Why do we gather in our churches? Is it simply to come and think about a sermon? Or is to encounter something spiritual? Or is to analyze the “pros and cons” of our church’s musical style or the effectiveness of the preacher? Or do we gather to say hi to our friends? All of these may very well be a part of our gathering experience, but none of them are to be why we gather.
As we look to answer this question, my I bring our attention to a particular happening that occurred deep within the Hebrew temple the very moment Christ died. All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) inform us “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51, Mark 15:38, & Luke 23:45).
The temple veil which was rent into two was undoubtedly the veil between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. The first time this veil is mentioned is in Exodus chapter 26 when God was informing Moses about the construction of the tabernacle and the tabernacle artifacts. The Most Holy Place, within the tabernacle, was a to be where God dwelt amongst his people. Reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, where God originally dwelt with humanity, God was once again making a home here on earth with his newly formed people and various details of the tabernacle suggest it was a “mini-Eden.” Some of these parallels include the east-facing entrance guarded by cherubim (Gen. 3:24), all the gold (Gen. 2:11-12), the lampstand which was reminiscent of the tree of life (Gen. 2:9), but mainly, the dwelling and relational presence of God. Thus God's dwelling in the tabernacle was a step toward the restoration of paradise (of Eden), which is to be completed in the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21–22).
The entire Hebrew camp would circle this tabernacle, but no one was allowed to enter behind the veil, into the Most Holy Place, where God’s special presence resided, except for the High Priest who entered once a year for the Day of Atonement in which he would represent the people and mediate between the people and God (Leviticus 16). He would, in a sense, bring the people into the holy (God’s special presence) and vicariously through the priest, the people could enjoy the presence of God.
The word used for “holy” in these accounts is “קֹ֫דֶשׁ” (qodesh, pronounced ko'-desh). All these “holy things” mentioned in Exodus – the temple, the priesthood, the items within the holy place and the most holy place – were beautiful and precious to the people of Israel; but they were precursors of something better. They were wonderful; but they were not perfect. A brief description about a particular plate (i.e., the consecration plate) which was to be worn on the forehead of the High Priest, as described in Exodus 28:36-38, informs us of “the iniquity of [their] holy things.” You see, there was still something missing, something not right between the people and God.
This is why God’s special presence remained behind the veil and not amongst the people.
The author of Hebrews informs us that Christ came to fulfill the lack due to “the iniquity of [their] holy things” and he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by shedding his own “unblemished” and perfect blood in order to cleanse our consciences and bring us into God’s perfect presence once for all (Hebrews 4:16; 9:11-14).
The veil stood to remind the people that they couldn’t get into the qodesh (the holy) – the veil kept people out. It also served as a reminder that God’s special or relational presence was behind the veil – the veil kept God in.
The account of the renting of the veil in the Synoptic Gospels undoubtedly serve to inform us that we are now able to be let in, so to speak, and enjoy God’s relational presence; but it also informs us that God’s relational presence was let out! No longer was the temple necessary. No longer was God’s relational presence contained in the Hebrew tabernacle or temple. Now God’s relational presence has been divinely unleashed into the world – the veil is rent!
God’s presence was once again going to fill the earth as he did when he first made the world (Isaiah 11:9). And though one day, in the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21 & 22) God will completely dwell on the earth with humanity forever, the way he fills the earth now is IN US and THROUGH US! This is why the Apostle refers to Christians as God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16 & 6:19) and New Testament authors refer to the Christians as Christ’s priests (Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6; 1 Peter 2:9-10). We now represent Christ and we are to “bring Christ” with us wherever we go as we “show and tell” his Gospel message.
Remember, priests mediate, they look to take care of the needs of others, they are bold with grace and compassion. A priestly person is someone who is sympathetic, not judgmental, towards the needs and imperfections of others. Jesus was the perfect priest for the people and he calls us to follow after him.
In the Scriptures we often see God identifying with the broken (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46; Prov. 14:31; 19:17). Why does God identify with the poor? Answer: because God desires to be there.
God cares for the hurting, the lost, the underprivileged, the broken, the abandoned, the weak, the sick, the dying, the orphans, the insecure, the emotionally unstable, the greedy, the unfriendly neighbor whose dog poops in your yard…. He cares for your workaholic coworker, your alcoholic friend, your hurtful family member….
God is there caring for the hurting when we are there caring for the hurting. God is there IN US and THROUGH US when we are acting priestly on his behalf.
So, getting back to original question as to why we gather for church on Sundays and Wednesdays? The answer: to be reminded that the veil is rent and his people (us!) have now been sent to bring him and his marvelous Gospel to the world.