New Testament Significance
The significance of the Temple's ‘inner curtain’ in the New Testament can only be understood within the context of the Old Testament. The veil’s primary purpose in the Old Testament was to divide ‘the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place’ (Exodus 26:33). This was ensured by a system of cultic separation which kept apart the pure from the impure, the holy from the profane. The veil created both a physical and also a visual barrier, since to see God was to die (Exodus 33:20). The cherubim woven into the veil represented the cherubim who guarded the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion. Thus the veil both shielded and guarded the place where the divine presence of God dwelt. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement. On that day, he stepped behind the veil to present the sacrificial blood offering as atonement for the sins of the people. By this act, the slate was wiped clean for the preceding year.
The writer to Hebrews applies this Old Testament ritual to Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. Through the sacrificial death of Christ, the believer may now enter the inner shrine behind the curtain, into God’s presence, ‘where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek’ (Hebrews 6:19-20).
All three synoptic gospels record the rending of the veil at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 25:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45). The curtain, which divided God from the people, was ‘torn in two from top to bottom’ (Mark 15:38). The same Greek word schizo meaning ‘torn apart’ is also used at the baptism of John, where the heavens open and the Spirit descends on Jesus and God declares, ’You are my Son, whom I love: with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:10-11). Thus at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends and at Jesus’ death, when he yields up his spirit, the earthly curtain in the Temple is torn apart. The barrier between a Holy God and sinful man is removed. The veil is no longer required and there is freedom to enter God’s presence, as in Hebrews, again:“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary 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 approach 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’ (Hebrews 10: 19-22).