Matthew 27:50-51 (HCSB) says, “Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom.” Centuries before Jesus walked the earth, God told Israel to build a Tabernacle, which was a mobile tent that served as Israel's meeting place with God. The Tabernacle had three sections—the Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Holy of Holies. There was a curtain separating each of the sections.
If you were a Jew living in Israel at the time, you could enter the Outer Court. As you walked in, you would see the bronze basin of water and the bronze altar. The bronze basin reminded you that you must be cleansed of your sins to approach God. The bronze altar served as a reminder how you must be cleansed: through a blood sacrifice.
Beyond the first curtain stood The Holy Place, where only priests could enter. The Holy Place contained three symbols of intimate union and fellowship with God: the bread of the Presence, the golden lampstand, and the golden altar of incense.
The Holy of Holies stood beyond the second curtain. Only one man—the high priest—could enter the Holy of Holies, and he could only enter once each year. Before entering the Holy of Holies, he would have to make a sacrifice for himself and all the priests. Then he would make a sacrifice for all the people. Inside the Holy of Holies were the most intimate and glorious symbols of God’s presence, power, and grace: the ark of the covenant, the atonement seat which covered it, the cherubim (angels) on the seat, and the Shekinah cloud of glory.
The curtains separating the three areas of the Tabernacle represented barriers to worshiping God. Each curtain existed to conceal what lay behind it and to prevent any further passage beyond its boundaries.
By the time Jesus walked the earth, the Tabernacle was no more. Herod's Temple was built to be a permanent re-creation for the Tabernacle. The second curtain, which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, is the one that was torn from top to bottom when Jesus died.
The details of the curtain that hid the Holy of Holies were formulated in the mind of God Himself, who described it to Moses. It was made of finely twisted purple, blue, crimson, and white linen, with beautiful cherubim sown into the pattern. The curtain hung by hooks of gold suspended from four pillars overlaid with gold. To summarize Nicholson, "It was a symbol of life, power, beauty, glory, and mystery. The embroidered cherubim watched over and guarded the Holy of Holies, undoubtedly communicating to the priests, 'You may go this far, but no farther.'"
It was this second curtain which was torn in two from top to bottom. Who tore it? Only God could have. The tearing of the curtain was an indication that the sacrificial system of the Tabernacle by which men could approach God's presence had come to an end.
The curtain was torn at the exact time the evening sacrifice would begin: at 3 p.m. In other words, at the moment Jesus died there were priests in the Holy Place who witnessed the tearing of the curtain.
It's impossible to know the exact effect this had on the priests, although Acts 6:7 (HCSB) says, “So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.”
Some people who doubt the supernatural might claim that this event is simply an example of Christian mythology. But consider this: The Gospel writers were bold enough to publish their accounts in the midst of the priests. Yet not once did any unbeliever in that day contradict their account. And even though we have the writings of unbelieving ancient philosophers like Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian, none of them discount the tearing of the curtain. The curtain hiding the Holy of Holies really tore in two pieces that day from top to bottom.
What does this mean for you? You can enter God’s presence.
The reason the curtains had to be established in the first place is sin. Sin is the obstacle to enjoying God’s presence. God will not fellowship with someone whose sin is still upon him. That sin has to be paid for, and that’s exactly what Jesus did on the cross.
When the sin was removed, so was the barrier that signified our separation from God. Now you can approach God freely. Hebrews 10:19-20 (HCSB) says that “we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He has inaugurated for us, through the curtain (that is, His flesh).”