1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.
2 And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?”
3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.
4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”
5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.
6 And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua,
7 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.
8 Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch.
9 For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day.
10 In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”
This is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. This year I slowly read through the OT prophets. When I came to this chapter I just knew I had to preach about it at Advent.
It’s a appropriate Advent message. Verse 8 refers to the Branch, God’s servant who was to come. That is Jesus (see Is. 11:1). But I want to preach about the story surrounding the mention of the Branch. I can’t imagine a more suitable message for Advent than the truths we learn from this heartwarming vision.
The prophet and prophecy
Zechariah prophesied at a time when God, little by little, was returning Israel to the land of Canaan, after her captivity for her sin. This was the general era of Ezra and Nehemiah. The temple was being rebuilt. It was an exciting time. It was a hard time. There were many enemies of the Jews. There was still a lot of sin among the Jews.
God gave Zechariah several visions for his people. This one in chapter 3 is a vision of Joshua before God’s throne. Joshua was an actual historical figure. He was a high priest at the time, in the line of Aaron. (This obviously isn’t the same Joshua who followed Moses leading Israel. That was much earlier.)
I’m sure that the prophet Zechariah knew Joshua. Maybe the high priest was his friend. Both were no doubt excited that God was releasing the Jews and getting them back to their Promised Land, the land of their fathers.
But in the vision, God showed Zechariah something about Joshua that he never knew. He saw the high priest in a light he’d never recognized before. This seemed to stun Zechariah during his vision.
It’s imperative that we understand that Joshua stands for the whole nation of Israel (see vv. 9–19). Joshua was the representative for the entire nation. So, God wasn’t just addressing to Joshua. He was also dealing with all of his covenant people.
And that means he’s speaking to us, the church. The church of Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham, God’s covenant people. All Jews and Gentiles who trust in Jesus are Abraham’s seed and heirs of God’s OT promises (Gal. 3:29).
This is why this vision is so pertinent to us.
Two Kinds of Righteousness
Zechariah sees heaven as a courtroom. Satan is there as the prosecuting attorney. He’s accusing Joshua before God, the great Judge.
Satan loves to accuse. In the NT John even calls him “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10). What a hypocrite Satan is! He tempts us to sin, and then when we do sin, he accuses us before God and heaps guilt and shame on us. He even accuses the godly, like Job. Satan is the universe’s biggest hypocrite and phony.
This vision reminds us that we’re in a most serous battle with Satan. I read the words of the great Reformer John Calvin this week in his commentary on this passage:
We wonder why so many enemies daily rage against us, and why the whole world burn against us with such implacable hatred; and also why so many intrigues arise, and so many assaults are made, which have not been excited through provocation on our part: but the reason why we wonder is this, — because we bear not in mind that we are fighting with the devil, the head and prince of the whole world. For were it a fixed principle in our minds, that all the ungodly are influenced by the devil, there would then be nothing new in the fact, that all unitedly rage against us. How so? Because they are moved by the same spirit, and their father is a murderer, even from the beginning. (John 8: 44.)
Satan is our very real enemy. We shouldn’t be surprised when the grant enemy of our souls tries to cut us down without mercy. This is what he did with Joshua the high priest.
Joshua is standing before God in a filthy robe. The term “filthy” translates the Hebrew word that means “excrement.” That’s not a pleasant picture. You can imagine how this sordid appearance must have shaken Zechariah. Jehovah required the priests to wear clean garments (Ex. 28:2). To see God’s high priest in such excrement-stained clothes no doubt disturbed the prophet. The pre-exilic high priests wore splendorous clothes in honor of Jehovah and their high office. What a pitiful figure Joshua must have cut as Zechariah saw him.
Our sin, God’s holiness
Those dirty clothes in the vision signified sin and guilt before God — not just that of the high priest, but of all the Jews, whom Joshua represented. The entire nation, as it were, stood before God in filthy, excrement-stained clothes, and Satan was at the right hand, rabidly accusing these sinners before God.
Satan may be the universe’s worst hypocrite, but he knows that God is holy, and that he demands holiness of his creatures. I wish more church members today knew what Satan knows about God. We rarely hear about the holiness of God today, because people want to live unholy lives and expect God as the great cosmic teddy bear to ignore their sin.
This isn’t the God of the Bible. We are not as holy as we think we are, and God is holier than we think he is. God is holy, and too often we are not.
Note, therefore, that when God answered, he didn’t rebuke Satan for lying (although Satan is a liar and the father of lies, Jn. 8:44). God knew how sinful his people were. He didn’t dispute that fact with Satan.
No. He rebuked Satan on entirely different grounds. He said, “How dare you accuse my chosen people! These are my people, I’m their God, their guardian, their protector, their Savior.”
Remember this: Our salvation is based in God’s election. God chose us to salvation. We stand righteous in God’s sight because God chose us to stand righteous — this was true of the Jews, and it’s equally true of us.
