A Good Friday reflection
We like to think of God as a God who mends the broken. It’s somehow comforting for us to believe that God is in the repair business, that His heart is always to mend and heal. Such thoughts find resonance in the Bible, in verses like the following:
“He heals the broken-hearted and bandages their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).
“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces; now he will heal us. He has injured us; now he will bandage our wounds” (Hosea 6:1).
Could there be anything that God wouldn’t want to mend? I think the story of Good Friday shows us that there is. The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the same event of significance as Jesus dies on the cross:
Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51).
Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (Mark 15:37-38).
And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last (Luke 23:45-46).
Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus had two large curtains. There was an outer curtain between the sanctuary and the Court of the Priests (1). And there was an inner curtain, visible only to the priests which concealed the area known as the Holy of Holies, the place where the manifest presence of God was said to dwell. The Greek word used for curtain is katapetasma, a word used to describe both the inner and outer curtain. How do we know which curtain is referred to? Scholar Craig Keener argues that the consistent description by all 3 Gospel writers as “the curtain” points to the inner curtain as the one in reference (2). And the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament seems to draw on this assumption as well in the following verses:
“This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. Jesus has already gone in there for us” (Hebrews 6:19-20).
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place” (Hebrews 10:19-20).
The writer to the Hebrews clearly interpreted the tearing of the Temple curtain as symbolising the way in which the death of Jesus opened the possibility of new relationship with God. Until then, only the High Priest could ever step beyond the curtain into the Most Holy Place and only on the Day of Atonement each year. The tearing of the curtain symbolised the way in which Jesus as the true High Priest, had opened once and for all through His death the way for us to have a direct relationship with God.
Although Bible scholars recognise this possible interpretation through the letter to the Hebrews, a further symbolism may also be in view. Much of Jesus’ own teaching about the Temple focussed on the impending judgement which would fall upon Jerusalem and its Temple if the people did not recognise the presence of Jesus in their midst as Messiah. And so a number of scholars (3) argue that the tearing of the curtain represented a foreshadowing of the judgement that would come upon Jerusalem in AD70 when the Romans destroyed the Temple.
Both interpretations have much to commend them and each of them are linked by two common elements. First of all, the tearing of the curtain is clearly portrayed as an act of God, in that it is torn from top to bottom. The curtain was estimated to be around 25 metres high; no human hands could have torn it all the way down from the top.
The second point arises from the first. If the tearing of the curtain has its origin in God, then this represents one thing God won’t mend. If the torn curtain symbolises our new accessibility to God, then He is never going to sew up that curtain to re-establish that barrier again. God tore it for a purpose and it will remain forever torn. And if instead the tearing of the curtain foreshadowed the coming judgement upon the Temple, then once again, God intended that sign to remain visible as an on-going warning to the Jewish leadership that if they didn’t recognise the Messiah, they would lose everything they held dear. Either way, what God had torn was to remain torn. It’s one thing God won’t mend.
Mark’s Gospel only uses the verb “to be torn” twice, once near the start and once near the end (4). It is used to describe the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus. And it’s used to describe the tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah once cried out to God, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1, NIV). That’s what God did when He came among us in Jesus. In a paradox of His Kingdom, the way God mended the relationship between us was to do some tearing. First He tore the heavens and then He tore a curtain. Such “divine vandalism” (5) reveals the opening of a new way to God. Could there be something that God would never mend? Certainly, if God is the One who tore it in the first place.
1. France RT, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Matthew, 1985, IVP, Leicester, p400
2. Keener C, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 1999, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, p686
3. See, for instance France RT, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Matthew, 1985, IVP, Leicester, p400; Wright T, Luke for Everyone, 2004, SPCK, London, p288; Marshall IH, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1978, Paternoster Press, Cumbria, p875
4. Mark 1:10 and Mark 15:38. The Greek verb is schizo, from which we get words like "schism"
5. France RT, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, 2002, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, p657