On this Christmas Eve, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to the world as fully God and fully man. Yet centuries before the birth of the Messiah, there was no person to declare, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). There was only an expectation of God’s promise, with some prophetic puzzle pieces that could not be truly assembled without the full revelation of Jesus Christ. However, that expectation had fallen into deep depression during the Babylonian captivity.
With no king, no temple, and no priesthood, the dispersed Jews in captivity had no identity. Even when a remnant returned from exile after King Cyrus’ decree, they still felt a hanging dread that God had forsaken them. They returned with Zerubbabel as their governor and Joshua as their high priest to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, but that work was constantly hindered.
Neighboring enemies would infiltrate, undermine, and send slanderous accusations to the Persian kings! The returning Jews may well have said in their hearts, “We know that we’ve sinned greatly, and we’re being punished for those sins. Has God cut us off? What is he going to do with us?” Zerubbabel, Joshua, and their people understandably weren’t looking for a baby in a manger. They were looking to survive as a nation, which brings us to this vision of Zechariah 3.
Before we continue, we must establish a ground rule. In order to interpret the vision, we need to take what we see literally while discerning what is symbolic. Zechariah literally had a vision with figurative symbols that pointed to a literal tangible reality. While this doesn’t give us free reign to see everything in the Bible as figurative, we can safely say that this vision contains symbols because the text tells us so. With this framework in place, we’re now ready to grasp the clear picture of what God is communicating here in Zechariah 3.
The Angel of the LORD
Verse 1 says, “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.” First, we see Joshua the high priest. As the high priest, Joshua represents Israel when ministering in the temple before the Lord, namely on the Day of Atonement. It’s not important in the vision that the temple is not yet reconstructed. Remember that even the earthly temple was a copy of the heavenly temple as described in Hebrews 9.
Next, we see a unique character: the angel of the LORD. We have to take a closer look as to who this angel is and what Joshua is doing before him. When the high priest is active in the temple, he is usually standing before the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, ministering to God on behalf of Israel. One might say in this vision that he is ministering before the angel of the LORD. If we take that into account, Joshua is doing his high priestly duty before the angel of the LORD, which is a special form of worship.
But remember something important. Scripture condemns the worship of angels. Anytime someone falls down before an angel in prostration, the angel always rebukes that person. The second commandment in the Old Testament is quite clear in this regard. Deuteronomy 5:8-9 states, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” The New Testament is likewise clear. In Revelation 22:8-9, John says, “And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.’” Therefore, worship and even veneration of angels is expressly forbidden.
Yet there is a curious angel in the Old Testament that does not rebuke prostration, sacrifice, or worship before him. One of the early appearances of this angel is in the burning bush witnessed by Moses in Exodus 3: “And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush…When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’”
Take a closer look. Verse 2 says that the angel of the LORD appeared in the bush and then verse 4 states that God called to Moses out of the bush. Curious, isn’t it? If this were any other angel, he would be identified as a separate entity such as Michael, Gabriel, or, in the rest of Zechariah, “the angel who talked with me”. The angels always speak on behalf of God, not as God himself. Therefore, since the angel of the LORD is speaking as God himself, he is in fact God manifest as the second person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ pre-incarnate.
Joshua the high priest is correctly ministering to the angel of the LORD.
Satan’s Accusation and the LORD’s Rebuke
Let’s return to the vision of Zechariah 3. The final person in verse 1 is Satan, who stands at Joshua’s right to accuse him. We’re not told what Satan’s accusation against Joshua and Israel is, because it’s quite obvious. All one has to do is flip over to the book of Genesis and start reading. The number of sins Satan can dig up and throw before God is endless. One might assume that Satan would exclaim, “How could you let this vile, wretched sinner minister before you on behalf of a group of idol worshipers, traitors, murderers, and adulterers? Neither Joshua nor the nation Israel has any right to even exist. They have broken every part of your law, God. You should blot them out and cast them all into outer darkness with me!” This is a critical moment in redemptive history, and it will settle the argument of God’s plan for Israel. Will he cut off Israel for good, or will he choose otherwise?
Read verse 2. “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?’” Isn’t this wonderful? The angel of the LORD (Christ himself) rebukes Satan outright without letting him even speak. He identifies Jerusalem as his chosen people, represented here by Joshua! To drive the point home, “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” can be interpreted as, “Do you really think I brought Israel out of captivity just to destroy them? How foolish of you, Satan.” God didn’t do all that work just to let Israel die out. Paul says in Philippians 2:6, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” And so it is with us! God didn’t rescue us out of sin just to let us suffer to death for our sins.
