Last Rites: Temple Curtain Rent

Luke 23: 44-56

And it was now about midday, and the sun not shining with darkness coming across the entire land until mid-afternoon with the veil of the temple ripped down the middle.
And Jesus, crying with a mighty voice said: “Father, my spirit I leave in your hands”, breathed his last.
And having watched it all take place, the Centurion [on duty] gave [his] praise to God, saying, “Truly this was a righteous man!”
And the crowd of people who had converged to watch first-hand, all went off home beating their breasts. And meanwhile, those whom he had known, the women accompanying him from Galilee, stood far off watching.
And this was when, Joseph comes into this report. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, a good and righteous man, not at all consenting with the council’s decree and what they had done. He was from Arimathea, a Jewish city, waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God. He had gone to Pilate asking for the body of Jesus and taking it down wrapped it in linen, placing it in a rock-hewn tomb in which no-one had yet been laid.
And of course it was the day of preparation and the Sabbath was immanent. And the women, those having come with him from Galilee saw the tomb, noted how the body was placed therein, and then they went home to prepare spices and oils [for the burial]. And since it was now the Sabbath, they rested.

We have wondered how Luke came by the account of Jesus’ exchange with the two criminals who were executed alongside him. Given that his disciples had forsaken Jesus and fled, we are left wondering who was there who could have provided Luke with the details he presents to us? In asking this, we note that Matthew and Mark with some slight variation give similar accounts to this.

Luke’s brevity is notable and as I have suggested, it is a significant aspect of his creative literary composition. He gives emphasis to the relatively short duration, when all is said and done, between arrest and execution. He appears to be very keen to move on to get to the “punch line”, the explosive reality, and, as it were, to get it all down for Theophilus before the Lord returns. He pauses briefly to tell us that it was a day to be remembered for the failure of the sun to shine and when dark clouds overshadowed the proceedings.

And it was then, on such a gloomy and dismal day, when, as confirmed by Matthew and Mark as well, that the curtain in the temple was torn. Luke says it was “torn down the middle”. Matthew (27:51) and Mark (15:38) say it was torn “top to bottom”. Matthew also refers to other strange miraculous events and sightings as well (27:51-54). And all three mention the Roman officer witnessing the event.

By reference to the clouds and the sun withholding its light, Luke also indicates to Theophilus something of the mood that accompanied Jesus’ execution; but he does not expand upon it as Matthew does, nor does he at this point tell us the names of the women who stood at a distance watching (see 24:10). We can say once more that his account – perhaps with the “distraction” of the exchange between the criminals and Jesus – is characterised by his emphasis upon how it was all carried out so efficiently and quickly, even if there was a degree of administrative uncertainty. In writing this account, Luke is eager to get to the main point of his entire exposition ASAP.

When he tells us of Jesus breathing his last breath, we obtain a hint of one primary source for his account – the Roman centurion is quoted and we should also keep in mind that perhaps he was indebted also to the conscripted cross-carrier, Simon of Cyrene.

Then those who had been spectators of the event returned home for the Sabbath. Except Luke now makes a distinction among the bystanders; the woman and some of his companions from Galilee stayed while the corpse was removed from its brutal frame.

And here comes another witness; Joseph is introduced into Luke’s account. The arrival at Golgotha of the Council member from Arimathea is wholly unexpected (by us). It is not only crucial for validating and giving further depth to Luke’s account of the rank injustice that had overtaken the Sanhedrin’s deliberations, but Joseph’s involvement would prove vital when the disciples would later refer to the discovery of an empty tomb, the burial place that had been made available by Joseph’s personal stewardship.

But at this point the disciples had fled. Who was thinking about a burial place? Was not Jesus’ body destined for the same mass grave that would be the resting place for the bodies of the two criminals? John the Baptist’s disciples had taken the headless corpse and laid it in a tomb (Mark 6:29). But apart from Joseph and the women, Jesus’ disciples were in no state of mind to make arrangements for the burial. The women kept an eye on events. Were they perhaps expecting Joseph?

John tells us that Joseph had teamed up with Nicodemus (John 19:39) – the supplier of oils for burial. So Luke points us to a couple of possible reliable witnesses and we recall, as he has said, that this is his attempt to put together an orderly and coherent account of what has transpired, confirming the utter reliability of what Theophilus has already been told concerning the amazing news of Israel’s Messiah and the meaning of his coming for the entire world.

