As I was doing my daily Bible reading in the book of Leviticus and the gospel of Mark, something jumped out at me that never did before. It was when the high priest Caiaphas tore his clothing. What jumped out was the fact that the high priest was never supposed to tear his clothing under any circumstance because of what he represented. So I started to do an investigation and I gleaned material from all over and it surprised me to see that some Biblical Scholars twisted scripture and said that Caiaphas did not break the Law nor did he sin. What follows, as far as truth is concerned regarding the Word of God, is what I have gleaned.
Let’s start with what the tearing of one’s clothes is all about. The tearing of one’s clothes is an ancient tradition among the Jews, and it is associated with mourning, grief, and loss. The first mention of someone tearing his garments is in Genesis. “When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes” (Genesis 37:29). A short time later, “Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34) when he thought that Joseph had been killed.
Other biblical examples of men who tore their clothes to express pain and sorrow include David, when Saul and Jonathan were killed (2 Samuel 1:11–12); Elisha, when Elijah was taken up into heaven (2 Kings 2:11–12); Job, when he was bereft of all he possessed (Job 1:20); Jephthah, when he learned the result of his rash vow (Judges 11:34–35); Mordecai, when he learned of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews (Esther 4:1); Ahab, when Elijah pronounced a judgment against him (1 Kings 21:27); Ezra, because of the polluted marriages (Ezra 9:3); and Paul and Barnabas, when the people of Lystra began to worship them (Acts 14:14).
Sometimes, the tearing of one’s clothes was accompanied by other signs of humility and grief, such as shaving one’s head (Job 1:20), throwing dust on oneself (Job 2:12), and wearing sackcloth (2 Samuel 3:31).
There were times when people should have torn their garments but did not. The prophet Jeremiah received the Word of God concerning a soon-coming judgment on Judah. Jeremiah faithfully wrote the prophecy in a scroll and delivered it to King Jehoiakim. The king listened to the first part of the prophecy, but then he took a knife, cut the scroll in pieces, and burned it in a brazier (Jeremiah 36:23). This impious act was met with chilling stoicism from his aides: “The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes” (verse 24). If ever there was a time to tear one’s clothes, this was it; but these men had no fear of God, no remorse, no conviction of sin.
Even though tearing one’s clothes was a public and powerful expression of grief in ancient times, it is interesting that the high priest was not allowed to tear his clothes under any circumstance once the anointing oil was poured upon him. The special nature of the high priestly office dictated a separation from some of the common customs, including that of grief.
“The high priest has the highest rank of all the priests. The anointing oil has been poured on his head, and he has been ordained to wear the priestly garments. He must never leave his hair uncombed or tear his clothing. He must not defile himself by going near a dead body. He may not make himself ceremonially unclean even for his father or mother. He must not defile the sanctuary of his God by leaving it to attend to a dead person, for he has been made holy by the anointing oil of his God. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 21:10-12 NLT)
The interesting thing about this requirement is that it had also been given earlier as part of the instructions to the priests after God had killed Nadab and Abihu while they offered strange fire on the altar. After God judges them, Moses reminds the others that God will be glorified and those near Him must be set apart. The idea is that God must be worshiped specifically as He prescribes. Moses then instructs Aaron and his sons with the following words:
“Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation.” (Leviticus 10:6 ESV)
God had a deep concern that the high priest’s garments when he was working in the Temple would not be tattered or torn because the high priest and his garments were a symbol of God’s holiness and glory. So God instituted a precaution against inadvertent tearing:
“You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a garment, so that it may not tear.” (Exodus 28:31-32 ESV)
We are not told what Caiaphas was wearing when Jesus stood before him. But this is irrelevant to the fact the high priest was not permitted under the Law to tear any of his clothing under any circumstance, but he did anyway because of his comtempt for Jesus:
But even though they found many who agreed to give false witness, they could not use anyone’s testimony. Finally, two men came forward who declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus remained silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I demand in the name of the living God—tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus replied, “You have said it. And in the future you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, “Blasphemy! Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy. (Matthew 26:60-65 NLT)
Inside, the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find evidence against Jesus, so they could put him to death. But they couldn’t find any. Many false witnesses spoke against him, but they contradicted each other. Finally, some men stood up and gave this false testimony: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, made without human hands.’” But even then they didn’t get their stories straight! Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. Then the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I Am. And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, “Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” “Guilty!” they all cried. “He deserves to die!” (Mark 14:55-64 NLT)
There is no other time recorded in the Bible that the High Priest tore his clothing except when Caiaphas tore his garments in anger and hardness for the God who created him that was standing before him. (Note: Ezra, who tore his clothes, as recorded in Ezra 9:3, was a priest and scribe, but he was not the high priest. Joshua, son of Jehozadak, was the High Priest at the time.)
Now what makes it really interesting is the fact that the robe of Jesus, the true high priest, is not torn. As John records regarding the soldiers who crucified Jesus, “They said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture (Psalm 22:18) which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”” (John 19:24 ESV)
The allusions to the psalm here is certainly intended to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic promise but interestingly, this detail also confirms Christ’s perfection with regard to this aspect of the priestly holiness code. In contrast, Caiaphas violates the requirements of his office by rejecting the revelation of God in His Law as well as in rejecting the claims of the Messiah Himself. We therefore see his arrogance as he presumes to be in a position to pass judgment on behalf of God and stand in evaluation over the very Messiah to which his office was to point.
Many have pointed out that the trial of Jesus was illegitimate and was itself a violation of the Jewish Law on a number of points. Jesus was tried at night and during Passover, which are both violations of the Law. The testimony of the witnesses does not meet the normal criteria and the sentence itself is not in accordance with the Law of Moses. Perhaps the detail about the tearing of the robe is another indication of the hypocrisy and illegitimacy of the whole event. Or perhaps it is a subtle indication by Matthew and Mark that the priesthood itself was no longer legitimate because the perfect High Priest was now making the perfect sacrifice. The culmination of the temple cult and its priests in Christ is certainly a major theme of the author to the Hebrews and all of the synoptic writers record another similar symbol along these lines in the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom (Mt. 27:51, Mk. 15:38, Lk. 23:45)
There you have it! Not only is the temple curtain rent-in-two, but so are the high priest’s garments. The law has been fulfilled! Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice and in so being is the ultimate high priest. The old ways are done away with. Do not fret! Jesus does not come at us, ripping things in two, as He did fulfilling the old covenant. Jesus now comes gently knocking on our doors. Not only the doors of churches, but the doors of our hearts. It is up to us to let Him in, because there are no handles on the outside of the door only on the inside:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20 ESV)