of Acts, where we read that “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Anyone who believes in the God who tore this curtain in twain, and understands its meaning, will find the way to God, through Jesus Christ. So let me explain it further.
WHAT WAS THE MEANING OF IT BEING TORN INTO TWO?
Let’s consider three answers to that question. (When James Stewart preached on this topic, he offered a simple online, which outline I have adapted for this message.)
i] It meant that a barrier preventing us coming to God had been removed. There were so many barriers erected under the ceremonial law to come to God. There were the courts set aside for the women – “No Further!” – and the Gentiles – “No Further!”. And even if you were a powerful wealthy Jewish male and got very near to the Temple with your red heifer you too were stopped short at the great brazen altar right outside the Temple where you handed over your heifer to the priests. You did not sacrifice it. You laid your hand on its head and handed it over. You went no further. The Temple was up there. You could not enter. There were the steps acting as the boundary which led up and up into the Temple itself. You envied the birds who could make their nests high up under the eaves of the Temple. You would long to be like them and live there in the presence of God, but you had to return on your long journey home again.
You knew that inside the Temple were two main rooms, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (or the Holy of Holies). You knew that only the priests could enter the Holy Place and only in prescribed ways. There was no seating in the Holy Place; they were active and busy when they were on Temple duty. No one ever just “hung out” in the Holy Place. You came to do God’s business, and then you left. It was not a place for leisurely contemplation of the divine. You did that at home. Important work was being done inside the Temple, performed by the priests set apart by God.
You also knew that there was yet another place even more sacred than the Holy Place, past the altar, up the stairs and right through the corridor of the Holy Place, a room called the Holy of Holies. The very centre of Jewish worship took place in that small area. Everything about the whole system of Temple worship screamed, “Stay away,” “Don’t come near,” “You are not qualified to come on your own.” It was as if the temple itself was a giant roadblock, making sure that no one could come into God’s presence uninvited. And if the Jews were tempted to forget about the prohibitions, if they decided to take matters into their own hands, they were stopped short by another architectural device, this high, thick curtain hanging between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. This was the last barrier to prevent men coming right into the presence of God.
At the death of Christ that curtain was destroyed. It meant that the offering of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God had been accepted by God. This was the end of the whole Old Testament system of sacrifice and the ways Jehovah had required under the old covenant of men coming to God. No more lambs needed to be slain for Passover. No more goats needed to be offered on the Day of Atonement. No scapegoat needed to be driven out into the wilderness. No more blood needed to be sprinkled on the mercy seat. No more priests or High Priests were need. God was demolishing his designed Temple. Its day was done. No more feast days three times a year in Jerusalem. No more Levites, no more tribes. God was tearing up all those old covenant ceremonial requirements. Their time had come and all was over. The promised Messiah, the Son of God had given himself to be the final sacrifice for sin. As Scripture says, Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). When Jesus was crucified, the age of animal sacrifice ended forever, and God showed this by tearing the curtain to the Holy of Holies. Although later some of the priests may have or would have tried to sew the temple curtain back together, there was no going back now: God had opened the way to the secret place that could only be entered by the blood of a perfect sacrifice.
The barrier had gone and the way was open to God forever. Since the time of Moses, the people of God had been denied any direct access to the divine presence. Although God graciously made his presence to dwell at the tabernacle, and then later at the temple, only the High Priest has the honour of an audience with the Almighty, but by his death Jesus removed the barrier and opened the way to God, and this was symbolized by the tearing of the temple veil.
ii] It meant that an eternal living way had been opened for us to come right into God’s presence. Now, through faith in the Lord Jesus, we have permanent direct access to God. The book of Hebrews says that the old temple curtain closed the way to the holy places of God (see Heb. 9:3, 8). But now the last Adam has opened the way back to God that our father Adam lost by his rebellion. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is encouraging those Jewish Christians who have found the Christian life tough. They have been rejected by their families, their husbands and they are in poverty and without employment or salary. They are experiencing persecution, and they feel a growing nostalgia for the great days when they could go to the Temple and the Feasts and see the High Priest in his finery. The apostle is assuring them of all that Christ has done, his finished work and the privileges he has bought us. He reminds them that we have greater privileges than the High Priest. “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.” (Hebs, 10:19&20). He is telling them that the tearing apart of the Temple curtain by God was a symbol of his tearing in death the soul of Jesus from his body. Through the death of Jesus they could now come into the presence of God himself and see his welcoming smiling face.
