“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51).
Sometimes the best sermons have no words.
Years ago I had several small books in my library filled with “object lessons” for children. The lessons used common household objects like buttons, balloons and spoons to teach basic biblical truth. Many churches today have a section of the worship service called “children’s church,” in which an adult will call the children forward and give them an object lesson based on the sermon the pastor is about to preach.
The church we attend often does that. It’s always fun to watch the congregation because the adults seem to like that part of the service as much as the children do.
It’s not hard to understand why.
We all love a story or an apt illustration. Well-chosen object lessons are a great way to teach spiritual truth. At the moment Jesus died on the cross, God gave us one of the most dramatic object lessons in the Bible when the curtain in the temple (sometimes called the veil) was torn from top to bottom.
No one dreamed such a thing could happen. No thoughtful Jewish person could miss the impact of that unprecedented event.
Matthew mentions it.
Mark mentions it.
Luke mentions it.
What does it mean? Let’s consider three answers to that question. (When James Stewart preached on this topic, he offered a simple online, which I have adapted for this message.)
A Barrier Removed
Everything about the Jewish temple reminded people to stay away. There were courts set aside for the women and the Gentiles. There was a brazen altar upon which sacrifice must be made. There were steps leading up to the temple itself. Inside the temple were two main rooms, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (sometimes called the Holy of Holies). Only the priests could enter the Holy Place and only in a certain way at certain times to do certain prescribed religious functions. No one ever just “hung out” in the Holy Place. You came to do God’s business, and then you left. It was not a place for leisure. Important work was being done there, performed by men set apart by God.
But there was yet a place even more sacred than the Holy Place called the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies. The very center of Jewish worship took place in that small area. If you read Leviticus 16, you can find the details spelled out. But we can summarize them thusly:
Only one man could enter the Most Holy Place-the High Priest.
He could only enter the Most Holy Place one day each year-the Day of Atonement.
He must wear special garments.
He must bring with him the blood of a goat.
He must sprinkle the blood on the golden Mercy Seat that was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which contained a copy of the Ten Commandments.
If anyone else besides the High Priest ever entered the Most Holy Place, he would be struck down. If the High Priest entered on any day other than the Day of Atonement, he would be struck down. If the High Priest came without the blood of a goat, he would be struck down.
Everything about the whole system screamed, “Stay away,” “Do not come near,” “You are not qualified to come on your own.” It was as if the temple itself was a giant roadblock, making sure that no one could come into God’s presence uninvited.
If the Jews were tempted to forget about the prohibitions, if they decided to take matters into their own hands, God had ordered that a thick curtain be hung between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place.
When we think of a curtain, we imagine something like our living room drapes. The curtain in the temple was nothing like that. Exodus 26:31 describes it as “a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman.” Jewish writers say that it was 60 feet long, 20 feet wide, woven to the thickness of a man’s hand, requiring 300 men to lift it up.
Such a curtain could never be torn in two by the hands of man. Only God could tear apart a curtain like that. That’s why Matthew tells us that the curtain was torn “from top to bottom,” signifying that God had done what only God could do.
A Road Opened
Hebrews 10:19-20 says that “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.”
“We have” speaks of privileges. I looked up “privilege” in the dictionary and it said
“An advantage held by one person or group of people,” and
“An opportunity to do something special or enjoyable.”
It’s a great privilege to be a Christian because we have certain advantages given to us by God. Hebrews 10:19 says that we have the right to enter God’s presence directly.
I have wondered what it would be like to gain an audience with the Queen of England.
To enter the fabled halls of Buckingham Palace.
To be escorted by the Royal Guards with their spangled uniforms.
To sit in the inner chamber and be greeted by the Queen.
To have her say, “What can I do for you?”
To know she has the power to grant my request.
Meeting the Queen would indeed be a privilege. But it is not likely to happen. The Queen is a Very Important Person, and I am not even a British subject. I live in “the Colonies” on the other side of the pond. I do not have the standing in any sense to gain an audience with the Queen of England. That privilege does not belong to me.
But in the eyes of God I have standing through the blood of Jesus to enter the throne room of heaven. That’s what Hebrews 10 means when it says that Jesus opened a way for us through the curtain. By his death on the cross, he tore down the wall that stood between God and us.
Now we can go directly to God anytime, as long as we go in the name of Jesus, claiming nothing but the blood of Jesus as the only ground of admission.
Compared to the old system that kept men out, this is truly a “new” way. Because Jesus rose from the dead, it is a “living” way.
I am a personal friend of God’s own Son.
I am a member of God’s own family.
I am a citizen of heaven.
That gives me standing, advantage, entrance, privilege.
And this standing is given to every blood-bought child of God. It is not for me alone. This is God’s gift to those who trust in his Son. We have the privilege of an audience with God himself.
Anytime. Anywhere. As often as we like.
I found a list on the Internet of the most influential people in the world. It has names like Hillary Clinton, Sting, Chris Christie, Amy Chua, Mark Zuckerberg, Angela Merkel, and a host of people I’ve never heard of. I didn’t bother to look for my name on that list because it’s not there. As a man said to us yesterday, “No problems. No worries.” I freely confess that the folks on that list have advantages from an earthly standpoint I’ll never have. Rank has its privileges. When they talk, everyone listens. They can go where I can’t go. They have access to the best of everything this world offers, things like tickets to sold-out events, the best seats in the finest restaurants, and rooms in any hotel in the world. Their every word is quoted in the press.
