The Priest with Dirty Clothes (Zechariah)

This morning, in our study through the Old Testament, we come to the book of Zechariah, which is the longest of all the minor prophets – 14 chapters long.  And before we get into this book, I have a confession to make.  This is the book that I have most dreaded getting a sermon from.  Because, to my knowledge, over the past 43 years of preaching, I don’t think I’ve ever preached one single sermon from the book of Zechariah.  And I’m not sure why.

            A large part of it may be that so much of Zechariah is apocalyptic in nature, which means that it’s a whole lot like the book of Revelation, filled with all sorts of strange images.  An angel guides Zechariah through seven visions. 

            Four horsemen report that the earth is at peace.  Four horns represent divine powers on the move.  A young man with a measuring tape learns that Jerusalem will become a city without walls. The high priest and the governor are anointed to lead side by side. A flying scroll drives thieves and liars out of the land.  A flying basket removes evil.  And, finally, four horse-drawn chariots, representing the four winds, emerge from the mountains ready to advance.

            So, all of that is a little bit intimidating when you’re trying to prepare a sermon.  But Zechariah is also a book that is filled with a lot of prophecies about Jesus.  The New Testament writers quoted Zechariah a lot.  In fact, the only Old Testament book quoted more than Zechariah is the book of Psalms.  Someone has counted about 70 times that Zechariah is quoted in the New Testament.

            For example —            “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey,” “They weighed out as my price thirty pieces of silver,” “They will look on me, him whom they have pierced,” “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered”—all of those familiar phrases in the gospels come from Zechariah.  

            There’s a beautiful passage in chapter 6 where Joshua, the High Priest, is suddenly crowned King!  And it’s such a shocking moment because throughout the Old Testament, King and High Priest were two very different offices in Israel, never to be confused or united.  But Zechariah prophesied that one day, one man would be both Priest and King.

             “It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.” (Zechariah 6:13). 

            That was most unusual.  After the kingdom of Israel was established, there were men who were appointed as kings and there were men who were appointed as priests, but no one had ever been both — until Jesus, that is.

            Combine that with the vision in chapters 12-14 of the divine King being stricken in the place of his people, and you begin to see a silhouette of Jesus taking shape — perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in the Old Testament.

            But, this morning, I decided to focus my lesson on chapter 3, where we find a vision that Zechariah had about Joshua, the high priest.  It’s a strange vision that involves Satan and some filthy clothes.  We’ll get to all that in just a moment, but first, let’s take a look at this overview of the entire book of Zechariah, and then I’ll be back to explore what Zechariah’s vision has to do with our need to be forgiven.

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            It is my belief that many churches in America have minimized the problem of guilt by portraying God as being very tolerant of sinners, and by viewing ourselves as not such bad folks after all.  And so, we see God as our good Buddy in the sky, who may be a little bit disappointed because of our sin, but he would never get angry or deal severely with his children.  

            And, thanks to the insights of so-called “Christian psychology,” we now see the value in loving ourselves and building up our self-esteem.  And, as a result, we think that God chose us to be his children because of the great potential he saw in us.

            But it is essential that we form our view of God and ourselves not from the prevailing views of our times, but from Scripture.  And when we examine Scripture, we find that God is far more holy than we ever imagined, and we are far more sinful than we ever imagined.

            Think about a husband who’s been working on his car all day long and he’s covered with grease – his hands, his clothes, even his face.  His wife is inside, looking at a white dress that she just bought.  She calls for her husband and says that she needs some help getting the zipper up on the back of this new white dress.  How in the world is this husband possibly going to help his wife in that situation?

            That hypothetical situation is an illustration of a real, more serious problem: How can defiled sinners like you and me serve a holy God?  The Jews to whom Zechariah was preaching felt the sting of that question. They had just returned from Babylonian captivity, which had taken place because of their nation’s horrible sins that they refused to repent of.  And now a remnant was back in the land, trying to rebuild the temple and reestablish the proper worship of God.  But their past was still there to haunt them.

            And, as anyone who follows God will testify, when you try to serve God, your conscience kicks into high gear. “Who do you think you are trying to teach the Bible to someone else?  You can’t even get your own life straight!”  So, a practical question that all of God’s people need to deal with is this, “How can a sinner like me serve a holy God?”

