ABSTRACT: The Gospel writers tell us that, directly after the death of Jesus, the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The meaning of the veil’s tearing is wrapped up in its old-covenant function to separate the Israelites from the direct presence of God. Matthew in particular narrates the tearing of the veil in a way that reveals its epoch-turning significance. Because Jesus has died on the cross, the gates to God’s presence are open, and the age of the new covenant has dawned.
And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51 NASB)
From the Bible, we know that the death of Jesus is a glorious truth, foundational to our Christian faith. It grants us peace with God (Romans 5:1), redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14). But how does the Bible express the significance of Jesus’s death in narratives, like the Gospels? This is exactly what we find at the crucifixion of Jesus and the tearing of the temple curtain (or veil) immediately after his death. Though the tearing of the veil is described in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45), none of them stops to explain it. Presumably, they thought the event was clear enough to their original readers. But what are we to make of it?
To complicate matters, the account in the Gospel of Matthew recounts a host of extraordinary events that puzzle us today. Yet in them the apostle Matthew, ever with his mind steeped in Israel’s sacred Scriptures, helps us to understand the significance of the historical realities around Jesus’s death. And all this occurs on Good Friday, where we see the goodness of God in Christ on display in anticipation of Easter Sunday.
What Veil Is Matthew Talking About?
It may seem strange to readers that Matthew refers simply to “the” veil of the temple, without any explanation as to which of the many hangings, curtains, and veils in the Old Testament tabernacle and subsequent temple he had in mind. Interpreters must simply presume that Matthew would have expected his readers to know what he meant. Since Matthew makes such frequent appeals to the Old Testament (Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 5:17; etc.), presuming it to be an important authority for his readers, it is to the Old Testament we must look.
The word for veil used by Matthew (katapetasma) is a technical term that, in the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint), is used for three different hangings in the tabernacle and temple. But the syntax of Matthew’s statement “veil of the temple” (Matthew 27:51 NASB) suggests only one hanging can be in view: the inner veil before the holy of holies. This veil, described first and most fully in descriptions of the tabernacle, was made of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman (Exodus 26:31; 36:35). It was to be hung before the holy of holies, which was a perfect cube of ten cubits per side. The veil was hung by gold hooks on an acacia-wood frame, which itself was overlaid with gold (Exodus 26:32–33), and the ark of the covenant was kept behind the veil (Exodus 26:33).
Generally, this veil served to separate the holy place from the holy of holies (Exodus 26:33) and shielded the atonement slate1 of the ark (Exodus 26:34). The veil was also used to cover the ark of the testimony while in transport (Numbers 4:5). Sin offerings were made against the veil (Leviticus 4:6, 17), and entry behind it was permitted only for a ritually pure priest, Aaron or a descendent, who would enter behind the curtain on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:2, 12, 15). In Solomon’s temple, patterned after the tabernacle, there was a veil “of blue, purple and crimson yarn and fine linen, with cherubim worked into it” (2 Chronicles 3:14 NIV).
The veil was near the very center of the tabernacle, suggesting a rank of holiness that is also reflected in the quality of its construction. As with the other hangings in the tabernacle, the veil was made of “finely twisted linen” (Exodus 26:31 NIV), a fine grade of linen. The curtains were violet — or, as some suggest, blue-purple or a darker purple compared to the lighter purple. This color was occasionally thought to be the color of the sky,2 which may help account for its association with the heavenly firmament (Genesis 1:6) in later Judaism. This color, which required twelve thousand murex snails to yield only 1.4 grams of pure dye, was known for its association with both divinity and royalty in the ancient Near East, which lends itself to the notion that Yahweh was both the sacred deity and the King enthroned in the midst of Israel within the tabernacle.
The use of royal colors and materials should come as no surprise, as the tabernacle in general and the angelic wings over the veil in particular are often thought to represent the kingly presence of Yahweh among his people. This is confirmed by the description of Yahweh’s presence with Israel as being “enthroned between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4 NIV; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6; Psalm 80:1; 99:1; Isaiah 37:16), which, when coupled with a reference to God’s enthronement “in heaven” (Psalm 2:4 NIV), may support the notion that the holy of holies was thought to be a replica of heaven.
