Topical Scripture: Matthew 27.51-54
A few years ago our family went to Washington, D.C. on summer vacation. The highlight of the trip for me, I was sure, was going to be our visit to the White House. I’ve long been fascinated with presidential history, and have read with interest the stories of many of our presidents and the remarkable House they occupy. Now, at long last, I would see its storied rooms and historic halls for myself.
Not really, as it turned out. After waiting in the rain an hour the night before to buy tickets, and two hours the day of our tour, finally we entered the most visited site in America. And left nearly as quickly. Four rooms, and a souvenir shop at the end. That’s all the White House tour sees.
So we cannot see the office of our president—perhaps we can call him. Again, not really. The White House switchboard answers over 5,000 calls every day, and this number doubles in times of crisis. Not to mention the thousands of letters which are delivered each day, and the hundreds of people who try to get a personal appointment with the president. Of all these requests, the president personally sees only a small number, and of these he actually deals with only a few.
By comparison, our Father in heaven receives multiplied millions of prayers daily, millions at this very moment, in hundreds of languages. And yet he is able to hear and answer every one of them. Why? And why does this fact matter to your soul and mine?
In our series titled “These Things We Believe,” we’ve talked together about Bible freedom and church freedom. Today we’ll explore soul freedom and its enormous implications for every one of us.
How you became a priest
Our text describes the actual moment of Jesus’ death in remarkable detail. These few words are worthy of an entire series of study in themselves.
He “cried out again in a loud voice.” John tells us that his last word from the cross was “Tetelestai!” which means, “It is finished!” or “The victory is won!” The strength to make this “loud” cry (“mega” in the Greek) shows that Jesus still had energy and life at his command.
And so he “gave up his spirit.” This was his voluntary choice. Augustine said it well: “He gave up his life because he willed it, when he willed it, and as he willed it.”Where? Into his Father’s hands (Luke 23:46), into Paradise with the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), into the glory the Son had from eternity (John 17:5).
Now comes the miracle which is our focus today: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (v. 51). I’ve never preached a message specifically on that event before today, and was fascinated with what I learned about it this week.
This curtain was the great veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Jewish temple. A little background is essential here.
Abraham offered Isaac on the top of Mt. Moriah eighteen centuries earlier, making that rock a holy spot to the Jewish people. And so when Solomon built the first Jewish Temple in 1004 B.C., he located the Holy of Holies at the same spot.
This was a small room, thirty feet square, within the larger Temple. Here the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments was placed. Here the High Priest would come one day a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people. In the Jewish mind, the Shekinah glory and presence of Jehovah God dwelt here as in no other room on earth.
And this Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the Temple, and the rest of humanity, by a magnificent veil. Sixty feet high, thirty feet wide, as thick as a man’s hand, the veil was so heavy the Jewish Talmud says 300 men were required to move it.
Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, describes it as “embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful” (Wars 5.5.4).
Now, in the moment of Jesus’ death at 3 o’clock that afternoon, as the priests were gathering in the Temple for the customary evening sacrifices, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
This was in every way a miracle. An earthquake would have shredded the veil, not torn it. Even if men could have torn the thick, heavy veil, they would have done so from bottom to top, not top to bottom,
This is a fact of history, not religious myth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record it, writing at a time when the eyewitnesses to the torn curtain were still living and could easily have refuted them if they were wrong. And Tacitus the Roman historian, Josephus, and the Jewish Talmud all refer in various ways to the event as well.
Why did God do this? I admire Lenski’s comment: “Jesus is dead, his lips are silent; now God speaks in a language of his own.”Just as the Jewish people tore their garments in times of grief, so God the Father tears this, the “garment” veiling his Most Holy Place, in grief as well.
But there’s more. By tearing aside the veil separating humanity from the Holy of Holies, God gave access to his inner sanctuary to all of mankind. Now, for the first time in Jewish history, anyone could come to God. Anyone could see into his presence. Anyone could speak to him. Anyone.
Now for the first time, women could come into his presence. For the first time, Gentiles. For the first time, men besides the one High Priest chosen for each generation. For the first time, you and me.
Today the veil is gone, the Holy of Holies is gone, the very Temple itself is gone. Their purpose is done, their work completed. Now God’s word declares, “You yourselves are God’s Temple and God’s Spirit lives in you…. God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17).
