As a kid I hated being messy.
My longsuffering mother tried her best to joyfully get me to finger paint. Every kid likes finger paint right? Not this kid. I cried like someone was torturing me. I still remember the gross squishy feeling and the horror of looking at my hand covered in paint. How will I ever get this off of me? I thought.
There are a few times in my life where I’ve thought the same thing about my sin. It’s that same feeling of horror, of feeling stained, of looking at myself and thinking How will I ever get this off me?
Even in a world unwilling to acknowledge the reality of sin I’ve found as a pastor that many (perhaps all) people have places in their lives that they deal with a deep shame. Perhaps it was something that they did long ago—something they said that destroyed a relationship, something they did to hurt someone close to them. Perhaps it’s the fear of someone finding out they’ve been divorced, or been to prison, or been an addict. Perhaps it’s an ongoing struggle with sin. Whatever it is we think How will I ever get this off me?
In Zechariah chapter 3 the prophet sees a vision of the high priest standing before the Lord: “Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments” (Zech 3:3). That image connects with me. It’s like a bad dream. You stand before the Lord and the law stipulates that you must be clothed in clothes of purest white, every part of you purified and ready to stand before the presence of God. And yet, when the moment comes you look down to find yourself filthy and gross. A wave of shame and fear washes over you.
And yet, this is reality. Or rather, it’s nearer reality.
Shame can be a good thing if it helps us feel how truly terrible sin is. We live in a world with no clear agreement on what is right or wrong, where things considered sins in past generations are preferences in this one. Shame is the appropriate response to standing before God, when we see ourselves rightly before him, and see our sin. To borrow the image of Zechariah 3, we see just how non-white our clothing is next to the ultra-white clothing of God himself.
I don’t know how he does it but my dad’s white shirts are the whitest shirts I’ve ever seen. I believe he uses some combination of witchcraft and industrial strength whitening chemicals to achieve them. I think my shirts are white until they’re next to his. In the same way it’s only when we stand before the Lord and see his utter moral perfection that we clearly see our own sins and where we fall short of that standard.
But biblically, shame isn’t where God leaves us. It’s not where he leaves the high priest in Zechariah either.
“And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” (Zech 3:3-4 ESV)
That image is so powerful. The sin and shame and fear we wear is removed and we are given something beautiful and pure in their place.
Sometimes as kids my sisters and I would play outside and get dirty. In the evening when it was time to come in we’d stand at the door of the house with a combination of mud or wet grass or dust or grime all over our clothes. My mom or dad would declare our clothes too dirty to even sit on the couch inside. So we’d go inside and exchange our clothes for one of my dad’s bright white undershirts. The shirt would be so big that it’s hem would come down past our knees. We looked like we were about to play the part of an angel in a home Christmas play. So we called those shirts “angel shirts.”
In an instant we’d go from too dirty to be allowed inside, to clothed in bright white. It was glorious.
But Zechariah doesn’t tell us in chapter 3 exactly how it happens. How can those who were once filthy in God’s presence be given clothes that were not their own?
That’s where Isaiah 53 fills in the gap. And in the gap is the whole mystery of the gospel.
Isaiah tells us how it happens: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). Then later, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
Jesus, the suffering servant, stood before God righteous. His robes were blinding white. And yet going to the cross, he took our sin-stained clothes on himself. Jesus then had the punishment and justice for those sins laid on himself. The language in verse 11 is accounting language: “be accounted righteous.” Jesus pays the account of the sinner. The sinner receives the account of the righteous.
My parents have continued the angel shirt tradition with my own boys. Often my boys will come to the door of their grandparents house with clothes too dirty to be left inside, and often they’ll receive the white angel shirt of my father.
One moment in particular has never left me: One of my young sons was potty training and having success, but was still experiencing some setbacks. While at my parents house he had an accident. I went with him into the bathroom and explained that we hadn’t brought him a change of clothes. He began to cry when he realized he would have to walk back out in front of our whole extended family with soiled clothing everyone could see. Even at a young age, he felt the deep hurt of shame.
But then I explained that we had another option. He could wear his grandfather’s bright white shirt, an angel shirt, instead. He could wear the clothes of someone else.
Moments later he walked back out in front of his grandparents and aunts and uncle and cousins. Instead of shame, his face was filled with a smile. He held out his hands as he paraded his bright white shirt for all to see. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a happier kid.
I’ve never forgotten that moment. That’s the moment I see when I read Zechariah 3 and Isaiah 53.
There is no one who does not stand before God in sin-stained clothing, filled with shame.
There is no one who cannot stand before God in pure white clothing, filled with joy.
That is the glorious good news of the gospel. This is how we answer the question How will I get this stain and shame off me? We will trade our clothes of shame for clothes of white because of the Suffering Servant.
Christian, you need not fear standing before the Lord clothed in your worst deeds. You need not live trying desperately to scrub your clothes clean yourself. You need not stay locked in the grip of constant shame. There is another way. A better way. Your heavenly father smiles and holds out clothing from his own closet. Put on the bright white clothes of another and rejoice.