By mentioning the temple’s veil being torn in two, Luke provides his readers with not a few questions. He simply states it as fact. It is as if Theophilus has already some idea of its meaning – it is also a metaphoric allusion to the fulfilment of Jewish temple rituals in the slaying of the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But the report of a coinciding event that happened on that same day, around that same time, it doesn’t seem to make much sense unless Theophilus had already been instructed in these ancient teachings. In that sense what we have said about Luke’s ongoing interest in linking his account of Jesus’ ministry with that of John the Baptist also comes into focus here. After all, John was well-known among Jesus disciples for having pointed them to Jesus “the Lamb of God who is taking away the sins of the world.”

And that then might suggest that Theophilus has some knowledge of John’s baptism (Acts 1:5; and also significantly 19:1-10). Would it not be another indication of how Luke’s two books were framed to tell how baptism in the name of Jesus, with the coming of God’s spirit, superseded the water baptism of John for repentance?

So far so good, but why does Luke’s narrative not provide us with any account of the 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension? Could it then be that it is not elaborated because it was simply the time when Jesus clarified his teaching for his disciples? Was it not then that he answered their questions in the context of a reiteration of why his suffering was necessary for them. And so we have the repeated refrain in all Gospels that when he told them about his coming suffering they had no idea what he was talking about. Did he not have to provide them with the definitive explanation of the temple’s torn curtain to break through their “wilfully ignorant and lethargic hearts” (Luke 24:25)?

Luke, by his account of the haste by which Jesus’ crucifixion was carried out after his arrest and trial, seems to have taken on that characteristic into his own telling of the story. And indeed, it is, under his hasty telling, that this final chapter of what we have as “Luke’s Gospel” – his announcement of the Good News following Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. This then is all part of culmination of the story“until the day on which he was taken up from them into heaven” (Acts 1:2 see also Luke 24:51), and on the surface, it seems, we learn very little of the 40 days, apart from the account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus.

Of course, we can speculate about the exchange that took place between Jesus and his disciples as they regathered to meet him, and as he met them, in the 40 days between his resurrection and ascension. On one reliably reported occasion there were up to 500 disciples, brothers and sisters, meeting him (1 Corinthians 15:6). But what are we to understand by that 40 days – let alone that crowd of 500 witnesses? What are we to understand concerning what happened during this time? It would seem that these witnesses were participating in Jesus’ glorification in ways not dissimilar to what Peter, James and John had experienced on the “mount of transfiguration”, except now, instead of refraining from talking openly about what they had seen, as Jesus had then instructed them, they were to consider themselves as those called to prepare for the time when they would spread the word to every creature under heaven!

So as we consider that – provoked by the seeming riddle of Luke’s fleeting reference to “the temple curtain torn down the middle” – we might also come to a surprising conclusion. Rather than concluding, as we might easily do, that we only have sparse written accounts of what transpired on the 40 days between resurrection and ascension, we could just as well conclude that we have 4 Gospels which are the definitive account of Jesus’ “intensive” with his disciples during that period. That was when he taught them how his ministry had prepared him and them for his suffering and resurrection as Israel’s Messiah – his death and raising in which they now shared. It was also then that his relation to John the Baptist was clarified, and it was then further elaborated by Luke’s painstaking investigation, the results of which we now have in this Gospel.

After all, the meaning of the “ripped curtain”, is also definitively explained by Jesus in his teaching about himself. Before this curtain was torn in two Zechariah had received the promise of a son from the angelic messenger (Luke 1:21-22). And now, before the close of this scroll, Luke will recount how Jesus in his resurrection power, in his own body represents the tearing of the curtain “down the middle” that the other evangelists denote as a rip that came from “top to bottom”. Jesus challenged the “wilful and lethargic ignorance” of the disciples by presenting himself to them as the one who has brought the true and living way (Hebrews 10:20).

Were not these things necessary for the Anointed to suffer in order to enter into His glory?” And then beginning with Moses and all of the prophets he explained to them all the characteristics of himself from the scriptures (Luke 24:26-27).
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