Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’ Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.
First, let me put this vision in its setting in the book. This is the fourth vision God gives to Zechariah. There are seven in all, and so this is the middle vision. It has been called the hinge vision. It is different from all the others in a number of ways. One difference is that Zechariah the prophet takes part personally in it. The author becomes an actor in his own drama, one of the personae of whom he’s writing. He raises his voice, “Then I said, Put a clean turban on his head” (v.5). Another difference is this, that in this particular vision historical personalities are involved for the first time, Joshua and his fellow priests. Joshua was the high priest at Zechariah’s time. He is also referred to in the opening verse of the prophecy of Haggai, and in Ezra chapter five. Also later in this prophecy in another three chapters, in Zechariah six, there is a final reference to him, and that is our entire knowledge of the man. Obviously what is important about him is his office rather than his personality or his past.
Another difference from the other visions is the emphatic centrality of the coming Messiah set forth in this vision, the one who is going to remove the sin of the land in a single day (v.9), one who is ordained to the work of an eternal high priest (vv.4&5), and one who is set apart to govern God’s house and have charge of the courts of God (v.6). The vision in this chapter is full of our glorious holy Lord and the difference he makes – and he alone makes the difference – to his servants when they are conscious of how defiled and unclean they are.
Second, let me show you the development of these visions. Number one vision in the first chapter of Zechariah is a vision of every nation under heaven. They are all sleepily indifferent to the living God; they are at rest (Zech. 1:11). It is the peace of apathy towards God when they should be experiencing a ‘Great Awakening’, crying out as the nations did at Pentecost, “Men and brethren what shall we do?” cut to the heart by the prospect of dealing with a God who is light, the one who hates sin, whose Son they crucified. That picture of international indifference to God is the outer ring in a series of concentric circles.
Then the next vision given to Zechariah zooms in on the Old Testament people of God, upon Judah and Israel with whom God had been angry for seventy years (Zech. 1:12), but here his people are given kind and comforting words; “I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and my house will be rebuilt . . . my towns will again overflow with prosperity” (Zech. 1:13, 16&17). The fierce horns of the atheistic hegemony that have scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem are going to be destroyed and terrified by the four craftsmen (Zech. 1:21). All those four craftsmen stand for the one Lord Christ in his three offices as prophet and priest and king. Jesus is going to destroy their power on Calvary, “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross”.
Then the next concentric circle inside the other two homes in on Jerusalem the ruined capital, and the message of this vision is one of the city’s immense growth. “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will be its glory within.’” (Zech. 2:4).
Finally, here in the chapter before us today, Zechariah 3, in this fourth and middle vision. We are right at the very heart of Old Testament Christianity and the centre of the cosmos, the Temple and the Holy of Holies itself where God is enthroned surrounded by the seraphim.
Now, let’s begin to grasp the message of this vision. The Lord Christ is the theme of this chapter and he’s everywhere in it. He is here particularly in a threefold way; he is the orchestrator, the one who is in control of all we are going to see, the Lord of revelation. In other words, we come across the Lord Jesus in the very second word in the chapter, the ‘he’ who is mentioned there. Christ is the one who introduces the vision and reveals to Zechariah the fact that Joshua the high priest is standing before the angel of the Lord. This is Christ the Lord of revelation. He is doing that. And there is also Christ as the angel of the Lord, a common enough theophany in the Old Testament. Then also in type Christ is Joshua the royal high priest. All these three figures point to the Son of God. Our Lord is so infinitely multifarious and glorious that even every one of the types and pictures of the Old Testament are together too mean to speak his worth, too mean to set out Saviour forth. So here we have the Lord Christ revealing to the prophet Zechariah ‘Christ in the form of Joshua the high priest,’ who is standing before Christ, the angel of the Lord.
- JOSHUA THE HIGH PRIEST IS DRESSED IN FILTHY CLOTHES.