What an advantage we have over Caiaphas and Annas the chief priests. What a great privilege to be a Christian and run like a little Christian boy into the presence of God and say, “Abba! Father!” and know that he loves you to come before him like this. Through the blood of Jesus I have instant access to the throne of God. That means I can come anytime, anywhere, as often as I like, for any reason at all. My heavenly Father will not turn me away. It’s incredible to have that kind of access. When the son of a pastor I know was about 4 or 5 years of age, he wanted to go with his father to a special night of prayer at the church. The format called for the father to begin each hour with a brief greeting to the people who had gathered to pray and at that time some left while others joined them. After one such turnover, a friend came up to him and said, “Did you notice what Josh did?” “No. What did he do?” “You didn’t see it?” His friend told him that while he was leading that departure of some and arrival of others, talking with the people, Josh had come up and said something to his father. He had stopped what he was doing and had talked to his boy for a moment. When they were finished, the little boy turned and walked away, while his Dad turned and continued talking to the crowd. But what his father pondered over afterwards was that he couldn’t even remember the incident. It had seemed so inconsequential and natural that Josh should come up to him at the front and tell Dad something then, and even better, Josh didn’t weigh up his right to approach his father and draw his attention and talk to him by virtue of the fact that he was his son. He knew he could come to Dad anytime. So it is for every child of God. When I talked to God at the beginning of the service none of you – not one of you thought, “Amazing! Would you believe it? He is talking to the Creator of the universe.” Such an extraordinary privilege is for us a happily common experience of life. The great privilege of being our Father’s son is that one can go into the throne room of heaven – there is no great thick curtain keeping us out – and we can talk to God – from the bathroom, on a date, as we are driving, at the check-out counter, in bed, in the exam room, while we are conducting brain surgery, “Our Father . . .” We know our father’s confidential telephone number; he’s given it to us and we can call him and pour out to him our joys and sorrows. We should never think that our problems are beneath his notice, or that we have done something so terrible that God will never listen to our prayers again.
What an audience with the Almighty one! Far better than an audience with the Queen, is an audience with God. Multitudes who once had an audience with the Queen are today in hell, but none who’s enjoyed an audience with God his Father has ever ended in hell. That’s what Hebrews 10 means when it says that Jesus opened a way for us through the rent curtain of his broken body. By his death on the cross, he has destroyed the barrier that stood between God and the meanest, youngest Christian, and so we can go directly to God anytime, as long as we go in the name of Jesus, offering nothing but the blood of Jesus as the ground of our admission.
What had these converted Jews lost compared to what they’d gained? Their old system kept men outside and kept God inside, while the “new” way bring them directly to God. Jesus the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, he is a “living” way. We are now personal friends of God’s own Son. We are members of God’s own family. We are citizens of heaven with access to its King. That gives me status, advantage, entrance, privilege, and not me only but every blood-bought child of God. Billy Bray, the Cornish preacher could cry out to his congregations, “I’m the son of the King!” “Amen! Amen! those Primive Methodist cried back with joy. This, I say, is not for me alone. This is God’s gift to those who trust in his Son. We have the privilege of an audience with God himself. Anytime. Anywhere. As often as we like.
Rank has its privileges. Who can deny that? There’s an American-biased list on the Internet of the most influential people in the world. It contains names like Hilary Clinton, Sting, Bill Gates, Clint Eastwood, Mark Zuckerman, Paul Macartney, Angela Merkel and then people I’ve never heard of, like a Chris Christie and an Amy Chua. We don’t bother to look for our names on such lists because we know that they’re not there. So we don’t have their problems and worries. Of course they are all millionaires, and they possess advantages from an earthly standpoint that we’ll never have. Rank has its privileges. When those people talk, lots of people listen. They can go where we can’t go. They have access to the best of everything this world offers, things like tickets to sold-out events, first class travel, V.I.P. lounges, the best seats in the finest restaurants, and rooms in any hotel in any exotic destination, to every tropical island in the world. Their words and their travels are quoted in the press. That’s how the world rolls. And I say, “No problems. No worries.”
We have an All-Access Pass to the throne room of the universe. We have rights greater than those the world reckons to be V.I.Ps, Very Important People. They may get insider tips for investing their money, and tickets to the best West End shows, and seats in the directors’ box at Cup Finals, but the youngest or most backsliding Christian has an All-Access Pass to the throne room of the universe. It doesn’t get better than that, casting our cares on the loving, wise, all-powerful God.
