[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for May, 2019.]
When we read the events of the crucifixion and the empty tomb, we read them from a distance of almost 2000 years. That does not mean that their significance is lessened —far from it—but it does mean that we have to be careful and diligent in our reading so that we do not miss all that God wants to teach; things which would have been much closer to those in 1st century Judea even if they too struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the changes God was bringing in. At a basic level, if Jesus rose from the dead after dying as one under the curse of God, what did this say about all that the Old Testament said about the Justice of God? Either it had been somehow satisfied, or it was no longer important.
And what about the curtain? It was clear that God had torn it from top to bottom (it was too thick and heavy to be humanly torn) but that curtain had been an essential component of the Temple and Tabernacle ever since the days of Moses! How and why would God “change His mind”? Were all the rules and priestly provisions unnecessary after all? The answer to these questions, and others, are worked out in the progressive unfolding of the New Testament, and we cannot hope to come to clear and consistent answers unless we read it as a whole and unless we also read it in light of the many promises of the Old Testament. Those 39 books were never meant to be read on their own! This is where many readers (both scholarly and ordinary) come unstuck. We must not read the Old and New Testaments as if there was no essential harmony between them.
With the tearing of the curtain that separated off the Holy of Holies, it was clear that God was declaring something about how He could be approached. Ever since Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BC and the disappearance of the ark of the covenant, there had been no “Mercy Seat” where the High Priest could sprinkle the blood (see Lev 16) but at least he could take incense and blood beyond the curtain and go through the motions of sprinkling, and release the “scape-goat”. Without a curtain, even that limited ceremony was further diminished! It seemed that God was saying, “It is My will that this Temple never be used in this way again!” But why?
As we read the New Testament, the explanation unfolds. The tabernacle and temple and all their rituals had a dual function. They were promissory and symbolic, and with the coming of Jesus the promises had been fulfilled and the symbols were no longer needed. Jesus Christ is the One true High Priest and Himself the offering. And by virtue of His resurrection, He never needs to be replaced. The true Holy Place is not on earth but in Heaven, the presence of God; the place from where Jesus came and to which He has returned. With His death as the true propitiation for sin (Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17, 9:11-12) there is no longer any other sacrifice and Heaven is no longer “veiled” to those who come to God through Him. There is therefore no need for a temple of the older sort. (See Jesus’ words: Matt 24:1-2).
Yet God has established a “dwelling place” where He would meet with His people—not a physical location as such but His Church. Wherever it might meet, the Church is His building (1 Cor 3:9), His holy temple (Eph 2:21), collectively (1 Cor 3:16-17) and individually (1 Cor 6:19. If we would meet with Him we do not have to make pilgrimages! But Christ must define the Church, not us. We cannot simply put up a sign saying “Church” or even do religious and “churchy things” such as baptisms and sacraments. He must be there!
Thankfully He has promised to be wherever people meet in His Name, where His atonement is foundational (1 Cor 3:11; Rev 3:20) and where His Word is honoured by repentance and faith. The question then, dear reader, is simple: “Does Jesus see you as part of His Church?”