Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And,
behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and
the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many
bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his
resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Matthew 27:50-53

And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the
temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.
Mark 15:37-38

And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.
Luke 23:45

Introduction

The gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that the death of Christ was accompanied
by miraculous signs. The very moment that our Lord’s lips are silent and He breathes
His last breath, God begins to speak in the unmistakable language of supernatural
wonders. There is the sign of rending of the veil in the Temple from top to bottom
(Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38), right down the middle (Lk. 23:45). Unlike Matthew and
Mark which place this event chronologically in their accounts, Luke mentions it
topically and places it after the three hours of darkness. There also are the miracles of
the earthquake and the resurrection of many saints near the holy city. The earthquake,
the rending of the rocky cliffs, the opening of the tombs and the resurrection of many
saints are only recorded in Matthew’s gospel (27:51-53). Although the events have a
certain order in Matthew’s narrative (1. rending of the veil, 2. earthquake, 3. rending
of the rocks, 4. opening the tombs, 5. raising the dead saints), it is very likely that
these events occurred simultaneously the moment that Jesus died.

While these miracles are indeed awe inspiring, we must not forget that their purpose is
to point men to the Savior and His amazing work of redemption. They can be
compared to little planets around a large brilliant sun or a circle of small polished gems
that surround a very large, flawless diamond. Spurgeon’s comments on this subject
are noteworthy. He writes: “The more you think of the death of the Son of God, the
more will you be amazed at it. As much as a miracle excels a common fact, so doth
this wonder of wonders rise above all miracles of power. That the divine Lord, even
though veiled in mortal flesh, should condescend to be subject to the power of death,
so as to bow his head on the cross, and submit to be laid in the tomb, is among
mysteries the greatest. The death of Jesus is the marvel of time and eternity, which as
Aaron’s rod swallowed up the rest, takes up into itself all lesser marvels.” God’s
greatest work and historical achievement was the sacrificial death of His own son.

The miracles that attend our Lord’s death are to focus our minds on the Redeemer’s
perfect finished work by giving us God’s marvelous commentary on what the
Mediator had just done. Interestingly, among the Jews tales “were told of
catastrophes occurring at the death of pious rabbis, especially those whose
intercession had been vital to the world; on rare occasions, Greek writers also applied
such stories to the deaths of prominent philosophers.” Thus, the marvels surrounding
the death of Christ would have at a minimum communicated to the people whether
Jewish or Gentile that this Man’s person and death were special and unique.

In order to properly consider the signs before us we will consider each sign in turn.
Regarding the miracle of the split veil there are three main areas to examine: (1) We
need to determine the facts of precisely what occurred to the best of our ability (e.g.
What was the curtain like? Which curtain was rent? etc.). (2) What is the message
that God is conveying to man by the rending of the veil? (3) What are some important
applications that can be derived from our text?

The Torn Curtain

As we examine the split veil we want to determine precisely what occurred.
Therefore, we need to determine: which veil in the temple was rent by God; what this
veil was like; what purpose this veil served in the temple; and, what the rending of the
veil must have been like.

Scholars are divided over which veil was torn in the temple because the temple
contained two curtains. There was the outer curtain which separated the sanctuary
from the forecourt (cf. Ex. 26:37; 38:18; Num. 3:26). This exterior curtain (the outer
veil) covered the entrance to the temple structure itself and would have been visible to
everyone facing that side of the temple. The innermost curtain (cf. Heb. 6:19) or the
“second” veil (cf. Heb. 9:3) was the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the
rest of the temple.

The vast majority of commentators believe that the inner curtain was the one torn for
the following reasons. First, the word used to describe the veil (Gk. katapetasma)
most often refers to the innermost veil next to the Holy of Holies. Second, the author
of Hebrews by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit interprets the suffering and death of
Christ as the means by which believers enter the heavenly Holy of Holies. “Therefore,
brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and
living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh” (Heb. 10:
19-20; cf. 6:19; 9:3). At the exact moment that our Savior died (i.e. when the veil of
His flesh was rent by death; when His soul was severed from His body) God ripped
the curtain of the Holy of Holies in half. The symbolic significance of the tearing of the
inner curtain during the precise moment that our Lord died is scripturally
unmistakable. Jesus and His completed work of redemption is the opened curtain,
gate or door by which we enter into heaven and the special presence of God.

