It is the filthy criminal who first receives the Son of God’s clothes of righteousness.
You’re filthy. You’re grimy and grungy, so soiled and stained with sin that it’s hopeless and impossible for you to try and get clean. For you to wash yourself is a categorical impossibility. Under the divine gaze of the eternal Godhead, you stand guilty, and, under the righteous condemnation of his law, you’re culpable of every offense. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). In the iniquitous, wretched state of “out of Christ,” you exist in an incorrigible, incurable, irreversible position of hopelessness.
This is the “Debbie Downer”-nature of God’s law. It leaves you despondent and desperate, without anything in the way of hope. The law cuts you to the core and forces you to realize just how wretched you really are. You might think you’re something. You might think you’re clean. You might think you’ve got it all together, all figured out, all settled, but the righteous law of God is here to remind you that don’t. That you’re a lot worse off than you think you are, or would be willing to admit.
You’re delusions of “all-together-ness” are proof that you’ve never been destroyed by the law, nor delivered by the gospel. They speak loudly to the fact that you’ve never been cut down by God’s killing word, nor raised to “newness of life” by God’s resurrecting word (2 Cor. 3:6; Rom. 6:4). And one of the best portraits of God’s restoring, rejuvenating, resuscitating, redeeming grace is found in the Old Testament, in one of the minor prophets, Zechariah. In Zechariah 3:1–5, we’re given an inordinately powerful picture of God’s free justification of the sinner. The text follows:
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. (Zech. 3:1–5)
The accuser and the advocate.
So here we have this scene, in which Joshua (not the Joshua who succeeded Moses, but another Joshua who lived and served many centuries later) the high priest standing before the bar of heaven, with the Judge and the Accuser there to decide to rule on his fate, with the “angel of the Lord” serving as Judge and the Advocate and Satan the Accuser there also ready to deal out swift, unapologetic adjudication. What’s so interesting about this text is the fact God rebukes and rebuts the devil’s indictment, even though Joshua stands there truly, genuinely, and fully guilty. Whatever Satan was accusing him of, Joshua was a bona fide criminal.
The Scripture says that the high priest, mind you, a religious leader of the day, stood there before Jesus with “filthy garments” on (Zech. 3:3). He’s ruddy and muddy and grimy, with nothing but guilt and shame and sin to offer as paltry evidence for his acquittal. And you’d think, given his occupation, he’d have something better to wear than “filthy garments,” seeing as he’s a “man of God,” devoted to divine service. But we mustn’t forget that even our righteousness is as filthy rags before God (Isa. 64:6). Even the good things we do are marred with iniquity and are fraught with sin. This reminds us that at the table of God’s salvation, we have nothing to offer but the sin that makes it necessary. You have nothing to give Jesus but the blank space that his grace fills. The empty-handed sinners receive the gospel of Christ’s free, redeeming grace with more satisfaction than the gluttons of self-righteousness. Case in point, what does God do with this guilty one standing before him in the scene we’ve already mentioned? What he always does with those who are most aware of their desperate need of grace: he utters an abiding word of boundless pardon.
Stripped and saved.
Jesus says, “Remove his filthy clothing . . . See, I have taken away your sins, and now I am giving you these fine new clothes” (Zech. 3:4). What Christ does, and as he perpetually does with penitent ragamuffins, is bestow his life-giving word of grace, that resurrects, restores, and redeems all lost souls from an eternity of condemnation. It is the self-effacing who’re whom Jesus forgives, not the self-reliant pharisee (Luke 7:36–49). It’s the unassuming publican, not the presumptuous religionist who gets Christ’s justification (Luke 18:9–14). It’s the abashed adulteress, not the hard-hearted hypocrite, who’s lavished in Jesus’s forgiving grace (John 8:1–11). Likewise, here, it’s the filthy criminal who first receives the Son of God’s clothes of righteousness. It is the ground of once-for-all pardon that gives us the boldness to approach God’s throne of grace.
Your own character cannot be your way of approach, nor your ground of confidence toward God. No amount of praying, or working, or feeling, can satisfy the righteous law . . . The sinner’s peace with God is not to come from his own character . . . His one qualification for peace is, that he needs it. It is not what he has, but what he lacks of good that draws him to God; and it is the consciousness of this lack that bids him look elsewhere, for something both to invite and embolden him to approach. It is our sickness, not our health, that fits us for the physician, and casts us upon his skill. (Bonar, 15, 18)
This is what Jesus came to do: acquit the guilty, make the righteous the sinners, and bring home those who are lost. And that’s what this story here in Zechariah shows us, that Christ Jesus is the One who accomplishes this for us, on our behalf. Jesus, our Attorney, never ceases to intercede for us. And it’s this Savior, Redeemer, Advocate, and Friend who clothes us in a divine righteousness that nothing else, no one else, can give or fabricate.
Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Peace: A Book for the Anxious (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1864).