The Meaning of the Rent Veil
And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:37–38)
When Jesus uttered His last words while dying on the cross, God tore the veil in the Temple from top to bottom. It is one of the most powerful images in the entire Bible; with this act, God told the world that everything had changed. Humanity’s relationship with Him would never be the same, nor would our relationships with each other.
To help us understand the power of what God did, let us take a little walk through the Jewish Temple of Jesus’s day. The first king Herod, Herod the Great, claimed to be king of the Jews. He knew the Jewish people judged their kings by their king’s relationship with the Temple.(1) This idea went back to the days of David and Solomon, when David planned the original Temple and Solomon built it. Hezekiah and Josiah, who were considered good kings, cleansed the Temple from pagan influences. Zerubbabel rebuilt it after the Babylonians destroyed it. Later, Judas Maccabaeus cleansed it again at the Maccabean revolt. Today’s Jews still commemorate Judas Maccabaeus’s great victory and all the miracles that accompanied it at the celebration known as Hanukkah.
Wanting to win the people’s hearts, King Herod decided to build the grandest temple of them all. Ever since the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 587 bc, the Jewish house of God had not regained the glory of Solomon’s Temple. Herod took all the measurements of the original and doubled them, thinking the people would surely respond to a temple twice as glorious as Solomon’s.
And indeed it was. Solomon’s Temple took seven years to complete; Herod’s took eighty-two.(2) In fact, the Herod who started it was not the Herod who finished it. Agrippa II, Herod the Great’s great-grandson, was king when the Jews completed God’s House.
We have some pretty big church buildings in the modern era, yet none of them compare to Herod’s Temple. The Temple complex, with its adjoining structures, was so big that it took up as much as 20 percent of Jerusalem.(3) Its floors were marble, and its walls were white limestone, which gave its buildings a glowing appearance. Many of its interior walls were covered in solid gold, its tapestries rivaled any in the world, and its gates were so huge it took twenty or thirty men to open and close them. It was said in that day that a person had never truly seen a beautiful building unless he had seen Herod’s Temple.
In some of our large churches today, we might have fifty or more ministers serving a congregation, but thousands of priests and Levites served the Temple in Jerusalem. The daily operations of the Jewish House of God were a sight to behold, and the great feasts there were even more of a spectacle when thousands of worshippers flocked to Jerusalem to participate. Without a doubt, the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life.
Despite its beauty and grand presentations, Herod’s Temple said something about the people’s relationship with God and with each other. If we had to pick one word to describe the Temple’s message about the nature of relationships before Christ, a good choice would be “separation.” There was separation between God and humanity, between man and man, and even between woman and man.
The Temple had three major courts or divisions.(4) The outermost area was called the Court of the Gentiles and was a space reserved primarily for tourists and Gentiles who came to honor Israel’s God. People came from all over the world to see Herod’s glorious Temple, and as long as they were respectful, the Jews allowed them to behold the majesty of God’s most holy building. Foreigners could also purchase various animals for the priests to offer as a sacrifice, though they had to use the Temple’s own holy currency. And that required the assistance of money changers, who were notorious for giving very unfair exchange rates. It was because of these money changers that Jesus said the Temple had become a “den of thieves.”(5)
At the entrance to the second court, a large sign spelled out an ominous warning in bright red letters. Not too long ago, archeologists discovered fragments of the original engraving. It said:
No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.(6)
Those who were not descendants of Abraham, who were uncircumcised, who were unclean, or who did not keep Torah could not enter the second court. It was more holy than the first court, and a worshipper had to follow suit to cross the divide. But Gentiles were not the only ones barred from this second area. The lame, the blind, lepers, and notorious sinners such at the tax collectors could not enter either.
In other words, if a person’s linage was not right or if what a person did was not right, he or she could not worship with the righteous. And if someone unclean or unholy did manage to enter the forbidden area, it could cost him his life. The Romans did not allow the Jews to carry out capital punishment except in instances of this one offence.
The second court, or center court, was divided into three sub-courts. The Court of the Women was first, and as the name implies, Jewish women could worship here (as could Jewish men and children). Beyond that was the Court of Israel, and only Jewish laymen could enter here. Finally, there was the Court of the Priesthood. This area was the closest to the Holiest of Holies, and a person had to have the high calling of a priest to enter a place so near to God.
