Alfred Place Baptist Church

15:38 The torn curtain

Mark 15:38 “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”

There are many religions which have special holy buildings, or sections within their meeting places which are considered holy. Ordinary people are trespassers if they enter those areas. Perhaps by a chain or a low wooden fence or rope or screen or door they are designated as ‘holy’ and separated from the rest of the building. There may be a notice forbidding anyone to enter that space. It is designed only for special people. You know that the area around the altars in Roman Catholic churches and in Anglican Cathedrals is cordoned off in that way as a holy place. There was an occasion when Stuart Olyott was showing me around the church in Geneva where once John Calvin had been the preacher and we walked up to the communion table and examined it. Stuart told me that we were getting disapproving glances from the other tourists who considered it to be sacrilege for ordinary people to enter that space in a church.

In our chapel we have a different approach don’t we? Every little girl and boy in our congregation at sometime or another wants to climb up the steps and walk around this pulpit, and smile shyly at me when she sees me, and I have no problem with that at all. Again, the deacons may count the offering at the end of the service on that communion table, and we don’t think that that is improper. It is a table not an altar. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He did not say, “Sacrifice this.” This pulpit before me is a speaking stand high enough for you all to see and hear me, and that is a mere table. We have a very different view from our sacramentalist friends of what holiness is all about, the holiness of heart and action rather than special spaces. Which is the correct view?

Holiness for the Jews in the Old Testament was thought of in spacial terms. One vast space at the east of the Mediterranean was a ‘holy land,’ another space was a ‘holy city’, and in that city there was a ‘holy building.’ The vessels used in the building were considered to be holy jars and containers. There were ‘holy garments’ which the priests wore. Those Jews were like children at an early stage of their religious development. By such simple spacial and concrete concepts the holy God was teaching them what he himself was like. He was encouraging those who named his name to live a distinct life, keeping his rules and ordinances. They must be separate from all the other people on earth.

Near Lancaster in Pennsylvania the Mennonites own and maintain a full-scale replica of the Old Testament tabernacle. You come across waxwork figures wearing the garments of the high priest; you will join a tour party and a guide will explain to you the significance of the various furnishings. It is an edifying hour and people come away saying how much they have learned from seeing close up the altars, and candelabra, the table of shew-bread, the laver for washing and the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place behind a great curtain. They say that from now on they will read their Bibles with more understanding.

Old Testament children could ask their parents what was in the tabernacle. The reply they would get would be something like this; “There is a great candlestick burning day and night, and that tells us God is light; he is holy. There is a table with bread on it fresh every day; Jehovah is the bread of life, a God we can have close fellowship with. There is a great altar outside the tabernacle and no one can come any nearer until a spotless lamb is sacrificed. Daddy confesses he has done bad things and he puts his hand on the head of the lamb and then the priest cuts its throat.” “Oh!” cries his little Esther in horror. “But without the shedding of blood our sins can’t be forgiven,” her daddy tells her. “Can we go into the Tabernacle, Daddy?” “No, only the priests may enter the Holy Place , and then just once a year on Yom Kippur the High Priest will go behind the curtain and enters the Most Holy Place itself.” Those were the simple lessons the children were taught vividly by symbol and action under the Mosaic covenant. The teaching came through their senses. There was the sight of the garments and the furnishings which spoke to their minds through the eye gate, while the smell of the smoke and incense brought truth to their minds through nose gate, and the taste of the sacrificed animals brought truth to their minds through mouth gate – outward and visible signs of an inward invisible grace. They were being taught at this childhood stage simple ideas about the special holiness of God.

Today we New Covenant Christians can read the message of the tabernacle and temple through the eyes of the Lord Christ and the New Testament. The Old Testament tabernacle is full of meaning for us because we have been taught that it is full of symbols of the Messiah Jesus and his salvation. Of all the books of the New Testament the letter to the Hebrews gives us much understanding about the fittings of the temple. Consider Hebrews 9:7-14; “Only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

“When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

The earthly tabernacle was a copy of the true dwelling place of God in heaven. At times in the history of redemption you see a pattern emerging, with God doing the same three things; he delivers the people; he sets up a home in their midst and then he tells them how they are to worship him. The message of the tabernacle and later the temple said this; “God is completely without sin. He is straight and just; he hates anything that is mean and unworthy. He is light; there is no darkness in him at all. However, he is also loving and he has provided a way for you to be forgiven. This is how you may be redeemed. Take an unblemished animal and sacrifice it. Because its life has been taken away, you, a sinner, needn’t forfeit your life when you approach God. Remember that all those things that you see in the tabernacle and temple are just pictures of something better, and that has arrived in the Messiah, Jesus. Whatever you do, don’t rely on that stuff as an end in itself. Trust the Lord to save you fully. The Christ has come and he has done whatever was the message promised in those lambs and candlesticks and bread and the ark in the holy of holies.” In other words, the animal sacrifices in themselves didn’t bring forgiveness, but Christ God’s Son is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. You can meet him and his forgiveness through the signs of the Temple .

