The Torn Curtain

“From the sixth hour it became dark over all the earth until the ninth hour. And behold! the curtain in the Temple was split in two from the top down and the earth shook and the rocks split.”

(Matthew 27:45,51)

“And it was the sixth hour when it became dark over the whole earth until the ninth hour. And the curtain of the Temple was split in two from the top down.”

(Mark 15:33,38)

“And it was about the sixth hour and it became dark over the whole earth until the ninth hour — the sun’s light failed. Also, the curtain in the Temple was split in two.”

(Luke 23:44-45)

And so, darkness covered the earth for the next three hours that led up until Jesus’ death…and with that darkness came silence from the cross for three hours. It is to be sure that the agony and moans of the women were present along with some of the jeering and questioning of the people and likely groans from the cross as our Lord undertook the full wrath of the Father upon his soul for our sins, but nothing is recorded. The Gospel writers simply leave it as a time of excruciating silence.

You may remember that we are following Luke’s chronology of the Gospel accounts as we harmonize them and so we also include the bit about the Temple curtain here as Luke connects it to the darkness. Truly, whether the curtain is torn at the beginning or at the end of this three hour period — or even slowly across the three hours — it makes little difference to the harmony, what is most significant is the event itself that is taking place.

The curtain in question is the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the innermost Holy of Holies. The former place, priests would enter to keep the incense burning and to light the Menorah at night, but the innermost place, the Holy of Holies, was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was to be kept with God’s Mercy Seat, onto which the blood of Atonement would be sprinkled. It was here that the High Priest would enter only once per year. The curtain’s purpose was to veil the glory of God from the priests who went about their daily rounds.

By Jesus’ day, the curtain itself was massive and quite glorious. Depending on how one measured a cubit, the curtain stood more than 60 feet high and 30 feet wide. The Jewish Historian Josephus describes the curtain in this way:

“It was a Babylonian tapestry embroidered with blue, white linen, scarlet and purple thread and of a magnificent texture. The colors were mystical in their interpretation. They represented a sort of image of the universe. The scarlet thread seemed to signify fire; the white linen earth; the blue air; and the purple signified sea. The scarlet and the blue thread might be identified by their color — fire and sky. The while linen and purple might be identified by their origin, as one comes from the earth and the other from the sea. And so a vista of the heavens was displayed on the curtain, but the signs of the Zodiac were omitted.”

(Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Wars, in Today’s English by Bob Beasley, 5.5.4, pg. 308)

The symbolism here is powerful. The fact that it was torn from the top down, it has often been pointed out, necessitates that it was a work of God and not man that tore the fabric. Then again, in the account of Alfred Edersheim, the Jewish Rabbi converted to Christianity in the 19th Century, the curtain was the thickness of a man’s palm and the tearing could not be accounted for on the basis of any natural event. So, from either the top or the bottom, it was an act of God — the top down approach seals the deal.

It is recognized that the book of Revelation is highly debated in its interpretation, but Revelation 6:12-14 describes the sun growing dark, the earth shaking, and the sky being rolled up like a scroll. The elements here are very reflective of the event of our Lord on the cross and it could be argued that the Temple Curtain, with its “image of the universe” upon it, is what John is speaking of at least metaphorically.

Theologically, two things are both more certain and more significant. The first is that the Tabernacle and then the Temple was meant to be symbolic, with the Holy of Holies representing (being a shadow of) the presence of God. Into this, by his sacrifice, Jesus opened a way, entering into the eternal Holy of Holies as the Great High Priest and carrying with him the blood of a perfect sacrifice (see Hebrews 9:1-16). Thus, we enter through this curtain as well, having been fully atoned for by the once and for all time sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:11-14; 19-21). As the physical temple was meant as a symbol of eternal realities, the opening up of the Holy of Holies by the rending of the Curtain was a sign of the eternal reality — a reality that could only be brought about by God’s work and not man’s (hence the significance of God rending the curtain).

In addition, the Curtain was used to veil the Ark of the Covenant when the Ark was in transport (Exodus 26:31-33; 40:21;  Numbers 4:5). Thus, the Ark, which represented God’s glory, was kept covered to veil that glory, just as Jesus’ flesh veiled the full glory of Christ (Philippians 2:7; Matthew 17:2). And thus, as Jesus’ body was rent in death, so too, the curtain, which represented his body (Hebrews 10:20), was rent as well to make way for the glory which would be seen in the Resurrection and Ascension.

This, Luke connects to the darkness on the cross, for here the Light of the World is buried under the wrath of God to pay the penalty due for the sins of those who believe…God’s elect through the ages. Woe to those who stand before God’s judgment not covered in the blood of the Lamb.

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