The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

God’s wrath is of love. This is not something we normally think about, to be sure, but according to the Scriptures God’s wrath is in fact a function of His love, something He exhibits out of love. This is something which struck me a couple weeks ago when I read this text for a Sunday school lesson:

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.

Judges 2:11-16

The story here is this: Israel was delivered by the free grace of God from Egypt and given the Torah as covenant charter, a document establishing the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The Torah stipulated certain curses if Israel failed to obey, most importantly including devastation at the hands of foreign nations. They obeyed (mostly-ish) for a time under the strong leadership of Moses and then Joshua. But finally Joshua died, and idolatry flooded the nation in very little time. So God was under obligation by the terms of the covenant He entered to punish Israel for their unfaithfulness.

Thus we arrive at this text. In response to Israel’s breaking of the covenant, God responded with the curses of the covenant. They worshipped Baals and Astartes, breaking the first two commandments. So God let their enemies plunder the land, gave them failure in their military endeavors, and put them under wicked, oppressive rulers. When we simply skim some verses about this kind of judgment, we are likely to miss just how strong it is. Imagine for a moment the scene of raiders charging through a peaceful village, killing and burning and stealing. Moms search for their children in rubble, families are suddenly decimated, and hard-working people find their homes and livelihoods reduced to rubble. We speak here of horrendous suffering.

Does the word “love” come to mind in this picture? Do you see love here? Yet Scripture tells us that it is indeed present here. It’s in fact God’s original motivation. For these penalties were imposed by the Torah, which itself was a gift of love by which God made up His covenant with Israel. God chose Israel and made a covenant with them out of love, and yet He included these curses in His covenant. The curses are part of, as it were, the marriage contract between God and Israel.

This covenantal form of love is the context for God’s wrath. His wrath operates for the covenant partner. By sending afflictions on Israel for their unfaithfulness, God calls them to return to Him and find the life which He has to offer. If there is no life except from God, then for Israel to pursue anyone or anything else is to run from life. Therefore it is by love that God is angered by Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry. As one analogy, nothing will make you more angry with your child than seeing them engage consistently and unrepentantly in self-destructive behavior. Israel degraded herself by idol worship, which aroused the fury of her Husband who loved her and sought her best.

Yet unlike some of us, unlike the frustrated parents or jealous husbands we know, God’s wrath is never uncontrolled or unpredictable. God will never be overwhelmed with passion or so frustrated that He loses control. He does not fly off the handle. Instead, His anger is specifically limited and controlled. He set the terms of His wrath in the Torah, giving detailed rules and guidelines for how He would respond to Israel’s sins. In God’s covenant of love, He limits and directs His fury. And His fury comes from no place but His covenant of love.

Therefore God is love. And even His wrath serves that love, and is specially controlled and limited for our sake. The idea of a wrathful God ought not scare us or make us uncomfortable at all unless we are also uncomfortable with a loving God. “For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Heb. 15:6).

The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

My series on the Apostles’ Creed must now move on to perhaps what might be regarded as the central section, the section on Christ’s humiliation. This part is gold:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.

The life of the Jesus described so well in the previous line, the Son of God and one Lord, is now described up to the point of His death. So what does the Creed teach on this?

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – Before even the article on the Holy Spirit, He is mentioned as the one by whom Jesus was conceived. This shows that Jesus’ entrance into human life is a miracle, not just any miracle but a miracle performed by the same Spirit who originally created the world. This signifies that the power which brought Jesus into the world is in fact the power of divine creation itself. Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. In Jesus God has acted to begin creation over again with His only-begotten Son in place of Adam, the old son (Luke 3:38). With Jesus the human race is to be reborn.

