Zechariah's Vision of Joshua the High Priest
"And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel. And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment. And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord stood by.”—Zech. 3:1-5.
THE original intention of this vision was to foretell the revival of the Jewish state after its long depression through the Babylonish captivity. Joshua, the high-priest, with his tattered garments, must be looked upon as the type of the Jewish people in their deep distress. He was ministering before the Lord in worn and filthy garments, to show at once the sin of Israel and the poverty into which they had fallen; for so poor were they, that the service of God could not be conducted in suitable apparel, but the high-priest himself appeared before the altar in robes unfitted for his sacred work. The set time to favour Zion is according to the visions most near at hand; and Satan, the old adversary of the chosen race, bestirs himself to resist them, and turn away the favour of God from them; but that same angel of the covenant who led the people through the wilderness, and carried them all the days of old, stands before the throne as their advocate, and at his request, Jehovah rebukes Satan, and begins to bless the people. Joshua, their representative, receives a change of raiment, in testimony that the people's sin is forgiven, and that God accepts their worship. The vision then sweeps on to the day of the Lord Jesus, and the heart of the prophet Zechariah is cheered by a sight of the whole land restored to its former peace and happiness, under the reign of the glorious one who is called “My servant, THE BRANCH.”
While we have been interpreting the other visions of Zechariah, we have tried to derive present comfort and profit from them. We will endeavour to do so on this occasion. We may very properly take Joshua as a type of all the people of God, as they stand in their sense of sin and natural faultiness, subject to the accusations of Satan, but delivered by their ever gracious Lord; and the change of raiment as setting forth the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of the Saviour's righteousness, which is the joy of all believers. Let us take each particular separately, and may God the Holy Spirit shed a sacred light upon the vision, and may we see in it more than Zechariah himself discovered; may we see Jehovah Jesus in all the glory of his love, manifesting himself to his chosen as he doth not unto the world.
I. To begin, then, where the vision begins, with THE BELIEVER HIMSELF REPRESENTED BY JOSHUA.
The believer himself is described as a priest standing before the angel of the Lord. Let us mark this. He is a priest. Who are the priests? Certain sons of Korah, who take too much upon them, say, “We are the priests, we are the legitimate descendants of the apostles, and a mysterious power distills from our priestly hands.” We reply to them, it is impossible that you should be descendants of the apostles and yet claim to possess priestly power, for the apostles never claimed any peculiar priesthood for themselves above other believers, but they spoke of their brethren, the Christians of their age, as being on a par with themselves in the matter of priesthood. “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter ii. 5.) If then these pretenders to priesthood be priests in any special sense, they certainly are not descendants of the Apostles, for the Apostles claimed no priority of priesthood beyond the rest of their brethren, but said of all the saints, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood.” The fact is they are neither one nor the other—they are not descendants of the Apostles, for they preach not the Apostles' gospel, and know not their spirit; nor have they any priestly office, unless it be that the old Babylonian harlot accepts them as her foster-children, and gives them a name and a place among those who partake in her abominations. Who are the priests? Why, every humble man and woman that knows the power of Jesus Christ in his own soul, to purge and cleanse him from dead works, is appointed to serve as a priest unto God. I say every humble man and every humble woman too, for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, but we are all one in him. We offer prayer unto God, knowing that it ascends to heaven like sweet odours before the throne; we offer praise, believing that “whoso offereth praise, glorifieth God.” “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Jesus hath made us priests and kings unto God, and even here upon earth we exercise the priesthood of consecrated living and hallowed service, and hope to exercise it till the Lord shall come. When I see then Joshua the high priest, I do but see a picture of each and every child of God, who has been made nigh by the blood of Christ, and has been taught to minister in holy things, and enter into that which is within the veil.