Beyond the second court was the Holiest of Holies, or God’s court. While the Temple provided the Gentiles with their own court and the Jews with another, the third court was God’s dwelling alone. A thick veil surrounded this most holy place, and beyond the veil was the Shekinah—the outshining of the glory of God Himself. The Jews considered the Holiest of Holies to be the place where heaven touched and became one with the Earth. No one except the High Priest could enter the Holiest of Holies, and he only did so once a year, at the Feast of Atonement. If a Gentile went into the Court of the Jews, man would kill him. However, if a person went into the Holiest of Holies unlawfully, the Old Testament tells us God would kill him.
It is interesting that the Torah had no command to stone Gentiles who came too near to the Holiest of Holies, nor did it contain many of the other distinctions instituted by the religious authorities in Herod’s Temple. But one has only to look at the Holiest of Holies to see why the Jews added them. If we tend to act like our concept of God, and if the Lord excludes those who are less holy than Himself, we will naturally exclude those whom we consider less holy than us.
Before Christ came, the Temple was a picture of God’s relationship with humanity and of humanity’s relationships among its members. There was separation between God and humanity, Jew and Gentile, and even man and woman. Self-righteousness leaves us looking down on our neighbor and up to an unreachable God, and such was the case in the culture that built Herod’s Temple. By dying and rising from the grave, Jesus tore down these walls of separation—tore right through the veil of Shekinah—to flood the Earth with heaven and bring back those “who once were far off.”
Therefore, remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation.… (Ephesians 2:11–14)
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.…” (Ephesians 2:19)
What “middle wall” was Paul talking about in Ephesians 2:14? No doubt, he was talking about the wall between the Court of the Gentiles and the second courts of the Jews. In Ephesians 2:19, the apostle tells the Gentiles they are no longer foreigners. Recall that forboding sign between the court of the Jews and the court of the Gentiles: “No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary….” When Jesus died for all, that sign had to go. There was no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile; God made them into one new person.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26–28)
Paul shows us that God removed the separations of the middle court as well. For instance, there is no longer a distinction between male and female when it comes to one’s closeness to God. This does not mean there is no more gender, but in Jesus’s day, people considered men more righteous than women.(7) Men generally did not talk to women in public, and education in theological matters was for men only.
Today, we don’t realize how radical Jesus was in these matters. He gave women the respectful title of “Daughters of Abraham,”(8) not only talking with them in public but allowing them to be His disciples as well.(9) In the book of Luke, we read the account of Jesus’s stay at the home of Mary and Martha. Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to the Lord teach, and Martha got upset because Mary was not helping with the meal preparations. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the better thing, however. Not knowing the customs of the day, we might wonder why Luke recorded such a seemingly trivial incident. Yet at that time, it served to show that the kingdom of God was near. A woman was sitting at the feet of a rabbi, a place reserved for men, learning about the kingdom of God. This is yet more evidence that Jesus was a Rabbi like no other. He tore down the wall between the Court of the Women and the Court of Israel in His ministry, and He removed this distinction in all finality at the cross.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.… (I Peter 2:9)
Another wall that would crumble at the cross was the one between the priesthood and the other courts. According to the Torah, the descendants of Aaron would serve as priests, members of the tribe of Levi would offer assistance, and only these men could go to God on behalf of everyone else.(10) Those not of this lineage could not offer sacrifices to the Lord themselves lest they be punished with certain death; all others had to go through the Temple priesthood. Now, under the new covenant, we see a holy nation where all are priests unto God.(11) All may approach the throne of grace.
We still sometimes try to put up the wall between the priesthood and the laity in our day. Are clergy really closer to God than the laity? Does the Lord more readily hear their prayers? Are they more holy or righteous? To think so is to give insult to the cross. God tore down that wall a long time ago.
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14–16)
This passage contains is a little Temple talk about the walls and the veil. The throne of grace was the mercy seat in the Holiest of Holies, and because our High Priest, the Lord Jesus, we can now come into the presence of God without fear. The veil between God and humanity has been forever removed.
Under the old covenant, no one came into God’s presence boldly. During the Jewish Feast of Atonement, for example, only the High Priest entered beyond the veil to make an offering for the people. We might think the High Priest would be overjoyed on the day he could enter into the Shekinah of God; on the contrary, fear ruled that time. Imagine the pressure the High Priest faced as he went through the exacting rituals the Law demanded—the fate of Israel for the coming year depended on his performance. One error could mean disaster, not only for him but for the whole nation.
Fortunately, Jesus, the Highest Priest of all, accomplished His mission, and God accepted the His sacrifice. Now the presence of God is available forever, a place of love and mercy not condemnation.