Joshua the high priest represents the covenant people of God. On the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur – the high priest entered the Holy of Holies pulling aside the curtain of the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. It was just on this one day in the year that he did that, walking through the Holy Place, pausing, taking a deep breath and then entering the presence of God on behalf of the people. He was joined to them; he had already made sacrifice for his own sins, and then he carried a bowl which contained the blood of the sacrifice that he had made for their sins. He sprinkled it in the Holy of Holies on the brass lid of the ark – what Tyndale called the ‘mercy seat.’ He entered that holy place in solidarity with the people of God and that solidarity was shown in the very clothes he wore. I want to emphasize the clothes of the high priest for a moment because it soon becomes the focus of Satan’s accusations.
Upon his very garments Joshua carried the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were twice engraved on some precious stones that he wore. The high priest wore a sleeveless outer garment called an ephod which came down to his knees. It was made of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen. The waist band was made from the same material, and there were shoulder-pieces which joined the two sides of the ephod. On each shoulder was an onyx stone set in gold casing and these were ornamental shoulder pads. The names of the twelve sons of Jacob were engraved on those two stones. But there was another place where the high priest bore the names of the twelve tribes; they were carved on the twelve gems which were on his breastplate. In other words, they were vestments of high glory. His clothes told the people of God of their privileges, having access to God by atonement.
Of course the magnificent act of faith in the efficacy of the shedding of blood that encouraged the high priest to go through the veil into God’s presence was a stupendous typological picture – a prophetic portrait – of the reality that took place. Jesus Christ our great high priest entered heaven at his ascension, the work of redemption completed – it was finished. Let’s read four verses from Hebrews chapter 9 which speak of how Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension to heaven fulfilled the picture that was enacted by the Old Testament high priest. “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebs. 9:11-14). Jesus has brought every one of his people into the presence of God. He has become their mediator and advocate and great high priest on the grounds of what he’d accomplished in redeeming us as the Lamb of God.
So this was the annual climactic holy redeeming work of the high priest. Then you don’t need to look closely at Joshua the high priest who is presented to us in this vision to blink, and gasp with surprise, because where is Joshua’s ephod made of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet and fine twisted linen? He is not wearing it. He’s not even wearing the ordinary surplice of a Levite. He is clothed in the filthiest apparel. We are told this in verse 3; “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.” How shocking! They are stinking, torn, ragged, dirty garments covering him from head to toe! They are in fact excrement soiled clothes. The High Priest is in fact intrinsically defiled. They prevent him from entering the Holy of Holies. He is not even as respectable as the blind and lame beggars who gathered at the gates of the Temple crying out for alms. You wouldn’t admit a man dressed like that into your home. We once had on one occasion two gentlemen of the road whom I had often talked to or maybe bantered with. They were dressed decently and they were likable rogues I guess, but they had a bit of a pong about them, and they were self-conscious of this. “We won’t sit with the congregation,” they said. “We will sit by ourselves,” and so they did, and we fed them downstairs after the service.
So here is Joshua the high priest, and he represents the people of Jerusalem and Israel. But here he represents covenant breaking Israel defiled by its sin.
- SATAN ACCUSES JOSHUA.
Then there is another very different and chilling figure; “And Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him” (v.1). We get the word ‘Satan’ from a simple transliteration of the Hebrew word. Please appreciate that the devil is not some metaphysical notion in the Israelite mind. There is a personal God, and there is also a personal devil. He is the same historical figure who had appeared to our first parents in Genesis chapter 3 in the form of a serpent and then in full frontal confrontation of the Lord Christ in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Satan was unafraid of accusing God, the mighty Creator, to Adam and Eve, of lying. He was unafraid in the wilderness of personally tempting Jesus to sin. As that is the case this devil will certainly not hesitate in accusing us. What was our Lord, the promised Messiah, doing at this time, I mean, during the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah? He was of course carrying on his mission of coming to save his people from their sin, coming to bruise the Serpent’s head, coming to de-sin the cosmos and make a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. So there was always enmity between that old Serpent and the Messiah. There was no possibility of a truce, and no such possibility exists today. This is war to the death. Only one can win this strife. During the Old Testament period there were many encounters between the Son of God and Satan. Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his wives – behind all those trials and temptations is this same clash, the seed of the serpent and the seed of the women. We see it again when Israel is fighting Amalek and Moses is praying for victory on the mountain with his hands upheld – that is Christ versus Satan. We see it on Mount Carmel; the prophets of Baal opposing Elijah, that is another clash, Elijah’s Lord is opposing principalities, powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world.
