A Tale of Two Veils
April 2, 2023 |A Tale of Two Veils|Matthew 27:51
Matthew 27:51 is such a small portion in relation to the passion of our Lord and yet in this verse we find an amazing event with immense importance for the kingdom of God. As a matter of fact, it is not even part of the grand narrative of the passion, rather it is a commentary word from Matthew inserted into the narrative nestled between Matthew 27 verse 50 describing the death of Christ and verse 54 describing the reaction of those soldiers in charge of overseeing the execution. It is to that verse we turn this morning.
Matthew 27:51 (ESV) 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.
Behold- an interjection used to emphasize some detail in the narrative, here as a command, pay attention, or don’t miss this!
In adding these details that occurred elsewhere at the time of Jesus’ death, Matthew wants us to consider their relation to what is happening in his narrative.
Matthew mentions three things that happened in relation to the death of Jesus; the curtain of the temple was torn, there was a great earthquake, and tombs were open. This morning we are going to focus on the first of three, the tearing of the temple curtain and ask the very simple question, what is so significant about this that the Holy Spirit had Matthew record it here? To answer that question we are going to ask three more questions that will help us understand its significance.
I found the book of Hebrews to be especially capable of helping us answer those questions, so if you would like to follow along we will be looking in and around Hebrews chapters 9 and 10.
The first question is…
What is the significance of the temple veil?
To understand that, we have to first understand the significance of the temple and its design.
Hebrews 9:1-7 (ESV) 1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. 2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. 6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.
Where did it come from? God gave the pattern and function to Moses after bringing the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt in relation to his covenant with them.
Exodus 25:8-9 (ESV) 8 And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. 9 Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.
Exodus 25:40 (ESV) 40 And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.
What was the purpose of the temple? God says it is so that he may dwell with his people. It was an invitation for fellowship and belonging. It also served to allow the people as a nation to draw near to God in worship in a way that they would not be destroyed by his presence. With it, God introduced a system of sacrifices and worship that would allow Israel to cover their sins so they could have this personal, although limited, relationship with himself. Limited, the author of Hebrews says because it couldn’t fully deal with their sin.
This is the primary reminder of the veil.
The pattern included an outer court where the sacrifices were made and burnt offerings were offered, where the priests would prepare to enter the holy place, where the priests would essentially eat at the Lord’s table, the shewbread and the portion of the sacrifices allotted to them. It represented their fellowship with God, but at the same time, within stood a veil that separated them from the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s manifest presence above the ark, a veil that could not be breached, but once a year, by the high priest alone, and only after certain sacrifices were made for himself.
This veil, always there, always separating God from his people was necessary because God is a perfectly holy and righteous God and cannot tolerate sin in his presence and Israel, like all men, had a sin problem. Their sin separated them from God and the strongest reminder of this was the veil separating even the priests from the Holy of Holies.
In this system the priests not only interceded for the Israelites by applying the blood of their sacrifices to the altar, but also instructed them so they would know how to live in light of their covenant with God as his people. Another group of people, the Levites were tasked with ministering to and guarding the priests and the tabernacle.
The Reformed Expository Commentary sums it up this way- The holy place was where the priests had fellowship with God on behalf of the people, symbolized by the bread—twelve loaves for twelve tribes—which the priests ate at the Lord’s table. The light represented God’s revelation of himself, his illuminating presence, and the incense altar symbolized the prayers of God’s people.
The tabernacle was significant because it was the core to the identity of the Israelites as God’s people, the holy places were significant because they guarded the people from God’s all consuming holiness, and the veil was significant because of the purpose it served as THE defining piece of separation between God’s manifest presence above the ark of the covenant and his people.
In the days of Solomon, David’s son, the people had moved from a mobile tabernacle or tent to a permanent temple. This first temple was destroyed and later a second temple was built, only to be desecrated and pillaged. Around 20 BC, under the rule of Herod, the temple was renovated and expanded. This was the temple that we find in the New Testament.
From the tabernacle to the second temple, the layout was always the same with the holy place and within, separated by the veil in the case of the tabernacle and the second temple, and wooden doors in the first temple, the holy of holies. Where God’s presence was said to dwell.
The author of Hebrews goes on to say this about the existence of the curtain.
Hebrews 9:8-10 (ESV) 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
The temple system and especially the lack of access to the Holy of Holies served as a reminder that the sacrificial system could not deal with the stain and guilt of sin, only cover it until the time of reformation. While it stood there was this tension that existed within the people of God, they had been chosen as God’s people and were invited to draw near to Him, but at the same time they remained separated from His presence by their sin.
Now that we have an understanding of the significance of the temple and what the purpose of the curtain or veil was, we can ask our next question.
What is the significance of the temple veil tearing?
Apart from the entire temple being torn down, which, by the way, would happen in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed, what do you think would be the single most important sign that the system was no longer necessary, that it had come to an end?
It would be hard to think of a more appropriate sign than the very curtain that separated the Holy of Holies being torn and not just being torn, but as scripture says being torn from top to bottom.
Which happened in the context of Matthew 27:50 (ESV) 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
If this happened at his death, we have to ask, what was his relationship with the temple in life?
Jesus showed his passion for the temple by his regular attendance, by using it as a center for teaching, by cleansing it of money changers and running out those who were misusing it. He had a zeal for his father’s house.
He however, was not welcomed by its leaders.
Ultimately it was the high priest along with the religious leaders of his day that conspired against him, demanded his death, and ultimately handed him over to be crucified. He loved Jerusalem and the temple, but he was not received by it.
It was that rejection by the very people he came to, that brought about its end.
The tearing of the veil represented the end of the temple system and everything it signified in the old covenant.
