And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.
The second miracle that took place when Jesus died was the tearing of the great veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the temple. Matthew, Mark and Luke all report the tearing of the veil. But Matthew and Mark add that it was torn “from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), suggesting that this was something God did and that it was heavy with spiritual significance.
The temple area was designed as a series of courts in the center of which was the temple building itself, divided into two parts. The first and larger part was the Holy Place. It contained the table where the shewbread was placed and the large seven-branched candlestick. There was a veil separating this room from the outer courts and another veil separating it from the innermost room called the Most Holy Place. In the early days of Israel’s history before the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians, this innermost room contained the ark of the covenant with its mercy seat and cherubim between the wings of which God was understood to dwell in a symbolic sense. The presence of God above the ark in the Most Holy Place testified to the presence of God with his people. But in a contrary way, the veil that divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place also pointed to the enormous gulf that exists between the holy God and ourselves, because of our sin. The veil was a way of saying symbolically but also unmistakably, “Thus far you may come, but no further.”
There was only one day in the year when the veil could be passed, and that was on the day of atonement when the high priest took the blood of an animal that had been killed moments before in the courtyard into the temple, carried it past the veil, and then sprinkled it on the mercy seat of the ark. The mercy seat was the ark’s cover or lid. On it were figures of two angels who faced each other and whose wings stretched backward and upward and almost touched at the top. That made a space in which God was understood to dwell in a symbolic way. Within the ark, below the space where God was thought to dwell, were the two tablets of the law.
In that form the ark is a picture of judgment, for the righteous, holy God of the universe is looking down on the law, knows that it has been broken, and must punish the people for their sin. This dramatic illustration stood on the temple mount daily throughout the year, as a constant reminder of God’s judgment. But when blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat by the high priest on the day of atonement, coming between God and the law that had been broken, the act indicated that an atonement for sin had been made and grace was illustrated. An innocent victim had died in the people’s place, and rather than pouring forth wrath, God was now able to show grace and mercy to the people. This pointed forward to the true and final atonement that would be made by Jesus Christ on the cross. It pointed forward to his death just as all the other sacrifices of the Old Testament dispensation did.
It is here that we see the significance of the tearing of the veil. It showed that when Jesus died everything the Old Testament sacrifices pointed to was fulfilled. There was no need for any further sacrifice, and the way to God was open for all who would put their trust in Jesus.
Also, the veil was torn in two at three in the afternoon which was the time of the evening sacrifice. So the priests would have been in the temple when the veil was torn. They would have seen it, no doubt standing aghast before the now exposed innermost recess of the temple, and they would have known that the age in which they had served was over and a new age of God’s dealings with his people had begun. This may be the explanation of what we read later in Acts: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).