Blood on the Drapery – Matthew 27:33-54

audio version

I have very eclectic reading habits. For the past several weeks now I have been re-reading Baptist history books. But I admit that I enjoy reading various kinds of mystery books. My last one involved the theft and forgery of some very valuable postage stamps. One of my favorite series depicts crimes committed in the early 1950s in England. But another involves a 21st century genealogist who solves mysteries and answers puzzles created by earlier generations. One of the comments I’ve run into several times is that what is depicted on television as crime scene investigation is rarely accurate. DNA testing, for example, is not as quick and easy as it is made to appear in the movies. And bug larva are not very often the little creatures to solve the crime. Analyzing dirt samples cannot ordinarily pin point the scene of the crime. Television makes crime solving look so easy – all is said and done in 45 minutes. Despite the fictitious simplifications, forensic science really has evolved into a crime-solving tool.

For example, when someone is violently murdered, there is almost always blood. As the Bible tells us – “the life of the flesh is in the blood.” The way in which blood is disbursed around a crime scene can tell the scientists quite a bit. For example, if the body has been removed, blood left behind can indicate who the victim was. The blood can indicate how many victims there were, or if the bad guy was injured. Sometimes it can even say if there were people in the area who were not hurt. Sometimes the attacker tries to clean up after his crime in order to hide the evidence. But forensic experts have very sensitive equipment to find blood that is not visible to the eye. And tiny droplets might land on some carpet or into the folds of nearby drapery. In the hunt for clues, the CSI people might unfold those curtains, slowly examining every inch. Then they collect what they find, run various tests, which I understand can be very expensive in reality, but very cheap on television, and then of course, like the Canadian Mounties, they always get their man – or their woman.

I’d like to spend a few minutes investigating the evidence to be found in the curtain that once hung between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in Herod’s Temple. I’m not saying that a crime was committed in that room, because there wasn’t – at least on this occasion. But there is evidence imbedded in that veil which testifies to the greatest kindness ever committed. There is evidence in that veil about the sacrifice which the Son of God made to save wicked sinners like us.

We need to be able to picture what the Holy Place in the Temple was like.

The temple built by Herod was a magnificent building, one of the most beautiful in the world in its day. It was basically patterned after the Tabernacle which God commissioned in the Book of Exodus. While Israel wasted 40 years in the wilderness, God taught them how, where and why to worship. That Tabernacle was at the center of the worship of Jehovah. Later, Solomon built a temple replacing the tabernacle, and then eventually came Herod’s Temple. In the Temple there were a number of different courts and rooms, some open to the sky, and others enclosed. But the two most important rooms were the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies – the Most Holy Place.

Hebrews 9:2 talks about these rooms: “For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people.”

The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube when it was first put together as a room in the Tabernacle. It was originally 10 cubits wide, 10 cubits deep, and 10 cubits high – 18 to 20 feet in each direction. Just outside the Holy of Holies was the Holy Place which was twice as long, but just as wide and tall. Evidence suggests that Herod’s Temple maintained the comparative dimensions, but it was larger than the tabernacle and the ceiling was also comparatively higher. We shouldn’t be surprised or upset about this, because II Chronicles 3 tells us that Solomon’s Temple was twice the size of the original Tabernacle, and it clearly had the Lord’s approval.

Inside the Tabernacle’s Holy Place, on the right side as the priests went in, was the Table of Shew Bread. In the Temple there were actually more than one table. On the other side there was the golden candlestick, illuminating the entire room. Then at the opposite end was the magnificent golden Altar of Incense. The oil-burning lamps on the “candlestick” were to be kept filled throughout the day, and there was also supposed to be incense burning at all times. I’m sure that the ministering priests kept their eyes on these things, but generally, they were tended first thing in the morning and then again in the afternoon. I can’t say with absolute assurance, but I believe that there were probably priests doing various things in the Holy Place throughout most of the day.

