‘The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.’
It’s almost a throwaway line in Mark’s gospel, sandwiched between the cataclysmic darkness as Jesus, the eternal Son of God, breathed his last whilst nailed to a wooden cross and the centurion’s amazing declaration, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’ Yet, the tearing of the curtain in Jerusalem’s temple wasn’t just incidental, a by-product, or an act of divine vandalism but a sign of the profound significance of each and every event leading to this point.
The curtain hung in the temple and separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple, making it inaccessible, because this Holy Place signified God’s presence. 18 metres high and 9.1 metres wide, the curtain was a formidable reminder: sinful people just couldn’t enter God’s presence.
The tearing of the curtain is the moment when everything changes. The hopes and fears of all the years and prophetic promise after prophetic promise are fulfilled. It’s the moment that powerfully shows that the way to God is now open, and people can enter God’s presence because of Jesus’ shed blood and willingly given life. It’s a tear that proclaims reconciliation and signals rejoicing in a repaired relationship.
The curtain as a chasm
The curtain was the symbol of separation. It was a divider that produced fear and trembling: on the one side was a holy God, too pure to look upon and on the other, fallen humanity, filthy in sin, spiritually dead, unrighteous and living life in a cursed world. It hung as a picture of the vast uncrossable chasm between humans and God.
Skilfully woven into the fabric were cherubim which served as a further reminder of what this curtain represented: division. Ever since Genesis 3, humanity had forfeited communion and intimacy with God because of sin. Adam and Eve were barred, exiled from the garden and excluded from the joy of walking with God. They were prevented from enjoying God and robbed of resting in God’s goodness and revelling in his glory. Sin separates, sin destroys, sin mars and sin bars. God banished Adam and Eve and set cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life. The images of cherubim on the curtain proclaimed this banishment.
Ever since then, God’s purpose and plan has been to save his people; to reconcile himself with us and once again to be our God and have us as his people. He seeks to restore what was lost, not because he’s missing out, but because we are. God is good, he is gracious and giving, and he loves to pour out and share his abundant goodness and invite others to share in his glorious generosity. All along, God’s plan was to restore what had been lost to us through our own wilful sinfulness, that which we would spend our energy and time searching for, a relationship with God.
Once a year, one man, the high priest, could go behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place. He would do so offering blood from a sacrifice as a payment for sin thereby restoring a relationship with God for the people. If I were him, I’d do so with significant trepidation, a sinful man entering the presence of a holy God. Even after all the washing and changing of clothes was done, and making sacrifice for my own sin, I could never enter God’s presence confidently. Can you imagine the nerves as you kissed your family goodbye that morning and you walked towards the curtain taking that long final breath before stepping behind the curtain and into the presence of God Almighty?
This is where the torn curtain speaks so powerfully to us. Jesus’ death in Mark chapter 15 verse 37 is the first headline, the second is the tearing of the whole curtain from top to bottom, and the final one is the centurion’s proclamation of faith. Jesus’ death, being cut off from his Father and experiencing the hell we deserve, opens up the way for sinful humanity to come to God. The centurion, an uncircumcised outsider, disadvantaged in every way possible under the old system, who could never enter any further than an outer courtyard, can now enter God’s presence through the blood of Jesus. So can we, by faith!
Whereas sin prohibits people from entering God’s presence, Jesus ushers them in because he has become sin for us and credits us with his perfect record. The curtain, which has loomed so large for so long, is totally torn from top to bottom. There’s not a single strand of barrier remaining. Now, as we approach his throne God sees us as in Christ, robed in his righteousness and not our filthy rags. We can confidently come into God’s presence without the need for elaborate offerings because Jesus is our once for all perfectly atoning offering. We no longer need to complete religious rituals, or cleanse ourselves by trying to be good enough, or strive to earn enough credit through acts of righteousness, we can simply come to God through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Firstly, that ought to make us praise God in wonder. What a salvation! What a joy! What love! We ought to celebrate, sing about and rejoice in this heart-warming, joy-giving, praise-creating wonder.
Secondly, it ought to move us to come to him. There is no barrier, there is nothing keeping us out of the presence of God, apart from ourselves and our stubborn, prideful refusal to accept his grace, to soak our soul in it, and come to God as we are.
The curtain is totally torn as a permanent reminder: Jesus ushers us in. It is us who turn away, convinced that we still have to earn our salvation, erecting our own feeble curtain of works, performance or ministry. Maybe we are convinced that something disqualifies us from coming to God, perhaps our anxieties, our past, our present or our mental health, but the torn curtain powerfully proclaims that we are welcome. It invites us to come with our sin, our confession, our guilty failure, our worries and our anxieties because of Jesus, and we will find acceptance and rest.