To understand how dramatic the rending of the inner veil was we need to know how
magnificent a curtain was involved. The curtain before the Holy of Holies was “40
cubits (60 feet) long, and 20 (30 feet) wide, of the thickness of the palm of the hand,
and wrought in 72 squares, which were joined together; and these Veils were so
heavy, that, in the exaggerated language of the time, it needed 300 priests to
manipulate each. If the Veil was at all such as is described in the Talmud, it could not
have been rent in twain by a mere earthquake or the fall the lintel, although its
composition in squares fastened together might explain, how the rent might be
described in the gospels.” Exodus 26:31 says that the curtain was beautifully
embroidered with blue, scarlet and purple thread. It was to be designed with
cherubim who likely represented angelic guardians who were shielding access to a
thrice holy God.

The purpose of the veil was to separate the special Shekinah presence of Jehovah
from the people and even the regular priests who ministered in the temple. Only the
high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies behind the veil. This special
entrance occurred only once each year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:2ff; Num.
18:7; Heb. 9:7). On this day the high priest would pull back the edge of the curtain
and enter the most holy place with the blood of sacrifice for himself and the people of
Israel; then, he would sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before it. Under the old
covenant administration the approach unto God was very restricted and this approach
involved dread and fear. If any mistakes were made in the prescribed ritual whether
intentional or not the person involved would be struck down by God. While the Day
of Atonement pointed to Christ, the veil signified no admittance. The special approach
to God was very rare and limited. To everyone (except the yearly approach by the
high priest) the veil said stay away; do not enter. God is holy and you are sinful and
polluted. “The time when the high priest entered into it, it was indeed turned aside;
whereon it immediately closed again and forbade an entrance and a prospect unto
others. Wherefore there could be no entrance into that holy place abiding, unless the
veil was rent and torn in pieces, so that it could close no more.”

The veil symbolized that under the old covenant administration the way to God was
not yet opened. There was not yet a freedom of access directly to Jehovah for all
men. This point is clearly brought out by the author of Hebrews. “Now when these
things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the
tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went
alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’
s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the
Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing”
(9:6-8). The Holy Spirit tells us that as long as that curtain remained in place men had
no hope of immediate access to God. “[T]he whole church was forbidden the use of
this way; and it was appointed for no other end but to signify that in due time there
should be a way opened unto believers into the presence of God.” The rending of the
curtain that resulted from Jesus’ death means that in the new and better covenantal era
“God’s people constitute a holy priesthood with full right of access into the divine
presence (cf. Heb. 10:19ff.; 1 Pet. 2:5).”  

The rending of the veil must have been a shocking, frightening and awesome event to
the priests who were ministering in the temple. No wonder Matthew’s account “is
ushered in with Behold: ‘Turn aside, and see this great sight, and be astonished at it.’”
[8] The curtain was ripped asunder from the very top to the bottom (Mt. 27:51; Mk.
15:38). Luke gives us the added detail that it was torn right down the middle (Lk. 23:
451). The fact that the curtain was torn from the top to the bottom proves that the
tearing was supernatural. Normally, when a curtain grows old and wears from
repeated use, it virtually always frays and tears at the bottom not at the top. Also, it
would never tear right down the middle. The priests who were ministering in the
temple knew that this was the hand of God. The noise from the quick tearing of such a
large and thick curtain would have been exceedingly loud and startling. This tearing
occurred at the time of the offering of the evening incense and would have been
witnessed by the offering priest and those who assisted him. The Holy of Holies that
was not to be seen by men or ordinary priests was opened. The curtain being rent
right down the middle would have exposed the whole room to those officiating at the
incense altar which was near the veil. The multitudes of people that were gathered
outside of the temple would have heard the sound of a loud tear. They would have
seen the shocked look upon the faces of the priests that ministered at the temple.
Word would have spread rapidly through Jerusalem that the veil to the Holy of Holies
had been torn from top to bottom right down the middle; what a sobering and
mysterious sign from God. The Nazarene yields up His spirit and at that very instant
the ears of the priests are pierced by the great veil of separation.

In the split veil God was saying something to Israel and the world about the suffering
and death of Jesus Christ. While there may be secondary meanings or applications of
this great event, the central or primary meaning is that the Redeemer has opened
forever the approach to God. The sacrificing of animals pointed to the way. But the
death of Christ is the actual, true and only way to God the Father. “If you desire to
approach God, the death of Christ is the way to him. If you want the nearest access
and the closest communion that a creature can have with his God, behold, the
sacrifice of Christ reveals the way to you. Jesus not only says, ‘I am the Way,’ but,
rending the veil, he makes the way. The veil of his flesh being rent, the way to God is
made most clear to every believing soul…. He was not suffered by the Father to die
not without a miracle to show that he had made a way for sinners to draw near to
God.”

