Symbols and Metaphors

Is Hebrews 10:19, 20 saying that the veil of the temple represented the flesh of Jesus?

Let me quote the passage to which you refer: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place [Gr. ton hagion, “the sanctuary”] by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened [Gr. enekainisen, “inaugurated”] for us through the curtain, that is, his body [Gr. sarx, “flesh”] . . .” (NIV). Bible students have provided three main interpretations of these verses. We need an interpretation that is contextually sound and consistent with the message of the overall letter.

1. The Veil Is the Flesh of Christ: This reading is exclusively supported by the fact that the phrase “that is” in Hebrews often refers to the previous noun or phrase. In this case it would mean that Christ inaugurated a way through the veil, that is to say, through the veil that is His flesh. Let me offer a few comments.

First, the explicative “that is” does not always refer back to the immediate noun or phrase (Heb. 7:5; 13:15); the phrase could be related to “through the veil,” or to something else.

Second, the idea that Christ opened a way through the veil that is His flesh is, to say the least, extremely obscure. If the veil was an obstacle that had to be removed in order to have access to God, the idea would be that the “flesh” of Jesus had to be removed to access God! Since equating the veil with the flesh of Christ is not found anywhere else in Hebrews, and is not developed in our passage, scholars have explained the concept in different ways. A common view is that the preposition “through [the curtain/his flesh]” is used in two different ways. Through the curtain would refer to moving from one place to another, while “through his flesh” would designate Christ as the instrument of access. This distinction in usage is highly questionable.

Third, if the veil of the heavenly tabernacle is the flesh of Christ, the apostle is using a metaphorical or even allegorical interpretation of the heavenly sanctuary. This goes against the apostle’s conviction that there is a sanctuary in heaven with a veil, where the throne of God is located. For these and other reasons this interpretation is unreliable.

2. The Flesh of Christ Is the Way: It has been suggested that the phrase “that is” refers back to “the way”—“the way . . . that is to say, [the way] of his flesh.” This possible reading of the text avoids the pitfalls of the previous one. Christ is identified as the means, the way, our access to God. But the fact that the explicative “that is” is too far from “way” weakens it. However, if we were to assume that the noun “the way” is to be repeated before “of his flesh” the problem would be solved.

3. “That Is” Refers to the Content of the Sentence: According to this view “that is” refers back to the statement that Christ “inaugurated [incorrectly translated “opened”] a new and living way through the veil by means of/through His flesh.” In other words, the new way of access to God is the result of His incarnation that made possible His sacrificial death. This idea is often found in Hebrews (e.g., 2:14; 6:19, 20; 9:12, 24-26). The idea of access to God through Christ is central to Hebrews. This interpretation is also supported, as suggested by a number of scholars, by the verses we are discussing. Some important parallels between verses 19 and 20 help us clarify the use of “that is.”

Verse 19                      Verse 20
To enter                       a new and living way
the sanctuary                through the veil
by the blood of Jesus    that is, through his flesh.

The idea of entering is further developed by the mention of a new way: access to the sanctuary is through the veil. Through Christ’s flesh clearly refers to the blood of Jesus on the cross as the means of access to God, not to the veil in the heavenly sanctuary. This interpretation appears to be the best one grammatically, contextually, and theologically.