Here we have the Messiah, the angel of the Lord, and wherever he appears he is a magnet to Satan who constantly comes to destroy his work. If you as a congregation are being blessed then Satan will be drawn to you as a fox is drawn to new-born lambs. So what is before us in this chapter is the Messiah’s glorious mission being challenged by Satan. He would thwart it if he could. The Lord has just claimed these people as his own beloved people. Zechariah has just preached a word of great comfort to the people that the Lord loves them and will save them. Hear his words in the previous verses, “Whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye . . . know that the LORD Almighty has sent me . . . Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you, declares the LORD [who] will again choose Jerusalem” (Zech. 2:8, 9, 10 & 13). There is this covenant relationship between him and the people whom God has given him: “I will be their God and they will be my people.” And this is proclaimed by Zechariah to the joy of God’s people especially of Joshua the high priest, and then, do you see how immediately Satan comes and attacks him. Think of it in the New Testament, how God the Father proclaims at Jesus’ baptism; “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” and immediately Christ is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to meet Satan and his temptations. Then constantly he is accusing Jesus that he is a winebibber, a drunkard and a friend of the wrong people, one who does signs and miracles by the power of the devil. And so suddenly Satan appears and he stands at the right hand of Joshua the high priest, the pair of them like a hideous bride and groom, before the angel of the Lord. Satan has appeared to accuse the man Joshua who was high priest over all Jerusalem and Israel at that time. Joshua is the representative believer, the archetypal servant of Jehovah, the full-time minister of God and the devil is at his right hand.
You understand that Satan doesn’t have to make up false stories about Joshua’s past. It is not that he is exaggerating. Satan is not lying. He doesn’t come to us and say, “I know that you were a bank robber, and a forger, and you are a bigamist, and an assassin.” That wouldn’t bother anyone here I guess because they are preposterous accusation, none of those things are true, but Satan reminds us of real falls in our past or of actual events which he puts in the worst possible light. Maybe they were not that serious, and everyone has forgotten them now, except you and Satan. The two of you, and a loving and merciful heavenly Father who has cast that incident into the depths of the sea and has remembered it no more. There is only one way we are permitted to consider the sins of our past, they are forgiven sins! But all of us have to stand where Joshua stands, confronted by memories of what stupid and evil things we have done. There are times when we are burdened with regrets. We wish we could turn the clock back and not have said or done certain things. What a sense of shame can overwhelm us at times. For example, I had long forgotten one of my past follies. It had quite gone out of my mind for years, and then this month it suddenly popped up into my memory again and I saw it and groaned. It’s now been given a new lease of life. It can emerge as I prepare my preaching. I battle through such memories (so it seems to me) every time I’m working at a sermon for us all. You understand what I’m saying, I’m not being reminded by our fierce accuser of harmless foibles. I’m not making a mountain out of a molehill. I wish I could forget every one of those words and actions of which I’m deeply ashamed. There are those times when Satan accuses me; he accuses every Christian without exception. He is not intimidated by any high rank, or length of service, or deep religious experience, or great usefulness, or the closeness of God to that Christian. If a messenger of Satan once came to the apostle Paul inserting a thorn in his flesh then shrimps like us are not going to be ignored. Satan is presented to us here in this third chapter standing right in front of God and this devil is accusing the very high priest of Israel – just as once he went to God and stood right in front of Jehovah God and spoke to him about Job accusing the old patriarch of his hypocrisy.
So what is going to happen to high priest Joshua? How will he stand in the light of these accusations? What is going to be his fate? What is going to be my fate, or yours? Is there any hope? Will Joshua this representative sinner implode at hearing these accusations? Will he be abandoned and condemned to the dominion of the devil? Is there any deliverance? Will somewhere a fountain be opened up to make the foulest clean? Will the Golgotha laundry be effectual in removing the foulest stains? Can scarlet sins be made whiter than snow? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the wounds of those accused by Satan? For them will there be a better future? Can there be any usefulness for guilty men that they will again be a help for the people of God? Here is a man whom Satan can remind of many bad things that he’s done in his past. Every accusation is more filth on his clothes, more rending of his garments, more stench in his nostrils. What hope is there for him to do a good work for God in the years to come with the memory of that guilt? Are we ruined for ever? Don’t we ask questions like that? Don’t we all have doubts that we’ve forfeited any credibility or usefulness to the congregations of the righteous by events of shame in our past? Who’s going to believe anything we say when we’ve had such falls? Satan will say, “You’re a hypocrite.”
