The Priest with Filthy Garments
“Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said … ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ And to [Joshua] he said, ‘Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments’” (vv. 3–4).- Zechariah 3:1-5
Prior to their exile, many ancient Jews failed to take all of the Old Testament into account in their theology. They loved the promises of the Lord to give His people an everlasting inheritance (Gen. 12:1–3; 15) but not God’s pledge that only Israelites who demonstrated true faith by obedience to His commands were the heirs of those promises (Gen. 17; Deut. 28). Thus, they could not believe that He would exile the impenitent nation (Jer. 7:1–15).
After the exile, many Jews continued to miss the fullness of God’s Word, specifically the Lord’s grace. Since even many of the Jews in Babylon before the restoration thought that their expulsion from Canaan meant that our Creator takes pleasure in sinners’ deaths (Ezek. 18:23), it was hard for the post-exilic community to believe the Lord had not utterly abandoned them, especially since the glorious post-exilic restoration did not immediately occur (see Deut. 30:1–10; Isa. 65:17–25). This depressing view, no doubt, contributed to the delay in rebuilding the temple that Haggai and Zechariah addressed.
On the one hand, the post-exilic community rightly believed that all they deserved was their troubled situation, that the only thing they merited from God was His final rejection. However, they wrongly forgot that our gracious Lord does not deal with repentant people according to what they deserve. We see this in Zechariah 3. The prophet sees Joshua the high priest standing before the heavenly Judge, with Satan accusing him of sin and pointing out his unworthiness (v. 1). Joshua here represents the post-exilic community. He is likened to a “brand” or stick plucked from the fire before it could be consumed (v. 2). This depicts the Jewish nation, which was barely rescued from full destruction in exile. Moreover, Ezekiel refers to the old covenant people as a stick in God’s hand (Ezek. 37:15–28), and the high priest represented them before God (Lev. 16). Thus, Joshua stands in for the people.
The Lord does not dispute the people’s sin, but He rebukes Satan for bringing a charge against those whom He alone had rescued from the fire. What is more, God assures His people that He had not only rescued them from destruction but had also taken their filthy garments and replaced them with clean clothes (Zech. 3:3–5). Only the Lord performs this work here, and so we must see this as an image ultimately of justification, that act whereby God and God alone removes the guilt of sin and clothes His people with pure garments, a righteousness not our own, making peace with us in Christ (Rom. 4:4–5; 5:1).
Matthew Henry comments: “Christ loathed the filthiness of Joshua’s garments, yet did not put him away, but put them away. Thus God by his grace does with those whom he chooses to be priests to himself; he parts between them and their sins, and so prevents their sins parting between them and their God; he reconciles himself to the sinner, but not to the sin.” God accepts us not because we are deserving but because Christ is. This is our only hope in this world and the next.
Passages for Further Study
2 Corinthians 5:21
2 Corinthians 5:21