God’s Redemption of a Filthy Priest

clothes-line--2Have you ever felt unfit to stand before God?

If so, you’re absolutely right. You are unfit. We’re all unfit to stand before God, but he invites us anyway.

The prophet Zechariah had a beautiful vision of God’s gracious response to the unworthiness we can do nothing about (Zechariah 3:1-5).

It begins with Joshua, the high priest, standing before God, with Satan ready to accuse him.

The accuser cleared his throat and God rebuked him before he could utter a syllable. The name “Satan” means accuser, but he can’t make his accusations stick before God. Apparently, God won’t even let him utter them in his presence.

Zechariah prophesied after the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity. They had been purged of the idolatry that had stirred up God’s wrath. In particular, the priesthood had been purged of idolatry. Joshua was not one of the priests whose wickedness helped bring on the captivity.

But even though God refused to hear any accusation against him, Joshua had a huge problem, and he couldn’t do a thing about it. As high priest, he stood before God as representative of the entire Israelite community. All Israel had a huge problem, and not a one of them could do a thing about it. 

Filthy clothes

Raising dirty hands to heaven

Raising dirty hands to heaven

Joshua stood before God and the entire host of heaven wearing filthy clothes.

It’s not as if his clothes were just dirty, as if he had been out gardening, or even as if they had smoke on them from his service at the altar.

His clothes were filthy. Think dirty diaper filthy. He was absolutely disgusting.

But God was not disgusted. He called Joshua “a brand plucked from the fire.” Here Zechariah echos a much older use of the phrase in Amos 4:11. The fire Amos had in mind was the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Israel of Amos’ generation did not repent.

Jude 23 also uses the same phrase. Preaching salvation plucks people from the fires of hell. Jude says to hate even the garments defiled by sin. Joshua, both as an individual and as representative of all Israel, came before God in garments defiled by sin, which is even more disgusting than human excrement.

Having silenced Satan, God commands, “Take off his filthy clothes.” He did not command Joshua to take them off. Joshua was powerless to take them off, just as we are powerless to take off our own sin. Jesus bore our sin (and Joshua’s, and Israel’s) on the cross. That’s what was required to take off Joshua’s filthy clothes.

Removal of the filthy clothes therefore means cleansing from sin. The vision does not explicitly say so, but Joshua stood naked before God and the whole host of heaven.

But why would he be ashamed? Adam and Eve stood naked before God without shame until they rebelled against God. Then they became ashamed of their sin, but were powerless to do anything about it. Just as Joshua represented Israel, so Adam represents the entire human race—all of us.

Joshua’s shame was likewise the sin he could not remove himself. With his filthy clothes removed, he regained the innocence of Eden. God said, “See, I have taken away your sin . . .”

If redemption from sin meant only standing naked and unashamed before God, God would be worthy of highest praise, but he gives the redeemed even more than what Adam lost. So the rest of God’s sentence is,”and I will put rich garments on you.”

Clean clothes

Bride_and_BridesmaidsJesus’ very first sermon after his temptation began with a quotation from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me . . .”

And he told the congregation that he was the fulfillment of that prophecy (Luke 4:18-20).

In Isaiah, the passage continues and includes (v. 3), “to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”

Paul tells us in various places to “put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12), “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11), and over other virtues, “put on love” (Colossians 3:14).

I don’t believe that any of these passages describe the rich garments God put on Joshua. I believe that they all amount to Christian street clothes.

God has promised something wonderful ahead for all believers, the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-9). The church is the bride of Christ and will be dressed accordingly–“Fine linen, bright and clean, was given to her to wear” (v. 8).

Or to use a different biblical metaphor, the church will be God’s adopted sons and as such dressed even better than the Prodigal Son after his return home.

In his vision, Zechariah watched the removal of filthy clothing and heard the promise of rich garments. He was so moved that he called out, “Put a clean turban on his head.” And someone did. Zechariah’s own contribution to the vision shows him imitating God by showing mercy. And so should we all.

Zechariah’s vision of one high priest represents not only what would happen to Israel, but the entire progression of how God judges believers:

  • Satan accuses.
  • God accepts and cleanses.
  • God’ people do not judge another’s filth, but participate in restoration.

Sometimes Christians side with Satan instead of Zechariah when they recognize a sinner. We should repent and become agents of redemption for the penitent.

Photo sources:
Clothes line. Pixabay
Filthy clothes. Source unknown
Bride and Bridesmaids . Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons. 


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