The Curtain of Access
1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. 2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,
We commemorate the death of Jesus because Jesus’ death was like none other. As Andrew explained, the physical and emotional sufferings of Jesus were deeper and more crushing than we can fully grasp. That’s because Jesus’ death was not just historically significant. It was also theologically significant. Yes, Jesus was a real human being agonizing on a splintered Roman cross. But he was also the Son of God agonizing on a God-ordained cross. It is true that the Romans crucified Jesus. But it was not their original idea. Acts 2:23 tells us that Jesus, though he was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” was nonetheless “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.
So what is the theological significance of the cross of Jesus? What are the spiritual realities that God purposed to accomplish in the horrific slaughter of the Son of God?
We of course cannot know these realities exhaustively. Volumes of books have been written probing that very question. And while we can say a lot in answer to this question, it will take an eternity for us to understand the full significance of the cross. But on this Good Friday let us consider one angle of the meaning of the cross that is revealed by something that happened as Jesus suffered there. The Scriptures tell us that as Jesus was dying on the cross, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:45).
The temple curtain hung about 80 feet off the ground, so when we read that this tear was from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51; Mk 15:38) we are to understand that this, too, was an act of God. We find this same word for curtain only three other times in the New Testament, each time in Hebrews, where it appears to be a reference to the same event. The author of the book of Hebrews interprets for us the meaning of this extraordinary occurrence on Good Friday.
We must begin by considering briefly the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem and the way in which worship was practiced there. This is where the writer of Hebrews begins in Chapter 9. He reminds us that Temple worship was ordered by the regulations of the first covenant. It began with “an earthly place of holiness.” Originally it was a tent (v. 2) called the Tabernacle until a more permanent temple could be constructed.
The two sections
Inside the tent there were two basic sections. The first section was called the Holy Place where a variety of ritual furniture could be found for use in daily worship: the lampstand, the table, and consecrated bread placed there every sabbath day.
The second section was called the Most Holy Place, separated from the first by a curtain. We know the basic contents of this room: “the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant, in which could be found a jar of manna, Aaron’s staff, and the Ten Commandments originally given to Moses. These were symbols of God’s dealing with his people when they left Egypt in the Exodus.
It would be fascinating to ponder the significance of the two divisions in the Temple, but our author does not permit us to do so. He has something more urgent he wants us to see so he directs our attention away from any perceived symbolism regarding the two sections or their contents. “We cannot now speak in detail about these things,” (v. 5b) he says, because there is a greater point that must be made.
The priestly duties
More significant are the priestly activities that occurred in these two rooms.
Regular access to the first section
In the first room, the Holy Place, the priests go in regularly and perform their ritual duties. How regularly? According to the Scriptures the priests were there constantly. They had to tend to the lamp and keep it burning throughout the night (Exo 27:21) and they had to make sacrifices on the altar there every morning and evening, twice a day (Exo 29:38-39). Any priest ordained for ministry could enter the Holy Place for this work.
Restrictions for the second section
But the second section was highly restricted. According to the stipulations outlined in Leviticus 16, anyone entering the Most Holy Place improperly would die (v. 2). Only the High Priest was allowed to enter it. And he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. And the High Priest could not go in unless he took with him the blood from a sacrificed bull as a sin offering, first for himself and then for the sins of the people.
The implications of these regulations are clear. All human beings were prohibited from entering the Most Holy Place because, God said, his presence would dwell there (Lev 16:2). If sinful human beings were to remain in his presence, they would die. In other words the curtain that separated the two divisions of the Temple was symbolically--and in the Tabernacle literally--the difference between life and death.
Limitations of the tabernacle-temple
But this is still not the point the author of Hebrews wants to make. He wants us to see the problem that is created by this arrangement of Temple worship. In verse 8 he tells us that by these regulations the Holy Spirit is teaching us something, namely “that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing.” And the first section is symbolic of the present age. In other words, as long as this Temple worship continued, access to God would be restricted.
But why? If the blood of the sacrifice could suffice for one person--the High Priest--to enter into the presence of God once a year, why couldn’t God accept these sorts of sacrifices more regularly? The answer is in verses 9 and 10. By these regulations, the “gifts and sacrifices” that were offered, the conscience of the worshiper could not be perfected. The sacrifices of the Temple provided only external--and so temporary--cleansing. But the defilement originated from within (the conscience). And the sacrificial regulations only reminded the worshiper of his guilt before God.
Imagine you come home and find water an inch deep in your house. What will you do? Will you concern yourself only with cleaning up the mess the flood has made? Will you be satisfied once you have aired out the house and eliminated every sign of the damage the water caused? Of course not. Your greater concern will be with making sure the flood does not happen again, and you will perfect every pipe and every drain and every faucet to make it so.
You see our real problem is not that we sin but that we are sinners. As good as it feels to right our wrongs or to say we are sorry or to be forgiven by one we have offended, these things only remind us even in our best moments that we are likely to mess up or be at fault or offend again. And it is this disease within that keeps us separated from the presence of a holy God.
THE CROSS OF JESUS
This is why Jesus came. He came “as a high priest of the good things that have come.” Because of Jesus there is good news to be announced. What is this good news?
First, as our High Priest, Jesus entered “through the greater and more perfect tent.” The Temple was only a symbol of a spiritual reality. Jesus never actually entered the Holy Place in Jerusalem but he passed through a greater and more perfect tent and into heaven itself.
Second, he entered into the holy places “once for all.” (v. 12). This contrasts with the daily priestly activities in the Temple. What’s so good about Good Friday? The answer is found in Jesus’ last recorded words before he died: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). No other sacrifice for sin is needed. That is good news.
How can we be so certain of the finality of Christ’s cross? Because “he entered . . . not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” The sacrifice of Jesus is qualitatively better--and infinitely so--than the animal sacrifices of the Temple. The blood of Jesus is able to “purify our conscience,” removing every trace of sin that keeps us at a distance from God. That is good news! Jesus is both our High Priest and our sacrifice.
THE NEW AND LIVING WAY
The author of Hebrews puts this all together in Chapter 10. Because of the cross of Jesus, “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.” (Heb 10:19-20). We no longer have to be separated from God. We can confidently enter into his presence.
Remember, that is no insignificant truth. Those who dare come before God are risking death. God is deadly serious about sin. But now the way to God opened up to us by Jesus is described as “new” and “living.” We come into the presence of God in order to find life. Before those who came into the presence of God risked death, but now it is those who do not come into the presence of God that are risking death.
On the other side of the curtain is the life-giving presence of God. But the only way to get there is through the curtain, which is the flesh of Jesus. The good news is that Jesus is also the priest and the sacrifice--everything we need to bring us to God has been provided for us. You don’t have to provide a thing! Come and enter into the presence of God and find life!
But it is also true that the only way to God is through this curtain, the curtain of the sacrificial death of Jesus. We find life on the other side only because he died our death. We enter into the presence of God for life only when we come through the death of Jesus. Simply put, he secured access to God for all who will receive him because he alone has satisfied God’s righteous wrath toward sinners.
The curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, telling us that access to God is now achieved by the slaughter of Jesus on a cross. If you will receive him as the sacrifice for your sin, you will find life in the presence of God.