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (II Corinthians 5:21)
The various courts and sub-courts of the Temple reflected levels of righteousness. A person had to have the righteousness of a Gentile to enter the first court. (In other words, not much!) A worshipper with the righteousness of a devout Jew could enter the second court, which meant he or she was a descendant of Abraham and kept God’s Law. But within this second court, worthiness was further divided: if a person had the righteousness of a Jewish woman, he or she could enter the Court of the Women; if this fellow had the righteousness of a Jewish man, he could proceed into the Court of Israel; and if his righteousness was even greater than that of a layman, based on an even more exclusive lineage, he could enter the Court of the Priesthood. According to the Torah, priests had to be the descendants of Aaron, and they had to keep more exacting laws and rituals. And since no one had righteousness as great as God’s, even God had His own court.
God in Christ Jesus removed all the distinctions of the Temple by becoming sin for all and by giving His own righteousness to all. In the old system, a person’s lineage, occupation, and character meant everything. Under the new covenant, God took the righteousness issue out of humanity’s hands once and for all.
When God gave His own righteousness as a gift, the veil that had stood for 1500 years proved no match for this immense love. We cannot comprehend the divine satisfaction the Lord must have experienced as He forcefully ripped the veil from top to bottom. Now, nothing could separate Him from His beloved.
With the fall of the wall between God and man, the walls between our neighbors and us fell also. If both Jew and Gentile have the righteousness of God, can there be any distinction between the two? If men and women have the righteousness of Christ, how can one gender look down upon the other? If both the priesthood and the laity have the righteousness of Christ, how can one claim to be closer to God than the other? In dying and rising from the grave, Jesus made peace in every human relationship. The self-righteousness of the old order led to separation, and the new covenant gift of righteousness leads to union. When God became one with us through Christ, we became one with each other.
The Jewish people expected their Messiah/King to build the true temple of God. However, their King did this in an unexpected way: He built it not out of earthly stone but out of living stone. His people would be the new covenant temple of the Holy Spirit.(12) The place where heaven touches Earth is no longer a building in Jerusalem; it is God’s people. In fact, His beloved see God’s house every time they look in the mirror.
The whole world changed the day Jesus rose from the dead, and it is no wonder Jesus prophesied that the old covenant Temple’s days were numbered. In Matthew 24, Jesus pointed to Herod’s Temple and said it would be thrown down “with not one stone left…upon another,(13) and His words came to pass. Only seven years after the Temple was completed, the Romans destroyed it. In the great fire that engulfed the structure, the Temple’s vast quantities of gold melted, and to recover it all, the Romans tore down each and every stone.(14)
The torn veil is a reminder of God’s triumph, and we must be humble in this fact. But human arrogance takes many forms. One is to believe closeness to God is our achievement. Another is to believe our weaknesses and failures can undo what God has done. Contempt for our brother and “us” and “them” thinking also violates the new covenant. God made it clear that humanity could not take down the veil, and it is just as clear that we cannot put it back up. Instead, we must open our eyes not only to how much God loves us but also to how much He loves our neighbor. “I am closer to God than you” is a human-made distinction ripped in two just as assuredly as the veil itself.
1. Jesus and the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 [Augsburg Fortress Press, 1997]).
2. The New Testament and the People of God, by N. T. Wright (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1 [Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992]).
3. The Temples That Jerusalem Forgot, by Ernest L. Martin (Academy for Scriptural Knowledge, 1994).
4. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, by Alfred Edersheim (Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).
5. Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, and Luke 19:46.
6. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World, by Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002).
7. Gregg Cantelmo has an excellent and well-documented article called “How Jesus Ministered to Women.” You can find it at http://bible.org/article/how-jesus-ministered-women.
8. Luke 16:13.
9. In John, chapter 4, we read the story of the woman at the well. At the end of the story (John 4:27), Jesus’s disciples “marveled that He talked to a woman.” This story is extraordinary because this woman—rather than a man—became Christ’s chief witness in Samaria. Moreover, the revelation that Jesus was the Messiah came first to a woman, something the Jews considered completely unacceptable.
10. Numbers 18:1–7. By the first century, such distinctions were often ignored. The election of the High Priest, especially, had become largely political.
11. I Peter 2:5.
12. Ephesians 2:19–22.
13. Matthew 24:1–2.
14. The Veil Is Torn, ad 30 to ad 70: Pentecost to the Destruction of Jerusalem, edited by Ted Byfield (The Christians Their First Two Thousand Years, vol.1 [Christian History Project, Inc., 2003]).