Take a moment to pray. Ask God to speak to you through his word—for his Spirit to convict you of sin, teach you the truth, and lead you in walking by faith.
Setting the Scene
Jesus Christ certainly did not inspire the thought that the devil with get you; for he died in order that those who belong to the devil might be free from him. Therefore act like this: Spit at the devil and say, “If I have sinned, well, then, I have sinned, and I am sorry about it; but Christ has taken away all the sins of all the world if only people will confess them… and believe in Christ. Therefore this sin of mine is certainly also taken away. Depart from me, devil. I am forgiven.”
-Martin Luther, Jan. 11, 1543
We have a laundry problem: it never ends. I mean we do laundry basically every day (full disclosure: by “we” I mean my wife and sometimes my kids). Why? Because our clothes get dirty every day.
Believe it or not, dirty laundry is a biblical metaphor for sin. We have a spiritual laundry problem. We are guilty, and every day we prove it. In Zechariah’s fourth vision he is shown the high priest Joshua standing in dirty clothes. He and the people need to be cleansed of their sin.
The point of this vision isn’t to discourage us; it’s just the opposite. After pointing out how dirty we are, God reveals to Zechariah the source of our cleansing. One day, the laundry will end.
Zech. 3:1 Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, with Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The LORD said to Satan: “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! May the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Isn’t this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
The high priest Joshua is mentioned in Ezra 3:9, and Haggai 1:12, 14, 2:2, 4. Without a monarchy, the position of the high priest was the most prominent in the land.
In ancient Israelite court proceedings the accuser would stand to the right of the accused before the judges (Ps. 109:6). In this vision we find the same accuser as in Job, whose title “the accuser” became his name: Satan.
The “stick removed from the fire” refers to the nation of Israel as rescued from exile. Thus Joshua, as high priest, represents the people both in function and in the vision. He is their mediator.
Perhaps even before Satan can present charges, the Lord rebukes Satan. If God had wanted to destroy his people for their sin he would have left them in captivity, but they have been rescued! Satan will find no sympathy bringing charges against the Lord’s people.
This scene may be your worst nightmare: Satan ready to spill all of your sinful secrets. How ashamed would we be? How fearful of judgement? How exposed? The remarkable truth of this vision is not that Israel is innocent, but that the Lord defends them.
Zech. 3:3 Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 So the angel of the LORD spoke to those standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes!” Then he said to him, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with festive robes.”
The adjective “filthy” is related to the noun “filth” which refers to excrement or vomit. This is highly unexpected because the high priest usually wore white robes with the ephod (a chest plate with jewels representing the twelve tribes).
Maybe the accuser has a point? Israel is dirty.
In the vision the angel removes the filthy garments, which represent the sin of the people, and clothes Joshua with “pure” clothes- a reference to a special robe only worn at festival occasions. They are holy clothes, having been purified.
The angel states explicitly the point that this is the removal of the guilt of sin. God forgives his people. He is their defender!
Zech. 3:5 Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So a clean turban was placed on his head, and they clothed him in garments while the angel of the LORD was standing nearby.
Zechariah now speaks to the angel, calling for the high priest to receive a clean turban as well. This would complete Joshua’s glorious uniform, representing his purity after having sin removed. The angel of the Lord standing by signifies approval of the work of the other angels in transforming Joshua’s clothing.
The transformation of Joshua is a picture of the forgiveness of sin. Note that this is the Lord’s work: he removes our guilt and grants us purity.
Zech. 3:6 Then the angel of the LORD charged Joshua: 7 “This is what the LORD of Armies says: If you walk in my ways and keep my mandates, you will both rule my house and take care of my courts; I will also grant you access among these who are standing here.
Here God issues a two fold condition to Joshua- if he will walk in his ways and keep his watch, then he will rule the temple and have authority over God’s courts. This all presupposes the successful rebuilding of the temple: God’s people would have continued access to purity through a functioning sacrificial system and priesthood.
Zech. 3:8 “Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your colleagues sitting before you; indeed, these men are a sign that I am about to bring my servant, the Branch.