Born of the Virgin Mary – We also see that Jesus, though conceived by the Spirit, was born of a human woman, the Virgin Mary. Jesus was not purely an interruption and replacement for the existing humanity, but in fact He was the beginning of the new creation in the midst of the old and broken one. Through Mary Jesus was born still a part of the natural human race. If it were not for this He would be some kind of alternate kind of human unrelated to us, one who could be of no use in saving our kind. Through Mary Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer, the one who shares the actual flesh and blood of His people that He may redeem their flesh and blood. This in fact makes the Catholic notion of Mary’s immaculate conception (remember this means that she was born graciously saved from original sin) entirely unnecessary. Jesus from Mary received His original contact with human corruption and sin, and like in all of His other dealings began from that very point His work in healing and sanctifying it. In this line we fine that Jesus entered humanity even in its deadness in order to raise it to new life.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate – We see that the Creed moves immediately from His birth to His sufferings of His trial. This should not be taken as an indication that nothing in between these events mattered or that Jesus’ ministry is ultimately secondary to His death. Instead, we should recognize that Jesus’ entire life before His death was bound up with His impending death, and His death was the climax of the entire life that led to it. Thus the Creed does not simply leave out Jesus’ life, but rather makes its significance inseparable from His passion. In truth, Jesus’ death belonged to His life and His life belonged to His death.

Also important is that we find Jesus’ chief accomplishment, the defining act of which the Creed is compelled to speak, to be His suffering. Suffering is to be understood as essential to what Jesus did. This is startling given the identity the Creed assigns to Jesus. He is the quite divine Son of God. Yet how can God, the eternal Creator who stands above all puny things, suffer? Who can afflict the one who is greater than all? But there is a great mystery and glory in the statement agreed on by the early church fathers that in Christ, “the Impassible suffered.” This is also startling given that Jesus is identified as Messiah. What Jew would have believed that their Messiah would be forced to suffer at the hands of a pagan ruler? These seemingly blasphemous paradoxes are at the heart of the Gospel.

We should also note that this is the second and last time any human besides Jesus is mentioned in the Creed. There are only three humans at all in the Creed: Jesus, Mary, and Pilate. Jesus is the one affirmed as the true subject, God Himself. Mary connects Jesus with the history of humanity and of Israel. And Pilate can be seen to have two major uses. On the one hand, Pilate shows that Jesus, the Jew born of Mary, suffered under pagan rules. God’s Messiah raised up to save His people died under the same hands which they had expected Him to crush. This tells us already that Jesus was suffering as a substitute and representative for Israel, for whom this punishment was outlined in the Torah. God’s covenant with Israel dictated that if they were unfaithful, they would suffer many judgments, climaxing in destruction by pagan nations and exile. This we see that Jesus suffered for them. He suffered under a pagan ruler while cut off from the people of God, accursed on a tree outside the city. In this act Jesus was truly standing in for Israel, and as a good theology of Israel’s election would then add, through Israel He stood in for the world.

The other note about Pilate is that tying Jesus’ death to this particular ruler, Jesus’ death is set in real world history. Jesus suffered at a specific time in a specific place under specific historical and political conditions. In addition to the basic apologetic thrust (which is important; we can iInvestigate the history, for this really happened), it also testifies to how God always deals with man. He deals with us in real history, using historical events. God does not work for us in the abstract or the “spiritual” (if by that we mean non-physical) realm. Time and space and matter are not irrelevant to God’s purposes but are made the context for them by grace. God comes to us in our history to bring redemption to it, and He has done this most fully and climactically in first century Palestine with one single instance of Jewish flesh.

Was crucified – Now the mode of Jesus’ execution is specified. It is crucifixion. This reinforces what was just said regarding the judgment Jesus suffered vicariously for His people. Crucifixion is the ultimate symbol of what Israel was condemned to under the Torah. Crucifixion was a Roman device and represented pagan oppression. It took place outside the city gates, symbolically cut off from the people of Israel and the presence of God. It was associated with the statement in the Torah, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” And of course it was brutal and painful in every way. Nothing would better summarize the curses of the Torah than crucifixion, and this is what Jesus suffered as the true representative of Israel, as their Messiah.

Died – The most impossible statement in all of human history. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father who has life within Himself, died. The immortal God perished as a mortal man. This is at the center of the Creed, both theologically and nearly visually. Jesus died, and on this everything else hinges. Yet the meaning of this death is fleshed out by all of the other statements in the Creed. Death appears not as the significant part in and of itself, but what matters was this particular death filled to the brim with meaning and placed in rich context. Had Jesus died by tripped into a river, none of this would matter. But this death, the one described in the four Gospels in detail, is uniquely redemptive as a one-of-a-kind sacrifice.

