Fit for purpose - Zechariah 3:1-10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Much has changed since the events of 9/11 but, for me personally, one emotion which has remained the same is the way I feel when I walk through the Nothing to Declare Channel. Do you have the same experience? The plane has landed, eventually you collect your baggage, and then find yourself confronted with the red or the green channel. Now for some reason every time I walk through the Nothing to Declare Channel I feel like an international drug smuggler. My palms start sweating, my mouth is dry and I feel very guilty. I shouldn’t feel guilty because genuinely I have nothing to declare but every time, without exception, the green channel makes me into a nervous wreck. I have no idea how to walk through customs. What are you supposed to do? Should I smile at the customs officer and wish her a happy morning? Or is that simply asking for trouble? Should I stare him out and play a game of chicken with my eyes? Or is that a guaranteed way to be called over for a chat? If anyone knows the answer then please do come and speak to me at the end.
Feeling guilty is a universal feature of human existence. At some point in our lives we all experience the emotional rollercoaster of guilt. It may catch us unawares but catch us it will. Perhaps you are sitting here tonight and you feel as guilty as hell. Feeling guilty is a universal human experience. However, sometimes we feel guilty when we are not guilty and sometimes we don’t feel guilty when in fact we are guilty. Feelings are notoriously unreliable. They are not an accurate measure of our moral status.
I meet many people who are not troubled in the slightest by their outrageous rejection of God. They ignore him all their lives, they patronise his wisdom, and they abuse his creatures. But do they feel guilty? No, not in the slightest. At the other end of the spectrum, I meet genuine Christians who have submitted their lives to Jesus, who have entrusted their eternal destiny into his hands, and yet they are often plagued by feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Feelings are notoriously unreliable. So it is a great joy tonight to have Zechariah chapter 3 open before us. In order to truly appreciate our moral status we need the accurate diagnosis of the Word of God. Feelings come and go but the Word of God stands forever.
And what we discover in this fourth vision, given to the prophet Zechariah, over 500 years before the birth of Jesus, is God’s unchanging verdict on the lifestyle we have chosen to adopt.
First of all, he reveals the problem facing humanity. Look with me at verses 1-3. “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.”
What we are presented with in Zechariah chapter 3 is a courtroom scene. The angel of the Lord, who is the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, is the judge in the trial. Satan is the prosecuting attorney and Joshua the high priest is the criminal on trial.
Why is Joshua standing in the dock? Look at verse 3. Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel of the Lord. He should have been dressed in robes of beauty, clothing fit for his office as the high priest of God’s people. At the very least, he could have had a bath! But no, he stands before God the Son covered in spiritual pollution.Now it’s important to realise that this spiritual pollution was not simply his own. As an individual he was certainly not fit for purpose. He may have looked very holy to the passers by but beneath the surface he was just like everybody else: a sinner in need of a saviour. However, in his role as high priest Joshua also had the responsibility of representing the people of God. He was their spokesman and their symbol. So, in this vision, the spiritual pollution smeared across his clothing is not merely his own but is the accumulated sinfulness of the people of God.
We are not to think they are innocent and the high priest is guilty. God’s people are not watching the trial from the safety of the public gallery, they are standing in the dock, represented by their high priest Joshua.
It is a dramatic scene, isn’t it? Full of tension and yet strangely silent. Did you notice that the prosecutor and the criminal say nothing at all during the court proceedings? We’re not told how large a file Satan brought to court that morning. No doubt he had carried out his research. First class evidence at his disposal. Eye witness testimony at his fingertips. It was all in the file. The verdict seemed inevitable. But as he entered the heavenly court room it soon became obvious that his job was going to be even easier than he had imagined. He saw the criminal and a grin appeared from cheek to cheek. Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes. His guilt was plain for everyone to see. Nothing could be hidden in God’s court. The prosecutor did not need to say a word. He simply stood up and pointed at the criminal.
And how did Joshua respond? He said absolutely nothing. He kept his big mouth shut. He didn’t pipe up and play the comparison games. “Hey, wait a minute Satan. Who do you think you are pointing your finger at? I admit I’m not perfect but I’m not such a bad guy. I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve never murdered anyone. I go to church every week. I sing in tune. I pay my taxes. My carbon footprint is very low.” No, Joshua didn’t say a word. He knew he was guilty as charged. He could see and, no doubt, smell his filthy garments.