When the Savior offered Himself on the cross making atonement for sin He by the
once for all sacrifice for sin made an access with boldness into the gracious presence
of God. Without His perfect work, “the law and its curse were like cherubim and
flaming sword, that turned every way to keep sinners from drawing unto God.” God
tore asunder the veil to say to us in dramatic, unmistakable language that He has
accepted the perfect sacrifice of His Son. All the impediments and obstacles that
stood in our path, that made access to God’s loving presence impossible, have been
removed by the redemptive work of the Mediator. The author of Hebrews even says
that we enter the Holiest with boldness by the blood of Jesus.  

This remarkable statement tells us the great privilege of the gospel, that in our
salvation, our worship and our prayers we have a great liberty, boldness and
confidence to enter into the favorable, loving presence of the Father because of
Christ. The old covenant abounded with boundaries because Jesus had not yet shed
His blood. There were boundaries around Mount Sinai so that the people would not
come too close to God’s special presence and perish. There were boundaries with
the tabernacle and temple. There was a boundary for Gentiles. There was a boundary
for the non-priestly Jews. There was even a boundary for the regular priests. “Now
this whole temple really was a great fort, a bulwark. The middle court also was
separated from the rest by a stone wall; placards of warning threatened the death
penalty against the unqualified who came too near it. Hence this veil became a world
issue. Heathendom was kept away from it, and the people of Israel too in its common
ranks were prohibited from passing through it.” But with the death of Christ all
believers, whether Jew or Gentile, whether minister or non-minister, have a right, title
and liberty to directly approach God in heaven through Jesus. No longer is there a
priestly hierarchy. No longer do men need the assistance of sinful, fallible, human
priestly mediators. What a glorious and blessed privilege! The Savior superseded the
old levitical priesthood with its shadow rituals and its multiplicity of sacrifices by His
once for all, all-sufficient sacrifice.

Also because of Jesus’ redemptive work we approach God without dread, fear, or
terror in our minds. Believers have not received “the spirit of bondage unto fear, but
the Spirit of the Son, whereby with holy boldness they cry, ‘Abba, Father; for ‘where
the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ [2 Cor. 3:17].” Only the precious blood of
Christ could have achieved this. “Confidence in an access unto God not built on, not
resolved into the blood of Christ, is but a daring presumption, which God abhors.”To
seek access to God without going through the veil of Jesus’ sacrificial death is not only
futile and ineffectual but it is also sinful. It essentially says that Christ is not the only
way of entering everlasting life. It says the blood of the Redeemer is unnecessary. It
denies the necessity of the suffering and death of the Savior. It rejects the perfection
and efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice. Such people trample the cross of Christ underfoot as
worthless. Our faith, trust and confidence must be directed to Jesus alone who was
rent in His sacrifice and who alone is the door to the Father. The rent veil is a
proclamation of grace. The Mediator has conquered. He has kept the law perfectly
and has endured the curse and thus has thrown the gate to heaven wide open to all
who will believe in Him. “When sin is gone, the barrier is broken down, the
unfathomable gulf is filled. Pardon, which removes sin, and justification, which brings
righteousness, make up a deed of clearance so real and so complete that nothing now
divides the sinner from his reconciled God.”

Commentators recognize that the rending of the curtain has other important, related
secondary meanings and applications.

First, it was a sign of impending judgment upon the nation of Israel. The Jews’
rejection and murder of the Messiah was such a serious act of complete apostasy that
it sealed the fate of their nation in A.D, 70. Following the mockery of Jesus regarding
His ability to destroy the temple (Mk. 15:29; Mt. 27:40) the rending of the veil by
God would have been interpreted by the Jews as an act of “divine vandalism.” It
meant that Christ did indeed have power to destroy the temple. “Jesus’ death and the
destruction of the formal structures of Judaism are inseparably bound together.” “With
Jesus’ death, the old religious order comes to an end; those who have rejected Jesus,
the religious leaders, have now been rejected by God.” While the tearing of the veil
proclaimed grace to everyone throughout the world who would come to God through
Jesus, it proclaimed judgment, disaster and death to those who had rejected the
person and work of Christ. The Holy of Holies and the temple were the very heart of
the Jewish nation. If the heart is destroyed the nation dies. The rending of the veil was
a warning sign to the Jews that their only hope before God was to turn away from
their apostate leaders toward Jesus of Nazareth.

