The High Priest
Cleansed by Grace
Zech 2:13 has served as a fitting conclusion to the series of visions and prophecies which run from 1:7-2:12, concerning the nation and the Lord’s will concerning them, encouraging them to build the Temple regardless of the fear that is present in their lives.
In chapters 3 and 4, the Lord goes on to show His prophet Zechariah His will concerning two individuals - Joshua (or Jeshua) and Zerubbabel - but, even doing this, there is still much that is directly related to the nation and what God has in store for them.
Though the previous section has founded the Israelites upon a good base from which they can continue to do God’s will through the reconstruction of the Temple, there needs to be a dealing with sin and an anointing with God’s Holy Spirit which these chapters detail. This format (dealing with sin and the bestowal of anointing) mirrors the contents of the New Covenant where believers must first be cleansed through the work of Christ on the cross before they are in a position to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the anointing of God upon their lives.
You may be wondering why I’ve split chapter 3 into the first five and last five verses seeing as they hold together as one unit. The reason is because 3:1-5 naturally talk about the cleansing of the High Priest while 3:6-10 go on, after his cleansing, to commission him with a task (actually, there is good reason to divide the final five verses at the beginning of verse 8 seeing as the passage which begins there appears to speak about a future date still to come after the lifetime of Joshua the current High Priest - though we can only write that with the knowledge of hindsight).
Even though I have divided the passage to make it easier for us to consider each aspect, we must still remember that the chapter is but one vision.
Up to this point in time, only burnt offerings had been offered to God upon the altar which had been set up in the first seventh month after they had returned from exile (Ezra 3:1, 3-6) some sixteen or seventeen years previous to this vision.
However, Ezra 3:5, after speaking about the reinstitution of the daily burnt offerings, records that, at the same time, they decided to begin offering
‘...the continual burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the appointed feasts of the Lord...’
These ‘new moon’ offerings, listed for us in Num 28:11-15 did contain a sin offering (verse 15) and those offered at the appointed feasts recorded in Num 28:16-29:40 also make mention of such (various verses) on different days throughout the festival periods. But it is not entirely obvious how the blood could have been applied as required in the Law (Lev 4:13-21) when there was no veil before which they could sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice (Lev 4:17). This could only have been done once the new rebuilt Temple had been completed and the veil of separation was once more hung to conceal the Holy of Holies from the outside world - a still future event at the time of the vision in Zechariah (three years in the future to be precise) and some twenty-one years away from completion at the time of the setting up of the altar in the seventh month.
Ezra 3:6 implies, however, that just burnt offerings were sacrificed and that the sin offering regulations were laid to one side until the restored Temple was completed. It’s only when we come to Ezra 6:17 that we find the first mention of the sin offering and this takes place after the prophecy of Zech chapter 3 has been received and given to the Israelites, at the time of the dedication of the newly restored Temple.
So, there were no sin offerings sacrificed by the returned exiles until a few years to come but the reason for their reintroduction is tied up with this prophecy. As I’ve previously noted, there could be no application of the blood of the sin offering for the nation because the Holy of Holies had not yet been rebuilt and the veil rehung (Lev 4:17) but there is a much more important reason why such an offering was never sacrificed and it’s relates to the state of the High Priest, Joshua.
The High Priest was unclean - this may not immediately be apparent from Scriptures outside this chapter but he had dwelt in the Babylonian exile and had continued for some seventeen years in the land of Jerusalem with no possibility of offering a sin offering to atone for his own sins. Therefore, Zechariah is rightly shown him (Zech 3:3) as being
‘...clothed with filthy garments...’
Instead of being able to maintain his ceremonial purity through the continual offering of sacrifices for himself, he found himself in need of someone to atone for his uncleanness before he could effectively minister before and within the veil.
Of course, there was one other way that he could have been cleansed according to the Law, and that was by the application of the water of impurity (Numbers chapter 19), a mixture of water and the ashes of the red heifer, which would have the effect of cleansing all those who had come into contact with death (Num 19:9) but in order to obtain the ashes, there had to be an officiating High Priest to offer the sacrifice and to perform the ceremony (Num 19:3ff) and Joshua was unclean and in need of cleansing before he would have been in a position to do such a thing.
In computer terms, the water of purification made with the ashes of the red heifer was like a back-up disk when all else fails. Should the High Priest stand in need of cleansing, he could be purified by its application and it is almost certainly correct to presume that the previous Temple’s supply had been lost or destroyed so it was not an option.
As this is the only way that cleansing can be effected, Joshua needed to be made clean by a process that did not rely upon the sacrificial system. That is, therefore, by grace alone and not by works of the Law.
