This message was prepared for our church group on May 3, 2015. The scriptures were (O.T) Exodus 26:31-35 and 34:29-35 and (N.T.) Mark 15:37-39 and II Corinthians 3:12-17.
The Most Neglected Event of Easter Week
Of all the cascade of events during the Easter season, none of which is without meaning, and each of which has been variously interpreted through the centuries – with varying degrees of fidelity to the New Testament text – there is one that usually receives little notice, although I consider it to be second in importance only to Jesus’ triumphant resurrection which utterly and permanently destroyed the power of death over his people. It is generally mentioned only in passing, if at all, despite its inclusion in all three synoptic gospels, most of a chapter in Paul’s second letter to Corinth, and three separate references in the letter to the Hebrews. That event is the dramatic tearing apart of the thick, heavy curtain called the “veil”, that served as the boundary in the Jewish temple (earlier, the tabernacle), beyond which no one but the designated High Priest was ever allowed to venture, because it concealed the supposed residence of God.
Many years ago, when working on Citizens of the Kingdom, I had done some work on the subject of a “veil”, primarily because of Paul’s mention of the “veil” used by Moses, but I was prompted to dig deeper into the idea by a question raised by John Bender some time ago in reference to Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. He wondered if Mark’s observation of heaven being “torn open” at that time was the same word as the one used of what happened to the veil of the temple at the time of Jesus’ death.
This is one of many examples of the value of the contribution of every member of the Body, which enables one person to trigger another to explore unexpected treasures in the Scripture.
A quick check revealed that it is indeed exactly the same word. Schizo is quite a violent word, elsewhere used of rocks shattered by an earthquake, the guards’ decision not to rip apart Jesus’ cloak, and the ruin of a fish net or an improperly mended garment, as well as of sharp divisions in the response of various crowds to Jesus’ teaching.
But interestingly, these two are Mark’s only uses of the word. Might this have been a deliberate choice on his part, and not, as is often supposed, just the effusive, but limited, vocabulary of an excited young man? We will return to this idea momentarily.
To understand the connection, we must notice the vocabulary of references to “the temple”. There are two different words that are translated “temple”, and they are not distinguished in English translations. This is true of references to pagan temples as well as the Jewish one. One word refers to the whole temple complex – the building and grounds and all its courtyards and accouterments, where people freely met, walked, talked, argued, begged, bought and sold. The other refers specifically (in both pagan and Jewish contexts) to the “inner sanctum”, where the god was believed to dwell – in this particular case, the area walled-off by the veil, the “Holy of Holies”, with access restricted to the high priest or his designate. No one else could enter, on pain of death – although that penalty was not mentioned in the original Law. (Neither, incidentally, was the notion that God “lived” there.)
It was the site of Zachariah’s vision, and where Judas, in his despair, had hurled his bribe-money. It was also the word Jesus and Paul both used of the Body of Christ – both his own physical body and the “temple of the Holy Spirit” into which his people are being built! (That is worthy of a separate study of its own.)
So where is the parallel here? Mark says, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, that “the heaven (sky) was split open” – perhaps not so much in order that the dove/spirit could get out, as that the awe-struck observers could see in, and hear the very voice of God acknowledging his Son!
And at the end of Jesus’ sojourn among people, the temple’s veil of separation, that had been designed to prevent us “ordinary folks” from approaching the presence of God, is likewise “split open” – torn apart – as Mark carefully notes, “from top to bottom” (making it obvious that this was the work of God, and of no human hand). That thing was HUGE – ten cubits was about 15 ft! And as a result of its destruction, all God’s people can not only see in, but be provided, as detailed in Heb.6:19, 9:13, and 10:20, definitive and permanent access, as Jesus’ own people, to the very presence of God!
The destruction of the overt physical barrier dramatically illustrated that interaction between God and his people had been radically and permanently changed! But there is even more!
Closely related to this access is the removal of the other veil – explained in II Cor.3:12-17 – the only other mention of a “veil” in the New Testament. Here, Paul has chosen a different word, one classically used of a much smaller piece of fabric, often worn, in antiquity, as a sign of mourning. It does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament.
