“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom…” —Matthew 27:50-51
There were four phenomenon that occurred before, during, and three days after Jesus’ crucifixion. First, darkness fell, though the day was new. Second, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple—where the Ark of the Covenant had rested, causing the veil to ebb and flow in God’s breath until the moment Jesus gave up His Spirit—was torn in two. Third, the earth quaked and rocks were split. Fourth, tombs opened and saints were raised from the dead.
All four of these events are found to varying degrees in both the Word and other historical records of the time. They show that even the most cynical of the time, such as the High Priest Caiaphas—who had been the first instrument of Jesus’ death by sending Him to Pilate—questioned to one degree or another whether Jesus was the Son of God or not. Even those who did not believe Him to be the Son of God, questioned whether or not He was a holy man along the lines of Moses—sent by God Himself.
Every account teaches us something unique about the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection…
From Pilate’s letters to Roman leadership relaying not only his personal admiration of Jesus and interactions with Him, and recounting of how dark clouds covered the Temple after Jesus’ sentencing…
To Caiaphas’ largely miraculous change of view within weeks… from a self-preserving letter sent after Jesus’ death but before His resurrection, to a second letter sent after Jesus’ resurrection giving account of not only of the miraculous things which occurred after the resurrection, but even of his own encounter with Jesus before He ascended to Heaven!
Yet, when it comes to the four phenomena, particularly the rending of the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the sanctuary of the Temple, little is found outside of the Word. A number of possible* reasons why include:
1. There were limited eye-witnesses—as those who could enter that far into the Temple were a select few. Only the High Priest himself was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and only certain Levites (and perhaps kings of years long past) could even come close to the veil.
2. Save for those who saw and believed, most of those who witnessed the event, or knew of it, would have desired that information hidden and done much to quench it. For man had tied everything from position, faith, and power to the belief that they—those who could enter that far—were indispensable for forgiveness and access to God.
3. Because the earthquake and rending of the veil occurred in unison, it may be that those in power tried to maintain that it was the earthquake itself that caused the rending and not Jesus’ death despite evidence to the contrary. Such as: the timing corresponding to the moment Jesus gave up His Spirit, the way the heavy veil tore from top to bottom despite an intact Temple structure, and the breath of God no longer coming from the Holy of Holies.
*While none of these are proven theories as to why there is seemingly no non-biblical account of the veil rending, they are likely reasons why such an occurrence may have been concealed. Further, while the rending of the veil is not currently known to be written of outside the Word, there are accounts of other unusual occurrences in the Temple around this time—such as the flame that burned continually going out, doors to holy areas being opened, etc.—as such, the veil being torn may well be hidden in some lost account.
Why was the veil important?
Herod Antipas—son of Herod the Great who tried to kill Jesus as a babe—writing to Tiberius Caesar and the Roman Senate, in defense of his sentencing John the Baptist to death, said of the Temple:
“…for the Jews think this temple the next place to heaven.” (THE ARCHKO VOLUME; Or, The Archeological Writings of the Sanhedrim and Talmuds of the Jews)
In many ways Herod Antipas’ assumptions in regard to the views of the time were correct, despite his disdain for God and His servants. For both the first and second Temple had been the center of Jewish religion since the time of King Solomon, and it was there that God was sought.
Yet, what does the importance of the Temple have to do with the veil? And what was the importance of the veil that hung within the Temple walls?
“For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat…”—Hebrews 9:2-5
The veil served as a physical sign of God and His holiness to those who saw it—for the Jewish sages state that the very breath of God made the heavy veil move constantly. Further, it served as a layer of protection from the mighty presence of God. None could enter the presence of the Lord found in the Holy of Holies and live, save for one day a year when the High Priest would enter with blood to atone for the sins of himself and all the people of Israel.
Even a glimpse of what was behind the veil could destroy because of the awesome power of God. For just as many had died when they tried to look into the ark, the holy of holies was too pure a place for man to enter unbidden.
Still, we may wonder why the rending of the veil, especially when accompanied by an earthquake, would be so impressive. After all, an earthquake could easily be responsible for destruction of a ‘delicate’ veil, right?
Well, one reason for the impressive nature of the rending is that God, prior to that moment, had only allowed the first Temple to be destroyed when His people departed from His ways—at which time the first veil may have been destroyed through fire, likely from the bottom up, as the Temple itself was lost. Thus, for God to allow the veil’s destruction from the top to bottom—while letting the second Temple remain—would have been unprecedented.
Further than that is the size and weight of the veil—it being far too large for man or natural phenomenon to easily destroy. It was at least 60 feet long, 30-40 feet high, and some in the Talmud say as much as “a hands breadth in thickness”—4 inches! Additionally, some sources claim it took 300 men to move and hang in place with any ease. Add to that the impossibility of someone moving past DOZENS of active priests with a remarkably tall ladder hoping to rip or slice the veil from top to bottom, renders man-induced rending highly unlikely. Therefore, the sheer size of the veil combined with a completely intact Temple structure disallows any earthquake damage to such a degree.
Thirty to forty feet high, 60 feet wide, thick enough to cloak the glory of the Lord, likely weighing thousands of pounds, and yet torn from top to bottom with ease!
As that massive veil was rendered in two, the separation between God and man was destroyed along with the separation of Jew and Gentile, and both remain so to this day… All thanks to the blood of Jesus restoring that which had been in the Garden. God’s perfect design.
With the rending of the veil, God was visually demonstrating the shift in how we are to interact with Him, while simultaneously declaring to all the earth that Jesus was, is, and is to come—our Messiah, King, Priest, and the Son of God…
“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”—Hebrews 9:11-14
Many were against this for reasons ranging from personal doubt, to a greed for power and prestige. As a result, it is likely those in power suppressed the rending of the veil in any way they could—just as they tried to pay the guards of Jesus’ tomb to lie about what they had seen. For they may have viewed the veil rending as God leaving them… leaving the Temple… leaving their own positions and beliefs in God to waver in the wind, compromised and changed…
Still, many who worked in the Temple that day saw and came to believe in Jesus. Further still, there were three more signs harder to ignore, and impossible to suppress—darkness, earthquake, and raising of the saints. Once these were seen and the news spread, the revelation of who Jesus was and all that had shifted brought believers in untold numbers to the Kingdom of God—in spite of those desiring the promise and revelation stopped.
Today we know Father God on a personal basis thanks to the blood Jesus—Yeshua—shed on the cross.
Jesus allowed us to be sanctified and cleansed so that we might approach the throne room of God, know our Father, and of course, have permanent access to the Holy Spirit.
And the veil that was torn that day?
Well, it was torn in our hearts as well, allowing access to the Holy of Holies 365 days a year as we became temples of the Lord.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”—1 Corinthians 3:16-17
“Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”—1 Corinthians 6:19-20