            Zechariah’s fourth vision answers that question. It showed the returned remnant that God would cleanse their nation and forgive them of their sins.  He would remove their defilement so that they could once again serve him.  And this vision was intended to give hope and encouragement to God’s people.  Allow me to begin reading in chapter 3, verse 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.  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?’  Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.  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.’  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.

            “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. 

            “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.  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. 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.’” (Zechariah 3:1-10)

            This vision is a message about how God cleanses us of our sin, and that’s a message that we all need to hear because we all have sin in our lives.  As this vision begins, we see a man named Joshua.  Now, don’t confuse this Joshua with the Joshua who led the Israelites against the city of Jericho.  This Joshua was a priest, a high priest, who was standing before the Lord.  It appears that Joshua is attempting to serve the Lord in his role as a priest.  

            But, there’s a problem.  Joshua is wearing some filthy clothes, which represent both his own sins and the sins of the nation.  The Hebrew word for “filthy” that is used here literally means, “covered with excrement”!  Picture a farmer who’s been out cleaning the barnyard and his overalls are covered with manure.  You can smell him from 20 feet away.  He smells absolutely horrible.  And then, without bathing or changing clothes, he walks into the church building, ready to lead the congregation in worship.  That’s how Joshua appeared before God in this vision.

            You say, “Why didn’t he put on his finest, clean robes before he went to serve the Lord?”  And he may have.  But what looks clean to men on earth doesn’t look so clean when it comes into the presence of God’s holiness.  When we compare ourselves with one another, we may look pretty good because we can always find someone who is a worse sinner than we are.  But when we compare ourselves with God, as Isaiah put it, even our most righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). 

            And so, if our plan is to approach God on the basis of anything wonderful that we may have done, we are doomed from the start.  Because none of us have anything to offer God except filthy, excrement-covered lives!

            And so, now, the problem becomes — How do we get rid of this filthiness so that we can approach the throne of God?    Different people have tried to come up with a solution to this problem.  There are some people who try to do enough good deeds in order to work off their guilt.  The problem is, we can never do enough to remove even one of our sins.

            We want to be “good enough” in the eyes of God, so we try to do more and more to try to make up for all those times we messed up.  But we can never be “good enough”.  And even if we do something nice, it doesn’t erase what we’ve done before.  It’s like a husband who abuses his wife, mistreating her and calling her names, and then the next day, he brings her flowers and says, “There, that makes up for it.”  No! 

            We can’t let God down time and time and time again and then say, “Well, I went to church this morning. That makes up for it!”  No!  I don’t have the power to erase even one of my sins.  And you don’t have the power.  Solomon said, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9).   He’s asking a rhetorical question, and the answer is “no one”.  None of us can say that. 

            Or, as Paul put it even clearer in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

            And Satan knows exactly how to take advantage of that situation.  In Zechariah’s vision, Satan is right there, standing next to Joshua, ready to accuse him, and he’s got a pretty good case.  In fact, in a courtroom, we would call this an open-and-shut case.  Satan points at Joshua and he says, “God, this man is a sinner.  And he represents the Jewish nation, and they’re all a bunch of sinners.”  And Joshua has no defense, because Satan was right.

            And Satan loves to do the same thing with us.  In Revelation 12:10, Satan is called the accuser of our brethren, “who accuses them before our God day and night.”  And let’s be honest.  Satan has got an open-and-shut case against every single one of us.  He points to our sins and he says, “This man doesn’t deserve to be your son.  This woman doesn’t deserve to be your daughter.  They don’t deserve to get into heaven.  They don’t even deserve to serve you.  Who do they think they are?  They’re guilty!  I rest my case.”  

            Now, if you happen to find yourself in a courtroom, and you have an accuser who seems to have an open-and-shut case against you, what you need more than anything else in the world is the very best attorney you can find.  And so, it’s interesting what the apostle John says in I John 2:1.  “My little children, these things I write to you, that you may not sin.  And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (I John 2:1).

