“Jesus let out a loud cry and breathed his last. Then the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who was standing opposite him, saw the way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Did you ever have anything as a kid that your parents made off limits to you? What was it? Sometimes parents put restrictions on what their kids can access as a matter of selfish convenience, but most of the time, they do it for an entirely better reason than that. My parents made throwing dirt clods from the garden at the shed off limits for me when I was growing up. If you’re wondering why they had to do that at all, just put yourself in the mind of an elementary-aged boy and you’ll understand. The explosion of dirt when those clods hit the wall of the shed was just so satisfying. I ignored this restriction, of course, and soon thereafter broke the window in the side of the shed with an errant throw. That was why they put that restriction in place, by the way. Other times a restriction is put in place because the thing on the other side of the line is genuinely harmful for us. There are fences and no trespassing signs around power substations. Those are to protect people from being electrocuted. Restrictions generally have reasons. Well, the people of Israel had a restriction around God. You didn’t go into His presence unless you were prepared for it. This restriction was actually put in place by God Himself. And it held until God took it down. Actually, He ripped it in half. I mentioned yesterday the tearing of the temple veil when Jesus died. This morning let’s dig a little deeper into just what that meant.
The people of Israel were afraid of God. That may sound strange to us, but it really wasn’t strange for their times. Everyone was afraid of their god back then. The gods were capricious and sometimes mean-spirited. You might catch them on a good day, but they also might decide to make your life a nightmare just for the sake of entertainment. They were prickly and moody and highly susceptible to being offended. People made regular sacrifices to keep them happy. And everyone participated in this because while a god might deal with a person who offended him on an individual basis, he was just as likely to punish the whole nation for the offense of one person. That meant everybody had to play along or everybody paid the price for it. This is part of why the Greeks and Romans thought so little of the Jews. It is why the Christians, once the blanket exemption from participating in the religion of the state the Jews had earned themselves over their curmudgeonly refusal to participate was removed from them, were persecuted so aggressively. By their refusal to take part in the national effort to keep the gods happy, they were putting everyone at risk of an angry god punishing the whole place.
Well, the Jews didn’t think about God in quite the same terms as the Greeks and Romans used, but they weren’t all the different either. God was holy. No, you don’t understand, He was exceedingly holy. He was holy beyond yours and my ability to handle it. If you entered into His presence without meeting with the standards of His holiness, you ran the risk of offending His holiness which would not go well for you. There were stories from the nation’s past (Leviticus 10 being one of the most notable) when people offended His holiness and paid for it. Like, sudden and dramatic immolation paid for it. The Jews may not have had an image of God in the Holy Place in their temple, but they fully believed that’s where He lived, that His presence dwelt there. To go into the Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies, was to enter into the full and unmediated presence of God.
Because this was such a big deal, Moses had given instructions in the Law for how to go in there and worship. Entrance into the Holy Place was limited to one person on a single day of the year. There was about a week’s worth of sacrifices and offerings and purification rituals that had to take place before the priest went in. He entered the room, offered some incense, said some prayers, and otherwise got out of there as quickly as he could. And even with all of this in place, they still would tie a rope around his ankle so that if something happened and God struck him down, they could fish him out of the room without going in themselves and risking the same fate. The rest of the year, there was a thick veil hanging over the giant entrance into that place. When workers needed to put something into the room (like incense supplies) they would lower them in through a trap door in the ceiling so they didn’t risk their own lives in the process. In the minds of the Jewish people, this veil was the only thing saving them from being wiped out by the overwhelming holiness of God.
And again, this wasn’t so different from how the rest of the world thought about gods and religion. The trouble with this line of thinking, though, was that it made interacting with God or the gods something that wasn’t a part of one’s daily life. Oh sure, you said prayers during the day, but these generally weren’t coming out of a relational context. Nobody had a personal relationship with Zeus. In the same way, the average Jew didn’t think much about having a personal relationship with Yahweh. You worshiped Him, of course. You believed in Him. You obeyed Him. You prayed to Him and offered sacrifices to Him. But you didn’t have a relationship with Him. But again, this created a problem. That problem was namely this: Yahweh was a relational God who desired to have a relationship with them.
This meant there were several competing factors that all resulted in a lot of needless complexity. On the one hand, God really was as holy as the people considered Him to be. His holiness was awesome and terrible. You and I indeed could not be in His presence unless we met with the standards of His holiness or things would not go well for us. His holiness burns away any of the stain of sin, and if that stain was in our lives, our very lives would be burned away. On the other hand, God created us to be in a relationship with Him. He desires a relationship with us. He doesn’t want us to hold Him at arm’s length for fear of being destroyed by His presence. He wants to be active and involved in our lives. He wants to walk with us in the cool of the day.
This tension was held firmly in place by sin. This was the wall separating Him from us. It was the yawning chasm keeping us apart. The veil in the temple was a symbol of this separation. Yes, it was in a sense for the people’s protection, but in another sense, it was a constant reminder that you and I couldn’t get to God. As much as either of us wanted, sin was standing resolutely in the way.
Jesus’ death paid the price for our sin. All of it. Everyone’s. The wall was knocked down. The chasm was bridged. The veil was torn – literally so on that last one. Both Matthew as we talked about yesterday and Mark here note specifically that the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Maybe this doesn’t seem so notable, but it was. The entrance to the Holy Place was about 60 feet high. The curtain itself was so thick (again, to protect everyone on the outside) that in the exaggerated language of the day it took 300 priests to move it around. It probably didn’t really take that many, but if the veil was 60×40 and thickly woven, it was no tea towel. If this rending was something that, say, disciples of Jesus engineered to happen upon His death to make a theological or political point, they would have had to tear it from the bottom up. And it would have taken a lot of people. Even with the attention of much of the temple hierarchy occupied by the crucifixion, that would have been a lot of folks to sneak in and commit such an atrocious act of violence against the religion of Israel. That’s not to mention that all of Jesus’ followers considered themselves good and faithful Jews and thought the same way about God as the rest of the nation did. They wouldn’t have risked their lives to try something like this (especially considering they hadn’t risked their lives to help Jesus when He needed them most). But again, the veil wasn’t torn from bottom to top. It was torn from top to bottom. It was like a giant had come, grabbed the top of the veil, and ripped it like you might rip a wash cloth in half.
The symbolism of this was powerful. Not many – if any – understood it at the time, but we can see more clearly through the lens of Christ. With the debt of sin we owed to God dealt with by Christ’s perfect, atoning sacrifice, and with His now standing before the throne of God to intercede on our behalf, we didn’t need to be separated from Him any longer. There was – and is – no longer any need for the veil. God’s presence through the Holy Spirit can dwell in each of our hearts individually. Because of the cleansing power of Christ, we meet with the standards of God’s holiness. He can have the relationship with us and us with Him that we were designed to have in the beginning. This was the first step in Jesus’ project of making all things new, and it was a biggie. Know this above all else, though: Because of Jesus’ death, you can be right with God. I hope today you’ll take the steps you need to take to make that happen in Him.