What Did the Veil Do?
Integral to interpreting the tearing of the veil is some explanation of its purpose and function. Surprisingly, few interpreters look explicitly to the Old Testament to address this issue. Yet we find some information about the veil that is imperative for interpreting the meaning of its tearing at the death of Jesus.
As we have seen, the unique workmanship required for the veil is directly related to the presence of cherubim on the veil. These figures symbolized the presence of Yahweh and were woven of elite quality, “the work of a skillful workman” (Exodus 26:31 NASB). In biblical tradition, cherubim served a guardian role from their first appearance in canonical texts, where they guarded “the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24 NASB). They were carved on walls around Solomon’s temple and Ezekiel’s visionary temples (e.g., Ezekiel 10:1–20; 11:22; 41:18–25).
Elsewhere, the cherubim are present at man’s meeting with God (e.g., Exodus 25:22; Numbers 7:89), and they are the winged throne upon which God sits or mounts to fly (2 Samuel 22:11; Psalm 18:10). Yahweh instructs Moses to make “two cherubim out of hammered gold” (Exodus 25:18 NIV), with wings spread upward and overshadowing the atonement slate. They were to be arranged in such a manner as to face each other (Exodus 25:20; cf. Hebrews 9:5), where they were guardians of the atonement slate from which the divine Glory would speak to Israel (Exodus 25:1–22). Perhaps the cherubim on the veil, then, similarly served to guard the way to the sanctuary of God within the holy of holies, as their presence suggests the presence of Yahweh enthroned among his people.
The veil’s primary function was to separate the holy place from the holy of holies (Exodus 26:33). This separation is at the heart of the entire priestly code of the sacrificial system (e.g., Leviticus 11:1–45): to separate (badal) between the unclean and the clean. Likewise, in Ezekiel’s vision of the temple, there is to be separation of “the holy and the profane” (Ezekiel 42:20 NASB; cf. Ezekiel 22:26; 44:23). The veil, then, was a physical barrier that both represented and enforced the separation from the holy presence of the enthroned Yahweh within from Aaron and his sons — the violation of which brought death (Numbers 18:7; cf. Leviticus 16:2).
Exception for entering the holy of holies was made only in the context of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:11–28), when the high priest would take the offering behind the veil as a sin or purification offering (Leviticus 16:11). Here the blood was taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled on the atonement slate of the ark (Leviticus 16:14). On the Day of Atonement, Aaron was to use the blood of the sin offering to purify and consecrate the altar (Leviticus 16:19). Yet the man entering must be the high priest and may not enter “whenever he chooses,” says the Lord, “for I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover” (Leviticus 16:2 NIV; Numbers 7:89).
Even on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest was permitted physical accessibility to God within the holy of holies, the atonement slate was hidden from sight by the cloud, in this way saving the high priest from death (Leviticus 16:12–13). That is, the physical restriction was extended to the visual (e.g., Exodus 35:12; cf. 39:20b [MT=34b]). Even while in transit, the veil was used to conceal the ark from sight, as it was the most sacred object of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:10–22), where the Lord spoke to Moses. Looking upon the holy things, even by a high priest and even for a moment, incurred death (Leviticus 16:13; cf. 1 Samuel 6:19–20). Thus it seems the veil served as a physical and visual barrier, protecting the priest from the lethal presence of the enthroned Lord and reinforcing the separation between God and humankind.
The prohibitive function of the veil — conveyed implicitly and explicitly in the Old Testament — underscores the restrictions placed upon Israelite worship based on the holiness of God. This is important because worshipers in the old covenant were restricted in their access to God in the temple, and could approach him only through sacrifice and prayer, and not at any time they chose. Only a high priest who was ritually pure and without defect could approach Yahweh without being put to death. The severity of this punishment primarily concerned the holiness of God himself and the sanctity of objects directly related to worshiping him (cf. Exodus 33:19–23). Even Moses was forbidden to see the face of the Lord, “because man may not see my face and yet live” (Exodus 33:20 author’s translation).