iii] It meant that a new hope for every Christian had been confirmed. Not only is there a barrier removed and a way opened in the sign of the rent veil, but the tearing of the curtain means that our hope of life abundance and eternal has been confirmed by God himself. I am not whistling in the dark as I preach to you. This sermon is not a message of wishful thinking. This is reality. We possess this hope as an anchor for the soul. Behind the curtain there was just the ark of the covenant. That was all, but now that the curtain has been torn and the entrance is open wide there is something else behind that old curtain, there is a mighty anchor there too! That anchor is firm and secure. It means that I am not going to end my life on the rocks. This hope will keep me from destruction. You remember the Italian Cruise liner Costa Concordia striking a rock off the shore of Isola del Giglio in the Mediterranean in January a year ago? 30 people were killed. It is the largest wreck of all time. They are still working on ways of getting it off the rocks. The salvage operation will cost 250 million pounds. That’s just the salvage operation let alone the cost of the compensation and the insurance and building another ship. I am saying that one enormous anchor with it huge claw-like blades, and one chain, would have stopped that liner short of the rock, from it ever hitting that reef. What lives delivered; what money saved. I am telling you that the living God and Father of our Lord Jesus has cast an anchor into heaven and it is joined to us by an impregnable chain of unbreakable links – it does not possess a single weak link. That anchor and its chain was forged in the heat of Golgotha, and today it is grounded in the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek, (Hebs. 6:19, 20), and he is joined to us by bonds that nought can sever. He will save us to the uttermost when we go to our Father by him.
We are joined to him every day, on winter days, when the storms roar. An anchor that holds only in fair weather wouldn’t be of much use. An anchor proves its worth when the sea and the tempest threaten to draw the ship onto a cruel rock. What good would be an anchor that holds the vessel when the gentlest breezes are blowing? No use at all. What good would be an anchor that fails to hold a ship in place if the anchor is resting in sand? Hebrews 6 says that our anchor is firm because it is lodged in the very presence of God. He holds it tight.
We have an anchor that cannot be moved; it is the Lord Jesus who as our high priest opened the way into the presence of God and there he is today. How long will Christ be there? Will there ever be a mutiny of angels who will throw him out? Never. Will God ever grow weary of him and tell him “It’s time to go, Son”? Never. We have him and his grace for ever.
“When darkness hided his smiling face,
I rest on his unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.”
What good news the rent veil of the Temple is preaching still to all who struggle with a sense of their own weakness and failure. Many Christians feel like the man in Mark 9:24 who exclaimed to Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Down deep inside we do believe, we know that Jesus is our Lord, and that we are joined to him for ever, and we are loved by him. But when we look in the mirror, or our memories are triggered off by the stupidity of the past, or when the accuser of our souls, the devil, reminds us of our past sins and condemns us, when we remember with shame the broken promises, the harsh words, the unkind deeds, and how we have failed those who trusted in us we can fail to see the smiling face of God. If we get locked into those things, we’ll soon begin to doubt that we are Christians at all. But we remember what he did in the darkness to those sins and to all their guilt. He paid their penalty, he suffered in our place for their shame and blame, he propitiated all of God’s anger towards our sins.
The great curtain was rent from the top to the bottom. We have a hope today that is greater than all our shame cannot erase. It is right here – right here – that grand old theology that saves each dark day. I mean this, that as long as our Christian faith depends on us hanging on then we’ll be in trouble. But if our faith is focused on Jesus Christ our anchor cast through the torn curtain and fixed in the Rock of Ages, then we have a hope that even our shame cannot erase. If Christ is the anchor of our soul, then we can rest well because our anchor can hold against any storm, even the storms of a guilty conscience.
An old Scottish believer went to church one day feeling low because of his sins. When the communion bread was being passed and getting nearer, he thought he would pass it on to the one next to him and refuse to partake of the elements. He thought himself unworthy. Then he saw a young woman in the congregation in the pew in front who was also refusing to partake, and then broke into tears. Her tears jarred him back to the truth of the gospel that he himself needed to recall. In a whisper that others heard he said to her: “Take it, lassie. Take it! It is meant for sinners.” And he himself partook.
That’s the deeper meaning of the tearing of the curtain. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Roms. 5:1&2). So there is therefore now no condemnation to those who believe in Jesus. The road to heaven is open to anyone who believes into Christ, anytime and anywhere it is open. God has opened the door of heaven. It is possible that you feel such a great weight of sin that you wonder if Jesus would receive you. Perhaps you think your sins are too great, your transgressions so many that even Jesus cannot help you. Many people feel that way, and in truth we would all feel that way if we got a clear view of how rotten we really are. But there is a message for you from the torn curtain in the temple. Fear not. Do not let your sins keep you away.
God has taken the initiative; he has removed the barrier to heaven. Come to Jesus and see how great his mercy is. Our sins may be many and great, but the payment made by our Great Substitute far outweighs them all. Come and see. Come to Jesus and see how great his mercy is. When Jesus died the Father preached a sermon without words in tearing a curtain blocking the way into the holiest from the top to the bottom. It was God’s way of saying, “You are welcome in my family. Let nothing keep you away.” We may be great sinners, but Jesus is a greater Savior. Fear not, and trust in him.
3rd March 2013 GEOFF THOMAS