It’s the most pivotal moment in history…
…Jesus…on the cross…
…a joy once set before him, now the weight of the world.
Battered and bruised, he waits; the darkness of sin in foreign space. The epitome of innocence now weeping for his father…
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
One can only imagine what it must have been like to be a bystander watching this wonder working power helpless on a tree…to stand amidst this moment in time as it became a moment for eternity.
Would you agree?
If not, permit me to explain through the lens of some rocks, a veil and why it tore immediately after Jesus’ last breath.
During Jesus’ ministry, the holy temple in Jerusalem was the hub of Jewish religious life, a place where animal sacrifices and scroll readings were carried out according to the Law of Moses. In this temple, a veil separated the Holy of Holies from the outer court for three reasons:
- The Holy of Holies was a landing spot for God’s presence
- The Holy of Holies was a place of consecrated communion between God and the high priest.
- The Holy of Holies signified man’s separation from God by sin foreshadowing sanctification through atonement.
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
“…the priests continually enter the outer [or first section of the] tabernacle [that is, the Holy Place] performing [their ritual acts of] the divine worship, but into the second [inner tabernacle, the Holy of Holies], only the high priest enters [and then only] once a year, and never without [bringing a sacrifice of] blood, which he offers [as a substitutionary atonement] for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. By this the Holy Spirit signifies that the way into the Holy Place [the true Holy of Holies and the presence of God] has not yet been disclosed as long as the first or outer tabernacle is still standing [that is, as long as the Levitical system of worship remains a recognized institution], for this [first or outer tabernacle] is a symbol [that is, an archetype or paradigm] for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which are incapable of perfecting the conscience and renewing the [inner self of the] worshiper.”
To recap, that’s over a millennium of one high priest making one annual visit to encounter God under first covenant law. That’s intense. I can only imagine if memes existed back then, how many would hinge on ‘no pressure’ taglines. Not to mention if John 3:16 was extrapolated back to Exodus:
“Before God could send His one and only Son, He had one and only day to meet one and only mediator1, a high priest oblivious to how the blood of his lambs bode the blood of the Lamb.”
Of course, I’m being jocose in my paraphrasing. But perhaps you’re still wondering, ‘What does any of this have to do with Jesus dying on the cross?’
“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. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
“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. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’”
Now, before we pursue our bottom line, let’s note some contrasts:
- In Matthew, we see the veil tearing and rocks splitting; no mention of the centurion.
- In Mark, we don’t have rocks splitting, but the centurion is introduced confessing Christ as the Son of God.
- In Luke, we have time stamps and are re-introduced to the centurion who this time confesses Christ as innocent. Unlike Matthew and Mark, the veil is said to have been torn prior to Jesus’ death.
- Interestingly, the common denominator in all accounts is the torn veil. While not mathematically confirmed by Scripture, Exodus suggests this veil was likely near 60 feet high and four inches thick meaning not even Samson could not tear this thing.
Merging the differences, the moment fleshes out…
“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. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ Having breathed his last, the earth shook, the rocks were split, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was the Son of God!’”
From here, we can now grasp the magnitude of the moment.
Once Jesus surrenders his spirit, it’s at this point the veil tears; however, the orientation of the tear is significant as it didn’t occur randomly, but from top to bottom. The commentary on this can be simplified as follows:
- The significance of the torn veil was the consummation of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement.
- The significance of the torn veil splitting top to bottom was the Holy Holies now being open to all people for all times.
Put another way, the veil tearing top to bottom not only captured the movement of God’s holy temple from manmade structure to internal dwelling, but also foreshadowed the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. No longer was the Old Covenant relevant where high priests represented the masses; rather, Christ could now be both our High Priest and the way to get to Him.
“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. 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 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper. 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.” 2
To quote Michael Houdmann, “The things of the temple were shadows of things to come, and they all ultimately point us to Jesus Christ. He was the veil to the Holy of Holies, and through His death the faithful now have free access to God.”
As for the rocks splitting, though often lost in context, this, too, is a meaningful anecdote. While the torn veil signified the tearing of Jesus’ flesh, reconciliation between God and man, and Christ’s post-salvation residence, the split rocks captured the effects these had on the physical world. A preview of the tomb, the split rocks were more than a consequence of the earthquake following Jesus’ final breath, but rather a permanent reminder for humanity that death is the ground of resurrection…that what happens in the spiritual can’t be excluded from the physical.
The rocks, in a way, also signaled the resurrection of our earthly bodies (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-54) and a Kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:18-29). Granted, theologies vary enough to warrant a second post for a different day; the bottom line is the rocks were both imagery and analogy to God’s sovereignty in creation, His power in death, and His intent for new life.
I love how John Piper paints this in Desiring God: “The earth was shaken and rocks split by a sovereign earth-controller and a powerful rock-ruler. Human deaths don’t shake the earth and split rocks. God does. Rocks don’t have a mind of their own. They do what God bids them do. And they shook and split.”
Come to think of it, what a visual the rocks are to Christ’s identity as our everlasting rock (Isaiah 26:3-5), our fortress in whom we take refuge (Psalm 144:1-2). True, the veil reminds us the barriers once between God and man are now a pathway to walk in boldness (Hebrews 4:14-16), but the rocks remind us that pathway is also one we can walk in confidence.3
And that, my friends, is why we celebrate Easter: To commemorate Christ as our greatest anchor amidst a shaking world and our greatest security amidst a collapsing one. When life is unstable, He is able. How sweet it is to know the power of the Cross will always be enough to crack the rocks of life…
…that at the mention of His name, mountains bow down and the seas roar…
…the work of His hand having taken the nails for you.
As we approach Easter, my prayer for you is that as you come into a fresh understanding not only of what Christ came to do, but what He longs to do in and through you in the days to come.
Until then, I wish you all a wonderful Easter full of peace and rest as you reflect on the ultimate sacrifice.
- Already the math gives me tingles
- Pretty remarkable how fluid those passages run when put together
- Courage is for today; boldness is courage matured; confidence is boldness matured. Shout-out to Benji Block for the breakdown. (Edited by Cameron Fry via Canva)