We have been discussing some of the significant things that happened just before Jesus gave up His spirit on the cross. Now, we are going to look at some of the momentous things that happened after Jesus gave up His spirit. Immediately after this final act of Jesus, we read, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mt. 27:51).
The temple in Jerusalem was immensely important to the Jewish people and is a critical theme throughout the whole Bible. God’s desire, since the creation of the universe, has always been relationship with humanity. The Garden of Eden was the place where heaven (God’s space) and earth (humanity’s space) overlapped, and God could live in community with His image-bearers. The whole earth was supposed to be God’s temple, the place where His presence resides. After Adam and Eve sin and are exiled from the Eden, God still desires to be with His people. The place where this could be accomplished eventually became the temple building in Jerusalem. The building itself was full of Garden imagery, because this physical space, like the Garden of Eden, was where heaven and earth overlapped. One of the scandalous claims Jesus made, while on earth, was that He was the temple (Jn 2:21). Jesus Himself was the full presence of God on earth, the place where heaven and earth overlapped.
As the true Temple, Jesus exercised His royal authority over the temple building (Mt. 21; Mk 11; Lk 19; Jn 2). The Jewish leaders, however, did not recognize Jesus as the temple. They rejected Him, and in doing so, rejected God. They mocked Jesus as He was hanging on the cross on their behalf (Mt. 27:41-43). Then, when Jesus gave up His spirit, the curtain, behind which the presence of God dwelt, “was torn from top to bottom.” Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24 that the temple would be destroyed; a prophecy that was eventually fulfilled in A.D. 70. In the Old Testament, before the temple was destroyed, God’s presence departed from it (Eze 10:4-18). Now, in response to the people’s rejection and in anticipation of the coming judgment, God’s presence once again leaves the temple.
The tearing of the curtain has another important implication as well. The curtain separated the inner sanctuary from the rest of the temple. The inner sanctuary was known as the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies because this was the place where God’s presence most fully dwelt. The High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies once a year to offer a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. But now, through His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus made the ultimate atonement for the sins of the whole world. He “entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). His death reconciled humanity with God and the curtain tore symbolizing access to God being made available to everyone who accepts Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement for their sins.
Having never lived in the time before Jesus made a way for us to commune with God, I think we sometimes take this amazing gift for granted. But the weight of this gift should never be forgotten and should always be appreciated. The curtain being torn means we are no longer separated from God’s throne of grace. We can come to Him in our time of need, because Jesus restored our access to His presence like it was in the Garden. Because Jesus gave up His spirit we can now “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16).