The Veil in Jesus’s Day
There were a few legends about the veil of the temple in the days of Jesus. One from the Dead Sea Scrolls describes angelic worship in the heavenly sanctuary, where animated cherubim, embroidered in the curtain, sing praises to God.3 Some rabbis, writing long after the temple was destroyed by Rome in AD 70, depict the veil as symbolic of the heavenly firmaments (cf. Genesis 1:6). In this way, the veil was a barrier between heaven and earth, behind which divine secrets were kept, known only to God.4 The Jerusalem temple during the days of Jesus had been significantly renovated by Herod the Great (rule 37–4 BC).5 The historian Josephus, himself a priest, describes the structure, including the veil, in some detail.6 He says it was made of “Babylonian tapestry,” scarlet and purple, clearly depicting royalty. The “marvelous skill” with which it was made was rich in symbolism that depicted the elements of the universe. Embroidered into the veil was “a panorama of the heavens,”7 meaning it resembled the heavens, likely the heavenly firmaments (Genesis 1:6) or the sky.8
The Veil in Matthew’s Narrative
Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:50–54), which most scholars presume expands on the parallel account in Mark (Mark 15:38–39), contains some unique features throughout in the immediate context (Matthew 27:35–54). We must constantly recall, however, that all of these features are immediately relevant to the primary subject matter of the passage — the death of Jesus. The passage is replete with irony: He is mocked with a sign indicating that he is “King of the Jews,” but in fact he really is! He is cajoled to save himself and come down off the cross, “if you are the Son of God” (Matthew 27:40) — the precise language used by the devil in the temptation (Matthew 4:1–11) — and yet his saving activity is achieved for others, not himself, by remaining on the cross (cf. Matthew 27:42). When he cries out in a loud voice (Matthew 27:46), his quote from Psalm 22:1 (Hebrew Eli, Eli) is confused by the bystanders with Elijah — who has already come in the person of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14).
At his death, “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). Right afterward, Matthew writes, “and behold!” and instantly the reader is transported from Golgotha on Friday (cf. Matthew 27:33) to the temple veil in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:51a), then (presumably) to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 27:51b–53a), then into “the holy city” (Jerusalem) on Sunday (note “after his resurrection,” Matthew 27:53), and only then back to the scene at the cross (Matthew 27:54). What has prompted Matthew to take his readers on such a whirlwind, and what are we to make of it? The events — including the tearing of the veil and all the other occurrences in Matthew 27:51–53 — are just as historical as the death and resurrection of Jesus itself. Yet Matthew’s presentation of these events is done as commentary — historical commentary, of course — on the significance of the death of Jesus. In other words, the death of Jesus is so profoundly significant that it has triggered the following events, which explain to some degree the meaning of Jesus’s death.
But before we look at what these events indicate about the significance of Jesus’s death, our next step is to examine what Matthew has already said about it. To Matthew, Jesus’s death is both necessary (Matthew 16:21) and expected (cf. Matthew 16:17; 17:22–23), albeit temporary (Matthew 17:9)! His death, like John’s, is that of an innocent prophet inaugurating the restoration of “all things” (Matthew 17:11–12; cf. 3:1–15). Significantly, Jesus’s death is a “ransom” for many (Matthew 20:28) — a payment offered to rescue another, perhaps borrowed from the sacrificial language of the Old Testament. Matthew is explicit that Jesus’s death is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). It is by his death on the cross — as a ransom that achieves the forgiveness of sins — that Jesus accomplishes his mission to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Having seen what Matthew has already said about the death of Jesus, we can now look at what else he says about it in the tearing of the veil and the ensuing narrative.
Matthew’s many uses of “and behold” (Matthew 27:51) typically introduce something surprising in the narrative (e.g., Matthew 2:13; 3:16–17; 17:5; 28:20). The passive-voice construction “the curtain of the temple was torn” (Matthew 27:51) implies that God himself tore the veil. This is confirmed by description of the damage: “from top to bottom.” Note also the extent: “in two.” This singular cultic artefact is now irreparably damaged — it can no longer perform the function for which it was intended. This means that there is no longer a physical barrier to God, suggesting that the theological necessity of it is thereby removed. The angelic guardians are disarmed, and reentry into the Edenic presence of God is again permitted for the first time since the fall.