1. THE CURTAINS OF THE TEMPLE .

Curtains were hung in at least two places in the tabernacle. When the tabernacle became a permanent structure in the temple of Solomon , the curtains were either replaced by doors or a door was placed behind the curtain. I am not sure what happened when the second temple was built when they returned from exile in Babylon, but when Herod began to rebuild the temple on this site thirty years before the birth of Jesus those two curtains or ‘veils’ again had places of prominence. One curtain was at the entrance to the sanctuary, called the Door of the Tabernacle, and another was in the sanctuary itself, dividing the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place .
These curtains were over twenty metres in height and five metres wide. They were a handbreadth thick, composed of half a dozen layers of material, covered with rich embroidery, and both were coloured blue, purple and scarlet. We are given those colours in three places in the book of Exodus, so the colours themselves can’t be insignificant. Blue was a colour which the Israelites were to wear as a ribbon on the fringe of their garments to remind them that they were to be holy to the Lord (Numbers 15:37-41). Purple was a colour that spoke of royalty, while scarlet was the colour of blood. The way to the presence of God – through the curtain of the Door of the Tabernacle into the sanctuary, and across that room and through the other veil in the Holy of Holies – was marked off by these two vast curtains which were powerful symbols of holiness, of royalty and of bloodshed. The colours highlighted the nature of the salvation which the Tabernacle proclaimed.
Curtains keep out. There was little difference between these curtains and the cherubim with their flashing swords whom God set as sentries to keep Adam and Eve from approaching the tree of life. Curtains and swords both said, “No admission to sinners.” Our God is light; our God is a consuming fire. No one can see God and live; Moses is allowed a glimpse of him. “And how shall I whose native sphere is dark whose mind is dim before the ineffable appear and on my naked spirit bear the uncreated beam?” The Lord had put up a safety curtain to keep me from the eternal burnings of God’s wrath. Here was this door of access to God, but it was barred to me as a sinner. There was no other door.
So the first curtain, visible to every worshipper in the outer court, where the great altar was, was the curtain guarding the entry into the temple itself. That curtain shut out all the Old Testament men who worshipped God. It also shut in the priests; only they as representatives of the people could minister in the Holy Place before the Lord. What was done in worship had to be done for the people, and not by the people. It had to be done by their representatives, those who were divinely ordained to bear the interests of the people before God. So the first curtain shut out Old Testament Christians while it let into the temple the priests alone.
But then, inside the tabernacle (and also the temple), there was the second barrier, an inner veil which was the door to the Most Holy Place . That curtain shut out even the priests, and allowed access to one figure only, to the High Priest, and for him only once a year for a brief time. That veil was made in such a way that the colours abounded and there was an inwrought image of cherubim on it. The intricacy of the design reflected the glory of the designer; it also symbolised the fact that the way to God was barred by our sin. In Eden , cherubim with a sword denied man access to the tree of life. In the temple, this veil, inworked with the image of cherubim, stopped everybody except one man coming into the presence of God.
How did the High Priest prepare to enter the Most Holy Place ? It was on the most holy day in the Jewish calendar, and the chief priest wore special holy clothes for the occasion. They are listed in Exodus 28:4 and then given in great detail in the remainder of the chapter, “These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. They are to make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests. Have them use gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.” The instructions are all utterly precise as we are dealing with a precise God: “Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the LORD and when he comes out, so that he will not die” (Ex. 28:33-35). As a child I loved to hear of this garment with alternate bells and pomegranates around the bottom
So that is what the High Priest wore, and then what did he do on the annual Day of Atonement? We are given much information about this in Leviticus chapter 16. Firstly on the Day of Atonement he enters the Holy Place . He is all by himself in that room; it has been vacated by all the priests, but they could hear him moving around from outside because of the sound of the bells. He’s not been struck dead by the Holy One of Israel. The atonement God planned and provided is being accepted by God. Then he walks to the curtain and he pulls it aside and goes into the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. He is taking with him a vessel containing the blood of a bull and this is to atone for his own sins. He sprinkles that seven times on the covering of the ark of the covenant which was there in the centre of this virtually bare room. It is the throne of King Jehovah, ruler of heaven and earth. Then the Chief Priest comes out of the Most Holy Place and he goes back for a short time into the larger room once again. In the Holy Place he goes to a blemish-less, perfect tethered goat that has been brought there for him, and we are told, “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (Lev.16:15&16). That was the only occasion in a year on which one man entered the Most Holy Place . No one witnessed him doing any of those things, but they all knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. They were all sinners; God is holy and just and he has made this symbolic way of atonement. It points forward to the true real way of atonement which one day would be made by the Messiah. That was Old Testament religion. It reminded men that their greatest problem was the holiness of God. The curtains kept sinners out from the presence of God. They allowed only a few favoured men into the holy places.
