The entire Jewish world was made of concentric circles, closing in on God as the center. Outermost was the world, surrounding Israel, which made up the next circle. Within Israel, Jerusalem was the next layer, and the temple was the next. Within the temple, you had the court of the Gentiles, then the court of the women, followed by the court of the men. Inside this circle was the court of the priests.
The final two circles were obviously the most important. The Holy place, described for us today in Hebrews, contained the table of showbread, the altar of incense, and the lampstand. And inside this was the final circle, the Holy of Holies. Here was the single room in all the world where God dwelt, for in this innermost circle was the Ark of the Covenant, containing the 10 Commandments, the budded staff of Aaron, and a jar of manna. But most importantly, since the creation of the Ark, it was here that Moses and every High Priest after him had communed with God.
For the Jews, these circles were how they kept the unclean and unworthy away from God. As you can follow with the concentric circles, each circle moving in toward God indicated one more step of righteousness. Gentiles weren’t as righteous as women, who weren’t as righteous as men, who weren’t as righteous as priests, etc.
In fact, when you got to the innermost circle, the Holy of Holies, only one man (the High Priest) was considered righteous enough to enter, and then only one day each year (the Day of Atonement). Nobody else could ever enter that room and stand in God’s presence under penalty of death.
Understanding this helps us to understand the importance of the tearing of the veil at the moment of Jesus’ death. That veil was the one that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, and having it torn apart opened the Holy of Holies to everyone, righteous and unrighteous alike. For the first time since the garden of Eden, we all have access to God. Relationship, not just worship, is possible; prayer doesn’t have to go through a mediator; and through Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, we are finally declared righteous by God Himself.