In our Easter-week series, we look at a rather unusual and often overlooked Good Friday event: three “flash-forwards” that point to what would happen on Easter Sunday. It’s best to begin from part one, yesterday.
The first little flash-forward we’re given is the torn temple-curtain. Pointing us to the fact that Jesus’ resurrection will bring us direct access to God. Let’s read from verse 50 again:27:50-51 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The first preview, the first sign happens the instant Jesus dies. Miraculously – from top to bottom – the temple curtain is torn in two. What’s that all about?
To understand this, we need to understand the significance of the curtain. In Israel, the temple was the place God dwelt among his people. Specifically, he was enthroned upon the ark of the covenant, which was placed in the innermost part of the temple. The holy of holies. Cut off from the rest of the temple by an enormous, thick curtain. Kind of like the first class section on a plane.
You see, although God symbolically ‘dwelt’ there, we humans weren’t allowed in the holy of holies. We weren’t allowed in to the presence of God because of our sin. Once a year, on the day of atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – only on that day could the high priest enter. And only after offering an animal sacrifice for his sin, and undergoing some elaborate purification rituals.
So this curtain is in a way symbolic of the entire Old Testament sacrificial system. The fact that we don’t have access to God’s presence. The fact that our sin is a barrier between us and God. That if we want to come to God, we need to offer a sacrifice. We need to become ritually pure. We need to go through a priest, who deals with God on our behalf.
So when Jesus dies and this temple curtain is torn in two, it’s a symbol that the OT sacrificial system is about to be done away with! Torn from top-to-bottom, meaning that God is the one who’s doing it. He’s the one who’s making it obsolete! Jesus has become the once-for-all sacrifice. And at his resurrection, Jesus will now be the high priest, through whom we have direct access to God. Jesus will now be the one who purifies us from all unrighteousness, so that we can be in God’s presence.
More than that, Jesus is the very presence of God. He is the new temple – the place where God dwells among his people. There’s even a nice parallel between this and the start of Jesus’ ministry, at his baptism. There the heavens were torn, and God’s spirit, his presence descends on Jesus. And then at the end of his ministry, at the point of his death, the earthly temple is torn & God’s presence leaves. For now Jesus is God’s presence. Jesus is the place we go to find God, not some temple. We don’t have to go through a priest; the sacrifices; the rituals & purifications. Because of Jesus’ death & resurrection, we have direct access to God!
So the tearing of this curtain would have been a powerful symbol to the original readers of this gospel. But we’re not Jews living under the old covenant, so some of its significance is probably a bit lost on us. So let me update the image for you just a little, to something we can all probably relate to. (Turn audio on and press play.)
Frustrating, isn’t it. But now, because of what Jesus has done, I’ve got God on speed dial. Straight through, without having to speak to any priests, customer service representatives, or automated voices. Jesus has given us direct access to God. Our sin has been dealt with by the blood of Jesus. As it says in Heb ch 10:Heb 10:19-22 Therefore, brothers, 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 in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
So the tearing of the curtain, this little flash-forward at Jesus’ death – it shows us what’s about to take place at his resurrection. A new and living way to come to God directly. God dwelling among his people not in a building, but actually within us, through his Holy Spirit.
And yet, that in itself is really only a flash-forward. A sneak-peek. Our present experience of direct access to God because of Jesus’ resurrection – that’s just a taste of what’s to come, at our own resurrection. I might have God on speed dial now, but there’s coming a day when I can throw away my phone. There’s coming a day when I will see God face-to-face. As the apostle Paul said in 1 Cor 13:1 Cor 13:12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Jesus’ resurrection has made my own resurrection possible. And the access to God we now have – that’s given us merely a glimpse of what it will be like to see God.