Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, and Luke 23:45 describe an astonishing event. Upon the death of Jesus, the curtain – or veil – of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. There was an accompanying earthquake, according to the Scriptures, but the veil was so large (likely 60 feet long by 30 feet wide) that it could not have been torn in two by simply falling to the ground. God had to tear the curtain.
The curtain was a physical barricade. It was more like a wall of separation, which the Israelites clearly understood. At the center of the temple was the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God would rest. Thus, the clear separation was required. Only the high priest could enter, and only once a year – on the Day of Atonement – could he pass through that intimidating veil. In your mind’s eye, picture a curtain at least six stories tall. On behalf of the people, the priest’s uniquely symbolic role was to offer a substitutionary atonement for their sins. The message to everybody was perfectly clear: God is on the other side, and you can never go there.
If the Talmud is completely accurate in its description, the size of the temple veil was so daunting that 300 priests were needed to maneuver it. Ponder that for a moment. You thought our local Quilt Show featured some impressive works of art. This curtain was nothing short of awe-inspiring, and its intentional presence was a profound theological declaration in and of itself. In fact, the prescribed ceremony surrounding the veil was to be taken so seriously that an inappropriate method of entry into the Holy of Holies meant the immediate death of the offending priest. That huge curtain was the visible backdrop of a sad spiritual reality: between God and His creatures is a chasm so large that it defies description. “The wages of sin is death.”
But no longer! The Cross of Christ changed everything. By His own atoning sacrifice on our behalf, our Lord Jesus became for us the Way into the Holy of Holies. As our Great High Priest, Christ secured for us permanent access to God the Father. Now we need no human advocate, and we can speak directly to God anytime, and from anywhere. As the Mediator of a New Covenant, Christ gave His life to accomplish our complete forgiveness. The veil was not torn randomly, but it was torn with intention “from top to bottom.” God’s own hand split the enormous curtain right down the middle. And it was torn apart on Good Friday, precisely upon the loud death cry of our divine substitute: “It is finished!”
At that exact moment, the Lord of the universe flung open the doors of heaven. I believe that the massive and ornate temple curtain symbolized the best that humankind can craft with human hands. Its exquisite beauty represented our best designs, and our best efforts. Its specific details pointed to all of the specific laws of God which call every human being to perfection, but which leave every human being wanting. When it comes to the righteousness which God demands, you see, our very best efforts are never enough. We needed God’s very best instead!
And the veil was not torn from bottom to top. God came down to save. Our redemption came by God’s initiative, and by God’s initiative alone. Grace didn’t start with us. Grace never starts with us. Grace always starts with God. You and I are simply the recipients of such marvelous and unmerited love. “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Early Jewish tradition held that the temple veil was the thickness of the palm of a man’s hand. We can’t know the curtain’s thickness with certainty, and the actual measurements really don’t matter. Because, however thick that veil was, it represented a barrier that no human being could ever overcome.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!