3. JEHOVAH GOD ADDRESSES SATAN.
This vision is magnificent because it is full of personal hope for the vilest offender who truly believes! It is saying that the Messiah has come not only to destroy the four horns of the enemy. He has come by the power of the Holy Spirit to transfigure God’s enemies, transforming them into builders of the holy city of God! God can take a man like Saul of Tarsus and he can radically change him, not allowing him to shelter shyly in sloth for the rest of his life, but use him publicly and powerfully. God more than conquered Saul! God was not the bare winner as David was over Goliath. God lifted up Saul and used him. God made this formerly wicked man a mighty preacher. God made him a praying man. God made him a pastor and a theologian and a letter-writer and an evangelist – though once this man had rejoiced in visiting physical pain and cries of agony and death on the body of Christ. That is why the Messiah came, to bind Satan, not allowing him to crush us in despair and wallow in inactivity; Christ came to spoil Satan and taunt him at his weakness, and throw him into the bottomless pit and into the lake of fire, and nothing Satan is able to do can prevent this judgment. It will certainly fall on him; it will not fall on any of his elect.
This is what this vision is telling us in graphically explicit terms. There is – we insist on it – a process of spiritual reclamation and transformation for fallen men and women. We speak of what we do know and testify of what we have seen. We tell you that this is one of the greatest realities in life under heaven. It is precisely depicted in this vision. Here is a defiled man who is going to be made clean. A filthy appearance is going to be transfigured so that this man can walk again among the people of God and not be ashamed. This vision is a mirror; it shows us ourselves. We cry out one by one, “I am Joshua . . . I am Joshua . . . I am Joshua . . . I am Joshua.” Christian men and women, boys and girls, we are all Joshua. We are sinners in the hands of an angry God, but as chosen ones in Christ we are sinners in the pierced hands of the suffering Saviour. As in the book of Revelation we see the messianic man prevailing in judgment against the dragon, the accused saints triumphing by the blood of atonement shed by the suffering Servant. So there is first the accusation of that active searching devil whom we are told “goes about seeking whom he may devour.” He has spotted the dirty clothes of the natural man. Alas, we know their defilement ourselves.
So here Satan is prepared to launch into an invective of accusation, to say such things as, “Joshua, you are the high priest! You should be ashamed of yourself. Let me remind you of this action . . . and of those words . . .! How dare you take this office and think you can enter the presence of God? Are you really and truly and deeply sorry for what you did? Are you? Look at you, covered in filthiness from head to toe . . . the defiled high priest of Israel entering the Holy of Holies!” That is what the devil was about to say. But before Satan can speak and open up all the sad memories of this high priest, sending Joshua spiraling down and down into the mother of all guilt trips, a powerful voice breaks the silence, a kind voice, full of good news, an authoritative voice that once said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. He speaks and thus Satan is silenced so that he never says a single word of accusation to Joshua. The gospel of salvation is proclaimed, and it is preached by Jehovah Christ to Satan and is overheard by sinners like Joshua and Zechariah, just as in the Garden the Lord preached to Satan the coming of the seed of the woman and told him that his head would be crushed, while Adam and Ever were allowed to overhear. Thank God for such a gospel. We read, “The LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’” (v.2) Joshua does nothing in this entire chapter. He doesn’t hang his head or beat his breast or fall on his face or weep or confess or beg for pardon. He doesn’t make any resolutions that he is not going to sin again, “never, never, never!” No. None of that. Joshua is silent about Satan and silent about his filthy raiment. God alone speaks! He takes the initiative; he begins the good work of restoration. Salvation is of grace from beginning to end, its conception, its continuance and it consummation is all of grace. It is not Joshua who cries out. No, it is the Lord who speaks in mercy, and all the subsequent life of Joshua was to be a response to what God once said to him on that never-to-be-forgotten day. So it was at Pentecost the archetypal day of new covenant evangelism. Peter preached Christ to the crowds in this city of Jerusalem, and then their new lives began. Their turning from sin to Christ was a response to God’s word to them, “What shall we do?” they said. Do you notice that God did not say one word to Joshua. The high priest merely observed, and listened and spectated as God said these words to Satan; “The LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’” (v.2)
What is he saying to Satan? I will tell you: “Who will lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God who ever liveth to make intercession for us.” For us the great royal death of the Lamb of God is an event in the past. For Joshua it was a hope in the future seen through a glass darkly, but for God who is from eternity to eternity, the Lamb is slain before the foundation of the earth, and the agony and bloody sweat of his dear Son is always before him. He sees the travail of his Son’s soul and he is satisfied. He accepts the finished work of the Lord and raises him from the dead for our justification. He knows that an eternal redemption has been accomplished on Calvary. He knows the texture of the anathema his own Son suffered. He knows its super-abundance. He knows the cost of the Shepherd finding his sheep.