Was buried – Finally, the death completed, Jesus was buried. This is significant for many reasons, but l will highlight one of them. In this burial we find that there is a lapse between suffering and vindication. We know that Jesus will be raised before this little story is over. But He did have to wait in the grave, and this corresponds to an ongoing theme of Scripture. God makes promises, but His people must suffer for some time before experiencing the redemption. There is a limbo period where it seems as though God is unfaithful. Jesus by all accounts seemed to be the Messiah, so why did God leave Him in the grave? Why did God let Him die at all? This questions would have been teeming in the minds of the disciples. There seemed to be a paradox, a problem involving the faithfulness of God and His salvation. Israel spent many years in such periods, so did Jesus, and so do we. We have the promise of redemption, and in fact for us even Easter has already happened, but we still live in a limbo period in which God’s salvation is not revealed and the world keeps on going in apparent meaninglessness and death. We wait for God to deliver us. But the burial of Jesus reminds us that there must be such times, and that God will not be unfaithful but in His own time will fulfill all He has promised.

He descended into hell – This statement has been a source of much confusion and debate within the Church, especially in Protestantism. Alas, in this post I have no time or room to address it. I personally read “hell” here as meaning something akin to Sheol in the Old Testament, basically “the realm of the dead.” But I will have to wait to cover this statement in another post, one which will actually be separate from this series. In the meantime, I will simply suggest that this shows the depths to which Jesus penetrated in saving us. He experienced all the deepest pains and suffering, death and alienation included, which plague humanity so that He might redeem us. Whatever “hell” means here, Jesus submitted to it for our sake, out of love, to save us from it.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

One theological question which has been a fairly ambiguous realm for much of Church history is that of the actual relationship between Christ’s Church and the people or nation of Israel which came before it. The Biblical data on this is complex and apparently varied, and the historical issue of the Church as becoming predominantly Gentile doesn’t help. This has led to many different views which we might categorize under four basic approaches:

  • Two peoples of God: In dispensationalism, the Church and Israel are two entirely distinct peoples of God. God chose for Himself a nation and race, Israel, in temporal and physical ways, and He also created a chosen people for salvation, the Church. If there is a connection between the two, it is either exclusively or primarily a spiritual analogy or a historical accident.
  • Replacement theology: Various forms of what we might call “replacement theology” have also been generated, in which basically God rejects Israel after their rejection of Jesus, and He chooses the Church as a new people. A lot changes between the kind of people He chose the first time (ethnic, nationalistic) and the second time (spiritual, decentralized). In this case the Church essentially takes the place and role of Israel in a new way, and “steps into their shoes,” but is still a fundamentally distinct body.
  • One people of God but two Israels: In a third approach, Israel is viewed as having always been internally divided between “true Israel” and “false Israel,” those who were faithful to Yahweh and most truly His people, and those who were unfaithful. In views like this, the Church is to be seen primarily as a continuation of “true Israel,” but now expanded to include the Gentiles. The true Israel and the Church are essentially the same body but existing under different covenants (Old vs. New).
  • One people, period: Finally, there is the approach of direct continuity, in which the Church literally is the same people of God as Israel, only now expanded freely to the Gentiles and without all of the trappings of a nation-state or a ceremonial law. Membership is by faith or (depending who you ask) even also by birth. There exists even in this one body some true and some false Christians, but only one covenant people of God.

None of these approaches in their most basic and pure forms quite strike me as fully Biblical. If seems to me that if we are going to appreciate the full scope of what Scripture says about the Church’s place after Israel, we will need to combine some insights from more than one of these approaches, and they will need to be integrated around some kind of key concept. What key concept do we need? What is Biblical?

My own hypothesis is that the key is resurrection and regeneration. The relationship between Israel and the Church should be conceived in terms of the new birth, of the natural man and the man alive in the Spirit, even at a corporate level. It seems most Biblical to me to say that the Church is Israel born again.

The give a full Biblical defense of this position is beyond the scope of this post, which will be long enough. All I seek to do here is to give a narrative description of the hypothesis in the history of Israel, the covenant, Jesus, and the Church. Before I get into that, though, the first principle I should point out in my hypothesis is that regeneration, the new birth, did not ever take place until Christ’s resurrection.1 With this in mind, we follow the story of Israel.