Interestingly, Paul and Moses offer differing explanations for the use of this veil. According to Moses (Ex.34), he covered his face because people were frightened by its glowing appearance after he had been talking with the Lord. There is no hint that this was done at God’s direction: it was Moses’ own idea. Paul says (II Cor.3) that Moses didn’t want them to see the “glory” fading from his face! For whichever reason, just like the temple’s heavy curtain, Moses’ “veil” also served to separate – in this case, to separate God’s spokesman from “ordinary people” – the classic clergy-laity division! ButPaul goes on to explain, “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY”!!! And “WE ALL” are charged with “reflecting the Lord’s own radiance” as we are in the process of being “transformed into his image”!
The temple’s veil, whose purpose, in harmony with both the old Jewish hierarchical system and its pagan counterparts, had been to separate ordinary mortals from the presence of God, kept everyone but the high priest from approaching, or even seeing, the place where God’s glory was said to dwell. In sharp contrast, Jesus’ act, in bringing people TO God, by the giving of his own life, utterly destroyed not only the physical barrier, but also any need for such separation. Remember that what Jesus referred to as “his work”, by his own testimony, was to make us ONE – with himself, with the Father, and with each other. His prayer in Jn.17 included the petition that we may behold his glory, and thereby be transformed, together, to reflect his image. ALL OF US!!!
THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!! That has to be one of the most gloriously triumphant statements in all of Scripture! But why, then, is it one of the most neglected? Are there still people and institutions that would prefer that we “ordinary folks” should not know that *BOTH the separation between God and man (the veil of the temple), and that between “layman” and leadership (Moses’ veil) are intended to be FOREVER DONE AWAY IN CHRIST? Any manifestation of either such division, on the part of any group that calls itself a church, constitutes a blatant denial of the finished work of Christ!*
Forget anything else I have said, but don’t forget this. I will say it again: (repeat between *)
This, I believe, was the primary thing that really distinguished the Swiss Anabaptist brethren not only from all the other reformers, but even others who eventually shared the “Anabaptist” label. They were hounded from their homes and possessions, and even their very lives, simply because of their adamant refusal, on the grounds of their New Testament study, to remain or to become subservient to the dictates of the state-authorized systems and individuals (whether Catholic or Protestant) who officially held absolute power over the life, thought, and behavior of their underlings. Thousands were martyred for their insistence that Jesus alone was their superior, and only he had the right to command their obedience.
I consider it a major tragedy when groups who claim “Anabaptist” ancestry turn around and create hierarchical systems and obligatory “doctrinal statements” of their own, instead of encouraging and enabling ALL faithful followers of the Lord Jesus to exercise both their responsibilities and their privileges in the formation and function of the Body for which Jesus prayed, and gave his life! An often-omitted part of the history of that first believers’ baptism in Zurich in 1525, where five earnest students of the New Testament spontaneously baptized each other, is that those committed brethren at the same time “ordained” each other to the ministry of spreading that good news! They considered the two acts – baptism and ordination – to be the opposite sides of the same coin!
I don’t know if you all realize the extent to which Jim’s faithful and excellent leadership of this little “colony of the Kingdom” has courageously departed from what has become “standard procedure” today even in most groups that say they share the Anabaptist heritage. Instead of “running the church”, and personally dictating all of its activities and teaching, he has graciously assumed the (truly Scriptural) role of an “enabler”, taking care to see that we all benefit from one another’s insights, abilities, and concerns. That stance, if I may put it a bit crudely, takes guts!
This choice on his part, unfortunately, is extremely rare, although it should be considered the primary task of every person in any kind of a leadership role: to assure that the Body benefits from the contribution of every brother and sister.
Because THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!! In a New Testament brotherhood, NO task, NO responsibility, NO privilege is reserved for members of a carefully vetted in-group who can be counted on not to rock any boats or kick any sacred cows. In fact, if there is no boat-rocking or cow-kicking going on, there is probably little studying, learning, or growing going on either!