Joshua’s Condition and Renewal
The vision now focuses on Joshua’s condition before the angel of the LORD: “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel” (v. 3). Filthy is an understatement. Isaiah 64:6 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Every good work we think we do is polluted with sin in God’s eyes. To put this into perspective, we’re not talking about sweaty, unwashed clothes. Take your nicest clothes, drag them through manure, put them back on, roll around in a dumpster, then walk into your nation’s capitol building. Now you begin to get a small idea of what your sin is before God.
But God is righteous and just to forgive. Look what he does: “The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.’” (v. 4). The New American Standard translates it as “festal robes”. In one fell swoop, the angel of the LORD removes Joshua’s filthiness, clothes him in festal robes, and explicitly interprets the action for us as taking away Joshua’s (and Israel’s) sin. If the filthy garments represent sin, the festal robes represent righteousness. Thus, not only is the sin forgiven, but righteousness is credited to Joshua (double imputation). Do you want further proof that the angel of the LORD is God? Angels can’t take away sin. Only God can forgive sin (Luke 5:21). Since this angel removes Joshua’s sins, this angel is God.
Celebration and Charge
It is at this point that Zechariah’s joy breaks loose: “Then I said, ‘Put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by” (v. 5). If you’ve ever been involved with someone’s confession of faith or seen your unsaved friend come to a saving knowledge of the truth, you’ve felt this kind of joy. You want to jump in and celebrate. Zechariah feels the same way, and the angels proceed to place a clean turban on Joshua’s head while the angel of the LORD stands by watching, perhaps even smiling.
The vision continues in verses 6 and 7: “The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua: ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: If you will walk in obedience to me and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.’”
From this point forward, we are charged with living gospel-changed lives. Indeed, now that Joshua has been sanctified in the presence of God, his high priestly duty has been renewed. God tells Joshua that if his people live according to God’s law, they will have authority and a dwelling place with the angels who dwell in the presence of God. In other words, Joshua and Israel have been shown the path to heaven.
But how is God going to remove sin from Joshua and Israel? Let’s keep reading: “Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch” (v. 8). “The Branch” is a clear messianic term. Messiah, or Christ in Greek, is understood to be the savior and king that God will send through the line of David. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5).
Indeed, God will send the Branch, the king from David’s line who also happens to be David’s lord. Even after the wicked culmination of Israel’s sins from the Exodus to the Exile, God’s plan has not changed. The Branch is coming. “‘See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.’” (v. 9). God has set his plans, and he will not change them. Sin will be removed instantaneously. Yes, God is patient towards us, not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3). But when he acts, he does so swiftly, and how true this will be about the final removal of sin!
This brings us to a final question: how exactly will God eliminate sin?
How the Vision Applies to Us
On Christmas, we celebrate the answer to this question. Jesus lived the perfect life and died in our place so that he could remove our sins, our filthy garments. Moreover, because of Jesus’ perfect life, his righteousness (the festal robes) are credited to us through the cross and confirmed by the Resurrection if we believe in him. We aren’t celebrating the birth of a teacher with some novel ideas on human interaction. We’re celebrating the angel of the LORD, indeed God himself, becoming human flesh to enact in time the redemptive plan he established from before time began. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
While we who have faith are justified in his sight now because of the cross of Christ, we wait for the day that sin around us and sin in our bodies are eradicated. While we are saved from its power, sin still haunts us as we live on this earth. But at the Second Coming, things will change. While Jesus came the first time to forgive you of your sins, he will eradicate sin the next time he comes.
Once Jesus accomplishes this work, the reality of restoration will set in. “‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 3:10)
That’s the hope of every saint. When Christ comes again, there will be true and lasting peace. You’ll be able to commune peacefully, enjoying God’s renewed creation without any fear of enemies from any side. You’ll be able to live and worship in God’s kingdom without needing to repent of sin. This is a small taste of what awaits those of us who believe.
Call to Repentance
If you’ve been forgiven, then Christmas is a day of glorious anticipation. If you haven’t, then this is a day of terrible suspense. I plead with you to consider your standing before God. If your sins haven’t been forgiven, you tragically face a future fate of “flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus…eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (Thessalonians 1:8-9).
See yourself in Joshua’s position, as one wearing filthy garments and lacking festal robes. Come to Christ this Christmas. Plead with him to forgive your sins and bestow his righteousness, for he is faithful and just to forgive. When you do, you will finally have peace with God, and you can sleep in heavenly peace.