“Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, with Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been part of an inside joke? Those are always kind of fun. You know something that only a select group of people know. You get to laugh about it together while everyone else just wonders. It creates a bond among you that is strong. Even years later a single word or phrase can reconnect people who otherwise have nothing in common. It’s hard as a modern follower of Jesus not to look back at passage like this one and feel like we are part of an inside joke that much of the original audience never got.
Reading back through the Old Testament now and through the lens of Christ, it’s hard to imagine that anyone then didn’t understand clearly that God was talking about the Messiah. It’s harder still to imagine that no one realized it as soon as they met Jesus. It’s kind of like the ultimate inside joke. Once you are in, it all makes sense. But until then, you can only stare at it and wonder.
This is Zechariah’s fourth vision, and the first that is really thick with messianic themes. That’s not where it begins, though. It begins with an elevation of the priesthood to a level higher than it had been at any point in the previous several hundred years.
When the priesthood was commissioned and outlined in Exodus and Leviticus, it was designed to be an integral part of the life of the people of Israel. The priest was the highest authority in the land. Then the people turned to idolatry after they settled in the Promised Land. Next they demanded a king. When God gave them one the king, of course, became the highest authority over the people. That’s not how it was designed to be.
The community of returning exiles had two primary sources of authority: Zerubbabel, the governor, the descendant of David, and Joshua, the high priest. And while the people looked somewhat to Joshua, their first reaction was to put him back in the place the high priest held before the exile. He was important for matters of religion, but that was about it. Also, there was the fact that the priests had largely been complicit in the idolatry of the people, so they had sacrificed much of their authority in matters of the Law. They had gotten some of that back during the exile, but not much.
The sum of all of this was that in an absolute sense, Joshua and the other priests were a supremely unqualified bunch when it came to leading the people spiritually, much less politically. In this vision, then, Zechariah sees God going about fixing this.
He starts by defending Joshua (whom, I believe, is partially symbolic of the whole priesthood) against Satan, or more literally, the accuser. In doing this, he acknowledged just how far the priests had fallen. He is “a burning stick snatched from the fire.” Later he is described as wearing “filthy clothes,” which is a rather tame translation of the Hebrew which more literally refers to him wearing human excrement. Except it doesn’t use those words. Catch my drift? They didn’t want to put that word in the Bible.
In any event, God looks at him in this sorry state, removes his…filthy garments…and gives him clean clothes. Then, he gets a fresh, clean turban. This is an image of God cleansing not just Joshua, but the whole priesthood. He’s making it like new again. Specifically, He says that He has removed their iniquity.
This is not, however, a permanent condition. Just because his clothes are clean now, does not mean they will remain so forever. It does not mean they can’t still become…filthy…again. God’s plans for them are bigger than they perhaps realize. He wants for him—for the whole priesthood now—to rule both His house and His court. He is casting a vision here of the priesthood serving as both the source of religious and also political leadership for the people. If they are going to do this, though, they have to walk in His ways and keep His mandates. That is, they need to be faithful. Continuing in the path He designs for them to go will require faithfulness to the way they are calling the people to follow.
He wants them to become this new, grander version of themselves, because He intends for them to be a pointer. This is what the last part of the vision is all about. He wants them to become a pointer, a sign, that He is getting ready to bring His “Branch.” And what is this Branch? The Messiah. The Messiah is going to lead the people of God spiritually and civically. The priests are going to give the people a picture of what this will look like…if they get it right. The author of Hebrews would later make this comparison much more explicit, calling Jesus a greater high priest.
If this image of a Branch is messianic, what comes next is even more so. He has given a stone to Joshua. It is a stone with seven eyes on it. Now, did Joshua literally have a stone with seven eyes painted on it? Possibly, but probably not. This was an image of the messiah being a rock for the people. It would have called to mind imagery from Psalm 118 of the stone the builders rejected which became the cornerstone. And the seven eyes are an image of perfect sight. This stone will be able to see everything, that is, His wisdom will be perfect.
What’s more, this stone “will take away the iniquity of this land in a single day.” Well, to what could that possibly refer? Zechariah’s original audience got the basic idea, but this is, of course, a reference to the crucifixion of Christ when all the sins of all the people of all times and places were paid for in a single day. As Peter (who also used the stone imagery in talking about Jesus) would later write “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree that we might die to sin and live for righteousness.”
On that day, there will be peace in the land. That’s what that second to last line is pointing toward. When all sin has been dealt with, then there will be peace.
Isn’t this amazing? That’s what this vision invites us to do: marvel at the grace and plans of our God. He has been planning for our salvation for a long time. The unfolding of His grace was careful and detailed. He left nothing to chance. Every step of the way was considered in its entirety. And He shared the plans with us so there would be no doubts about them when they came. He did this all for you. He did it for me. And why? Because He loves us this much. And if we will be faithful to Him, we can experience them in their glorious fullness. That’s a vision in which we can take part. Let’s do it.