But observe where this High Priest is, he is said to be “standing before the angel of the Lord,” that is, standing to minister. This should be the perpetual position of every true believer. I have no business on the bed of sloth; I have no right to be wandering abroad after private business; I can claim no time which I may set apart to my own follies, or to my own aggrandisement. My true position as a Christian is to be always ministering to God, always standing before his altar. Do I hear you ask how this can be, with your farms and with your merchandise? Know ye not, brethren, that whether ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, ye may do it all to the glory of God. Understand ye not that every place is now God's temple, and that everywhere is God's altar, and that ye can as truly serve him in your daily callings as in the assemblies of the place of worship. You know not the true position of a Christian if you fancy that you are only priests on the Lord's-day, and only to minister before God when you stand in the congregation of the faithful. You are appointed priests like your Lord, for ever, and you are for ever to be offering the sacrifice. By day and by night should your hearts be going up to him. You should fall asleep with your Master’s name upon your tongue, and when you awake you should say with the Psalmist, “I am still with thee.” Happy Joshua! Notwithstanding the filthiness of his garments, he is to be commended because he keeps in the position to which he is called, and like the servant whose ear was bored, he does not leave his master's house. Come you that profess to be God’s people, if you have been negligent in the duties of your high calling, and if your hearts at this moment are going after vanity, pray God the Holy Spirit to put you into a proper state to perform the functions of your holy office, and now in the courts of the Lord’s house, stand like Joshua, with your hearts prepared by the Lord of Hosts to minister before the Lord.
Yet, notice where it is that Joshua stands to minister; it is before the angel of Jehovah. You and I can never stand to minister before Moses, the mediator, under the law; much less before Jehovah himself, for even our God is a consuming fire. It is only through a mediator that we poor defiled ones can ever become priests unto God. Peradventure some of God's people here may have forgotten this. You have been searching yourselves and trying your hearts as in the sight of God’s law, and you feel very deeply that you are far behind what the glory of the God in the law would ask of you; and therefore you begin foolishly to mistrust your Father's love, and to think that your service before him will not speed. Beloved, it is ill serving God in the light of the law: but oh! how blessed is it to stand and minister before Christ and in Christ! Then, if I can bring him nothing but my tears, he will put them in his bottle, for he once wept; if I can bring him nothing but my groans and sighs, he will accept these as an acceptable sacrifice, for he once was broken in heart, and sighed heavily in spirit. Gracious God, I bless thee that I have not to present my sacrifice directly to thyself, else thou wouldst consume my sacrifice and me with the flames of thy wrath; but I present what I have before thy messenger, the angel of the covenant, the Lord Jesus, and through him my prayers find acceptance wrapped up in his prayers; my praises become sweet as they are bound up with bundles of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, from Christ's own garden; then I myself, standing in him, am accepted in the Beloved; and all my poor, defiled, polluted works, though in themselves only objects of divine abhorrence, are so accepted and received, that God smelleth a sweet savour. He is content and I am blessed. See, then, the position of the Christian as a priest: he is to stand before the angel of the Lord.
Now read the next word in the light of your own experience—“Clothed,” it is said, “with filthy garments.” Did you ever feel this when you have come to serve God? Perhaps it is at evening prayer—there has been something amiss in the family during the day, and you know it—perhaps, as the head of the household, you have to conduct prayer, and you feel, “O God, I cannot pray, I cannot pray as I would; I am thy priest in this house, I know, but how can I minister before thee, for I have filthy garments on?” Possibly your business kept you up very late last night; things are not going on as well as you wish in matters of trade, and you have come here distracted; and while sitting in the pew listening to God's people as they praise the Lord, you have thought, “Ah! I have my filthy garments on; I cannot pray to him, I cannot praise him as I would.” I know what it is to come and preach to you sometimes, and to feel such an overwhelming sense of my own unworthiness, that, were it not Woe unto me if I do not preach the gospel, I would not come on this platform again, for it is hard to feel that your garments are defiled even while endeavouring to be God's mouth to men. Perhaps this afternoon, when you are going into your Sunday-school class, you will feel much warmth of heart towards God, you will confess that you are not your own, but bought with a price, you will desire to live unto Him and honour him; but, oh, that dread impediment of conscious guilt, it will make you cry out, “How can I stand before Him who charged his angels with folly, and declares that the heavens are not pure in his sight? How can I hope to have a blessing on anything that I do, when I feel a heart of unbelief departing from the living God? How can I give a blessing to his saints, when I want a blessing myself? How shall I break the bread of Christ with unholy fingers, and pour out the wine into his cup with a sinful hand?” But stop, Christian, do not think of renouncing your priesthood; do not let a sense of unfitness keep you from your service. Stand where you are; for remember, you are standing in the only place where pollution can be washed away, you are standing before the angel of the covenant. It is before Christ that sin is to be confessed. Confess it anywhere else, your sorrow is not repentance but remorse. “What is remorse?” says one. Remorse is repentance made out of sight of Jesus; true repentance is sorrow of sin in the presence of Christ. Foul and filthy as you are, there is but one voice which can speak you clean. Go not away from that voice. There is but one hand which can touch you and make you pure; stand where that hand is close to you, and still, filthy as your garments are, shun not the face of your best, your only friend, but breathe out this prayer, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. Purge me, oh, purge me now, for thy love's sake.”