As an aside, let me mention some articles I read some years ago (in the early nineties I seem to recall) where it was stated that the ‘religious people’ within the nation of Israel at the time of writing find themselves in a similar predicament. Desiring a return to the sacrificial system should the Temple precincts be made available (and let’s be honest here - if Jesus really has paid the price for sin once and for all time through His death on the cross, how could God possibly take delight in a return to an old sacrificial system which denies the effectiveness of that one great sacrifice?), they must find some of the ashes of the red heifer that were kept secure by the Levites of 1900 years ago before the destruction of the Temple in order to cleanse the new High Priest who would take up the office in a future time.
Information taken from the Copper Scroll found near Qumran (listed as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls but actually found quite distinct from them) suggests that a portion was stowed away in the land when the Romans marched upon Jerusalem in 70AD. Searches were currently in progress when I first read that article to find the location and recover the ashes of the sin offering so that a High Priest may be cleansed at the appropriate time to minister in a future rebuilt Temple.
It is unlikely that the locations will ever be found, however, but that was never a problem for God in the days of Zechariah who, through grace alone, cleansed the High Priest - not by works of the Law but by His own will and purpose.
The intention of the vision is as noted above but there are a few points which deserve further consideration here.
In Zech 3:1, satan stands as the accuser of Joshua before God (the Hebrew actually speaks of ‘the’ satan because the word is conveying the meaning ‘the adversary’ or ‘the enemy’ rather than using it as a title of the devil). This satan will lay hold of any uncleanness that he can find in Joshua’s life in order to accuse him before the Lord (showing that the vision relates to what is taking place within Heaven itself rather than on earth). He seeks to frustrate the purpose of God by invalidating for use His servants through their imperfections but Joshua has shown willing to still be actively engaged in the work of God and no matter of undealt with past sin will be allowed to stand in God’s way.
The High Priest
Joshua, in Zech 1:3 (the phrase is paralleled in Amos 4:11), is called
‘...a brand plucked from the fire’
The last High Priest under the monarchy had been Jehozadak who had been carried away into exile by Nebuchadnezzar (I Chr 6:15 - evidence that the final compilation of Chronicles took place after the return from exile or, at the very earliest, shortly after the exile). One of Jehozadak’s sons was Joshua (Hag 1:1) who had returned along with other exiles from Babylon by the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:2, 2:2 - the RSV names him ‘Jeshua’ here).
Joshua was, therefore, the rightful heir to the high priestly office, a direct descendant from Aaron via Eleazar (I Chr 6:3-15) and Zadok (Ezek 44:15) so that he could be rightly regarded, as Baldwin notes, as
‘...all that remains from the furnace of the exile...’
one who had received
‘...privileged deliverance from God’s providential chastisements’
But, more than this, the vision undergirds the right he has to the office of High Priest. Should anyone doubt that Joshua is the rightful heir to all that was promised and given to the Aaronic line through his father, they should take note of the words spoken by God. It is only Joshua who has been cleansed and it is only he who is called the ‘high priest’.
Haggai 1:1 would indicate that the people already regarded him as the successor to the office, but God here places His calling upon him by, firstly, cleansing him for office (Zech 3:1-5) and then, subsequently, commissioning him (Zech 3:6-10).
Cleansed by Grace
Joshua’s sin, as previously noted, is removed by grace alone and not by any work of the Law. Zech 3:4 simply commands that the filthy garments with which he is clothed be removed from him because
‘...I have taken your iniquity away from you...’
That is, the cleansing was achieved neither by ceremony nor tradition nor because of any residual virtue of Joshua - it was solely a gift of God that was effected by the Word of God.
We find this in various other OT passages (Ps 32:1-2, Is 43:25, Ezek 36:25, Micah 7:18-19) though Isaiah 6:7 bears the greatest similarities with the passage under consideration. Isaiah, who found himself standing before God’s throne, realised his own uncleanness and was cleansed by God in order for him to be an effective minister in the service of God (Is 6:8-13).
The Scripture doesn’t command him to get himself off to the Temple and offer a sin offering - and neither does it tell him to do some great work to atone for his own sin - but God takes it upon Himself to be responsible for the cleansing of the sin of the person that He wishes to use.
This work of God is paralleled in Zech 3:9 where the angel of the Lord says that God
‘...will remove the guilt of this land in a single day’
which many commentators point out can only be ultimately fulfilled in the work of Christ on the cross. This is absolutely true and the introductory words (see on the passage on the next web page) make it plain that a future date is being alluded to, but it would appear that the Scripture has relevancy for the Israelites in their own time also and parallels the cleansing of the High Priest, Joshua, that has just taken place. The minds of the nation would have been turned to their own need of cleansing before the Lord and Smith, therefore, rightly notes that the words have specific importance for the men of Joshua’s day when he says that
‘...there was still the contamination of iniquity that had not been purged...’
