After recalling the first sacred covenant made between God and humanity (beginning with the people of Israel), sprinkled in sacrificial blood, the writer now turned to a much more astonishing statement.
“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary 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 approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”Hebrews 10:18-22 (NRSV)
It was an otherwise unheard of proposal, that not only Jesus, our Great High Priest, could enter into the Holy of Holies, but so could everyone who had the Spirit of Christ.
To the those of Jewish faith and history, that was unthinkable. Impossible. It went against every grain of their beings. And yet, that is what the writer had written:
“we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.”
Every last one of us!
The Veil, Christ’s Body
The writer knew well how his readers would respond to this teaching. He had undoubtedly grown up with the same reverence and awe of God’s holy habitation as had his Jewish compatriots. If the writer was indeed Barnabas, then, born as he was into the tribe of Levi, he would have had special access to the temple. There is no indication his family was of priestly descent, but there were thousands of years of history tying his forefathers with the care of the tabernacle, and later the temple.
He, more than most, would have understood the immensity of veneration and holy fear associated with the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies.
In the Torah were recorded the detailed blueprints for the original tabernacle, patterned after the true tabernacle in the heavenly realm. In painstaking detail, God gave instructions on the materials to use—materials God had provided through wealthy Egyptian families as departing gifts to the Israelites—the artifacts to craft, and the design to follow in constructing the tabernacle.
The holiest aspect of this tent of worship was not the altar, but rather the innermost room where the Ark of the Covenant would be housed. For it was upon the Ark’s solid gold “mercy seat,” flanked by angelic beings with wings outspread, that God’s presence would rest in the form of God’s Shekinah, a glowing column of smoke and fire.
An entire chapter in the Book of Exodus was reserved for describing how this tabernacle would appear, and how to provide a covering for God’s glory, so that being near God’s purity would not prove fatal for mortals.
A thick gorgeous curtain was to be woven and embroidered, then kept hanging as a separation between the Holy Place—where the twelve loaves of daily bread were placed, the seven-branched lampstand was kept burning night and day, and the altar of incense tended morning and evening—and God’s unveiled glory over the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place.
Of particular note were the colors to be woven into the curtain.
You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into itExodus 26:31 (NRSV)
All three colors were variations of what was known as Tyrian or Royal Purple, a dye so precious it was worth more than its weight in gold. Only royalty were permitted to wear certain versions of this color. This one item was of incalculable value.
“It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful.
Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe;
—for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire,
—by the fine flax the earth,
—by the blue the air,
—and by the purple the sea;
two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other.
This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures.”Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5:2, Whiston translation
This curtain, which covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies, was sixty feet high by thirty feet wide, and represented the boundary between the physical, earthly realm and the spiritual, heavenly realm.
Jesus had actually given a similar description of Himself—as the portal between heaven and earth—very early on, when He was first gathering His disciples.
“He said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of [Humanity].’”John 1:51 (NRSV)
Now, the writer of Hebrews was saying, we know the curtain represents the body of the Lord Jesus, protecting God’s people, standing between the purifying holiness of God and our own sinful selves.
The Veil is Torn
How can we know that!?
That would have otherwise been the expostulation of every faithful Jewish person. The idea is preposterous!
Or is it?
When Jesus breathed His last breath, and gave up His Spirit, three hair-raising, supernatural events occurred.
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
At that moment
(1) the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
(2) The earth shook, and the rocks were split.
(3) The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.)Matthew 27:50-53 (NRSV)
Ancient records corroborate much of what Matthew, and the other gospels, recorded.
- Talmud Tractate Yoma 6:3 recorded major earthquakes and the doors to the temple being thrown wide open
- Pliny’s Natural History 38 wrote “The largest earthquake happened in the principate of Tiberius Caesar when twelve cities in Asia Minor were razed to the ground in one night”
- James Ussher in his “Annals of the World,” 6502-3 noted Phlegon reporting that in the 19th year of Tiberius (as Eustathius Antiochus noted in Hexaemeron) and the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (that is 33 AD), the following events took place… ‘There was a large and most famous eclipse that had ever occurred. The day was so turned into night at the sixth hour (noon), that the stars were seen. Also, an earthquake in Bithynia destroyed many houses in the city of Nicaea’.”
The torn curtain could only have been an act of God, in a manner of speaking reaching down from heaven and grasping the curtain of Christ, tearing apart forever—from top to bottom—that protective separation between God and humanity.
It is already profound to dwell on the staggering implications of God the Son opening the way for God’s people to come into God’s throne room.
But there is more!
Heaven’s Gates Thrown Open
The torn curtain was first recorded in Mark’s gospel, along with darkness covering the land during Jesus’ final three hours, and is connected with Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens were torn, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came to rest on Jesus, and God publicly proclaimed Jesus as God’s Son in Whom God was well-pleased.
There are three things to notice about this inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry:
- Torn heavens.
- Downward motion of the Spirit, from heaven to earth.
- Voice stating Jesus is the Son of God.
Now note the symmetry in Jesus’ final act in His public ministry, the completion of His work, saying “It is finished.”
Recorded in both Mark and Matthew,
- Torn curtain depicting the cosmos.
- Downward motion from top (heaven) to bottom (earth).
- Voice stating Jesus is the Son of God (the centurion, standing at the cross).
There was no mistaking the connection, for first century Christians. The heavenly reality, revealed on the day of Jesus’ baptism, became earthly reality at the moment of Jesus’ death—heaven’s gates are open wide!
Jesus has opened the way for complete communion with God
This possibly accounts for the many priests who became believers in the first weeks after Pentecost.