Right behind the Altar of Incense was a beautiful and ornately embroidered curtain or veil. That veil separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. Assuming that the priests were supposed to be the most godly and spiritual people in Israel, that veil kept even the best of the nation from entry into the Holy of Holies. In fact it kept even their eyes from looking into the Most Holy Place. Behind that veil there was only one thing: the Ark of the Covenant with the Mercy Seat sitting on top. Once a year, and only once a year, could that veil be lawfully breached. It was then that the High Priest brought the blood of the Atonement to be sprinkled before God. On the top of the Ark of the Covenant were two golden cherubim – angels. These cherubim appeared to be staring down onto the top of the Ark, which was called the Mercy Seat. On the Day of Atonement, the blood of a sacrificed goat was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the Lord. That blood covered, or made an atonement for, the sins of the believers throughout the nation. The Atonement was accepted by the Lord in respect to the faith of God’s people. But it had to be made and accepted year, after year, after year. That Holy of Holies has almost universally been considered as an illustration of the throne room of God. The Ark of the Covenant has almost always been described as an illustration of the presence of God. The Blood of the Atonement is a beautiful picture of the bloody sacrifice of the Lord Christ Jesus.

On the day of His death, Jesus’ blood was presented to God the Father, and an atonement was made for the sins of Christ’s believers – the Lord’s elect. Year by year that future sacrifice had been celebrated on the very special “Day of Atonement.” But the scripture which we read just a few minutes ago describes the final, perfect Day of Atonement. There was no need, or reason, for Israel to ever celebrate the Day of Atonement again.

As I said have said, between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies there was a wall made of cloth. In the Old Testament it is called a “vail,” and in the New Testament it is called a “veil.” There are some detailed descriptions of the way in which that veil was made which might make sense to some of you ladies, but which flies right over my head. Exodus 26:31 tells us that the original vail was made of “fine twined linen,” and I assumed that the veil in Herod’s Temple was similar to it. John Gill says that it was a rule with the Jews that “where ever mention is made in the law of fine twined linen, it means a thread six times doubled.” Then he quoted a Jew named Jarchi “Lo! here are four sorts to every thread; one of linen, and three of wool, and every thread is six times doubled; behold four sorts when they are twisted together, make twenty four doubles to a thread.” Gill then concludes: “Yea, some of them make it to be forty eight doubles. What a thick piece of tapestry must this be! and this makes the rending of it the more amazing; for no doubt but that the vail of the second temple was made after the manner of the first.”

According to Doctor Gill, the veil of which this scripture speaks was 30 feet across and 40 feet high. There are others who say that this veil was even larger than that, so I can’t be dogmatic on its dimensions. I have also heard it said many times that this veil was about the width of a man’s hand. If that only means that meant the depth of a hand, even then it was a very thick curtain. The heaviest curtains at my house are about 1/16 of an inch thick, but – at the very least – the veil of temple was at least an inch thick. So there was a very thick, beautiful curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.

Matthew tells us that at the time of Jesus’s death …

There was an earthquake and the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.

And notice that Matthew tells us to “behold” – the veil of the temple was rent in twain. In other words, this was something that was very, very unusual. It was designed to surprise us and to instill awe “behold.” There was an earthquake which was felt by everyone in Jerusalem, and then before the eyes of the priests who were ministering inside the Holy Place, the veil into the Holy of Holies was ripped in half. Some say this earthquake was felt all around the Mediterranean world, while others say that it was only local. As far as I am concerned it really isn’t important, but there are some other important considerations.

We can only guess as to the purpose of that earthquake. Was the Lord trying to bring more conviction upon the people as they stood there gazing on the Saviour? There was already the inexplicable darkness, which dampened their joyfulness and darkened their sin. But then there was this earthquake, which should have shaken them to the roots of their souls. Was that the Lord’s intent? Or could it have been for a more practical reason? The earthquake might have been designed merely to shake the stones from off the graves of the saints so that some of them could come out and further testify to the people of that city. “The earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was the only purpose for the quake.

