Summary: At the moment Jesus died the curtain in the temple was torn in two - God has left the building.
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Torn By Unseen Hands
There is something about curtains that just makes us want to know what is behind them, isn’t there. Curtains have the ability to make us very curious.
Example: Visit to a Heritage Home and they always seem to have one or two areas sectioned off. So tempting just to sneak a peek.
If such is the case for us, imagine what it was like for the Israelite priests who worked at the Jerusalem Temple.
Picture of Holy of Holies
Describe the set up and the curtain.
• Physical location in the temple
• 18m high, 9m wide
• Rabbinic tradition … it was 10cm thick, and that two horses tied to each side would not cause it to rip.
Basically the veil was a big sign saying “no access”. So what was so special about the Holy of Holies? Well this was the place where God’s presence would be shown.
• the Creator … One who couldn’t be confined … showing His presence.
• ultimate holiness … being willing to dwell with those who are unholy.
What an impact this truth had! To pull back the curtain meant entering heaven. That is why no one was allowed behind that curtain except the high-priest ... and that was only once a year ... and only after some elaborate rituals had taken place.
The rules for access are in Leviticus 16
• make multiple sacrifices.
• wear special sacred garments.
• choose a scapegoat.
• afterwards he needs to bathe in water.
You just didn’t casually walk up to the Holy of Holies and walk in, no matter who you were. The place was so sacred the high priest would go in there with a rope tied around his waist just in case he was not properly cleansed and God struck him down.
The Holy of Holies was a special place. But it was also a unique place.
Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.
Talk about the fact that they ark disappeared when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. They were not placed into the rebuilt temple.
But it was still special
When the priests in Jesus day looked at the curtain between the Holy place and the Most Holy place all this would be brought to mind. Centuries of mystery. Centuries of fascination. Centuries of wonder and awe – God’s home on earth.
Now that we have that context let’s read a passage from Matthew.
Imagine that you are one of the priests who were on duty on the day Jesus was crucified.
It’s a very busy day trying to bring some order back to the temple.
• Passover time … 10 times the population
• Jews from everywhere in the Romans Empire … pilgrimage
Blood and animal innards are everywhere and the smell of sacrifice still hangs heavy in the air.
Much of the talk around the temple was the crucifixion of the rebel called Jesus.
• enemy of the Pharisees.
• hated by the temple hierarchy … except maybe a few swayed priests.
You muse over the fact that one man could have such an impact.
It’s been a very unusual day. Even though it is daytime it has been dark since lunch time. There must have been an eerie feeling in the air. Yet you are kind of glad to be in the temple where there is plenty of light and the feeling of safety. What could possibly go wrong? Then, just as quickly as it disappeared, the sun comes out again.
All seems to be back to normal until you hear a noise over your shoulder. It is the most horrific sight you have ever seen. The curtain …
… the curtain which hides God.
… the curtain which covers the unapproachable.
… the curtain which horses can’t move.
… the curtain which has fascinated you ever since you became a priest.
The curtain is tearing.
... not just falling down, because the fasteners holding it up have broken.
... not just disintegrating because it is so old.
But tearing, from the top, as if two powerful hands had grabbed it and ripped it apart. And now you are staring into the Holy of Holies … a view few people have had.
What does this event signify? Well it depends on your perspective. If you were a Jewish priest, or any Jew for that matter, what do you think is going to happen next?