When Jesus died on the cross, the temple curtain (also known as the temple veil) was torn. Why did this happen? What was the significance of the veil being torn and why was it torn from the top down?
The Temple Curtain’s Purpose
The veil was a long, woven curtain that was purple, scarlet and blue. This curtain or veil was for the purpose of separating the Most Holy Place which held the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat. Sitting on top of the Ark was a gold lid. This was the place for the propitiation of sins by the sprinkling of the innocent sacrifice’s blood. Only the High Priest could enter this Most Holy Place and only then, once a year on the Day of Atonement. Propitiation simply means the appeasing of the wrath of God for the sins of mankind. It provided satisfaction for God for the sinfulness of sin. If anyone simply walked behind the veil and they were not the High Priest and they did not do so on the Day of Atonement, that person would immediately die. It was a protection against a casual act of infringing upon the Most Holy Place which represented the very real presence of God. No one could look at God and live (Exodus 33:20) because He is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). The Shekinah-glory that was shining above the Mercy Seat would annihilate anyone but the High Priest and so the temple’s veil protected humans from instant death. The veil was a symbol of the separation of God from sinful mankind. It marked the boundary between God’s pure holiness and the wickedness of mankind. It was not possible to go beyond the veil because our sins have separated us from a Holy God. The profane and the Holy can not be joined together.
Why was the Curtain Torn?
Jesus died at the exact moment that the sacrifice for Passover was held. At that same time that Jesus breathed His last breath, the temple veil was rent. The veil’s being torn, by God Himself, symbolized the fact that mankind’s separation from God had been removed by Jesus’ supreme sacrifice at Calvary. Since Jesus was without blemish, without sin, and kept the Law perfectly for us, His death was the propitiation or satisfaction of the wrath of God against humanities sins. Isaiah 59:2 declares that “your iniquities [or sins] have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear you.” Now that Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice was given, we now have access to the very throne of God. Before, He would not even hear us, not to mention allow us to approach Him.
Why it was torn from Top to Bottom
The veil was not a small curtain like you see in some movies. The veil was 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and was about one inch thick. The veil was so massive and heavy that it took 300 priests to manipulate it. An important point here is that no one could simply tear the veil themselves. It would take more than human strength to tear it. The analogy is that it took the mighty hand of God Himself to tear it supernaturally and this tearing, which represents the removal of the separation of God and man, could not be done by humans. It had to be done by God alone and that’s the point. No one can remove our separation from God but God Himself (Isaiah 59:2). First John 2:2 says that “He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Since Jesus’ death atoned for our sins, Jesus’ sacrifice allowed for the veil to be torn and thus, the separation between God and man was able to be removed.
The fact that the veil was torn from the top down, some 60 feet from the floor (where humans could not reach it), shows that God was the One that caused the veil to be torn. He is the initiator of the veil being rent. He is the cause of the tearing. He, in Jesus Christ, is the reason it was torn.
It is no coincidence that the temple sacrifices by Jewish Christians ceased that year and for the years to follow. Why? The sacrifices were stopped because of Jesus’ offering of Himself. The temple priests did not accept Jesus’ sacrifice in place of the animal sacrifices but believers in Him did. The Book of Hebrews was written specifically to Jewish Christians but the applications for us are the same. Hebrews chapter 10 reveals that no other sacrifices where given, at least by the Jewish Christians. Luke’s account of the birth and early history of the church in the Book of Acts never mentions any of the Christians continuing to sacrifice. They understood that the veil had been removed by Jesus’ offering on the cross and therefore, there was no further need to provide sacrifices, even at Passover or on the Day of Atonement.
The significance of the veil being torn from the top down, and the fact that was torn, is that Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible for us to come to God the Father. Our sins no longer separate us from Him. Today, for those who put their trust in Jesus, we have access to God. Second Corinthians 5:21 explains that, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The fact is that Jesus Himself was torn for our sakes (Isaiah 53).
Our High Priest today is Jesus Christ Who continues to intercede for the saints. This is one of the chief purposes for the writing of the Book of Hebrews and makes the perfect conclusion of why the veil was torn and why it was torn from the top down. Jesus “became a priest with an oath when God said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever. Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:20-28).
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