GOOD FRIDAY: The CURTAIN (part 2 of 4)
MARK 15:33-41 (also Mt 27:45-56; Lk 23:44-49; Jn 19:29-30)
33 At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 36 One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. 37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
If we unintentionally read this “Death of Jesus” passage too quickly, we might miss one of the most important features presented to us here in Mark’s gospel, verse 38, where it says that at the very point of Jesus’ death, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”. Within the flow of this emotion-packed report, it would be so easy to skim past this little verse in order to regain the gripping thread of the larger narrative, but we’d miss so much by not just stopping and dwelling on what it really meant for that curtain to tear like it did; when it did.
With a cursory reading only, we might accidentally miss the significance altogether; the mystic in us might conclude that God was simply showcasing his mighty power by ripping the curtain (Mk 15:39, Lk 23:47), and/or the skeptic in us might deduce that the earthquake must have somehow caused the tear by mere natural means (Mt 27:51). But this misses the deeper theological point. It’s about so much more.
This temple “curtain”, also translated as “veil”, from the Greek word “katapetasma” itself held deep religious importance to the Jewish people as it was the impenetrable barrier that separated the special “holy of holies” from the rest of the temple. If you recall, the “holy of holies” was the inner sanctum where the yearly atonement took place: Nobody but the appointed Great High Priest, and only one time each year (Day of Atonement), and only by fulfilling all manner of procedure and ritual, would dare step foot into that most holy site! All the Jewish people had far too much respect (and fear) of the Holy God who, in some earthly sense, resided in that most holy place behind that closed curtain.
This word translated curtain/veil, katapetasma, is used three times in the synoptic gospels; once in each “Death of Jesus” account in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Interestingly it’s only used three other times in all of the rest of the New Testament, and all three of those appear in the book of Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews, connecting this Good Friday event with the person and work of Jesus writes, “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” (Heb 10:19-22).
So what does all this mean?
What the first century Jews knew, and what the writer of Hebrews is referring to, was that the physical ripping of the temple curtain symbolized the absolute blasting apart of the barrier between mankind and God; so that afterwards, we could now approach God’s holiness face to face without fear of certain immediate death. And more specifically, this all took place because the greatest of all Great High Priests, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who truly was completely pure and sin-free, accomplished the perfect atonement for sins by his death, thereby making that temple curtain (and even the temple itself along with the entire Old Testament sacrificial system) obsolete.
Jesus is our Great High Priest, the very sacrificial Lamb himself, and per the Hebrews passage, the curtain/veil itself also! He made perfect atonement once and for all through his accomplished work via death on the executioner’s cross. In a sense, Jesus came into that holy of holies, through the ripped curtain/veil of his torn and destroyed body, sprinkling the blood of the spotless sacrificial lamb (himself) and in doing so, making atonement; consequently redeeming mankind and all creation from sin and death. All because of love.
Theologians use words like expiation and propitiation to describe more specifically what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Expiation with the prefix “ex”, means taking “out of” or taking “away from” tells us that Jesus took away our guilt and shame of sin. He sent it away much like the scapegoat of the Old Testament would be sent off into the remote wilderness (after the high priest laid the collective sins of the people onto his body). Propitiation with the prefix “pro”, meaning “for” tells us that Jesus positions us into a positive place before God by placing onto us HIS righteousness, purity, and holiness before God.
In other words, a big switch occurred: Jesus took upon himself what we should rightly deserve due to sin nature; judgment and death, while he also simultaneously puts upon us what only HE would have otherwise deserved; perfect standing before God along with full adoption as sons and daughters.
So the ripping apart (Greek word “schizo”, also used of the heavens tearing open at Jesus’ Baptism Mk 1:10) of the curtain, though a short verse, nonetheless packs an enormous amount of theological information. A bit heady maybe, but extremely important and life-changing to comprehend and absorb.
In the context of this short four part series on Good Friday (this is part 2), how then would this torn curtain have been shocking and offensive to the first century Jews? The answer is at the very least, in this way: The actual tearing of the temple curtain would have definitely been frightening as it was perceived as a type of protective barrier. But more so the message itself which would have begun circulating from the very earliest Christians which would have attributed this curtain-ripping event to Jesus’ death rendering the Old Testament sacrificial system obsolete and unnecessary, this direct implication would have been viewed as tantamount to heresy, if not downright blasphemy!
This begs the question? Why include something so potentially problematic in the text? The only possible answer is that perhaps it is because these events were exactly what took place on that Good Friday.
Jesus: Our mediator, advocate; our Great High Priest. He is also our sacrificial lamb, our temple, and our ripped curtain!