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TORN FROM TOP TO BOTTOM
MATTHEW 27:51-54; LUKE 23:44-49

Good Friday - 29th March 2002

Five weeks ago, on the 25th of February, a Nigerian woman, Safiya Hussaini, was condemned to death by stoning by an Islamic court for the crime of adultery. The man has been allowed to go free. Under the strict Shari'ah law applied in Nigeria, adultery carries a mandatory death sentence. Hussaini, a nursing mother whose one-year-old baby girl is at the center of the case, was convicted of having had an illicit sexual affair with a man out of wedlock. Dr Anthony Okogie, the Catholic Arch-bishop of the Lagos Archdiocese, has offered to pay the sentence recently imposed on the woman, proposing to die in place of the woman sentenced to death by stoning.

The Archbishop has voluntarily offered to die in place of the Muslim woman condemned to death by stoning by an Islamic court for the crime of adultery. The woman, Safiya Hussaini, appealed the conviction on the grounds she was raped. The archbishop called on religious leaders to administer and interpret the Islamic legal code in the fear of God and with humility, taking human considerations into account. The judge said "The man had to be freed for lack of evidence" but that the sentence passed on Hussaini, if carried out, would ensure her access to paradise. "She will be saved on the day of judgement. The manner of her death now will save her from a terrible ordeal on judgement day. She may be admitted to heaven." Last Wednesday, 27th March the Appeal Court announced that Safiya Husseini, was acquitted. The chief judge of the Islamic Court of Appeal, and three other judges, explained that the police report did not include all the necessary information. This contemporary event reminds me of the words of the Apostle Paul about Jesus who was willing to die in the place of others.

Romans 5:6-8 "At the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." What courage and goodness of heart moves a man to lay down his life for a friend? Or for a person wrongfully accused? But the Lord Jesus laid down His life for His enemies! Those who were apart from God and powerless to do anything about it.

After hours hanging on the Cross, Jesus died. Luke 23:44-46 Luke says it was "about the sixth hour," v 44. that is, six hours after sun-up at 6am. All Gospel writers say there was darkness from about the sixth hour to the ninth, from noon to three o'clock in the afternoon. This emphasized the somberness of the event. A person in the last stages of crucifixion lacks strength to speak, but Jesus spoke with a "loud voice" v46 Jesus' words are from Psalm 31:5 which was used by the Jews as an evening prayer: "Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth". To the Christian who knows that Jesus' death was a voluntary act, they are beautifully appropriate. The "people" standing watching were deeply affected, as were Jesus' own followers, who endured their inexpressible grief standing at a distance. At the moment of the death of Jesus on the Cross, extraordinary things happened in the surrounding community. Matthew 27:50-51 "When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." What is the significance of this torn Temple curtain?

The twin veils shut out the gaze of people from the Holy Place in the Temple and the inner Holy of Holies. Why do Matthew and Luke both mention their destruction? The curtains separated God from the people. One divided the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. The other separating the Holy Place from the courtyard. Tearing both could hardly be over-estimated in its significance. Any human ripping the curtain in two would have grabbed it from the bottom and torn it up. But Scripture wants to show this could only be an act of God, tearing the curtain from the top down to the bottom. This has two meanings.

1. THE TEARING DOWN OF DIVINE SEPARATION.

The tearing down of the inner curtain that hid the Holy of Holies meant God was ending the separation that existed between Himself and His creation. The separation was caused by sin, and sin was now defeated. The Holy of Holies represented humanity separated from God. It was where only the High Priest could enter once a year bearing the blood of a sacrificial lamb to sprinkle on the Mercy Seat. Entry by any other person was punishable by death. But now, because of the Cross every person of faith could have direct access to God. It meant that the blood of the Lamb of God was spread before God on behalf of all who believed. No longer would there need to be annual sacrifices for the sins of the people. The Book of Hebrews explains: 10:19-22 "Therefore, brothers, we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body." Access to the most holy God is now open through the death of Christ.

Hebrews 6:19-20 "We enter the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever." The rent curtain means: Hebrews 9:11-28 "When Christ came as high priest… He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption for us. … The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, cleanses our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a New Covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance--now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the Old Covenant. … This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. When Moses had proclaimed every commandment of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. He said, "This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep." In the same way, Moses sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; He entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did He enter heaven to offer Himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not His own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him."

What great and profound spiritual insight symbolized in the fact that the inner curtain separating people from God and hiding the repeated sacrifice for their sins, was torn from the top down!

2. THE TEARING DOWN OF HUMAN RELIGION.

The tearing apart of the outer curtain revealed the Holy Place from the eyes of ordinary people. Exod 26:36-37 Religion is now not what humans do, but what God has already done. No effort from any of us in religious activities can save us. The torn curtain made visible what ordinary people had never seen. It was a symbol that the things of God were now open to everyone of faith. The torn curtain revealed there was no longer any secrets, no longer any special place, no longer a need of a temple or a priesthood between people and God. The way to God was open for all to see, not only for Jews, but for any one of any race at all. Open access for all! While destruction of the inner veil would primarily symbolize open access to God for anyone through faith, the destruction of the outer veil was of equal radical significance. To Jews, the significance could not have been more shocking.

For it symbolized the forthcoming destruction of the temple. Just hours before His death, Jesus had spoken to His disciples about the future of the magnificent Temple built by Herod the Great. Matthew 24:1-2 "Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. "Do you see all these things?" Jesus asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." The Romans under General Titus would destroy the Temple physically in 70 AD. The entire structure was destroyed. Jews have lamented this ever since. Jews today are praying daily at the base of the Temple known as the Western Wall or Wailing Wall, for the construction of a fourth Temple. During those periods of history when Christianity controlled Jerusalem, there was no attempt to rebuild the Temple. At the end of time, in the Heavenly Jerusalem, there will be no Temple either. For Jesus Himself is the New Temple, the meeting place of God and man. Hence the old Temple and all its activities is obsolete. The rent veil is a sign of the Temple's impending destruction - a destruction conceived not as a historical fact but as a theological necessity.

The tearing down of the outer curtain revealed all to every eye. It was a symbol that soon all would be destroyed. Not just the monumental work of stone that was one of the wonders of the ancient world, but all that was involved in it. The death of Jesus opened up a fresh access to God and this made the whole Jewish sacrificial system and the Levitical high priesthood obsolete. A New Covenant is now in place.

Wesley Mission, Sydney.