So listen to the verdict of the judge. Verse 2. “The LORD said to Satan, “Well done, your case was flawless. You have proved his guilt. The criminal will now be punished.” Well, that’s what we should have expected the judge to say. It is the logical outcome of the trial so far. Objective guilt should lead to certain punishment. But not in this court! Listen to what the judge actually says. “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem [so not merely Joshua but the people of God], rebuke you! Is not this man [and the people he represents] a burning stick snatched from the fire?” Or in other words, God is saying, “I have rescued them. They are my chosen people, snatched from the fires of judgement.” Of course they were guilty of sin. God was not blind to their true condition. Their pollution was evident for all to see. Satan did have a case. He may be the father of lies but in this situation he simply had tell the truth - because the people of God had a problem. They were not fit for purpose.
However, God had a solution and we read about this in verses 4-5. “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 rich garments on you.” 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.”
God’s provision for his peoples’ problem is very different from the traditional religious remedy. It is true to say that countless religious people around the world recognise the problem of spiritual pollution but, unfortunately, many of them attempt to solve it by adopting what I call the Bobby Moore technique of spiritual cleansing.
I’m sure you don’t need reminding of the one and only England football captain who has ever lifted the world cup trophy. It’s 1966. The Germans have been defeated. Penalties have been averted and a thrilled Bobby Moore makes his way up the staircase to the balcony to receive the trophy and to greet her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. A few days before he died of cancer, Bobby Moore was asked what it felt like to receive the world cup from the Queen. “It must have been a wonderful experience,” said the interviewer. But to his surprise, Moore responded, “No, it was terrifying. Because as I was going up the steps to the balcony I saw the Queen was wearing some beautiful white gloves. And I looked at my hands and realised they were covered in Wembley mud, and I thought, ‘How can I shake hands with her when I am like this?’” He knew that his uncleanness made him unacceptable to be in the presence of royalty. And so therefore he did his best to remove the dirt from his hands as he climbed those Wembley steps. And although I haven’t seen the footage I am reliably informed that if you go back and watch the clip you can see Bobby Moore desperately trying to remove the mud from his hands.
The Bobby Moore technique of spiritual cleansing is very popular amongst religious people. We see it all the time. However, it is not what we see in Zechariah chapter 3. Listen again to verse 4. “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 rich garments on you.’”
Or in other words, Joshua is passive throughout his spiritual cleansing. He does not get involved. It is all done for him. He contributes nothing to his spiritual decontamination. He is not told, “Come on Joshua. Be a good religious devotee. Here are a list of good deeds to clean you up in my sight. Off you go and in a few years we’ll see how many rules you have kept.” No. Somehow his sin, and therefore the sin of the people, is taken away and he is made fit to be in the presence of God. Now at this point we don’t know exactly how this works. We’re not told the details of how God can remove the sin of his people and cloth them with perfect obedience, which is what the rich garments are supposed to signify. Lots of questions still remain unanswered. For example, how can God treat a criminal in this way? We would be outraged if guilty felons were treated like this in a British Court? Why then the heavenly one? Can you imagine the consternation if a murderer, who had openly confessed his guilt, was allowed to walk straight out of court? What about God’s justice? How can sin be removed in this way? Well, the answers to these questions are provided in verses 8-10.
However, before we get to them we need to understand the promise given to Joshua 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 my ways 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.”
It is an amazing reversal of fortunes. In the space of a few verses Joshua has been transformed from a guilty criminal to a valued servant of the true and living God. He has been made fit for purpose and he is immediately given significant responsibilities. He is to be motivated by his recent cleansing. The gratitude of being completely forgiven is supposed to propel him forward into a life of active service. And the same was to be true of the people of God. Remember Joshua was their representative. What happened to him also happened to them. And so his cleansing was also their cleansing.
How do you motivate the people of God to build the temple of God? It was the big question in Zechariah’s day. The rebuilding work on the temple, the monument of God’s special presence, had begun a few months earlier. Wonderfully, it was currently underway. You could see the smiles on the faces of the people. It was amazing. But here was the big question of the day: How would the people continue what they had already started? We’ve seen a number of answers already as we’ve worked our way through the visions in Zechariah chapters 1 and 2 but in Zechariah chapter 3 the motivation is gratitude. God wants his people to be thankful for what he has done for them. We are to be motivated in our service as we contemplate God’s generosity to us.
I don’t know how often you contemplate the generosity of God but if you are currently feeling a little weary in the service of God then is it because you no longer consider the riches of God’s generosity? Put yourself in the courtroom drama. Smell the stench of sin dripping from every pour. Fear the destiny of destruction that awaits the guilty convict. But then open your eyes to the fresh start that God makes available to all those who surrender their lives to Jesus. Sin removed and perfection granted. What a God! We are to be motivated in our service by the generosity of God.
Now you may have noticed the conditional nature of the promise in verse 7. God says to Joshua, “If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house, and I will give you a place among those standing here.” Which probably means that if Joshua proves himself to be faithful in his service of God then he will be granted an eternal place in the heavenly realms. Now this does not mean Joshua, or anyone else for that matter, can earn his place in God’s eternal future by keeping the commandments. We’ve already seen that Joshua is made fit for purpose solely by God himself. Joshua is passive throughout the whole episode.
