When Adam and Eve were in the garden, they were in the direct presence of God. After their transgression, they were driven out, separated from God’s presence. Cherubim with a flaming sword were stationed on the east of the garden to prevent their return and to enforce the separation from God’s presence. Men could sacrifice to God. They could pray to Him. But the way into His presence remained closed. The cherubim, no longer visible, remained on guard. For generations, this separation remained in place.
When Moses was given the law on Mount Sinai, that law included instructions for building the tabernacle. Included were directions for making a curtain or veil (Ex. 26:30–35). The purpose of this curtain was to divide between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. In the Holy Place were the lampstand, the table for the bread of the presence, and the altar of incense. In the Most Holy Place was the ark of the covenant, covered by the mercy seat, on which were two cherubim guarding the presence of God. This was the place where God made His presence visible and from where He spoke to Moses.
The veil that divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was embroidered with cherubim, representing the cherubim to the east of Eden, keeping mankind away from the presence of God. But a change took place. The absolute prohibition on entering God’s presence now became not so absolute. The door into the presence of God that had been so firmly slammed shut at Eden now opened a crack. It was a very small crack, to be sure, but it was a real crack. Now the high priest, once a year, accompanied by the billowing smoke of incense and the blood of sacrifices, could enter the Most Holy Place (Lev. 16). He could enter the place of God’s presence.
The way into the presence of God has been restored.
The people would have known about this if they were properly instructed. The law was to be read before the people every seven years (Deut. 31:9–13). The Levites would have mentioned such things in their instructional work among the people. But for most, the change would have seemed negligible. After all, it only affected the high priest, and only once a year. In addition, as more generations passed, there was no further change in the statutes to indicate that any new development could be expected. When the temple was built, a new veil embroidered with cherubim and setting apart the Most Holy Place was made (2 Chron. 3:14). In addition, the walls of the temple were adorned with cherubim. Except for the high priest, once a year, there was no entering the presence of God.
But the prophetic era hinted that further change would come. Isaiah 25:7 says, “And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.” The word “covering” is not the same as the word “veil.” However, the connection with the holy mountain of the Lord and the eager expectation of the people for the coming of the Lord at least hint at a further change, a very significant change.
Again, a period of silence ensued. Then, at the very end of Jesus’ ministry, at the very point of His death, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. This testimony is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Something strange, marvelous, and wonderful happened. The way into God’s presence was once again opened. The Synoptic Gospels present the fact, while the author of Hebrews explains what happened.
First, we read that Jesus Himself has gone in behind the veil, the curtain (Heb. 6:19). He has entered as our High Priest. As the High Priest in the tabernacle and the temple, Jesus entered the Most Holy Place. However, it was not just the representative Most Holy Place of the temple—it was the true Most Holy Pace in heaven. There He has gone to anchor our hope.
Further, Jesus did not enter the Most Holy Place temporarily, as did the high priests of the Old Testament period. Instead, He entered once for all (9:11–12). That is, He entered once for all for His people, and He entered permanently, never to exit.
Finally, the author of Hebrews tells us that we, too, enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus (10:19–20). We are also told that the curtain represented the body of Christ. With the shedding of His blood, that curtain was torn. The way into the presence of God has been restored. The guarding cherubim with the flashing sword have been removed. What was lost in Adam has been regained in Christ. Soli Deo gloria.
Dr. Benjamin Shaw is academic dean and professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.