God issued in a new covenant with the death of Jesus, which is why in the upper room, with his disciples on the night in which he was betrayed by Judas, he said Matthew 26:26-28 (ESV) 26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
In this new covenant, all of the types and shadows of the old covenant find their fulfillment.
Hebrews 9:11-12 (ESV) 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
Hebrews 9:13-15 (ESV) 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
Christ is the high priest, he is the sacrificial lamb whose blood makes the way open to the holy places, he then having finished his once for all sacrifice and sat down at the right hand of God, is now in the position to mediate the new covenant, which he proved in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, showing that the issue of sin had been dealt with by his blood and now those who are in him have access to the very presence of God that was once unavailable to God’s people.
This is what we have been studying about in our Wednesday night bible study in the book of Ephesians. Recently we studied chapter 2, where Paul says this…
Ephesians 2:14-16 (ESV) 4 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
The word abolish there means ‘to put an end to’.
What was the law of commandments expressed in ordinances? The Levitical system, the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrifices, all of it. How did he abolish it? Through the cross!
Do you see why Matthew says at the moment he is recording the death of Jesus on the cross, behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom?
Matthew wanted his readers to understand what the death of Christ accomplished in the putting away of the old covenant and its ordinances.
Now understanding the significance of the veil within the temple, and understanding the significance of its tearing, we come to perhaps the most powerful question.
What is the significance of the torn veil in our lives?
Again, we turn to Hebrews to find our answer.
Hebrews 10:19-25 (ESV) 19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Don’t miss what he says there, we now have access to enter the holy places, places that we were excluded from in the first covenant. Because the temple veil has been replaced with Christ and the way has been opened by his perfect sacrifice, once and for all, and will not be shut again to those who are in Christ.
That is, every person who is saved by grace through faith now has access to the very presence of God. This is what we often mean when we talk about the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Because of Jesus, believers can draw near to God.
The author gives us three exhortations by saying, based on our access to God, let us.
Vs 22 tells us how we are to draw near.
With a true heart- that is a living heart that has been made alive by the power of God
In full assurance of faith- confidence that our faith is the means by which we can draw near and no other
With our hearts sprinkled clean… and our bodies washed with pure water- two references to cleansing in the temple system are used here, the sprinkling is in reference to the blood used to consecrate and purify the people and the water used to ceremonially clean the priests before they could apply the blood. We can only draw near because we have been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus and subsequently baptized by the Holy Spirit.
Without this, no one has confidence or ability to draw near to God. We must be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the sacrifice of Christ, applied to our hearts by the grace of God, appropriated by faith.
Vs 23 tells us how we are to remain near
Hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering- Once we draw near we are to hold fast, not because of our own ability, but because of the very faithfulness of God. (for he who promised is faithful.) This is another way to say we are kept by the power of God. When we fail, when we falter, when we are tempted, we hold fast to the promises of God, because he is faithful even when we are not.
Vs 24-25 tells us how we are to interact with those around us that are also drawing near.
This is unfortunately where we usually miss it. The first two are what we usually think of when we think of the priesthood of all believers, that we can draw near to God in Christ and need no other intermediary between us and God, and that is true. But in the following verses he reminds us that in the new covenant we are not just priests in the sense that we can draw near, but we are called to be priestly towards one another.
I am going to stop there for a minute and ask you a question. Have you ever considered the implications of what we have been talking about this morning in regards to the reality that you are a priest in the new covenant?
It follows logically, doesn’t it? If Christ is the high priest of the new covenant, and it is by his blood that we can draw near in fellowship, in worship, and in prayer, then what position in the old covenant most clearly relates to our new position? The priests.
This is exactly what Peter says in his letter.
1 Peter 2:4-5 (ESV) 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:9-10 (ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
If you are in Christ then you are a priest, in the sense that you not only get to draw near to God but you have, in some sense, the responsibilities of a priest.
The rights of the priesthood of all believers is what we usually focus on, but there is more to it than that, we also have responsibilities as priests in the new covenant. Which is where our third let us… takes us
4 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Consider- this speaks of directing our energy of thought to the good of those around us. This is thinking of others, of intentionally knowing one another and knowing what is going on in one another’s lives, for the purpose of…
Stir up one another- the literal translation is to irritate one another, but in the context, we are sure that it means something positive. I think the idea is that we do not let one another drift away from their calling to love and good works, through our life, through our words, through our actions, we point one another towards them, we remind one another of our duty, we join hands in laboring in love and good works.
In essence, the author of Hebrew reminds us here that we are being built together as a holy priesthood as Peter says and not a loose collection of individual priests. Amen?
Which is why he adds the next exhortation to not neglecting to meet together.
Not neglecting to meet together- forsaking for you king james readers. The idea is that we don’t want to leave behind meeting regularly together, for our own good and for the good of those around us. But rather, meeting together regularly so we may…
Encouraging one another- the idea is coming alongside someone in a way that encourages and strengthens them.
These are our responsibilities as priests of the new covenant, but we also are called to offer sacrifices. Not sacrifices for forgiveness of sin but sacrifices of gratitude and praise.
The New Testament speaks of these sacrifices in various ways and places.
Hebrews 13:15 (ESV) 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Romans 12:1-2 (ESV) 1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Philippians 4:17-20 (ESV) 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
As a homework assignment, read Hebrews chapter 13 today where the author describes what the life of a priest in the new covenant ought to look like.
When Jesus gave his life on the cross he put an end to the old covenant and ushered in the new covenant by his blood. He became the veil through which God’s presence is a reality for his people. If we come to him in faith, turning from our old life and our old ways, if we repent, and turn to him in faith, he ushers us into the very presence of God through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, by which we are born again into the kingdom of God as priests. We have access to God, but we also have responsibilities before him.
I pray today that the significance of this event, the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death, has been made plain to you today and more than that, I pray that it would make a difference in your life this week.