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Friday, April 2, 2010

Beyond the Veil

And 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.  The earth shook and the rocks split.  --Matthew 27: 50-51 NIV

Over 2,000 years ago, as Jesus hung on the cross on a trash heap just outside of town, His mockers gathered around to leer at Him and hurl insults.  Once again, as before, God sent clear signs to prove what Jesus had said about Himself.  A massive earthquake shook the place, breaking rocks and, more importantly, tearing the woven, embroidered tapestry that hung in the temple.  This curtain separated the Holy Place where the priests worked and the Most Holy Place, which was forbidden territory except under certain conditions.  No one was supposed to even look inside that place for fear of being struck dead.  What changed?  What did the torn curtain mean?  What does it mean for people today?

Symbolism of the Veil in Scripture

 We see again and again in Scripture examples of God veiling Himself from those who were in His presence.  Usually a cloud of smoke hung over the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16: 2).  In fact, when God gave Moses the religious laws Israel was to follow, He appeared in a cloud at the top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24: 15-18).  Also, at the dedication of the temple that Solomon commissioned, a huge cloud heralded God's presence, filling the whole building to the extent that the priests could not enter the temple (2 Chronicles 7: 1-3).  I could keep listing examples, but I think you get the idea.

The pattern emerges that there is always something between God and those who are communicating with Him.  No one was allowed to see God's face, because they would be struck dead.  This, I know, is a hard concept to explain to a skeptic.  Struck dead if they looked God in the eye?  What, is God vain or something?  No, God is not vain.  The problem is the sinfulness of the people.

God, by nature, is just.  He has set appropriate consequences for offenses, and He deals the punishments out at the appropriate times.  Like anyone who loves justice, God cannot allow injustice to continue in His presence. Furthermore, the purity of God's presence reveals the sin in the hearts of the people (Psalm 90: 7-9)--like the candling of an egg, really--and faced with that, God must act with justice.  The consequence of sin and rebellion is death, and in the days of the old temple, it was dealt with on sight.

The only thing to assuage God's wrath was the blood of an innocent sacrifice; therefore, if the priest was going to safely walk on the other side of the curtain, inside the Most Holy Place, he had to bring and sacrifice an animal.  For all the skeptics who might be reading this, I've got to say that God wants justice and obedience more than He wants a whole bunch of dead animals.  See my other article, To Obey is Better than Sacrifice for more on this topic.

So, we see again that the thing that really separates people from God is their sins.  In order to safely approach God, they had to have something to cover those sins, whether it was a curtain, a cloud, or the blood of a sacrifice.  The veil was not symbolic of the sins of the people; it was symbolic of mercy and atonement, and it was forever in God's presence, keeping back His justifiable wrath against disobedience.

When Jesus, an innocent man and the Son of God, died, He became that Veil between God and man (Hebrews 10: 19-27).  The curtain in the temple was no longer necessary, because the symbol had been personified in the person of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, the curtain was torn "from top to bottom," because God Himself had sent Jesus to be the sacrifice to satisfy the law's just requirements.  Christ's atonement was not an idea invented or put into place by man--this was done by God, from the top down.

The Veil for Today

There is another veil discussed in the Bible--that of the veil that the Israelites asked Moses to wear after he had been speaking to God (Exodus 34: 30-34). This was a veil, not to shield the people from God's wrath, but a shield they put between themselves and the power of God.  They were afraid to really face that power or accept it; they were hiding from God, rather than seeking Him, because when they saw the power of God's presence in Moses' life, they felt God's disapproval of their sins.  As long as Moses wasn't reminding them of what they weren't doing, as long as Moses wasn't making them feel judged, they were comfortable to continue the act of outward obedience.  This is the veil Paul spoke of when he wrote,
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.  But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.  Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.  But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3: 13-16 NIV)
Even now, even today, when Christians all over the world are thinking about that day, over 2,000 years ago, when Christ died and the veil was torn in the temple, there are many who still draw a curtain over their hearts and refuse to accept the way God sees them.

And how does God see us?  Certainly not as perfect people, above judgment and not requiring punishment.  If God really thought that we were, deep inside, good people, it wouldn't have been necessary to send His Son to die for us.  What Christ's sacrifice reveals is that God sees us as failures--yes, failures--who needed His help.  We must not fool ourselves into believing the humanist teachings in the church that say that "God believes in me," or that "God isn't angry."  The fact is, sin makes Him angry--justifiably so.  But the fact that Christ became the veil, and that it no longer stands between us and God's presence, should bring relief and joy.  When we won't let God judge us, we are lost; but when we pull aside the veil and accept the reality that we need God, He can change us and fix us, taking away the sin that brings wrath.

Yes, God is angry about sin, but He didn't want to cast us forever out of His presence, so He sent atonement for us in the person of His Son!  Yes, we are failures, but we have hope, because Christ didn't fail in His mission!  Because of Jesus, the way to God stands open--opened from the top to the bottom--so that when we submit to God's judgment, we can joyfully enter God's presence without shame or fear.  Mercy has made a way for us.  Today will you accept what God has offered you?