“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51, NIV). As soon as Jesus handed his spirit over to God, one might say all heaven broke loose.
What the NIV renders as “at that moment” is Matthew’s characteristic way of catching our attention: “And look…!” (“behold” in the King James). The first three gospels all tell us that the curtain of the temple was torn in two. There was, of course, more than one curtain in the temple; we’re not told which one. Scholars, however, generally agree that it must have been the curtain cordoning off the Holy of Holies—the inner sanctuary of the temple where the very presence of God resided. Only the high priest was allowed to enter, and even then, only on the Day of Atonement (Heb 9:1-7). If he dared to enter that holy place without proper preparation, he would die (Lev 16:2).
There is little direct description of the curtain in Scripture (e.g., Exod 26:31-33), and inferences made from other sources lead to different estimates of its size. But one thing seems reasonably certain: we go badly astray if we imagine the curtain to be anything like what we have hanging in our homes.
Well, my home anyway. (Besides, we have blinds.)
The curtain was not some ordinary piece of drapery. Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century biblical scholar who was a Jewish convert to Christianity, estimated the curtain in the Jerusalem temple to be 60 feet long and 30 feet wide, and as thick as a human palm is wide. For comparison, think of the large billboards by the freeway: if Edersheim is right, the curtain would have been nearly three times that size in total area. The point is that it would have required an act of God to tear it–which may be why both Mark and Matthew note specifically that it was torn from top to bottom.
The event is rich with symbolism. When Jesus died, the wall separating a holy God from a sinful people was sundered. The book of Hebrews describes Jesus as both our high priest as well as the perfect sacrifice that eliminated, once and for all, the need for priests to offer imperfect atoning sacrifices for the people year after year (e.g., Heb 10:1-14). We no longer need to fear coming into the presence of God:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, 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 with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:19-22, NIV)
The author of Hebrews draws a direct connection between the torn curtain and the crucified body of Jesus (the word is actually “flesh”). A way has been opened; we are invited to draw near, knowing that God is the one who cleanses our consciences (the last line may be a reference to symbolizing that internal cleansing by the external waters of baptism).
“Draw near.” Again, how ironic: while people scoffed at Jesus for claiming to have an intimate relationship with God as his Son, he was giving his very life to open the door through which they might draw near to God.
“Come near to God and he will come near to you,” says James (Jas 4:8, NIV). Jesus did more on the cross than buy us a heavenly future; he gave us a new and living way into God’s presence now.
It would be a shame to waste it.