The Jews and the Muslims will continue to fight over the rock where the Holy of Holies used to be. But that’s all it is now—a rock. For you and I are the Temple of God. The veil is gone. We can come to God. Every one of us.
Now, why does this fact matter so much to your soul and mine today?
How to enter the presence of God
The tearing of the veil separating mankind from God means this for you and me: we are each priests before God.
We are each responsible for our own personal relationship with the God of the universe. God has no grandchildren. We each must be his child, his priest.
Baptists call this doctrine “the priesthood of the believer.” This is the idea of soul freedom—the theological conviction that you have the right and responsibility to interpret Scripture for yourself; to confess your sins to God; to give your needs to God; to offer your worship to God.
The veil is gone. Now you can come to God. Now you must.
What steps can you take to come into his presence every day? To be right with the God of the universe, right now? Let’s use the Jewish Temple as our model. If you had been a priest in Jesus’ day, able to come before God as they did, you would have taken these steps, literally.
First, you would go to the “Sea,” a bronze basin filled with water, so large that twelve priests could wash at one time. Here you would wash your hands, ceremonially cleansing yourself spiritually for the service you are about to render.
To be a priest before God today, start with confession. Be specific and honest. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you your sins, and admit them to God. And claim his promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Next, you would come to the great altar of sacrifice, 48 feet square and 15 feet high. A ramp, 48 feet long and 24 feet wide, led up to the altar. Here you would place the sacrificial animals as required—the lamb, the bull, the dove.
At Calvary, Jesus became the final sacrifice for you and me. He is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). He died in your place and mine, to pay for our sins and bear our punishment, to purchase our salvation.
So, after you confess your sins to Christ, thank Christ for his death and love. Thank him for his grace and mercy. Worship him in thanksgiving.
And submit your life to him in gratitude. To be a priest before God, lay your life on the altar before him. Obey the command of Scripture: “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
Come to the altar in thanksgiving and submission.
Now the priest would come into the Holy Place, the court outside the Holy of Holies, 60 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 30 feet high. Here he would burn incense in worship and offer prayers of intercession.
To be a priest before God, “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). Speak the Psalms in praise; sing hymns and choruses in praise; offer him your gratitude for his attributes, his glory, his goodness to you. Worship him in thanksgiving and praise.
And give him your needs in intercession and faith. Be specific and honest. Ask his best for you and those you bring to him.
Finally, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would come into the Holy of Holies itself. He would tie a rope around his foot, trailing outside the veil, so that if he died in the awesome presence of God and the bells on the hem of his robe stopped ringing, the priests outside could drag his dead body out. He came before God in reverence and humility. Here he knew he entered the presence of Jehovah, the God of the universe.
Do the same as the priest of God today. You have confessed your sins and claimed God’s forgiveness; you have thanked him for Jesus and submitted your life to his lordship; you have given him your praise and made your requests. Now sit in stillness before God. Listen to him. Feel him. Be with him.
An elderly man came every morning to his church and sat quietly in the sanctuary for hours. One day his pastor asked him what he did during those long hours of silence. He said, “I look at God and he looks at me, and we tell each other that we love each other.”
How long has it been since you listened to your Father?
Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus has torn the veil separating us from God, and now every one of us has the right—and the responsibility—of personal access to the Creator of the universe. Each of us is our own priest before God.
If you knew that the next president of the United States wanted you to come to his Inauguration and meet with him in the Oval Office, you’d accept. And you’d begin preparations right now for such an honor.
My friend, the God of the universe wants you to meet with him in his Holy of Holies, today. He wants to hear your confession, your thanksgiving, your submission, your praise, your requests. And he wants to speak to your heart and soul. He is ready. Are you?
Make an hour today to take each of these steps to God as his priest, and then to meet with him in silence. To speak to him, and then to listen to him. Especially to listen.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta authored one of the most profound statements I’ve ever read on our subject. Hear these words reverently:
We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness.
God is a friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grow in silence. See the stars, the moon, the sun, how they move in silence….
The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. We need silence to be able to touch souls.
The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us.
All our words will be useless unless they come from within. Words which do not give the Light of Christ increase the darkness.
Will your life and your soul give the Light of Christ today?