Is there any particular significance to the curtain of the temple being torn in two when Jesus died?
Here are the various accounts of the event given by the gospel writers:
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…” (Matt. 27:50-51)
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mk. 15:37-38)
“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” (Lk. 23:44-46)
It is worth noting that Jesus died at “the ninth hour” (Matt. 27:46), or 3:00 in the afternoon since the Jews started their days at 6 AM. The ninth hour was the time the Jews set aside for prayer (Acts 3:1), something Cornelius did as well (Acts 10:30). So if you were a Jew in Jerusalem, you likely went into the temple to pray at this time. You likely assembled in one of the temple courts to pray, and while doing so a priest would go into the temple, specifically the Holy Place, to offer incense (cf. Heb. 9:6; 1 Kings 8:6ff).
Inside the Holy Place is the large curtain that separates the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The Most Holy Place would have been considered extremely sacred to the Jews. No one but the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place, and even then only once annually during the Feast of Atonement (Heb. 9:7; cf. Ex. 30:10; Lev. 16). The massive curtain had been made according to instructions God had given to Moses for the tabernacle which had been also followed by Solomon for the temple (Ex. 26:31-33; cf. 2 Chr. 3:14). It’s likely the temple of Jesus’ day, built by Herod, followed the same instructions. During the earthquake — which clearly happened by the direction of God — that occurred at Jesus’ death, this curtain “was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51), also clearly by the miraculous power of God.
There are several reasons as to why this happened, all of them related. For one, the writer of Hebrews correlated the the curtain with Jesus’ flesh and the Most Holy Place with heaven (Heb. 10:19-20). I wrote about this in more detail in another article on this site:
Under the Law of Moses, the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle and temple – which signified the dwelling place of God in heaven – was off limits to all but the high priest. Yet now all can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19). As Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The “new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (10:20) refers to the sanctified path to redemption and eternal life offered to us all by the offering of his body on the cross. It is a “living” way because the sacrifice on Calvary which opened this way is sufficient to solve our sin problem for all time. As the Hebrew writer had just pointed out, “Where there is forgiveness of (sins), there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:18). Jesus’ death on the cross has put paid to that problem for all time. He is now our high priest, the “great priest over the house of God” which is the church (10:21; cf. 1 Timothy 3:15).
This brings to mind another reason the curtain was torn in two, to show that the old covenant was no longer in force. Remember, the curtain was torn right when Jesus died. Jesus’ death took the Law of Moses out of the way and put in its place the New Covenant (Heb. 9:15-17; Col. 2:14; Eph. 2:14; Rom. 7:1-4). Under the old covenant, animal sacrifices were offered to atone for sins…and yet those sacrifices were insufficient to fully solve the sin problem (Heb. 10:1-4). Christ’s death on the cross was what truly sanctified us, and his death “did away with the first in order to establish the second” (Heb. 10:8-10). The Old Testament priests offered those sacrifices “which can never take away sins,” but Christ’s “single offering” has “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:11-14).
This is closely related to another reason, the fact that Christ’s death on the cross has opened the path to God for everyone. Under the old covenant, only those from the tribe of Levi were the priests who could enter the Holy Place, and only the high priest could pass through the curtain to the Most Holy Place. Yet under the new covenant, all Christians are priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9) and the curtain — the barrier between us and God — has been removed. As the Hebrew writer said:
“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 high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…” (Heb. 10:19-22a)
Now all of us have regular access to what only the high priest had extremely limited access before. All of us…not just one special tribe. As Paul said when he spoke of Christ’s death taking Moses’ law out of the way and the reconciliation between Jew and Gentile resulting from it:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making pace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Eph. 2:13-16)
We now have something far better than what the Jews were doing at the moment Jesus died and that curtain was torn in two: praying in a courtyard while a specialized priest went into the Holy Place — all while being kept from the Most Holy Place by that curtain — to perform his duties on our behalf. We now have a new High Priest, Jesus himself. So we as priests ourselves can now directly and confidently approach the throne of God in prayer (Heb. 4:14-16). The meaning behind that torn curtain is truly a blessing for us!