When Jesus breathed his last and died, the curtain of the temple tore in two, thus symbolizing that the way is finally open for all believers to enter God’s presence. By Christ’s sacrifice, the barrier has been removed, and all who rely on that sacrifice have open access to God. Or so I used to think. But a look at the Old Testament understanding of the tabernacle and temple has made me think again.
At Mount Sinai, God drew near to his people and gave them instructions for the building of the tabernacle. The tabernacle symbolized God dwelling among Israel in his own tent in the midst of their camp of tents. God was their (very impressive) next-door neighbour. Many of the laws he gave them told them how to live up to this privilege. One group—the priests—were appointed household servants in God’s tent, and God gave Moses instructions on how these priests were to serve him. These instructions included the laws for the Day of Atonement.
On just one day of the year (the Day of Atonement), only one man (the high priest) could enter God’s presence in the innermost part of the tabernacle, the most Holy Place. Aaron, the first high priest, went in at risk of his life. God had recently destroyed two of his sons for approaching the tent presumptuously (Lev 10:1-7), so Aaron wouldn’t have been in a rush to enter himself! God’s instructions to Aaron included several precautions that, if followed, would avoid his death: Aaron was not to go “inside the veil” whenever he wanted, and he had to create a smokescreen to shield himself from the ark “so that he does not die” (Lev 16:2, 13).
Many preachers like to embellish this passage with the story that, when Aaron (or subsequent high priests) entered the Most Holy Place, he had a rope tied around his ankle. If he died while on duty there, his body could be retrieved without anyone defying God’s ban on them entering. But this idea is not from the Bible, and it doesn’t add anything helpful to what the book of Leviticus teaches.
So why go through with it? Why would Aaron (and subsequent high priests) put himself at such risk? He didn’t go in to establish contact with God; God had already brought his people to him. No, the high priest’s job was to protect the people outside: he was making “atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel” (Lev 16:17). How? By cleansing the most Holy Place from the uncleanness of God’s neighbours, the Israelites (Lev 16:16). If God’s dwelling place was not cleansed in this way, his wrath would break out against them.
The picture here is not of one man entering to have tea with the king in the palace, while everyone else skulks around, resentful that they have not been invited; the picture is more like the awful experience of some Russian submariners recounted in the film K-19: The Widowmaker: on a mission in 1961, they discovered that the nuclear reactor was malfunctioning. If left alone, it would have caused a nuclear explosion that might, in turn, tip the Cold War into full-blown conflict. To avoid this dreadful prospect, a number of men entered the reactor room at great risk to themselves to carry out repairs. They averted the explosion and the threat to peace, but several of them lost their lives in consequence.
Entering a dangerous place to carry out dangerous tasks for the sake of others: that describes the high priest’s activity on the Day of Atonement. That place was the most Holy Place. The dangerous task was to cleanse the innermost sanctuary of the people’s uncleanness. It was a great privilege for Israel to have God dwell among them. But God is a dangerous neighbour for sinful people. God reacts to sin in just and right anger. The high priest had to use a temporary shield—the smokescreen—to protect himself from arousing God’s wrath because he went behind the permanent shield—the curtain—that protected him and the people.
So what did it mean when the curtain tore when Jesus died? With the ideas of Leviticus in mind, we know that the curtain’s tearing was not like the opening of the shopping mall doors at the beginning of the sales to allow the crowds to enter. The curtain was there not so much to keep the people out, but to keep God’s consuming fire in. It showed God’s generous care. If you had told Moses and Aaron that the curtain had torn, they would have been worried, not glad.
Apart from the Gospels, the only mention of the curtain in the New Testament is in the book of Hebrews. The broader teaching of Hebrews says that through Jesus, the temple curtain became defunct. It tells us that Jesus made the whole temple, the Day of Atonement, the sacrificial system and more defunct. There was a change in the priesthood (Heb 7:12). By calling his covenant ‘new’, God made the first one obsolete (Heb 8:13). These became defunct because in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God was doing a new thing. Hebrews explains the Old Testament categories in terms of Jesus: the new thing was not a contradiction of the past—of the tabernacle and its ceremonies—but those things were only a shadow of the reality that was to come with Jesus. A shadow is two-dimensional—flat, colourless and lifeless; with Jesus, the real live version had come.
Hebrews 9 recalls the Day of Atonement: just one person entered through the curtain only once a year and never without protection for himself. What did this mean? The Holy Spirit was using the whole system as a visual aid. It showed that as long as the first tent was standing, the way into the Holy Place was not revealed; the tabernacle/temple still acts as an illustration, showing that more was to come (Heb 9:8-9). Now the way into the Most Holy Place has been revealed.
How? Hebrews tells us that through Jesus, God was providing a better thing. What he has done is comparable to the Old Testament categories, but God was surpassing what he had provided before. We have a better hope, a better covenant, and a better high priest who has used a better sacrifice to cleanse us (Heb 7:19, 8:6, 7:28, 9:14). Let’s consider these things a bit further:
- A better cleansing: The Day of Atonement sacrifices were shadows or copies of Jesus’ death. They were repeated year in, year out, because they couldn’t truly cleanse people from sin. All they provided was an annual reminder of sin (Heb 10:3). But Jesus’ sacrifice is able to cleanse his people and so to perfect us—that is, to qualify us—for God’s presence (Heb 9:14, 10:10).
- A better priesthood: Aaron and the other high priests were a shadow of Jesus, the true high priest. Like them, he is human, so we have a high priest who is sympathetic to our struggles with temptation (Heb 2:14-18; cf. 4:15). Unlike them, he lives forever: he has not ceased his service, but still lives to intercede for us today (Heb 7:23-25). Like them, he has entered behind the curtain on our behalf. Unlike them, he did not need a smokescreen; he sat down at God’s right hand (Heb 1:3, 10:12).
- Better access: Cleansed by the blood of Jesus, represented by him as our high priest, we can draw near to God in heaven. Moses built a tabernacle to point to God’s presence with his people; Jesus brings his people into the presence of God in the heavenly tabernacle (Heb 10:19-22).
What did it mean that the curtain tore when Jesus died? Hebrews doesn’t give a precise answer. But it does say that the visual aid of the Old Testament system was surpassed by the reality that Jesus established. This suggests to me that we ought not interpret the tearing curtain as symbolizing the opening of a door to God, but as the closing of a door on an era of history: it is not a modification of the visual aid, but a finishing with it. When I complete a final copy of a letter or a sermon, I tear up the first draft because it is no longer needed. Similarly, the preparatory version of heavenly things is now obsolete, and can be done away with.
There is no New Testament verse that gives a definitive interpretation of the tearing of the temple curtain, and certainly the view I’ve presented here depends on other Bible themes. I might not have persuaded you to burn your illustrations and tear up your notes for your talk at the family service on Good Friday. But I hope you see that there is more to this event than is normally taught.