2. THE CURTAIN OF THE TEMPLE WAS TORN FROM TOP TO BOTTOM.
Let’s consider two remarkable scenes outside and inside Jerusalem on the one afternoon. Calvary is a remarkable scene. Outside the city of Jerusalem on the Place of the Skull, Golgotha , Christ breathed his last. The heaving chest that had been sucking in another lungful of air is motionless. The beating pulse visible in his temple and neck is still. The last cry has been made. Redemption for all the Father has given to him has been accomplished and Jesus of Nazareth is dead. He has laid down his life. At that very moment in the centre of Jerusalem , in the great temple there is another remarkable scene. Someone spotted a movement in the richly embroidered thick curtain, blue and crimson and red, and suddenly there was a noise of tearing. It was as if two mighty hands had grabbed the centre of the tapestry and they were tearing it apart from top to bottom with as much ease as you would pull apart a tissue. It was not being done from where they were standing, from the outside. The multitudes gazed silently at the huge curtain. There were no one the could see responsible for this, no ladders, no human hands pulling and tugging. It was done from the inside, and it was done from the top down! The same God whose hand appeared writing four words on a wall in Babylon at Belshazzar’s feast was now tearing this curtain in two. Maybe God gave instruction to one of his cherubim that day and say, “Go to Jerusalem with your sword and cleave the temple curtain in two from top to bottom.” Did one of the cherubim go and do what he’d been told? Whatever means God used, the result was a great opening where hitherto there had been a closed door, and two bedraggled halves of a curtain hanging limply down on each side of the entrance into God’s home.
I suppose we would all like to know with certainty which curtain it was, the one at the entrance into the temple itself, or the one inside the temple that covered the entrance into the Most Holy Place . We have no help from the language Mark uses for ‘curtain’ because the same word is used for both of them. The argument in favour of the outer curtain is that everybody was gathered in the surrounding court, standing around the great altar, thousands of people from all over the world were there assembled on Passover Friday. We know the exact time, it was 3 o’clock, the time of the evening sacrifice and the vast crowds present that afternoon heard and saw the miraculous sight of the disintegrating curtain with its tapestry symbolizing heaven. What a silence must have fallen on the multitudes, and they could look for the first time in their lives into the temple itself. “Look, there is the table of the showbread, and the lampstand, and the altar of incense, and there is the other curtain in the distance against the room’s back wall which guarded the way into the Most Holy Place . See the horrified priests frozen like statues at this extraordinary event.” The gloomy temple was full of light for the first time.
That is my understanding of what happened, that it was the external curtain, but others think it was the other inward curtain before the Most Holy Pace. Its function was to keep everyone out from God’s presence except for less than an hour once a year for that one man who went past it twice bearing blood, once for his own sin and then for the sin of the people. This is the curtain the writer to the Hebrews is speaking about when he talks about the “inner sanctuary behind the curtain” (Hebs. 6:19), and he writes, “Behind the second curtain was the room called the Most Holy Place” (Hebs. 9:3), and then he writes famously, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and in full assurance of faith . . .” (Hebs. 10:19-22). For him there is just this one significant curtain that was preventing us ordinary sinners entering the Most Holy Place , but he makes no mention of that curtain being torn. If that were the curtain that was torn then it would have supported his argument to write that this was torn in two from top to bottom when Christ died.
So I favour that it was the curtain that hung outside the temple before the crowded courts. When the Son of God dies this is where God the Father begins to work in the world. This tearing of the curtain is the first of a cluster of miraculous signs that followed the finished work of Christ. There were the resurrections, and the earthquake, and the resurrection of Christ, and the miraculous draught of fish, and the ascension, and the rushing mighty wind and cloven tongues and the gift of languages at Pentecost, and the conversion of many priests. But the tearing of the curtain was the first sign that said immediately that although they had put to death the Son of God the Father himself lives and is active and busy. Before the Lord goes with his message to the “dogs” he speaks to the “children.” Before the word goes out from the city to the ends of the earth God begins with Jerusalem . God’s first sermon after Christ himself tears his spirit from his body in death and commends it to his Father is preached to his old covenant people. He invisibly but really stands before them as they are gathered in the temple court where his Son had often preached. He addresses them and with this majesty rends in twain the curtain from its top to its bottom. What a mighty sign God accomplishes.
