In The Lord of the Rings, the Doors of Durin bar entrance into Moria under the Misty Mountains. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a mysterious wardrobe grants or prevents entrance into Narnia. And in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a three-headed giant dog named Fluffy blocks entry to the underground chambers. A key feature of these stories is a barrier between you and where you need to be.
In the story of Israel, the most vivid instance of this theme was the finely woven curtain hanging at the heart of the house of worship, separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies). Priests were allowed to minister in the Holy Place regularly, but only once a year could the high priest pass through the inner curtain into the immediate presence of God (e.g., Ex. 26:33–35; Lev. 16:2). The curtain, in effect, perpetually guarded the entrance to the holiest holy place.
There were two exceptions.
First, in a stunning vision of the future, the book of Revelation describes how, when Christ’s eternal kingdom comes, the heavenly temple will stand open (Rev. 11:15). The ark of the covenant—God’s throne in the Most Holy Place before being lost after the Babylonian conquest of 586 BC—will be seen by all (Rev. 11:19). No curtain blocks the way.
But there is also a foretaste of this climactic scene on the day of Jesus’s crucifixion.
What Happened in the Temple?
A series of events took place as Jesus breathed his last. There was darkness over the earth; an earthquake struck; tombs of dead saints were opened; Jesus cried out. And “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51; cf. Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45).
Though other curtains (Greek, katapetasma) adorned the temple, the evangelists likely refer to the curtain at the entrance of the Most Holy Place, given their use of the definite article to specify it. It was the most significant curtain—holding immense symbolic value in early Judaism (see Josephus, War 5.212; Philo, Life of Moses 1.88)—and would automatically come to mind for any Jewish or Christian reader as “the curtain” (see Heb. 9:2–3).
Amid a tumult of apocalyptic events, this curtain “was torn” (passive voice) from “top to bottom,” with both details hinting at God’s direct intervention from heaven. He tears the curtain that guards his presence.
But why? It’s a puzzling detail at first glance.
What Did the Tearing Accomplish?
1. Judgment on the Temple System
First, the tearing of this all-important curtain is part of a sequence signaling that the Jerusalem temple was losing its place as the heart of worship. Jesus declared that the house of God was forsaken (Luke 13:33). He ransacked the temple because its bustling, commercial, and corrupt religiosity had turned a “house of prayer” into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:15–17). And he foretold its impending destruction with tragic clarity (Luke 19:41–44; Matt. 24:15–28)—which came to pass in AD 70.
History was repeating itself.
Previously Israel’s bankrupt religion led to God’s glory being escorted out of the temple by the cherubim, upon the temple’s destruction by Babylon (Ezek. 11:22–23). Likewise the tearing of the curtain, apparently embroidered with cherubim, signified that Israel’s temple had again grown stagnant and would be undone (see Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.42).
The tearing of the curtain was a prophetic symbol that the earthly temple approached its expiration date.
The curtain was a kind of metaphor for what truly blocked entrance to God’s presence in Jesus’s day, and in ours: the empty externalism of going through the motions. The tearing of the curtain, then, was a prophetic symbol that the earthly temple approached its expiration date.
In a stroke of divine irony, the only likely observers of the curtain-tearing would have been priests tending to the evening sacrifices in the Holy Place. They witnessed the undoing of their vocation as the man they rejected was sacrificed outside the city.
2. New Access to the Father in Christ
The overturning of the old-covenant infrastructure prepares for a new era. The torn curtain reveals that all believers have fresh, unparalleled access to God.
We glimpse this wonderful reality in the apostle’s explanation of Jesus’s ominous words against the Jerusalem temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The religious leaders push back, for it took 46 years to build Herod’s temple (John 2:20). But John comments, “He was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Jesus himself is the new temple—the new Most Holy Place—with no curtain barring us from intimacy with him.
Jesus himself is the new temple—the new Most Holy Place—with no curtain barring us from intimacy with him.
Another angle emerges in Paul’s description of the church as the new temple (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21). The curtain at the heart of the Jerusalem temple was part of a chain of barriers to entry, each of which Jesus removed.
The outer court of Gentiles was nullified by Jesus’s drawing all nations by faith. The court of women was nullified by Jesus’s making male, female, Jew, and Greek equal heirs of God (Gal. 3:28). And the priestly courts were nullified by his consecrating all Christians as a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). Throughout his ministry, Jesus demolished barriers symbolized in the temple apparatus. The inner curtain was simply the last.
The living God now indwells not a physical structure but the church of men and women from all walks of life, united to Christ who offers unhindered access to divine blessing.
3. Christ’s Entrance into the Heavenlies
Though most scholars stop here, I’d venture another tentative possibility about the tearing of the curtain, taking a cue from the “curtain” in Hebrews (the only other New Testament references).
Hebrews sketches how the true Most Holy Place is in heaven. The earthly one is but a copy of the real thing (Heb. 9:24). Against this backdrop, Hebrews presents Christ’s work:
- He shed his blood on earth (Heb. 13:12).
- He rose again and ascended to heaven (Heb. 4:14).
- He entered the heavenly sanctuary to present his self-offering before God (Heb. 9:23; 10:12–14).
- In doing so, he penetrated the heavenly “inner place behind the curtain” (Heb. 6:19–20).
In fact, Hebrews says that his own flesh, torn on earth below, opened a “new and living way” through the curtain into the heavenly holy places (Heb. 10:19–20).
On Good Friday, the tearing of the earthly temple’s curtain as Jesus died was a copy of a heavenly reality—when Jesus went through the curtain above to present his blood in the heavenly sanctuary.
Stepping back, then, the mysterious heaven-earth parallelism for the temple as a whole may also apply to the curtain. On Good Friday, the tearing of the earthly temple’s curtain as Jesus died was a copy of a heavenly reality—when Jesus went through the curtain above to present his blood in the heavenly sanctuary.
The earthly veil is torn; the heavenly veil is opened. Our anchor holds within the veil (Heb. 6:19).
So we circle back to Revelation. The heavenly temple, the Jerusalem above, is the destiny of God’s people, encompassing all creation (Rev. 21:2–3). Our king and priest, Jesus, has already entered as our forerunner. The temple of the Triune God is God (Rev. 21:22). The temple stands open for all because it is all.
By faith, nothing blocks its access anymore.
The Gospel Coalition