“Torn Curtain” (Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:19-25; Luke 23:44-46)

Good Friday: Vespers
April 2, 2010

“Torn Curtain” (Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:19-25; Luke 23:44-46)

At just about the time that Jesus breathed his last, something very unusual happened not far away there in Jerusalem. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two,” our text in Luke 23 tells us. Matthew and Mark, in their gospels, likewise report this occurrence, and they add the fact that the curtain was torn in two “from top to bottom.” Now that’s strange, isn’t it? What does Jesus dying have to do with the curtain of the temple being torn in two? Was it just a coincidence? Or is there some connection? What does this “Torn Curtain” mean?

You’re probably going to guess that this torn curtain is significant, and you would be right. Why else would the gospel writers include this in their narrative, unless it was significant? And it appears to be divinely significant, that God’s hand was in it. Thus the timing to coincide with Jesus’ death, and thus the fact that the curtain was torn from top to bottom. Yes, this is God’s doing. But what is the significance?

We really can’t answer that question until we know something about the temple and its curtain. What purpose did the temple serve? What purpose did that curtain serve? Let’s find out.

The temple, and its portable predecessor, the tent called the tabernacle–the temple was the Lord God’s dwelling place on earth. Now the whole heaven cannot contain God, but God chose to make himself known and to dwell among his people in the temple. The temple was the place of God’s presence, his holy presence in the midst of his people Israel, to govern and guide them, to preserve and protect them, to hear their prayers, and to forgive their sins. The temple was where sacrifices and offerings were made, sacrifices for sin, sacrifices for guilt, whole burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings–the list goes on and on. Lambs and bulls and goats were offered up, day after day, year after year. The courtyard of the temple was more like a slaughterhouse, like a bloody butcher shop. But these were the sacrifices that the Lord had provided for Israel, as a means for having their sins forgiven, so that this sinful people could continue to live in the presence of their holy God.

This all happened at the temple, and it was the priests, the Levitical priesthood, that oversaw this work. You see, from among the tribe of Levi, there was one family, the family of Aaron, from whom came the long line of the priests. And from among all the priests–starting with Aaron himself, and then passing down through his sons–there would always be one High Priest, who would be in charge of it all and would have special duties.

And this brings us to the layout of the temple and the role of the curtain. The temple was constructed in such a way that the front part of the building was called the Holy Place, and beyond that, farther back, was the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. And the curtain separated the two areas. To draw an analogy, it would be like you come into this church building, and most of the space here is the nave, and at the end of that, railed off, there is this special area called the chancel. Holy Place, Most Holy Place, that sort of thing.

Now in the front part, in the Holy Place, there were several furnishings—the altar of incense, the golden lampstand, and the table of the bread of the presence. These were in the Holy Place, and any number of priests, whoever was on duty at the time, could enter that part of the temple.

But beyond the Holy Place, as I say, was the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. Within the Most Holy Place, there was only one item, and that was the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant was kind of like a box or a trunk, overlaid with gold. The top, the lid, was called the mercy seat. Also on top, on either side, there were two cherubim with outstretched wings–attendant angels, if you will, there at the Lord’s royal throne. That’s really what the ark was–God’s throne, the place where he was enthroned as king, present to bless his people. And the Holy of Holies, then, was his royal throne room.

So can you envision it? You come into the temple–well, you couldn’t, but the priests could–and the first area you enter would be the Holy Place. Beyond that is the Most Holy Place, and it was the curtain, the curtain of the temple, that separated those two spaces.

Holy Place, Most Holy Place, with the curtain of the temple separating the two. But who could enter the Most Holy Place? Who could pass through the curtain? Could the ordinary priests go in there, into the Most Holy Place of God’s presence? No. Do that and you die. No, only one person, the High Priest, could enter that room, and then, only once a year. That was on the Day of Atonement. Ah, now we’re getting closer! Now we’re getting at the significance of the torn curtain. Just wait, we’re almost there.

The Day of Atonement–Yom Kippur, it’s called in the Hebrew. That is the one day of the year when, in addition to all the countless other sacrifices offered throughout the course of the year–on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would offer up one comprehensive sacrifice for all sin, committed by all the people. He would take the blood of the sacrifice and pass through the curtain and enter the Holy of Holies and approach the ark of the covenant, the place of God’s presence. And there the High Priest would take the blood and sprinkle it on the ark, specifically, on the well-named mercy seat. For this is how the Lord would show mercy on his people, forgiving their sins, all of them, even the ones they were not aware of. One all-inclusive sacrifice to cover all their sins for the whole year. That is what took place on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest passed through the curtain.

My friends, today, Good Friday, is our Day of Atonement. That, dear ones, is the significance of the torn curtain. Jesus fulfills what the Day of Atonement was pointing ahead to. For the blood of bulls and goats can never really atone for our sins. But the blood of Christ can and indeed does. The blood of bulls and goats had to be offered year after year after year, showing that it was never enough. But the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world–that is enough, more than enough. When Jesus does the job, there’s nothing left to do. The blood of the holy Son of God is all-availing, all-inclusive, completely comprehensive. His blood is the once-and-for-all sacrifice for all sin, the final, ultimate one. Thus the sacrifices of the temple come to an end, because they are no longer needed. And thus the torn curtain, torn in two from top to bottom.

Dear friends, Jesus Christ is our great High Priest, who enters into God’s holy presence with a sacrifice of far nobler worth than anything you or I could come up with. He passes through the curtain into the heavenly Holy of Holies. Indeed, Jesus’ body on the cross is the curtain we pass through to enter into God’s presence. With what Jesus has done, done for us on this Good Friday, as our great High Priest offering the perfect sacrifice, now we have access, now we have boldness, now we have confidence to enter into God’s presence ourselves. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”

Yes, let us draw near, let us come boldly before God’s throne of grace and mercy, where we will find mercy and help in every time of need. Jesus has torn that curtain for us, and now we can enter in! God is not keeping you out; he is inviting you in! Your sins are forgiven, your conscience has been sprinkled clean, nothing is keeping you out! Let us draw near to God.

And in drawing near to God, through the blood of Christ, we also find ourselves drawing near to one another. Together we are a royal priesthood, appointed to a life of love and good works and dedicated service. And we live our life together as his church, as Christ’s holy people in this world. We have a high calling, made possible by our great High Priest, who tears down the barriers that keep us from God. Now we know what true love and mercy are, and so we can share that with one another. Christ opens up all sorts of new realities.

The curtain is torn, and now heaven itself is standing wide open. Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. He himself has entered into that heavenly temple, that heavenly tabernacle, and you and I will follow him right on through. This is the sure hope we have as Christians.

Torn curtain. Torn in two, from top to bottom. What does this mean? It means sins forgiven, atonement made, once and for all. It means access to the throne of grace, belonging to a royal priesthood, and an open heaven ahead of us. All this, because of what Jesus, our great High Priest, has done for us on this Good Friday, our Day of Atonement.

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Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 10:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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