Temple Veil

Matthew 27:50-51: 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….

During the lifetime time of Jesus, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life. Here was the place that animal sacrifices were carried out, and worship according to the Law of Moses was commanded, and followed faithfully. Yet, at the very moment of the death of Christ, the temple became obsolete as the ultimate sacrifice had eternal consequences.  Matthew is very clear about the temple veil being torn…what did this mean?  For the Biblical answer, we refer to:

  • Historical Context: This gospel is known as the Gospel of Matthew because it was written by the apostle of the same name. The style of the book is exactly what would be expected of a man who was once a tax collector. Matthew has a keen interest in accounting (18:23-24; 25:14-15). The book is very orderly and concise. Rather than write in chronological order, Matthew arranges this Gospel through six discussions.  Matthew discusses the lineage, birth, and early life of Christ in the first two chapters. From there, the book discusses the ministry of Jesus. The descriptions of Christ’s teachings are arranged around “discourses”, such as the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 through 7. Chapter 10 involves the mission and purpose of the disciples; chapter 13 is a collection of parables; chapter 18 discusses the church; chapter 23 begins a discourse about hypocrisy and the future. Chapters 21 through 27 discuss the arrest, torture, and execution of Jesus. The final chapter describes the resurrection and the Great Commission.  As a tax collector, Matthew possessed a skill that makes his writing all the more exciting for Christians. Tax collectors were expected to be able to write in a form of shorthand, which essentially meant that Matthew could record a person’s words as they spoke, word for word. This ability means that the words of Matthew are not only inspired by the Holy Spirit, but should represent an actual transcript of some of Christ’s sermons. For example, the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in chapters 5-7, is almost certainly a perfect recording of that great message.  As an apostle, Matthew wrote this book in the early period of the church, probably around 50 AD. This was a time when most Christians were Jewish converts, so Matthew’s focus on Jewish perspective in this gospel is understandable.  Matthew intends to prove to the Jews that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah. More than any other gospel, Matthew quotes the Old Testament to show how Jesus fulfilled the words of the Jewish prophets. Matthew describes in detail the lineage of Jesus from David, and uses many forms of speech that Jews would have been comfortable with. Matthew’s love and concern for his people is apparent through his meticulous approach to telling the gospel story.   
  • Grammatical Usage: “Rent” in the Greek is “schizo” meaning “to split, rend open”
  • Literal Application: “And when Jesus had cried again with a loud voice He permitted His spirit to leave.  And look!  The veil of the temple was split from the top to the bottom into two pieces, and the earth began to quake, and the rocks began to be broken up.”
  • Contextual Interpretation: Solomon’s Temple was 30 cubits high (1 Kings 6:2) but Herod had increased the height to 40 cubits according to the writings of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. There is uncertainty as to exactly what a cubit equaled in our feet and inches but it is safe to assume that this veil was somewhere near 60 feet high. Josephus also tells us that the veil was four inches thick, and that horses tied to each side could not pull the veil apart. And the account in the Book of Exodus teaches that this thick veil was fashioned from blue, purple and scarlet material and fine twisted linen.  The size and thickness of the veil makes so much more momentous the events described as occurring at the exact moment of Jesus’ death upon a cross nearly 2000 years ago. “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom…” (Matthew 27:50-51a) 
    So what do we make of this? What significance does this rent-torn veil have for us today? Above all, the tearing of the veil at the moment of Jesus’ death dramatically symbolized that His sacrifice, the shedding of His own blood, was a sufficient atonement for sins forever. It now signified that the way into the Holy of Holies was open for all people, for all time, both Jew and gentile.  When Jesus died, the veil was torn, and God moved out of that place never again to dwell in a Temple made with hands (Acts 17:24). God was through with that Temple and its religious system and worship forever, and the Temple and Jerusalem was left “desolate” (destroyed by the Romans) in 70 A.D. just as Jesus prophesied it would in Luke 13:35. As long as the Temple stood, it signified the continuation of the Old Covenant. Hebrews 9:8-9 indicates that the way to the sanctuary was not yet open “as long as the outer tent” still stood, being symbolic of “the present age.” The “present age” refers to the age that was passing away even as the New Covenant was being established (Hebrews 8:13).  In a sense, the veil was symbolic of Christ, Himself. Christ is the only way to the Father. (John 14:6) This is symbolized in the fact that the High Priest had to enter the Holy of Holies through the veil. Now Christ is our more superior High Priest, and as believers in the finished work of Jesus we partake of His better priesthood. We can now enter the Holy of Holies by Him. Hebrews 10:19-20 says that the faithful enter into the sanctuary by the “blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh.”  The veil being rent from top to bottom is a fact of history. The profound significance of this event is explained in glorious detail in the Letter to the Hebrews. These things were shadows of things to come, and they all ultimately point us to Jesus Christ. He was the veil to the Holy of Holies, and through His death, the faithful now have free access to God.  The veil in the Temple was a constant reminder that sin renders humanity unfit for the presence of God. The fact that the sin offering was offered annually and countless other sacrifices repeated daily was meant to show graphically that sin could not truly and permanently be atoned for or erased by mere animal sacrifices. Jesus Christ, through His death, has removed the barriers between God and man, and now we may approach Him with confidence and boldness (Hebrews 4:14-16). 
  • Scriptural Comparison: Hebrews 9:1-9 tells us that in the Temple a veil separated the Holy of Holies where God dwelt from the rest of the Temple where men dwelt. This signified that man was separated from God by sin (Isaiah 59:1-2). Only the High Priest was permitted to pass beyond this veil once each year (Exodus 30:10; Hebrews 9:7), enter into God’s presence for all of Israel, and make atonement for their sins (Leviticus 16).  The veil is a direct reference to the Inner Veil which separated the Holy Place form the Holy of Holies in the temple specifically at Jerusalem – Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45; Heb. 9:3.  Metaphorically, Hebrews 10:20 is quite clear that this speaks of the flesh of Jesus Christ, rent on Calvary at the very time that the veil in the temple was rent.  This is a fact that could not have been lost upon the Jewish religious hierarchy, yet they continued to actively undermine the evidence of Jesus as the Christ.
  • Conclusion: Interestingly, Matthew is the 40th book of the Bible. In scripture, 40 is the number of testing. The flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. The freed Israelites wandered 40 years in the desert under Moses. Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days in the wilderness. The book of Matthew is written for the Jewish people, God’s own chosen nation. Will they recognize the fulfillment of prophecy and believe in Christ? This gospel, written for the people who should have recognized the Son of God first, becomes a test of their faith.