THERE IS ONLY ONE VALID QUALIFICATION for total participation in the Body to which we are called: unequivocal commitment to faithfully following and representing the Lord Jesus and his Kingdom; and there is likewise ONLY ONE VALID STANDARD OF JUDGMENT by which to assess the authenticity of that faithfulness: mutual and careful study of the New Testament.
Within a community committed to that objective, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!!
The key word here is “committed.” A committed community is not an “anything goes”, one-size-fits-all mixture; and certainly not a lowest-common- denominator affair! There’s one of those on nearly every corner! A committed community is something altogether different. If we are not different from the group down the street, why should we even exist? What do we have to offer? As James correctly remarked a couple weeks ago, that’s not what at least some of us want – OR , I would venture to add, not what the Lord wants, either!
The popular contemporary question, “Who is allowed to come to visit, and expect to be welcomed?” is completely irrelevant here. That answer must always be “EVERYONE!” A group committed to the Lord Jesus – and to the purpose of faithfully representing his Kingdom – must ask a very different question instead: “Who can participate in decision making and policy determination?” And the answer to THAT question is also different – both more and less restrictive – it must always be, “ALL, but ONLY those who are likewise committed!”
What is different about a group of Jesus’ committed followers when the veil is taken away?
There will – there must – still be leadership in the Kingdom. But faithful leaders will take care that there be NO VEIL – no activity or decision that is not completely open before all, for in Christ,
THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!! The agenda will not be set by the society around them, but by their study of the New Testament. Total openness, total honesty, the complete absence of any shred of secrecy or manipulation, and careful avoidance of any attribution of status or power to any individual, is the order of life in the new Kingdom..
Another safeguard which helped – and still helps – to prevent any abuse of authority in a New Testament brotherhood is the consistent pattern that every “office”, task, or assignment is consistently spoken of in the plural. In every city where a group of believers emerged, the apostles who had brought the message established local elders (plural) to supervise. Eph.4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – all plural – who are to facilitate and enable the ministries of “all the saints”. And even a cursory review of that word reveals that “saints” consistently refers, not to individuals of unusual powers or superior “holiness”, but to all the people of God!
Jesus himself has sharply defined the function of disciples, and strictly forbidden any honorary titles or positions. He stated it very plainly: “You have one Teacher, and you are all brethren.” Different people may (and should) be entrusted with leading or supervising different aspects of life in the brotherhood, but NO INDIVIDUAL, and certainly NO HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE, whether internal or external, is “in charge.”
In the New Testament church, (and this is yet another study we should undertake), the assignment of responsibilities happened in many different ways: group or individual initiative, a direct word from the Lord, the request of a group in need, general consensus, or simply someone being in the right place at the right time. The method of selection does not seem to have mattered. But IN NO INSTANCE was a permanent, or even a temporary title conferred upon anyone. JESUS HAD FORBIDDEN THAT!!! Each was simply called to perform a necessary function, to address a specific need, at a specific time. We had an excellent demonstration of this principle last week, when a spontaneous gathering of brethren discerned together an appropriate response to the concern that James had presented.
THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY!!! The destruction and removal of the veil, whether of the temple, enabling the access of all the Lord’s people to his glorious presence, or the veil of Moses, eliminating the elevation of any individual above his brethren, makes abundantly clear that it is Jesus’ desire that ALL OF HIS PEOPLE not only “behold” his glory, but be transformed, together, to reflect it!
I still think one of the best summaries I have ever heard was our brother Solomon’s, when he said simply, “Jesus did not come to tell us how to think, but to show us how to live!”
Through his Holy Spirit, whom we will celebrate in a couple weeks at Pentecost, the Lord has chosen to speak TO all of us, THROUGH all of us, in order to accomplish that goal.
We now have no reason to be either intimidated by glory, nor ashamed of our humanity. Our Lord has graciously made ample provision for both, by giving us himself and giving us each other.
THE VEIL HAS BEEN TAKEN AWAY!!!
Thanks be to God!