Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (B)
March 28, 2021
Text: Mark 15:38
“And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38; ESV).
In the Gospel according to St. Mark, our Lord’s ministry is bookended with a violent tearing. At His Baptism by John in the River Jordan, “when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11). Now at His crucifixion and death. Once again, the Spirit is imparted, only this time, the Spirit who had descended upon Jesus at His Baptism, is unleashed on the world through the breath… same word as Spirit in Greek… through the breath of the dying Lord: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37). Then the tearing. And once again a voice, only this time from below, but the same declaration as that made by the Father at Jesus’ Baptism: “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’” (v. 39).
The heavens were torn open, the curtain of the Temple torn in two from top to bottom. Tearing. Torn. σχίζω… from which we get the words, “schism,” a tearing or division between parties; “scissors,” an instrument for tearing or cutting; “schizophrenia,” a torn mind. σχίζω. The word is onomatopoetic. It is abrasive. It is violent. And that is on purpose. The violent death of Jesus Christ on the cross, for which He was baptized in the River Jordan, and in which He was baptized in His own blood, tears wide open any impediment to your direct access to God. The heavens that conceal the throne room of God. The curtain that conceals Holy of Holies, the Ark, and the Mercy Seat, where God is enthroned between the cherubim. This is how the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “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, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22). The tearing of Jesus’ flesh unto death results in the tearing open of the curtain and the very heavens. And the Blood of Jesus that flows from that tear cleanses your conscience, that is, forgives your sins, as you are washed with pure water. You are baptized into the death of Christ. Heaven is now open to you. You have direct access to God. The Spirit is bestowed on you by the breath of the Lord. And God declares that you are His beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.
The curtain of the Temple was a massive tapestry. Really, more like a system of tapestries. About 60 feet tall in Herod’s Temple, and four inches thick (the width of a hand), the curtain was several curtains put together, made of the most precious material, purple, scarlet, and blue, rare colors usually reserved for royalty. The curtain divided the Holy Place, where the incense altar, the lamp, the table, and showbread were kept; from the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, where God was enthroned on the Ark between the cherubim. And the curtain was actually given by grace as a safety measure, as a way for the holy God to dwell with His sinful people without killing them. He was with His people, but not directly. Because when holiness comes into contact with unholiness, sin, evil… the results are disastrous. Think, for example, of poor Uzzah the Levite, who simply reached out his hand to steady the Ark when the oxen stumbled bringing it into Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:5 ff). Don’t kid yourself. Uzzah was a Christian. But he was also a sinner. And sinners can’t touch holy things, least of all the throne of God, and live. Unless… well, we’ll get to that.
So the curtain kept the Ark, and therefore God, safely concealed. Present, but hidden. And only the high priest, and he but once a year, on the Day of Atonement, could enter the Holy of Holies behind the curtain, and come into the presence of the Ark. And he had to come with blood, the blood of the atonement sacrifice for his own sin, and for the sins of the people. And it was always dangerous. He could die in there. Don’t forget Uzzah. For this reason, when the priest entered, a rope was tied around his ankle, so in case of death, they could pull him out. And we know this from the Jewish rabbis rather than the Bible. They were being extra safe. We do know from the Bible that the priest had to be ceremonially washed with pure water, and wear special clothing, a linen tunic and linen underwear, a linen sash, and a linen turban (Lev. 16:4). Curiously, no shoes or sandals are mentioned. The priest was to be barefoot. Why? “(T)ake your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).
So the priest would enter the Holy of Holies, incensing the whole way with fire from the incense altar, so that he wouldn’t die. And he would first take the blood of a bull he had sacrificed for his own sins, and sprinkle it in front of the Ark and on the Mercy Seat… the Mercy Seat, which is the throne of God on top of the Ark, which contains the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Because the blood of the atoning sacrifice must come between God and the Commandments which the priest had broken.
And then he would go out again and sacrifice a goat, this time for the sins of Israel. This is the goat chosen by lot for the LORD, whose counterpart served as the scapegoat sent out into the wilderness for Azazel. He would sacrifice the goat chosen for the LORD, and once again bring the blood into the Holy of Holies, and do with this blood as he did with that of the bull. Because the blood of the atoning sacrifice must come between God and the Commandments which the people had broken.
Now, you know, this sacrifice had to be repeated, year after year. And it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb. 10:4). These things were a shadow of the good things to come, not the true form of these realities (v. 1). But they were pointing to the perfect Priest to come, who would offer the perfect Sacrifice of Atonement, once and for the sins of all.
So it was on a Sunday of Passover week, our Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to be that Priest, and to make that Sacrifice. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. “Hosanna!” the crowds shouted, as they waved their palms and spread their cloaks. “Save us now!” And “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (John 12:13). “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2).
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come… 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. 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, 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” (Heb. 9:11-14). Jesus is the end of the Levitical Priesthood and all other atonement sacrifices. For He is the everlasting High Priest, and all the Old Testament sacrifices were but a shadow of the reality of His Blood, and the sacrifice of His Flesh, to atone for the sins of the whole world.
So when Jesus breathed His last and died on the cross, the curtain of the Temple was ἐσχίσθη, torn. And that from top to bottom. In other words, God did it, from above. Because in the death of Jesus, there is no more need for safety barriers. The wall between you and God has been broken down in His flesh. Atonement has been made, and your sins, all of them, are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. You have been washed with pure water. You are baptized into Christ. You are clothed with Him, better than the linen-clad priests of old. And now heaven itself is torn open to you. And it is true, is it not?... that you, a sinner, but forgiven and cleansed, march right up here into the Holy of Holies and touch the Holy Things. In fact, you eat them and drink them, the very Sacrifice and Blood of Atonement. There He is, enthroned on the Mercy Seat, and His Blood comes between God and the Commandments you have broken. And unlike poor Uzzah, you do not die, but live. In fact, these things you touch and eat and drink, are given for your life, and for the life of the world.
The curtain of the Temple has been torn in two. Come, now, with confidence, and enter the Holy Places by the Blood of Jesus. Come right up and touch God in the flesh. Come right up and touch God for you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.