The crucial element here is this: all this is accomplished by the death of Jesus, a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), whose blood accomplishes the forgiveness of sins and establishes the new covenant (Matthew 26:28). But Matthew insists that it is only the “pure in heart” who will see God (Matthew 5:8; cf. Psalm 24:4). So Matthew seems to imply what writers like Paul make explicit: the death of Jesus accomplishes the forgiveness of sins and establishes the (imputed) righteousness of the believer (e.g., Philippians 3:9). (Remember that the Gospels were written for Christians who were already converted and knew something of the gospel message; cf. Luke 1:1–4.)
The Turning of the Ages
But there is more! Matthew provides additional explanations to his readers than Mark does in his simple statement about the torn veil and the centurion’s statement (Mark 15:38–39), all of which teach something about the significance of Jesus’s death. “And the earth shook” (Matthew 27:51b). Earthquakes were frequently present in theophanic scenes (see Revelation 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18), but here Matthew draws at least in part from Ezekiel 37 (recall the valley of dry bones), where an earthquake (Ezekiel 37:7) precedes the opening of graves and the resurrection of people who return to the land of Israel (Ezekiel 37:12–13). In Matthew’s context, the earthquake indicates a dramatic manifestation of God at a climactic event in his redemptive-historical plan. So violent was the earthquake that Matthew adds “and the rocks were split,” demonstrating the power of God (Nahum 1:5–6; 1 Kings 19:11; Psalm 114:7; Isaiah 48:21). Here the likely allusion is to Zechariah 14:4–5, where the Lord himself will come and split the Mount of Olives.
Matthew’s statement that “the tombs were opened” (Matthew 27:52a NASB) recalls Ezekiel 37:12–13, where the Lord says through the prophet, “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. . . . And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” The raising of the dead saints, then, is a declarative statement about God making known his identity, which in Matthew is through Jesus as Immanuel (“God with us,” Matthew 1:23). Those who are to be raised in Ezekiel 37 are the righteous believers who have died prior to the coming of Christ (cf. Zechariah 14:4–5; Daniel 12:2), though Matthew seems less concerned with identifying these people than he is with depicting their resurrection triggered by the death of Jesus.
Furthermore, their coming out of their tombs (Matthew 27:53a) is directly from the prophecy of Ezekiel 37:12. But Matthew adds a statement about timing, “after his resurrection” (Matthew 27:53b), presumably in recognition that Jesus was the first to be raised from the dead (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20–23; Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). When Matthew says, “they went into the holy city” (Matthew 27:53c), he indicates Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 4:5–6), where they “appeared to many” (Matthew 27:53d), seemingly to indicate eyewitnesses to the event.
These unique images are all drawn from various prophetic texts — such as Ezekiel 37:1–14, Daniel 12, and Zechariah 14 — to indicate things that will occur in the future as depictions of salvation, often with the notion of deliverance and restoration from exile. The deliverance here, though, is of a different kind: the events anticipated in the future have occurred at the death of Jesus. And Jesus did not come to save his people from exile, but from their sins (Matthew 1:21), a mission tied up in his very name which, in Hebrew, is the same as Joshua and means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” In Jesus, the salvation of Yahweh has been accomplished, and the so-called “special material” is a dramatic illustration that the long-awaited turning of the ages — the hinge-point where redemptive history turns from the old covenant to the new covenant — is accomplished here, at this very point in all history.
Notice that while Mark mentions only the centurion at the cross, Matthew draws attention to the plurality of witnesses: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus . . .” (Matthew 27:54). Matthew then explains that they “saw the earthquake and what took place.” Though this may include the tearing of the veil, the more natural reading of this verse would be that they saw the earthquake and all the other events thereafter. Such “events” (ta genomena) in Matthew typically occur in the life of Jesus in fulfillment of Scripture and to inspire a response, such as repentance (e.g., Matthew 1:22; 11:21, 23; 18:31; 28:11). But how could a centurion at Golgotha on Friday see events that occurred on the Mount of Olives and then in Jerusalem on Sunday? It may be that Matthew is simply telescoping. That is, Matthew notes the earthquake, the rocks splitting, the tombs opening, and the dead rising — and, parenthetically, he notes that these resurrected people appeared to many in Jerusalem after Jesus’s resurrection on Sunday. Suffice it to say that Matthew took no pains to clarify, and so perhaps does not share our concern for explanation.