Second, the rending of the veil signified that the whole Levitical system of types,
shadows and ceremonies had been superseded and put to an end by Christ’s work.
God did not unhook the veil and carefully fold it up for use on another day; but, He
violently ripped it in half. With the death of the Savior, God had no use at all for the
old typical system. If God tears asunder one of the most important features of the
temple cultus, then obviously all the secondary and minor features are put away also.
“The ordinances of an earthly priesthood were rent with that veil. In token of the
death of the ceremonial law, the soul of it quilted its sacred shrine, and left its bodily
tabernacle as a dead thing. The legal dispensation is over.”

Third, the rending of the veil demonstrates that the special dwelling place of God is no
longer restricted to a small nation in Palestine. The death of Christ is an event of
world-wide historical significance. Inside the veil was the mercy seat above which
rested the Shekinah presence of God. In the old covenant God had limited His
covenant blessings to one nation. If a foreigner or stranger wanted to join themselves
to the covenant people they would have to join themselves to Israel. Like Ruth they
would have to move out of their own heathen nation to the land of Israel. But with
Christ’s death and the resultant Pentecost, God moves outside the old veil and enters
the entire world. In a sense the Holy of Holies and the temple go into all nations.

“‘For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great
among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a
pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations,’ says the LORD of
hosts”
Malachi 1:11

There are some important applications that are based on this important section of
Scripture. First, the rending of the veil demonstrates that Jesus is the only way to the
Father. If men are to have fellowship with God they must pass through the rent veil of
the Savior’s sacrificial death. If you place your trust in the person and work of Christ
the door to heaven stands wide open. You are free to enter because you have been
washed by the Redeemer’s blood and clothed with His perfect righteousness. When
you die, God says “Come up hither to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Enter beloved
into My heavenly sanctuary to be forever in My loving presence.” But if you try to
enter in by another way then you are without Christ, without the Father and without
hope. You will die in your sins and the door to heaven will forever remain shut and
locked to you. Oh that God would grant you the eyes of faith to see the beauty,
perfection and sufficiency of Jesus and His work!

Second, the fact that God has ripped the curtain of the old order in half stands as a
warning to all men who attempt to put it back together again by corrupt theology and
worship. Dispensationalism attempts to repair the torn curtain by their theory of a
rebuilt temple with sacrifices as a memorial to Jesus in the millennium. They also
rebuild the middle wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles with their unbiblical
theory that God still has two separate and distinct covenant peoples: the church and
the Jews. Messianic Jews implicitly deny the rent veil by requiring circumcision and
the old levitical holy days. Romanists deny God’s tearing of the veil by the mass, the
holy days and the use of human priests as mediators between God and man. High
church professing Protestants deny the rent veil with their sacramentalism, holy days,
church calendars and other coarse imitations of the beggarly elements. All semi-
pelagians and Arminians deny the rent veil by their synergistic doctrine of salvation.
For them Jesus has torn the veil part of the way down and man must grab the curtain
and tear it the rest of the way. Remember, God rent the veil without man’s help or
assistance. Christ’s perfect work does not make access to God possible but achieves
access to God. We cannot come to God with the scissors of free will or the knife of
good works, for this curtain can only be severed by the precious blood of Christ.

Third, the torn veil ought to greatly strengthen our faith in the Mediator as we seek to
please God in our daily lives. The ripped curtain should lead to boldness in our
approach unto God. By boldness we do not mean a reliance on human strength,
arrogance, flippancy or carelessness but boldness from resting on the person and
work of the Savior. This boldness should affect our prayer life in that it flows from our
faith in and meditation on the Redeemer’s victory. If we are neglecting our daily
prayers or are not praying as we ought, then we are not living consistently with the
reality of the torn veil. We need to rightly “esteem and duly improve the blessed
privilege which was purchased for us at so dear a rate. What shall we render unto
him? How unspeakable are our obligations unto faith and love!”[19] “The Lord has
blessed, and he will make you a blessing. Your ordinary conduct and conversation
will be a blessed example; the words you speak for Jesus will be like a dew from the
Lord: the sick will be comforted by your words; the despondent will be encouraged
by your faith; the lukewarm will be recovered by your love.”[20] The boldness which
arises from the perfection of Jesus’ sacrifice should permeate every aspect of our
Christian lives.
Meaning of the Torn Veil
By Brian Schwertley