So what are we to make of this conditional promise? Well, the Bible is very clear that although we do not earn our future inheritance by what we do, we show by our obedience to God’s commandments that we are genuinely one of God’s people.
I do believe that once saved we are always saved. I do not subscribe to what is sometimes called “Daisy Theology.” He loves me, he loves me not. But how do we know we are truly saved? How do we know we have genuinely entered the kingdom of God?
Listen to what the apostle Paul says in the book of Colossians: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds, as shown by your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.”
Do you see his point? We show we have been reconciled to God by the fact that we continue following Christ until we see him face to face. And then because of what Christ has achieved for us, and not because of what we have achieved for him, we will enter into the heavenly future completely fit for purpose.
Now so far we have been avoiding the mechanics of how all this is possible. How can sinful rebels be made acceptable for a heavenly existence? Well, let’s finish by hearing God’s prediction to Joshua in verses 8-10: “Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. 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. In that day each of you will invite his neighbour to sit under his vine and fig tree,” declares the LORD Almighty.”
o This is a truly amazing prediction of what God will do in the future. All starts with Joshua and his fellow priests. God is saying that they are men symbolic of things to come. They represent the people. But there is someone coming, a new high priest, who will represent the people in such a way that sin will be dealt with and perfection given.
o Who is this? Told in verse 8. Two names. My servant, the Branch.
o Servant. Title taken from the book of Isaiah. One of the most famous references is in Isaiah 53, where we meet a figure who would come and die in the place of his people so that they would be rescued from the consequences of their sinful rebellion.
o Branch. Various scattered references but the most famous reference is found in Jeremiah 23:5-6, “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.”
o These two persons are combined. The servant-King who will come as a priest who will represent the people.
o Such a major prediction from God that he gave Joshua a special stone where it seems he engraved a reminder of this promise. I think that’s what verse 9 is about.
o Like a wedding ring given on the wedding day. It is a constant reminder of a promise that has been given from one to another.
o What will this person do? End of verse 9. He will remove the sin of this land (this people) in a single day.
o From that day a new era in humanity will open up. That’s what verse 10 is about. It’s a look back to the time of King Solomon.
o 1 Kings 4:25, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig-tree.”
o Under this new King a new era of safety and blessing was to be expected.
o We know from the NT that this is Jesus but let me also show you this from the later chapters of the book of Zechariah.
o Zechariah 9:9 – quoted in Matthew 21:5 as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.
o Zechariah 12:10 – the one they have pierced.
o Zechariah 13:1
o It is King Jesus who makes his people fit for purpose.
o Finish by applying two aspects of his work
o The removal of sin
o The giving of perfection
The removal of sin
o Sometimes it seems to good to be true. This was the concern of a woman I spoke to in Doncaster. She spoke to me afterwards and said she had a problem with the cross. It seems to good to be true.
o All sin is dealt with. Not just the past but all sins in the present.
o At this point people say, “Well, doesn’t this mean we can live as we like?” I love it when people get to this point.
o Not far from the truth. Another way of looking at it is that we are now free to serve the Lord completely and wholeheartedly without fear.
The giving of perfection
o Not simply sin removed by perfection given.
o In Zechariah it is the giving of the rich garments.
o He lived the life that we could not live and this perfection is credited to us.
o Not simply that the slate is wiped clean for us to mess up again but the slate is wiped clean and filled with the perfect deeds of Jesus.
o So the Christian who dies is completely acceptable for heaven the moment they put their trust in Jesus.
One of the ways of understanding this is to think about marriage.
o I speak with all the experience of a single bloke.
o Last marriage I conducted I introduced “Lord of all hopefulness” as “Lord of all hopelessness” and got the name of the bridegroom wrong.
o But in marriage both partners bring their lives with them and share.
o We commit to Christ. We bring our debt and he says, “I’ve already paid for it.” He brings his riches and says, “These are yours.”
o United to Christ. NT phrase – In Christ.
All this has massive implications for guilt.
Sometimes we feel guilty when we are not guilty and sometimes we don’t feel guilty when in fact we are guilty.
Some here who do not feel guilty about the way they have treated God but Zechariah 3 says you are guilty. You will stand before the God of the universe.
Only being a follower of Christ will save you. Must be united to him by faith. This is what a genuine Christian is.
Some who do feel guilty and don’t have to.
Life is busy. Report that we walk much faster nowadays. But why not take some time after the service, when you get home. When you make your tea, rather than mashing the tea bag why not let it brew and think on this extraordinary picture of how God has treated us? Let it motivate us and reinvigorate us for active Christian service. Let’s pray.
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