Joshua and his “friends” are to listen because they themselves are a sign. That fact that they sit before Joshua indicates that they are likely other priests. They are a sign, pointing to a future event: God will produce (bring, send) his servant, the Branch. Both the terms “Servant” and “Branch” are loaded with Messianic expectation.
The Messiah as God’s servant motif is from Isaiah, specifically in Isaiah 49:7, 50:6, 52:13, 53:4-11. God’s Servant brings redemption to his people through suffering, guilt, shame, and humiliation.
The Branch is spoken of in Jeremiah 23:5 and 33:15 as the descendent from David who will reign as king and bring justice to Israel.
9 Notice the stone I have set before Joshua; on that one stone are seven eyes. I will engrave an inscription on it”—this is the declaration of the LORD of Armies—“and I will take away the iniquity of this land in a single day. 10 On that day, each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree.” This is the declaration of the LORD of Armies.
The stone in reference here continues to explain the significance of the Branch. This stone is not a precious gem, but rather some kind of large stone for engraving. It is “set before” Joshua (not on his person). This stone, then, represents the building of the temple. This connection between the Branch and the construction of the temple is explicit in Zechariah 6:12.
This stone is engraved with seven “eyes.” These eyes represent Yahweh’s watching over the building of the temple (i.e., the stone, check out Zechariah 4:10b). It could very well be the capstone or cornerstone.
The Branch, however, signifies greater forgiveness than even the temple can offer. Through this Branch, God will remove the sin of the land in “one day.” Given the Servant/Branch connection and the relevant passages in Isaiah, that day can only refer to the day of the Messiah’s sacrificial death for sinners.
“That day” refers to the time when the Branch has come. When their sin has been removed they will invite their neighbor to enjoy the abundance of the crops they enjoy in the land. Sitting “under” a vine or tree indicates security and prosperity. Grapes and figs indicate agricultural blessing.
The Big Picture
Don’t miss it: this vision is clear prophecy that the Messiah (the Servant and the Branch) will come and remove the sin of God’s people through his priestly sacrifice on their behalf. He will fulfill the purpose of the sacrificial system.
The Messiah makes sinners clean. The entire priestly office is a sign- pointing forward to the once for all sacrifice of the Servant, the Branch. As we read in Hebrews 10:10, “By this will, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time.”
The apostle John picks up on this imagery in 1 John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the righteous one.” Our hope is in our faithful, pure, and victorious advocate.
This may be one of the most clear articulation of justification by faith in the Messiah in the OT. The Messiah’s mission has always been about making sinners clean. The exchange of the guilt of sin for righteousness is a transaction that only the Branch can complete. Once for all, it was done. So we have peace with God.
Taking It Home
Sinners need to be made clean. This image of the changing of the clothes of Joshua the high priest is a powerful picture of the forgiveness that God offers. Specifically, that God removes sin and its guilt from his people.
Sometimes we deny we are dirty. There’s no benefit in that approach, deep down we know we’ll have to answer to the Lord for our sin. The better (only) option is to confess our sin for what it is.
As we confess, however, we must guard against sinking into despair or depression. Yes, we are sinners, but that’s not the end of the story. Yes, Satan will accuse us, but we have an advocate with the Father!
Most importantly, we must resist the urge to try and make ourselves clean. The whole point of this vision is that our hope is not in ourselves, but in the provision of God for us through the sacrifice of Jesus.
If you’ve never felt clean, felt the burden of guilt lifted, felt at peace with God, then perhaps you are still trying to make yourself clean. Maybe you need to finally let go of the burden of making yourself clean, and trust entirely in Jesus.
- Confess any sin in your life before the Lord. Acknowledge your failures, knowing that God is your defender.
- Praise God for the unified story of the Bible. Praise him for prophecies of the Messiah, and thank him for faithfully fulfilling his promises. Thank God for designing the sacrificial system to point to the work of Jesus.
- Praise God for the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Thank him that he died to remove our sin, and that by his resurrection he provides us with holiness. Praise him for being our advocate, and for answer Satan’s accusations against us.