Though God projects forward the ultimate removal of guilt from the land, the nation still needed to be assured that this event would take place in their own lifetime so that they could consider themselves as being acceptable to God. The phrase previously quoted (Zech 3:9) makes Smith ask the questions
‘Was the iniquity only that of Joshua personally?...Or did Joshua’s filthy garments...represent the contamination of all the people?’
‘The latter seems to be the proper meaning’
Even though we have been considering the uncleanness of just one man, the High Priest, God appears to speak of this cleansing as representing that which is also to be carried out for the entire land (and, therefore, of all those resident within the land). Even though the shadow of their forefathers’ sins hung over the nation, God has already purposed to remove it through the cleansing of the High Priest, Joshua.
This is totally Scriptural as it says in Ex 28:30 that
‘...Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually’
and, in Lev 10:17, that they shall
‘...bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for [the Israelites] before the Lord’
Therefore, far from us seeing only the sin of the nation as being cleansed in the removal of the filthy garments from Joshua and in clothing him with new, clean garments, we should expect that the nation’s sin is also being dealt with by grace. There is no sin offering necessary for their past sin which could be offered to bring them in to a right relationship with God - and therefore the old sacrificial system is set aside to be replaced here by a system that depends upon the grace of God and not works of the Law - even though the sacrifices will be reintroduced following the completion and dedication of the Temple a few years into the future.
Significantly, it is only the cleansing of that one man, Joshua, who secures forgiveness and cleansing for the entire nation under God. And it is only the cleansing obtained by the one man, Jesus Christ, who secures cleansing and forgiveness for believers under the New Covenant.
This is the relevancy of the passage here - that Jesus Christ who was ‘made to be sin’ (II Cor 5:21) bore the new nation’s sin upon Himself in order that forgiveness might be accomplished for all those who are part of the nation over which God has appointed Him as High Priest. It is too restrictive just to see the phrase concerning the guilt being removed in a single day as being indicative of Christ, and the context needs to be realised which puts Joshua as the one who receives the forgiveness on behalf of the people.
We shouldn’t take this too far, either, when we come to consider the work of the cross. Jesus is judged on the cross for our sin and is not forgiven for anything that He has done wrong, but in dealing with our sin, He receives the gift of forgiveness which is freely bestowed upon all who believe.
But, in Zechariah chapter 3, even though the nation has been cleansed through the cleansing of Joshua, God shows them in the following verses that the ultimate removal of guilt must wait until a future time when the Branch will come.
Notice also the relevancy of that phrase (Zech 1:8) that God will
‘...bring My servant the Branch’
a title of the Messiah who is still to come (Is 11:1, Jer 23:5, 33:15), and repeated in 6:12 in connection with a prophetic action that the prophet is entrusted to perform.
We will look at this prophetic word in greater detail on the web page which is titled as dealing with those verses.
Zechariah 3:5 states that
‘...they put a clean turban upon his head and clothed him with garments...’
paralleling Isaiah 62:10 (see also Is 52:1) which states
‘...He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness...’
The High Priest’s clothes were originally made ‘for glory and beauty’ (Ex 28:40), they were to be worn whenever he came near to the altar to minister (Ex 28:43). They were the outward evidence that he was acceptable to God, that his service found acceptance in Him.
So here in Zech 3:5, Joshua’s unclean apparel is replaced by clothing that proclaims his acceptability before God (though why it’s left to the prophet to mention the turban is puzzling. The Hebrew word is not the one used of the head covering for the High Priest in the Mosaic Law but Zechariah obviously felt it important to resolve while the cleansing was taking place - if there was special significance in this action, it appears to be lost on us today and, apart from noting that it’s a personal touch, there is little that can be added to the statement).
When the Temple was finally completed, the High Priest offered a sin offering for the people (Ezra 6:17 - probably understood to be the removal of the guilt of the land that is mentioned in Zech 3:9 even though it is plainly still thought of as being a future event after the Dedication. The other possibility is, as JFB notes, ‘...the day of national atonement celebrated after the completion of the temple...on the tenth day of the seventh month’) because of the cleansing that had been proclaimed through this vision - not only was there now a veil, but the High Priest and the nation (see above) stood in a right relationship with God through a direct intervention by God Himself.
The Israelites could have given up building the Temple not just because of the fear of the nations who dwelt round about them and of the fear of what the reply from Darius might bring (see above on different passages), but because they knew that, upon the Temple’s completion, there was no way that they could restore the sacrificial system - and therefore the covenant - because their High Priest, Joshua, was unclean and they had no way of cleansing him as he needed.
But God will not be hindered from fulfilling His purpose for His people and shows the nation that He, personally, has taken Joshua’s sin away and has clothed him with garments that reflect his status as the High Priest who stands in the gap before his people. But, because the High Priest bears the sins of the people before the Lord, his cleansing naturally implies the cleansing of the nation of Israel.
The vision, then, though personally directed at Joshua, has important implications for both the encouragement of the nation and for the rebuilding work.
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