3. THE MEANING OF THE TORN CURTAIN.
Why did it happen? The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that it did take place. There were thousands of people alive when Mark wrote these words, who were present twenty-five years earlier at the Passover feast in which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. They were back there on that Friday at 3 p.m. in the temple of Jerusalem . They could challenge what Mark wrote if it were a fiction. No one ever protested that Matthew, Mark and Luke were writing fairy tales. It happened, but why did this miracle occur? What is its redemptive significance? What is its message to us Gentile Christians almost two thousands years later?
i] God is a Destroying God.
This is the Lord who cursed the barren fig tree. This is the Lord who threatened to spit out of his mouth the lukewarm Christians of Laodicea. The time had come for the end of the Mosaic covenant. It had served its purpose, taught its lessons and its usefulness was all over. The Messiah had come and done what it prefigured. Was this religion going on for ever – nobody entering the house of God but the priests of the tribe of Levi? The people could look at God’s house, but none of them could enter it? They knew that the ark, the throne of God was in the Holy of Holies, but they couldn’t kneel in front of it. They were banned from coming near to Jehovah. The curtain kept them on the outside.
When Jesus of Nazareth comes even he can’t get into the temple. He isn’t a priest of the order of Aaron; he doesn’t wear the gorgeous robes of the tribe of Levi. He was forbidden to enter the Holy Place . His own Father’s house was closed to him. The bosses of the temple, Caiaphas and Annas, could enter the Most Holy Place and sing psalms to the Lord behind the curtain as they plotted the murder of God’s Son. This is iniquitous. Something has to happen; the angels are on tenterhooks waiting for God to act.
What beautiful carvings had been in that temple – but there was no admittance. What a marvellous golden vine thirty yards high was on the temple wall – but no admittance. What magnificent gold leaf and cedar woods and marble floors were in the temple – but no admittance. There was a massive candelabra – but no admittance. All the world is in darkness, grieving that it cannot come simply to the Lord and cry “Abba Father.” Imagine that the living God is hidden away. Only a special caste could enter the building, and just one person of that caste was allowed to enter God’s presence in a room behind a curtain once a year; no common men and women; no teenagers; no old people; no Gentiles. The curtain was in place and it said, “You can’t come in. Stay away in the outer courts.” Is that caste system going to last for ever? Is all the world to go in vast crowds on their annual pilgrimages to the Jerusalem temple with the inevitable hundreds be crushed to death in various stampedes? Is that to be the religion of the future?
They were still building the temple when Christ died. They had begun it fifty years earlier and it was not completed for another 30 years, but one thing they’d made sure was in place early on in the building – the curtains were up. They certainly put up the ‘Keep Out’ signs. They were an exclusive religion and they boasted in it; “We have Abraham for our father.” The whole temple was a fortress that kept Gentiles in their place, and women in their place, and Jewish men in their place, and priests in their place, threatening with death anyone who stepped out of line. Is that how it’s always going to be? Yes, unless the curtain is destroyed, torn from the top to the bottom, that is how it would always have been, a ghetto religion with an “exclusive” God. They would have been a sect for ever, but every angel in heaven was waiting for the time when Abraham’s seed would bless all the nations of the earth, and Gentiles and their kings would flock to worship Jehovah and his Messiah. Everyone’s eyes were on that curtain. As long as it remained hanging there Judaism and Jerusalem and priestcraft would be the status quo.
Now God acts. His Son has made full atonement; the types and pictures of the Messiah’s saving work have all served their purpose. Cosmic redemption is accomplished, and now Old Covenant religion has to be dismantled. It is painful but essential. Outside the city Christ had yielded his life an atonement for sin, and inside the city God opened the lifegate that we Gentiles in our millions could go in. The Lord came to man from inside his home, from that side of the curtain, not our side. He came to the front door, as it were, and opened the way for man to come to him and find rest. God took down the “No Admittance” sign.
What has the despised and rejected Messiah done? Has he sent fire down from heaven and ‘nuked’ the temple for the wickedness of its high priests? No, first he sheds his blood as the purchase price for the right of us all . . . so many, many of us . . . a multitude like the sands on the seashore . . . from every nation and tribe to come into the very presence of God, women as well as men, young and old, slaves as well as free men. Then he tears down the curtain that keeps us away from his Father. Today through Christ we can run right up to God and look into his smiling face and say, “Abba! Father! Thank you for all your blessings.” When my grandchildren tumble out of the car in our street and run up the steps to the Manse, they don’t wait at the door for admittance. They open it and come running in and shout for “Taid!” and “Nain!” They know the door is open for them.
