On the Cross, Jesus Tore the Curtain: Reconciliation
Jesus took our place, facing the darkness of God’s judgment and wrath against our sins. Then, “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37–38)
The Jerusalem temple had two veils—one that separated the rest of the temple from the Holy of Holies, the place where God’s presence dwelled, and another that separated the Court of Israel from the Court of Women and the Court of the Gentiles. There are good theological reasons for thinking either veil was the one torn. The curtain at the Holy of Holies makes sense given its symbolism (cf. Heb. 6:19; 10:20) as a special place entered by only one man, the high priest, and on only one day each year, on the Day of Atonement. But the second veil, which was more visible to the public, also makes sense as in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female (Gal. 3:28). Whichever curtain, Scripture indicates that it was torn to demonstrate two things: (1) God was finished with the temple and the old covenant system of worship, and (2) the way into God’s holy presence was now open. In short, Jesus had removed the barrier.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10:19–22)
The one word that sums up this passage is reconciliation. Through substitution, Jesus took our place. In taking our place, he faced the darkness of God’s wrath and judgment. That’s propitiation. But the result of propitiation is the torn curtain. It is reconciliation. We are reconciled to God and given access into his presence.
Notice how skillfully Mark illustrates the profound, world-altering significance of the torn veil by describing what happens afterward. First, the Roman centurion who had overseen Jesus’ execution makes a remarkable confession: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39). In Mark’s narrative, the centurion is the first person to recognize Jesus’ divine sonship. He’s not an insider, but an outsider. Not a Jew, but a Gentile. Not a disciple, but a centurion. Not a friend, but an enemy. And now he makes a confession of faith!
Then, Mark 15:40–41 mentions a group of women who watched from a distance. I’ll say more about this in the next chapter, but the presence of the women in Mark’s narrative argues for both the authenticity of Mark’s record as well as the reconciling power of the cross. For here the women (who were forbidden to enter the inner court of the temple) make up the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples and will be the first eyewitnesses to his burial and resurrection (15:47–16:1).
Finally, in verses 42–46, Mark highlights the role of Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’ burial. Joseph was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council partially responsible for Jesus’ arrest and trial. The Pharisees instigated the crucifixion, but one of their own openly cared for Jesus’ body.
Mark’s details thus show us how the cross brings reconciliation, not only in the vertical dimension between man and God, but also on the horizontal level between all different kinds of people. It foreshadows the birth of the Christian church, a new society of people made up of both Jews and Gentiles, both men and women, both Jesus’ disciples and his former enemies, all reconciled to God as part of a single new humanity (cf. Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11–22; Col. 3:11).
The artist Rembrandt included himself among the soldiers in his painting The Raising of the Cross. He also painted himself in Descent from the Cross, placing himself among those who cared for Jesus’ body after death. Perhaps Rembrandt understood that he was responsible for Jesus’ death and that he was reconciled by his death. So it is with all who believe.
Excerpted from With Jesus: Finding Your Place in the Story of Christ by Brian G. Hedges, now available for pre-order.