I first read about the temple curtain, sometimes called the veil, when studying about the people of Israel in the wilderness after they were brought out of bondage Egypt. Moses was given instructions by God to build a tabernacle, or a tent of meeting.
Part of that exchange centered around a curtain that would separate the people from the Holy of Holies, where they believed the presence of God resided. That veil later became a prominent part of the temple in Jerusalem, except the dimensions were a bit different.
Apparently, it was nearly 50 feet tall and about 15 feet wide and, again, its primary purpose was to serve as a symbol of separation. It separated the unholy from the holy.
If you have ever seen a model or other representation of the Temple in Jerusalem, you can see that the entire temple area was designed on different levels of separation.
First, you have the lowest level, the common area known as the Court of the Gentiles, where any person, Jew or Gentile, was free to congregate.
Then you come up one level to what is called the Court of the Women, where only Jewish persons were allowed.
I also find it interesting that the Court of the Women was where the treasury was -- but I'll leave that alone. It is also where the early church congregated at another part of that court, called Solomon's Porch.
The next level was the Court of the Men, sometimes called the Court of Israel, where only Jewish males were allowed.
Then you will find the Temple Courtyard (or Outer Court), where only priests could assemble, and where the outdoor altar could be seen by all and where a continual offering of the fat and entrails of sacrificial animals was placed so that there was always a "pleasing aroma" to the nose of God, and a continual reminder of the seriousness of man's sin.
Finally, coming inside the temple building itself, the temple proper was divided into two sections: First was the Holy Place -- where priests would carry out their duties of interceding in prayer for the people on a rotating basis and on allotted days.
The final level of separation was the Holy of Holies. It was here that the curtain formed the "dividing wall," or the veil of separation, that kept this holiest of all places from the eyes of any person. The only person allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies was the High Priest, and reportedly even he could only enter on one day of the year, on the Day of Atonement.
Again, the Holy of Holies was, to the Jewish people, where the presence of God Himself resided.
In the tabernacle in the wilderness, behind this curtain is where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The Ark reportedly held the two tablets that God wrote the Ten Commandments upon on Mount Sinai, the rod of Aaron which budded, and a bowl of manna. That Ark disappeared after the Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon. We still don't know where it is -- even if Indiana Jones did find it a few years back.
So in Jesus' day, the Ark was not in the temple in Jerusalem, although there must have been some sort of altar there for the High Priest to present a blood sacrifice each year for the sins of the people.
The design of the temple area and its levels of separation were deliberately ordered by God to reinforce the idea that God is GOD. The curtain was the place of the ultimate and final separation because God's presence -- which was deemed to be "behind the curtain."
But that all changed when Christ died on the cross.
In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that "... the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom ..." and I believe it was torn by the hand of God. It was a clear sign that something had drastically changed. There was a new relationship between God and man.
There would no longer be a need for animal sacrifice to cleanse the people from sin. Jesus is our all sufficient, one-and-for-all sacrifice ... the Lamb of God. But the curtain being torn meant much more.
For instance, it meant that there was no longer any need for a temple. The Bible says that believers are the temple of the living God. In addition, there is no longer a need for a go-between person between believers and God. It's a concept called the "priesthood of the believer." Jesus is the only mediator between us and God. We now have direct access to the throne of God through Jesus, who is our sacrifice and our High Priest.
The people of Israel believed the Spirit of God lived within the Holy of Holies. I believe that when Jesus died on the cross -- the moment the curtain was torn - the Spirit of God left the temple and spread out into the whole earth.
And I am so glad He did.