What did the Lord do? He destroyed the veil. He tore down that door. He was vandalizing the temple. This building is no longer the exclusive home of God. Jerusalem is no longer the city of God . The Jews are no longer the favoured people of God. Remove the curtain; Israel no longer has the monopoly of old covenant religion. God is destroying the whole caste system. All the priests are swept aside! The door that kept us out is dismantled and made useless. God is declaring that the work his Son did on Golgotha is perfect! What a powerful sign, the tearing of the curtain from the top to the bottom. The way into the holiest of all is for everyone who turns in faith to God in the name of Jesus Christ.
God no longer dwells in temples made by hands. God has left his earthly sanctuary. You can look into the temple and discover that it is empty. Its day is done, and the end has come for all its services, and its priesthood and its sacrifices. Today there are no sacred buildings anywhere in the world, no holy spaces behind a screen or a curtain, no sacrificing priests, no altars, no religious costumes. The divine ax has smitten the curtain and torn it in half. Old things are passed away. God himself has desecrated his own temple. The humblest Bible Study of five students sitting round a kitchen table in a hall of residence is more pleasing to God than the largest cathedral in which the gospel isn’t heard and the work of the Spirit is absent.
ii] God is a saving God.
The Son of Man gave up the ghost. He breathed his last; body and soul were torn apart in death. The human spirit of Christ went immediately into the presence of his Father; his human body was taken down and laid in the grave. His own divine nature grasped his body and spirit until the third day when he reunited them at his resurrection. The rending of the curtain in the temple is a picture of the tearing apart of Christ. We deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but Jesus Christ, because he loved us, tore apart his own body and soul for us. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. That is the way that we enter the holy place where God lives, by the violent death of Jesus, “by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Hebs.10:20).
There is that searching question in the book of psalms, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?” (Psa. 24:3) I must know who that person can be, because that is the dwelling place of God and I want to be that person dwelling with the Lord for ever. Who may stand in God’s holy place? I must know. But the answer David gives creates in me no assurance. He says, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.” I cannot say, “Ah well, then I am fine. That is how I have lived,” because I have not lived like that. Am I then a lost and condemned man? No. I know Someone who had clean hands and a pure heart, who has ascended the hill of the Lord and stood in his holy place. As ye who is the same? Christ Jesus is his name! The Lord Sabaoth’s Son; He and no other one. The holy one ascended the hill of the Lord and stood in God’s holy place bearing my sin. And there he remained until he died under its mighty load. He who had clean hands and a pure heart took my dirty hands and impure heart and purified and washed them, and I am clean for ever through his death for me. So with boldness I can enter God’s holy presence. All my sufficiency is the death of Christ.
There are no more sacrifices. No more lambs slain morning and evening. No more Passovers. No more priests. What Christ has done is done once and for all for ever and ever. The cross of Golgotha is our eternal altar. He is our great high priest. So dismantle every earthly temple and gather together in Jesus’ name, preach and praise God and break bread and drink the cup until he comes. All those symbols that once cried, “No Admission . . . Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, have all been discarded. When I was a boy I would go with my father to where he worked. He was the station master of two country railway stations and he would walk between the two on the railway line itself, our footsteps matching the regular sleepers. We would pass every warning notice, “Trespassers will be Prosecuted,” without a second glance because my father was in charge of this section of the line. He was taking me with him and he had the authority to do so.
So it is when we put our hand in the hand of Christ, trusting and following him, we are not trespassing when he takes us sinners through every door that would keep us out right into the presence of God himself. He has made us the citizens of heaven. We now live in the household of God. We pilgrims need no longer to envy the sparrows who nested in the temple roof – that was their privileged home – while we had to go back far away from a blessed feast in Jerusalem to the place where we lived. No! You yourself are a holy temple in the Lord. You yourself are a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and people for his own possession. Whoever we are his death is our all sufficient plea. However great our sin, however poor and ignorant we are the death of Christ is intrinsically adequate to meet all our needs and all the demands of God’s holiness. He did not make a token payment which God has accepted in place of the whole. He has paid every last farthing. Our debts are not canceled, they are liquidated.
Let us then in the name of Jesus come boldly to the throne of grace and let us there always find mercy and grace help us in time of need.
22nd January 2006 GEOFF THOMAS