“Therefore, brothers, 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 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.”
– Hebrews 10:19-22
As Christians, the author of Hebrews authoritatively declares that we are to draw near to God with full assurance of achieving intimacy with Him. The way in which we enter the “holy places” is “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain…through his flesh.” The immediate thought is that this verse seems to reference back to the gospels in which, after Jesus gives up his spirit, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27:51) How does the author of Hebrews help nuance our understanding of this event?
The fascinating thing to me about the opening verse used here is that it is ambiguous. There are several interpretations, all of which have merit. The first one tied to the passage from Matthew is that the curtain was opened through Christ’s flesh. The emphasis placed here seems to be on the power of Christ’s death on the cross as being the bridge from us to God, opening the way. In this sense, it is the tearing of the flesh that is key to opening the new way.
However, I would propose another reading of this verse (without discounting this first one in any way) that is very similar to those points raised in the previous post (The Salvific Nature of the Incarnation). Note the interesting parallel that the author of Hebrews uses when he says “through the curtain” and “through the flesh.” The conclusion that could be drawn is that the intention here is that the curtain is the flesh. In other words the way has not been opened through the curtain by the flesh but the way has been opened through the flesh itself. Yet there is something distinct about this curtain from the one in Matthew. This curtain is not torn, and thus, neither is the flesh. The new way has been opened not through a torn curtain, nor through torn flesh but rather through the whole flesh.
The implications of this view are rich with meaning. If the untorn or whole flesh opens the new way to the throne room of God, we must once again not look solely to the cross and the death of Christ (where the flesh was torn) but to his life. Thus, just as the incarnation is in itself salvific, so did Christ as God in the flesh save us by being the curtain to God’s presence. In the same way that the curtain reminds man of God’s characteristics (ie. holiness), so Christ’s very life teaches us this same thing; Christ as the curtain once again points to his all-important role as the one who reveals the Father to us, saving us by bringing us back into knowledge of, and communion with God. Thus by understanding Christ not as being the one to tear the curtain but as the untorn curtain itself we are once again introduced to the thought that Christ’s entire life was a saving process. Clearly, the power is not in his death, but in his life, whether resurrection or even before the crucifixion.
Yet sadly, in our daily lives, we live in a world lacking the fulness of Christ’s power – one in which Christ simply “died for us.” How vitally true this is, yet to stop there is to miss out on the richness of the gospel. Christ did die for us but even more importantly, he lives for us and it is in his life that we are blessed with the strength to face adversity, the power to resist temptation and the ability to enter into the very presence of our Creator.
Grace and peace,