“But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
Ere he found his sheep that was lost;
Out in the desert he heard its cry
Sick and helpless and ready to die”
Yes, God can plumb the depths of the waters Christ entered, and if he knows and is satisfied then my conscience can be satisfied with what my Saviour has done. And so, the Lord rebuke you Satan for limiting the efficacy of the blood of Christ, that there is some sin, somewhere in the world, some terrible hypocrisy, some sustained pattern of evil, committed by the chief sinner and the blood of Christ is powerless to cleanse it. Yes sin abounds but grace much more abounds, to the chief of sinners. The blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son cleanses us from all sin, every kind and condition of foul and prolonged and cruel and heinous sin against the vulnerable and the innocent – all sin, atoned for by Jesus Christ, and if you accuse us of this sin or that sin and hint that it is irredeemable then the Lord rebuke you. Accept God’s judgment that all the foulest clothes of all who have hidden in the wounded side are washed whiter than snow! Jehovah rebuke any who say to a mere believer, “But not yours, not for such a sin . . . not that sin . . . it is too indelible, too foul.” The Lord rebuke you!
Who is this Lord? The one who had seen the file before he chose us, the one who knew us at our worst, and still he loved us and determined to take us to be with himself. He chose us because he loved us, but why he loved us who can tell? We can’t get behind the love to anything more rational and understandable. He is love, and he chose us. The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem – where David played peeping Tom on the roof of his palace and plotted lust and adultery and murder – the Lord who chose Jerusalem rebuke any who bring any un-atoned and un-cleared charge against one for whom he hung in the darkness and cried, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?”
What do we say about the best of us finally? “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (v.2). What do we deserve from God – the scrupulously fair God who knows everything and takes every factor into consideration? He is going to put us in his balances and measure us. Have we loved him with all our beings? No. We’ve ignored him. Have we loved our neighbours as ourselves? No. We have just loved ourselves. Have we done to others what we would want them to do to us? No. We have lived for ourselves. We’re dead branches only good for the fire, and so we were warned by Jesus. If we call our brother a fool then we’re in danger of the fire of hell. That is what he said. In the last day this loving holy Jesus will judge us and he has declared he’d say to many, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The lake of fire is the second death. Who can dwell in the eternal burnings. There is the wrath to come, and yet so many have been spared, billions have been plucked as brands from the burning. The flames were coming nearer and nearer, and we began to feel the heat and then a pierced hand reached out and snatched us from the fire. Grace did it. Grace alone. Calvary did it. Calvary alone. The Lord Jesus did it. The Lord Jesus alone. He stretched forth his hand and saved us from hell.
In that great day when all the world is to be gathered before his judgment throne. What is our only hope, but that the Judge who passes sentence will be the Saviour who sacrificed himself in our place? What will he say in that day, “Come ye blessed into the kingdom I have prepared for you. Is not this sinner one of those who fled to me for deliverance? Is he not a brand plucked from the burning?” And every mouth will be stopped and we will be welcomed into the blessedness of heaven
3rd November 2013 GEOFF THOMAS