            John says that Christians have an “advocate”.  The Greek word here is “parakletos” and it’s the same word that Jesus used in John 14-16 to refer to the Holy Spirit.  In those chapters, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is our “comforter” or “advocate”.  But here, John says that Jesus Christ is our advocate.

            The word “advocate” is a word that used to be applied to lawyers, and I suppose it still is at times.  The Greek word literally means “someone called alongside to help”.  You see, when a man was summoned to court, he would take with him an advocate or a lawyer to stand at his side and plead his case. 

            The Jews used this word “parakletos” as the opposite of the word “accuser”.  In fact, the rabbis had a saying about what will happen on the Day of Judgment.  They said, “The man who keeps one commandment of the law has gotten to himself one “parakletos”; the man who breaks one commandment of the law has gotten to himself one accuser.” 

            So, the imagery of this word suggests a courtroom scene.  There is on the one side an accuser, a prosecuting attorney, if you will.  And then, on the other side, by our side, there is an advocate, a lawyer for our defense.

            The Bible makes it clear that Satan loves to accuse us whenever we sin.  When you sin, Satan says to God, “Look at that!  He did something wrong.  He sinned and he deserves to be punished!”  Satan is the accuser, he is the prosecutor, and Jesus Christ is the advocate, he is the lawyer for our defense.  And his response to Satan’s accusations is to say, “Father, that Christian’s sin is taken care of.  I’ve already paid the penalty.  That sin has been forgiven and forgotten.” 

            And so, in Romans 8:1, Paul is able to say, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” 

            Later in the same chapter, Paul says, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is he who condemns?  It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” (Romans 8:33-34).

            Now Zechariah didn’t know anything about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.  And although the term “my servant, the branch” in verse 8 is obviously a reference to Jesus, there’s nothing in this vision that mentions Jesus by name.  But what we do see is that when Joshua the high priest is accused by Satan, he is not the one who defends himself. 

            Joshua didn’t speak up and say, “Now wait a minute, Satan!  I’m not such a bad guy.  I’ve never committed adultery.  I’ve never murdered anyone.  I’m regular in my synagogue attendance.  I pay my tithes!  I even serve God as a priest.”  No, Joshua didn’t say a word, because he could see (and smell) his filthy garments.  He was guilty as charged.

            But it was God who spoke up on his behalf.  He says, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!  The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!”   It’s not what Joshua has done that saves him, it’s what God has done for him.  Notice that God doesn’t tell Joshua to take off his filthy clothes and go find himself some clean clothes.  No, it is God who replaces his filthy clothing.  There’s only one word to describe what God does here, and that’s grace.

            As Paul said in Romans 4, “When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned.  But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.” (Romans 4:4-5, NLT)

            And God not only removed Joshua’s sin, he also clothed him with clean garments.  What a beautiful picture of the truth that when God forgives our sins, he not only takes away our sins, but he also clothes us with the very righteousness of Jesus Christ.

            As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Or, to put it another way, God made Jesus to be like us, so that he could change us to be like him.

            But there’s one more important thing that I want you to notice from Zechariah’s vision.  While there was nothing Joshua the high priest could do to make himself right with God, after God forgave him of his sins, he had a responsibility to walk in the ways of God.

            In verse 7 again, “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.” (Zechariah 3:7)

            We can’t save ourselves by our good works, but those of us who have been saved by the grace of God have a responsibility to now walk in the ways of God.  As Paul put it in Ephesians 2, For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

            Most people stop right there, but the next verse is so very important – “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10).  In other words, we’re not saved by our good works.  Rather, we are saved so that we can do good works. 

            This vision in Zechariah 6 is such a beautiful picture of our own salvation.  We see our sins in the filthy garments.  We see Satan’s accusations against us.  We see God coming to our defense, ready to forgive us and to cleanse us and to make us righteous in his eyes.  And as a result, we’re ready to serve him the rest of our days.

This morning, there may be someone here in this audience who is in need of the cleansing that God offers.   As Isaiah said so beautifully, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18).  God has the ability to remove whatever sins you may have committed, through the blood of Jesus Christ, if you’re willing to give your life over to him and let him do that.

If you’ll put your faith in Jesus and be baptized in order to cleansed, your life will be brand new.  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

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