I pity the dear saints who don’t understand election. Election assures us beyond any doubt whatsoever that salvation is God’s work, not ours. In fact, no biblical fact better proves that salvation is God’s work. God declares us his righteous people as a result of his electing grace. How does he do this? We get a clue in verse 4:
And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”
That’s one of the most powerful pictures in the Bible of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (“imputed” means counted.) Our sin is so bad that we can’t just be reformed. We have to get somebody else’s righteousness. We have to get an entirely new life.
When Jesus died on the across, he bore the penalty for our sins. He suffered God’s wrath that we, by all rights, should have suffered. Our sins became his. And, alternatively, when we trust in Jesus Christ, all of his righteousness becomes ours. Nobody ever put it better than Paul:
For our sake he [the Father], made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
This is the Great Transfer of our salvation. All of our sins were placed on Jesus. And all of his righteousness was placed on us. Now we stand clean and pure and sinless in the Lord’s court. The Bible’s picture of that imputed righteousness is a clean robe. For instance, we read about the church in Revelation:
“… Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (Rev. 19:7-8)
God elects hIs people, and he clothes them with the righteousness of his Son. The angel told Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).
He saves us, first, by crediting Jesus’ righteousness to our account. He rips off the old, excremental robes and puts on the fresh, clean white robes of his Son’s righteousness.
God saves us in a second way. Look at verses 6–7 again:
And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.
It’s not enough to enjoy imputed righteousness. Jesus didn’t die only to make us holy in God’s court. He also died to make us holy in God’s world. God gave Joshua a new robe of judicial righteousness. Then he expected him, by the Spirit’s power, to live a holy life. “You now have a white robe. Act as a white-robed person, because you are one.” This is imparted or implanted righteousness, and it’s no less important than imputed righteousness.
God changes our standing in his court, from guilty to innocent. And he changes our life in this world from sinful to holy.
Two Kinds of Error
I’d like to conclude with a warning and exhortation. Don Broesamle and I won’t be around forever. We’re not getting any younger (especially Don). We feel a keen burden to transmit the truth to a younger generation.
I want you to know the great temptations and errors you’re likely to face increasingly in the future. The first is humanism. Humanism makes man the measure of everything. It’s a very old perversion. It either denies God (like atheism), or pushes God out of man’s world (like Kant). The humanist view of salvation is man-centered. Man is saved (in the modern humanist world) by psychology or psychotherapy or drugs or the politicians or federal programs like the Affordable Care Act. The power of God recedes into the background, and the power of man comes to occupy the foreground. God is very distant, and man is very present.
In the churches, humanism comes in the form of liberalism. Salvation is by “being nice.” Keeping the Golden Rule. Not judging anyone for anything (except Bible-believers, of course). Being kind to animals and lettuce. Being “one” with the cosmic earth forces. There’s no place for the biblical Gospel in liberalism. That Gospel is that salvation is in Jesus alone, in his atoning death on the Cross and bodily resurrection. Liberals hate the biblical Gospel because (1) it shows how sinful man is; (2) it teaches that man can’t save himself; and (3) it points everyone to Jesus and no one and nothing else.
Beware of humanism — and it’s religious face: liberalism.
There’s a second error. It’s antinomianism. This means lawlessness. Church people say that salvation is by grace, so we’d better not stress obedience too much. We might lead people to think they’re saved by works.
But Paul and Jesus and Peter and John and Moses and Zechariah didn’t seem to have that problem. They know that we’re not saved by works, but that we are saved to works (Eph. 2:8–10). That’s what salvation by grace means.
Today we hear a great deal about the “grace revival.” Who could oppose that? We need to hear more, not less, about God’s matchless grace. But a real problem is the impoverished view of grace we have. It’s a grace that gets us God’s forgiveness but not transformation. It’s a grace that leaves us enslaved to Satan’s dominion. But Paul teaches that in the Cross and resurrection we’re liberated from the power of sin (Rom. 6). What a paltry, pitiful view of grace that’s impotent to give us the victory over sin! What a watered-down gospel this is! A gospel that doesn’t transform us isn’t the biblical gospel.
Thank God, the same One who gives us Jesus’ imputed righteousness also and equally gives us Jesus’ imparted righteousness. The same one who gives us the white robe makes us live as a white-robed follower of Jesus.
We can rejoice this Advent season that God has taken away our filthy robe of sin and replaced it with the spotless robe of Jesus’ righteousness. God has rebuked our Accuser, because we are God’s elect people, who stand in his Son’s holiness by union with him.
But we an also rejoice that God has implanted in us the righteousness of Jesus. He’s changing us from unholy to holy people. Even the hardships that we encounter, God uses to make us holy before him. God is making what’s inside that robe to conform to what’s outside: white and pure as his people.
Pusey, E. B. The Minor Prophets, A Commentary: Micah to Malachi. In Barnes’ Notes. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005, 2:353—359.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on Zechariah and Malachi. In Calvin’s Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993, 15:80—101.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible (OSNOVA Publications, n.d., Kindle edition), comments at Zechariah 3.
Shepherd, Norman. The Way of Righteousness: Justification Beginning with James. LaGrange, California: Kerygma, 2009.