Satan stood before the angel to resist Joshua. Does not his opposition seem superfluous? Poor Joshua feels enough the filth upon his garments, without needing to have the devil to withstand him. And I, poor I, do often feel so much my own sinfulness, that it seems a work of supererogation on the devil's part, to lay accusations—conscience accuses enough without him. But. yet, so cruel is he, that he avails himself of the times of the weakness of God's people, there and then to resist them. Observe what he is called. He is called Satan, which signifies an adversary. He is an adversary, and that by nature. His nature is now so vile that he cannot help being the adversary of everything that is good. From the day on which he was expelled from heaven, and dragged with him a third part of the stars of glory, he has been God's bitterest foe; and as to man, from the hour in which it was said, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head,” he discovered in that humble creature man, his great destroyer, and he has never ceased to nibble at the heel of the seed of the woman, foreknowing how terribly his head is to be bruised. There is something, however, very comforting in the thought that he is an adversary: I would sooner have him for an adversary than for a friend. O my soul, it were dread work with thee if Satan were a friend of thine, for then with him thou must for ever dwell in darkness and in the deeps, shut out from the friendship – ship of God; but to have Satan for an adversary is a comfortable omen, for it looks as if God were our friend, and so far let us be comforted in this matter. Yet, remember, Satan is an adversary not to be despised. Of keen intellect, ripened by years of experience, with a fulness of cunning and craft which made even the serpent, when possessed by him, more subtle than any other beast of the field, he is an antagonist worthy of angelic might. Gabriel might quail in such a conflict if he did not stand clad in the golden armour of perfect innocence. We, so apt to sin, carrying about with us so much tinder, had need to fear the fiery sparks which he scatters. It is a dreadful thing to stand foot to foot with Apollyon. Read Bunyan's description of Christian’s fight in the Valley of Humiliation, and you have there a shadow picture of what the true conflict is. Better to endure all kinds of temporal pains and trials, than to be beset by Satan. He who wins gains nothing, and he who fails will find his weight full heavy when the dragon sets his foot upon his neck. Thou hast a stern adversary here, and one who will never cease to vex thee till thou shalt be out of gunshot of him, in having crossed the river of death.
Now you will perceive, if you look at the passage, that this adversary selected a most fitting place in which to do Joshua damage. He came to accuse him before the angel—before God’s own Son. Oh! if he could once make the Lord loose his hold of us, then we should soon be his prey. You perceive he does not attack Joshua first, but he comes before the angel to prevent Joshua's being accepted. If Satan can once persuade you or me to think we are not God’s children and not accepted, he knows that he has done us serious injury. In the arsenals of hell there are great stores of “ifs:” “ifs” are Satan’s bomb-shells—“If thou be the Son of God.” If he can make you doubt, then he makes a breach in your wall. If you be strong enough to say, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him,” you will then come off more than conqueror. But the drift of Satan is to touch you just there, in that place where your strength lieth. He is like Delilah; he feels that if he can cut off the locks of your faith, where your strength dwells, then he may put out your eyes and sell you to the Philistines for ever. Take care, take care, when Satan comes to accuse you before the angel and to make you doubt your interest in the Lord Jesus, that you at once leave the case in the angel's hands, for your advocate can plead better against the accuser than you can, and it is best for you to hold your peace, and to let that great Advocate stand up, and to say, “The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee.”
You will agree with me that the adversary not only selected a very fit place by coming at once to the throne to lay the accusation, but a very fit opportunity. Joshua had his filthy garments on. Satan is a great coward: he will generally, meddle with God's people when they are down. I find that when I am in good physical health, I am not often tempted of Satan to despondency or doubt; but whenever I get depressed in spirit, or the liver is out of order, or the head aches, then comes the hissing serpent, “God has forsaken you, you are no child of God, you are unfaithful to your Master, you have no part in the blood of sprinkling,” and such-like things. You old rascal! if you say as much as that to me in my days of health, when my blood is leaping in my veins, I shall be more than a match for you; but to meet me just then, when you understand that I am weak, ay! this is like you, Satan. What a thorough devil our enemy is! I can call him by no worse name than his own; but if worse there were, richly would he deserve it. You must expect, Christian, when you have lost your sense of justification, when you are conscious of sin, when you feel unfit to minister before God, you must expect that just then he will come to accuse you. If Joshua's garment had been perfectly clean that morning when he went to minister as a priest, Satan would have let him alone; but see Joshua depressed in spirit, and heavy in mind, weeping over his sins, then comes Satan, and he says, “Now, I shall speed with him, God will hate Joshua, for he cannot bear filth; he will be sure to cast away the filthy priest. And Joshua is hating himself too, and so I shall plunge him in despair, and make an end of the man.” Surely, so it would have been if the angel had not been there; but the angel of the Lord, by his presence, is ever a wall of fire round about his people, and a glory in the midst. If the lion of hell comes prowling forth to seize the very weakest lamb, the great Shepherd will deliver the lamb out of his teeth; nor shall the infernal lion rend the meanest of his sheep.