That’s how the world rolls.
And I say, “No problems. No worries.”
Through the blood of Jesus I have instant access to the throne of God. That means I can come anytime, anywhere, as often as I like, for any reason at all. My Heavenly Father will not turn me away. It’s wonderful to have that kind of access. When our oldest son was 4 or 5 years old, he came with us to an all-night prayer meeting at the church. The format called for me to begin each hour with a brief greeting to the people who had gathered to pray. After one greeting, a friend came up to me and said, “Did you see what Josh did?” “No. What did he do?” “You didn’t see it?” My friend told me that while I was talking to the people, Josh came up and said something to me. I stopped what I was doing and talked to him for a moment. When we were finished, he turned and walked away, and I turned and continued talking to the crowd.
Now here’s the amazing part.
I didn’t even remember it because it seemed so natural that Josh should come and talk to me anytime he wanted. And even better, Josh knew he had that right by virtue of the fact that he was my son. He knew he could come to me anytime.
So it is for every child of God.
We have rights greater than those the world counts as Very Important People. They may get insider tips and tickets to the best Broadway shows, but we have an All-Access Pass to the throne room of the universe.
It doesn’t get better than that.
A Hope Confirmed
Not only is there a barrier removed and a road opened, the tearing of the curtain means that our hope of eternal life has been confirmed by God himself.
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:19, 20).
These verses declare in plain language that we have an anchor for our soul that cannot be moved. It happens that I am writing these words on a cruise ship in the Caribbean Sea. Because our ship is vast, it has an enormous anchor to hold the ship in place when the storms roll in. An anchor that holds only in fair weather would not be of much use. An anchor proves its worth when the sea and wind threaten to move the ship out of the harbor.
In order to hold the ship in place, the anchor must be firmly lodged on the ocean floor. If the anchor rests in sand, it will not hold the ship in place. Hebrews 6 says that our anchor is firm because it is lodged behind the curtain in the very presence of God.
We have an anchor that cannot be moved, the Lord Jesus who as our high priest opened the way into the presence of God. Because he cannot be moved, we cannot be moved. In 1834 Edward Mote wrote the words of a poem that became a beloved gospel song. The first verse of The Sold Rock goes like this:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
The second verse uses words borrowed from Hebrews 6:
When darkness seems to hide his face,
I rest on his unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
And the chorus declares the glorious truth in words both simple and profound:
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.
This is good news for all who struggle with a sense of their own weakness and failure. Many Christians feel like the man in Mark 9:24 who exclaimed “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Down deep inside we do believe, we know that Jesus is our Lord, and we do love him, imperfect though our love may be. But when we look in the mirror, our sins rise up to condemn us, and we remember with shame the broken promises, the harsh words, the unkind deeds, and how we have failed those who trusted in us.
If we meditate on those things, we will soon begin to doubt that we are Christians at all.
And it is right here–right here!–that good theology can save the day. As long as our Christian faith depends on us, we are in trouble. But if our faith ultimately depends on Jesus Christ, then we have a hope that even our shame cannot erase. If Christ is the anchor of our soul, then we can rest well because our anchor can hold against any storm, even the storms of a guilty conscience.
When James Stewart preached on this topic, he told of an old Scottish believer who went to church one day feeling down because of his sins. When the communion plate was passed, he refused to partake of the elements, thinking himself unworthy. Then he saw a young woman in the congregation who also refused to partake, and then broke into tears. Stewart tells what happened next:
Her tears jarred him back to the truth of the gospel he himself needed to recall. In a whisper that could be heard across the church, he was heard to say: “Take it, lassie. Take it. It is meant for sinners.” And he himself partook.
That’s the deeper meaning of the tearing of the curtain. The law that condemned us has come to an end, having been put to death in the death of Christ. When Jesus died, the old law died with him.
So there is therefore now no condemnation to those who believe in Jesus.
So the road to heaven is open to anyone, anytime, anywhere.
So we know that we have eternal life.
It is possible that you feel such a great weight of sin that you wonder if Jesus would receive you. Perhaps you think your sins are too great, your transgressions so many that even Jesus cannot help you. Many people feel that way, and in truth we would all feel that way if we got a clear view of how rotten we really are. But there is a message for you from the torn curtain in the temple.
Do not let your sins keep you away.
God has opened the door to heaven.
J. C. Ryle summarized the true meaning of the torn curtain in this one sentence:
“Our sins may be many and great, but the payment made by our Great Substitute far outweighs them all."
Do you believe that? Then come and see for yourself.
Come and see.
Come to Jesus and see how great his mercy is.
The cross reveals the great heart of God, and that heart is filled with love. When Jesus died, the Father preached a sermon without words when he tore the curtain in two from the top to the bottom. It was God’s way of saying, “You are welcome in my family. Let nothing keep you away.”
We may be great sinners, but Jesus is a greater Savior. Fear not, and trust in him.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.