God’s Grand Exit: Rethinking Why the Temple Veil Was Torn
On the day Jesus died a rather extraordinary event happened in the temple. It’s made even more extraordinary by the fact that most of us get it completely backwards.
What happened? The veil separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom. We usually assume that the ripped veil was a symbol that the avenue to God has been cleared of roadblocks. No more veil, no more wall, no more only one Jewish dude dressed to the liturgical nines entering annually with goat blood in his hands to paint the seat of mercy. All that’s over and done. Since Jesus veni vidi vici (came and saw and conquered), all that Leviticus stuff has been boxed up, handed to UPS, and shipped off to the museum.
Now that is true. But it’s not why the temple veil was torn in two from top to bottom.
The veil was not torn to let us in but to let God out.
Remember a key point about holiness in Israel. Holiness had a center from which centrifugal areas of holiness spread out like ripples on a pond. The Holy of Holies was the holiest place, the epicenter of sanctity, because it was God’s little cube on this third rock from the sun. His address was 1 Temple Avenue. The closer some person or some thing was to this epicenter, the holier it was. The farther away, the less holy it was. Sanctification was as much spatial as it was theological.
But this old way of worship had a shelf life. God was planning a great big surprise party for the cosmos. He was waiting for the right moment to pack up His sanctification suitcase, bid adieu to His cube, and hit the road to take holiness everywhere He went. And that’s precisely what He did when Jesus cried out, “It is finished.” God moved out of the Holy of Holies. Or, to put it another way, God kicked down the door in the temple and brought the Holy of Holies out to us.
I’ll say it again: The veil was not torn to let us in but to let God out.
Zechariah had winked about this change centuries before. He foretold the day when even the bells on the horses would bear the inscription, “Holy to the LORD.” The same words reserved for the headpiece of the head honcho of the priesthood would now be inscribed on the jingling harnesses of horses in the street (Zech 14:20). What’s more, the cooking pots that moms use to make lunch in Jewish kitchens would be just as holy as the cooking pot used for sacrifices in the temple (Zech 14:21).
In other words, Aslan is on the move. Yahweh has slipped on His Nikes and gone for a long, long walk—and He brings holiness with Him.
He brings it to us: Jews and Gentiles, men and women, old and young. He’s profligate with His holiness, throwing it here and there as if He can’t get rid of it fast enough. He’s not like some miser who growls at people as they come groveling for holiness. He runs at them and presses it into their hands.
He liquidates the Holy of Holies into a font of water and splashes sanctification on us unwashed, unholy sinners, thereby crowning us kings and queens of God. He bakes the Holy of Holies into a circle of bread, ferments it into a sip of wine, and bids us digest His love. Even the mere speaking of His words showers us with sanctity as those nouns and verbs, like a flock of holy birds, come and nest in our hearts.
If horses’ bells and mom’s frying pan are now holy because Yahweh has infiltrated Jerusalem, then there’s a whole lot more that’s holy. Our ears and eyes and feet and hands are holy, too. Work is holy. Play is holy. Smoking my pipe is holy. Making love to my spouse is holy. Driving my truck is holy. Taking my dog for a walk is holy. Sanctification has flooded the world beginning at the cross. Neither in Jerusalem or Samaria shall we worship the Father, Jesus says, but we worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:21, 23). Where His Spirit and truth are, there is holiness.
To borrow a phrase from, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”: When it comes to the temple, God’s done R-U-N-N-O-F-T.
The veil is ripped in two. God has vacated the Holy of Holies. And He’s come out to meet us, to holy us, to forgive us, and to make us all His priests who serve Him in the temples of our lives and the altars of our vocations. Where He is with His Spirit, with this truth, with His gifts, there is the Holy of Holies.
That’s why the temple veil was torn in two.
Chad is an author and speaker devoted to honest Christianity that addresses the raw realities of life. The Gospel is for broken, messed up people like himself. Whether he's writing or speaking, his focus remains on God's Good News for our world: that Jesus is the friend of sinners. He was willing to give his life that we might have freedom and forgiveness in him. He holds Master's degrees from Concordia Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College.
Night Driving tells the story of a pastor and seminary professor whose moral failures destroyed his marriage and career, left his life in ruins, and sent him spiraling into a decade-long struggle against God. Forced to fight the demons of his past in the cab of the semi-truck he drove at night through the Texas oil fields, Chad Bird slowly began to limp toward grace and healing.