But what do you suppose that earthquake had to do with the tearing of the veil? Absolutely nothing! In my research I ran across someone who described the beam upon which the veil was hung. I’m sure that there is a more proper term to describe the thing that curtains hang from, but considering the size of this veil, “beam” seems appropriate. This man waxed eloquent describing it as being shattered into splinters just as the veil was torn. That is all well and good, but I don’t read of anything like that here in the Bible, and I haven’t found any other professed experts who made the same kind of statement. And assuming that it was true, that would not explain the tearing of the veil. If the rod from which the veil was hung was splintered, it would only come tumbling down; not torn. Even if the veil had been tied to the walls on either side, I don’t see how just the weight of the curtain itself could cause it to tear completely in half.

If someone insists on saying that the earthquake caused the veil to tear, they are forced to say other things which simply are not true. Let’s say that this 8½ x 11 piece of paper is the veil. Let’s tear this paper from the top to the bottom. Notice how wide apart the top corners of this paper are in order to tear it to the bottom? It is almost double it’s original width. And that is after I made a sharp crease in the page and started the tear myself. If the veil was like this paper, then the temple would have had to be destroyed to tear it naturally. I am absolutely certain that it was not the earthquake which rent the veil. There isn’t a natural explanation for what happened inside the temple that afternoon.

I don’t think that we can reach any other conclusion but to say that God miraculously tore that curtain. It could not have been torn by any human hand because it was so thick. It would not have been torn by anyone ordinarily permitted into the Holy Place. And it could not have been torn by the earthquake without the destruction of the Temple itself. God tore that veil from the top, which pointed toward Heaven, to the bottom which touched the earth.

And why did the Lord do such a thing?

In the Gospels, there is no explanation for either the earthquake or the tearing of the veil. But the writer of the Book of Hebrews hints at one explanation. Of course Hebrews is Paul’s explanation for the purpose of the ceremonial laws of the Jews. Each and everyone of them were illustrations of the coming Christ. And with the actual arrival and death of Christ, those illustrations became unnecessary and useless.

Return with me to Hebrews chapter 10 and notice verse 11: “And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:” Earlier Paul had said that the reason that the sacrifices and offerings had to be repeated was because they couldn’t make the offerers complete or perfect. Properly made, they were only expressions of the faith of those offerers. Verse 12: “But this man (Christ Jesus), after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” Speaking of Christ Jesus, Paul said that His sacrifice really did make those believers perfect. Verse 17: “And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the HOLIEST by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the VEIL, that is to say, his flesh.”

Paul tells us that through Christ sinners like us can enter into the holiest, that is, the Holy of Holies. But it’s not through OUR righteousness or through the blood of bulls and goats. By way of the blood that Jesus shed on the Cross we have access into the presence of God. Sinners have access to a new and living way, which Christ has consecrated for us through the torn veil, that is to say through the sacrifice of his flesh.

Some commentators like to point to the torn veil and say that the partition separating the Jew and the non-Jew has been removed by the grace of God. Others like to say that this means that the ceremonial laws of the Jews are no longer in effect. While both these things are true, that is not what the rending of the veil is telling us. This veil wasn’t between the priest and the common Israelite, nor it was between the Israelite and the Gentile. This veil was between God and man even the holiest and best of men. But through the death of Jesus Christ that impenetrable barrier has been torn apart by God Himself. The priests and their incense didn’t rend the veil, and it wasn’t because of the shew bread or the lamps. The High Priest didn’t do it when he brought in the blood of the Atonement; that had occurred six months earlier. The veil didn’t tear by accident or because ten million offerings had been laid on the brazen altar outside. Nor did the earthquake do it. God in grace reached down His hand and ripped apart that veil which symbolized the separation that exists between God in His holiness and man in his sinfulness. When the fleshly heart of the Son of God was torn in half, the veil in the temple was torn in half as well. And Christ Jesus once again said in effect, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Having been made righteous through the blood of Christ, we may approach unto God.

That which gives us permission to enter into God’s Most Holy Place is the sacrifice of Christ. All the other offerings of men and priests mean very little except as illustrations. All the good deeds of man or the evil deeds of man, cannot bring us within the veil. There is only one key – the Cross of Christ Jesus. Until you repent of your sin and bow in loving, humble submission to Him, you will forever be kept out of the presence of the Lord. Do you have access to the throne and blessings of the Lord? Are you absolutely sure?