THE TORN CURTAIN
I think that most of us know that Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn and important day of the Jewish calendar. In the Old Testament, the Day of Atonement was the day the High Priest made an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the people. This act of atonement, or restitution, brought reconciliation between the people and God. Two goats were used. One was used as a sacrifice. After the blood of this goat was offered to the Lord in the holy of holies, another goat was released into the wilderness to symbolically carry away the sins of the people. This "scapegoat" was never to return. Understanding this is key to our understanding of why the curtain in the temple was torn in half, from top to bottom, when our Lord died on the cross of Calvary.
The Holy of Holies held the mercy seat and, at one time, the Ark of the covenant. Only the High Priest could enter this Most Holy Place, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The curtain is that which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. It was a wall of protection, so to speak to prevent people from entering, because anyone who entered would die, except for the high priest, and he could only enter one day of the year, on the day of atonement.
This purple, scarlet, and blue curtain was long. It was not like the curtains we find in our homes today. The temple curtain was four inches thick. It was 60 feet long and 30 feet wide. It would have weighed somewhere in the region of 4 tons. Now, that’s some curtain! It would have taken 300 men to hold it. So no, this was not a typical living room curtain that you can find at Walmart.
This curtain not only separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, as I already said, it also served as a symbol of the separation of God from sinful humanity. It marked the boundary between God’s pure holiness and the wickedness of mankind. It was not possible to go beyond the curtain because our sins have separated us from a Holy God. The profane and the Holy simply cannot occupy the same space.
The connection between the death of Jesus and the torn curtain is not just about God's power or divine justice. More importantly, it also demonstrates who Jesus is and what he accomplished on the cross. Remember, before Jesus gave up his spirit in death he said, “It is finished.” What was finished? Not only were these words in recognition that his suffering was over, but also that his mission was now complete.
By offering up himself as a sacrifice for our sins, the innocent for the guilty; the pure for the tainted, he had paid the price for our sin. There would be no more need for any more sacrifices, for Jesus was the sacrifice that all the others pointed to. There would be no more need for the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies for the atonement of the people’s sin, for Jesus died, one for all.
This is why the tearing to the curtain is so significant. We now have access to God through Jesus. Jesus Himself now serves as our high priest. Jesus has provided for our atonement through His death on the cross.
We also read in Hebrews 8:13, "In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” The tearing of the curtain is symbolic of this as well. Our lives, as people of God, are no longer to revolve around the covenant of the law, which served to point to Jesus, but rather the covenant of the cross, which saves us from our sin.
We read in Psalm 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” And in Isaiah 1:18 “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Both David and Isaiah knew of the forgiveness that would come through Jesus. We no longer have this to look forward to, but can live in its light each and every day.
As we ponder the cross of our Savior this night, and all that was accomplished there, remember the torn curtain as well. Jesus did not become one of us in order to excuse sin, tolerate it, or to brush it aside. He did the most loving thing imaginable. He absorbed the punishment we deserve that we might once again be called children of God and be able to stand in his most holy presence.
The torn curtain tells us that Jesus accomplished all that he set out to do. As we lay our sins at Jesus feet, we know they will be forgiven. We know that our salvation has been secured and that, through faith, the guilt and stain of our sin will be washed away. We know that the key to the kingdom of heaven, namely the forgiveness of our sin, is there to be had. And this is why we call this Friday, Good.