Commentators have puzzled themselves to know what Satan would have to say against Joshua. As I read their conjectures, I thought that it would never have puzzled me, for my question would be in my own case, which out of fifty thousand things the devil would choose to bring? Not what he could bring, but I say, which out of fifty thousand things he would choose to bring? Truly, dear friend, if Satan wants to accuse us, any page of our history, any hour of any day will furnish him material for his charges. Yesterday you were impatient, the day before you were proud, another day you were slothful, on another, angry. Oh, what a den of unclean birds the human heart is! I would God we could wring their necks, but they are too many for any power less than divine to destroy them all; one chirps at one time and one at another, and between them they maintain a dolorous discord. Talk of perfection in the flesh! the man who dreams of it is either a fool or a knave, one of the two; he is either a fool and does not know his own heart, or else he is a knave before God, and is dishonest honest, and does not call that sin which is sin. Perfection in the flesh! why, those believers who live nearest to God and have the deepest experience of divine things will tell you they have given up that dream long ago, they never expect to be perfect except in Christ Jesus, and never to be complete in themselves but only to be complete in him. If the old accuser wants reasons for accusation he may indeed find as many as he wills, and continue to accuse as long as ever he pleases, for we are altogether as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. I have heard of a certain divine that he used always to carry about with him a little book. This little book had only three leaves in it, and truth to tell there was not a single word in the book. The first was a sheet of black paper, black as jet; the next was a sheet of red—scarlet; and the next was a sheet of white without spot. Day by day he used to take out this little book, and at last he told some one the secret of what it meant. He said, “There is the black leaf—that is ray sin, and the wrath of God which my sin deserves; I look, and look, and think it is not black enough, though it is black as black can be. Then the next, that is the leaf of the atoning sacrifice, the precious blood—the red leaf—how I do delight to look at that, and look, and look again. Then there is the white leaf, that is my soul, as it is washed in Jesus' blood, made white as snow, through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and washing in the fountain which Christ has filled from his own veins.” Ah, that first black leaf! That black leaf! Surely, if Satan looks over it, it will be no puzzle to him to find somewhat against you, for he may continue to plead against you till doomsday, and always find ground in your shortcoming for accusing you before the angel of God.
And what was it that Satan was after, after all, with Joshua? Was it that he hated Joshua's sins? Did he bring these before the angel because he really was vexed that such a sinner as Joshua should defile the courts of God's house? Ah, not a bit of it. It is an edifying spectacle, certainly, to see Satan pleading against sin. It is sometimes good to turn the tables on Satan, as Martin Luther does, and tell him, “Supposing I am all thou sayest I am, yet what are you that you should bring accusations against me? I am no servant of thine, Satan. If my Master does not find fault with me, who am I that I should be afraid, because you assail and accuse me? What are you, after all? You do but look round my castle wall, and smile at every rift, and so tell me where it wants mending! What are you, but a fierce dog, keeping me awake by your howling? Better that I have you than be without you, lest I fall into a deadly slumber, and so sleep myself into carnal security and spiritual death. What art thou after all, arch fiend, but one who, like a terrible tempest, drives me nearer to my Saviour, compels me to find a harbour in his bosom.” Satan aims at our destruction; that is the point at which he drives. He does not care for our pleasure, it is our total and eternal ruin. Let us know this, and never be beguiled by him. In whatever way he puts sin, let us understand it to be sin still, and therefore keep out of his clutches. When at the council of Basle, a certain cardinal had spoken very fairly about Protestants, the Emperor Sigismund rose and said, “Yes, he talks very prettily, but remember he is a Roman, he is a Roman still.” So when the adversary advances with his blandishments and temptations, remember he is a devil still, though drest in his best robes, and detect him always under any of his various subterfuges; for his desire is at all times and all seasons, your total destruction.