A Revelation from Heaven
But herein lies a secondary, little-considered function of the tearing of the veil that is hinted at both by the historical depiction of the veil by Josephus and by the Gospel of Mark. As we have seen, Josephus describes the veil in terms of the sky, or the panorama of the heavens.9 In the Gospel of Mark, noted as a source for Matthew, the connection between the veil and the heavens is made explicit: the veil is torn (schizō) at Jesus’s death (Mark 15:38), and the heavens are likewise torn (again schizō) at Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1:10). Add to this the fact that Mark describes Jesus’s death as a kind of baptism (Mark 10:38–39) and the literary connection becomes clear. The splitting of the heavens introduces the heavenly voice revealing the identity of Jesus as God’s Son (Mark 1:11), and the tearing of the veil is in part symbolic of the tearing of the heavens, and serves to reveal to the centurion the identity of Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 15:39).
Importantly, only here in Mark’s Gospel does a human being enter into this supernatural perspective: the voice from heaven declares Jesus to be the Son of God (Mark 1:11; 9:7), the evil spirits also recognize it (Mark 3:11), but in Mark’s Gospel, only at the cross does a human being recognize Jesus as “Son of God” (Mark 15:39). This happens, I suggest, when the historical event of the rending of the temple’s veil is allowed to take on an additional, symbolic role in the Gospel narrative, equating it with the rending open of heaven as an apocalyptic revelation.10 The centurion, like Cornelius in the book of Acts (Acts 10:3–7), receives a special revelation from God. And in Mark’s Gospel, it is here at the cross where Jesus’s “Son of God-ness” is displayed in all its fullness and glory — the sacrificial death on the cross for sins.
How this bears out in Matthew is evident in the response of the centurion and those standing there: “they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54). The language of “filled with awe” may be misleading, as the NIV’s “they were terrified” (ephobēthēsan sphodra) is more accurate to the sense. This response resembles that of the disciples when Jesus is transfigured (Matthew 17:6) and suggests a supernatural display (cf. Matthew 14:27, 30; 17:6; 28:5, 10). Their fear is followed by a statement about the identity of Jesus. Despite objections, Jesus truly was the Son of God, as claimed by God himself (Matthew 3:17; 17:5), affirmed by Jesus (Matthew 26:63–64), and even acknowledged by the disciples (Matthew 14:33; 16:16). But the disciples recognize this identity only when a miracle has occurred (Matthew 14:33), and even then, their recognition cannot be the result of natural deduction but rather the result of a supernatural revelation from the Father in heaven (Matthew 16:16–17). With the centurion’s acknowledgement of Jesus as the Son of God, he too has received a revelation from the Father, an acknowledgement of the true identity of Jesus to which the miraculous events surrounding his death, introduced by the torn veil, bear witness.
Celebrating Access to the Father
The veil was a physical, visible barrier indicating that access to God was strictly prohibited because of his holiness. It is imperative to remember that the holiness of God remains unchanged from all eternity — even after the veil is torn. What has changed, then, is that the atoning death of Jesus on the cross has provided the appropriate wrath-bearing sacrifice, one which the bulls and goats of the old covenant could not provide (Hebrews 10:4).
The author of Hebrews expounds on this very clearly: “we have confidence to enter the holy places” (Hebrews 10:19), and this is accomplished by the blood of Jesus. This is the “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20) that Christ opened for us through the veil, which, the author says, is through his flesh. This means that the breaking of Jesus’s body at the crucifixion is the unprecedented means by which believers have access to the presence of God. This, coupled with the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 10:21), forms the basis of the author’s exhortation to believers: draw near to God (Hebrews 10:22), hold unwaveringly to our confession of faith (Hebrews 10:23), stir one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24), and continually meet together to encourage one another in the faith (Hebrews 10:25). As we approach Easter, we recall and celebrate what Christ has done for us on the cross, and heed the exhortation to meet habitually in church for corporate worship and exhortation to hold fast to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).