Israel was began as a people created by God from His election of and covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham descendants which would make up a great nation, which nation would bless the whole world. This was a unilateral promise. God would see to it that this would indeed be fulfilled, not just for the benefit of Abraham and his family but for the redemption of the world.2 

In the process of fulfilling this promise God called the Israelites out of Egypt and established another covenant with them, one which established Israel as a theocratic nation with a divinely provided system of law and worship. Part of the point of this endeavor was to make Israel into a light to the nations, an example of human life rightly ordered by communion with God and with each other. But Israel proved incapable of this task. Even with a God-given Torah they could not become what they needed to be, a true example of redeemed human existence. The deep and radical effects of sin made righteousness under the Torah impossible. And without a righteous Israel, God’s promise to Abraham also seemed in danger. Particularly, the terms of the Torah meant that God would have to undo Israel’s blessings in light of their disobedience, and the public corruption of Israel meant that the nations could not be blessed through them.

It is in the midst of this precarious situation that the prophets, enlightened by the Spirit, began to perceive the only possible solution. Humanity, in particular Israel, was too corrupt to go on in its natural form. The roots of sin were so deep that if purposes of creation and election were ever going to be realized, humanity would essentially have to be created anew. If Israel was going to live up to its calling, it would need a new heart and new spirit, indeed a radical new outpouring of the Holy Spirit who had been working in their midst since their birth as a nation out of Egypt. They needed nothing short of a new covenant and a new creation.

Alas, before this need could be fulfilled there was also the need to deal with the consequences of Israel’s sin. By the terms of the Torah, Israel was condemned. Abraham’s descendants were at risk of being cut off from the promise because of their status under the Law. Thus God appeared to be under two conflicting covenant obligations. The terms of the Mosaic covenant required Him to desolate the same people whom the Abrahamic covenant required Him to bless, and through whom He planned to bless the world. So how was God to be faithful to both covenants, restore Israel, and bring about a new creation capable of redeeming the world?

The answer to this dilemma left hanging at the end of the Old Testament is found in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, marking the emergence of a new creation out of the midst of the old one. He sanctified His life by sinless communion with God. By His baptism He identified Himself with sinful Israel as their Messiah and in that role took upon Himself the job of their repentance. He brought about signs and instruments of the new creation: healing, forgiveness, and other miracles of the Holy Spirit.

In the middle of this work Jesus also performed a major symbolic act. He appointed 12 disciples to participate in and carry on His work. They were to be apostles, authorized representatives of Himself and His ministry. Yet for Israel, the number 12 was of great significance. This was not just any number, but the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the tribes of Israel. The Messiah who took upon Himself the identity of the people of Israel expanded that identity into 12 others. He was reforming, reconstituting, recreating Israel around Himself. With His baptism into Israel’s identity and His appointing of 12 new heads, a fresh life for Israel was in labor.

Yet if there was to be a recreation of Israel, there also needed to be a new covenant. The old had failed, and Israel was under existential threat because of it. So on one fateful Passover, Jesus broke bread and served wine as signs of a new covenant with Israel based on Himself, His life and, crucially, death. This covenant was, of course, for Israel and had been prophesied by Israel’s prophets years in advance. This covenant would establish forgiveness of sins and give Israel the Holy Spirit to finally destroy their sin problem even at the root. But how would it work? And how would God deal with the destruction coming from the old covenant?

For this, Christ was crucified. This was God’s solution to the covenant problem. The same judgment He had prophesied for Israel due to their unfaithfulness, His wrath poured out through Rome3, Jesus Himself experienced as their representative. One man gave His life in place of the nation, and in His dying flesh God condemned sin as was fit to His covenantal obligations. As Paul would later explain it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”4 Jesus expiated Israel’s sin in His death and so freed God to proceed with His promise to bless Israel and the nations.

With Israel’s sin dealt with, and with a new covenant established by a sacrifice before God, it was finally time for God to bring about the new creation, the regeneration of human life. Three days after Jesus’ death, He raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him and making Him the “firstborn from the dead.”5 People are often hesitant (or call it heretical) to speak of Jesus as “born again,” but this means no more or less than to say that He was resurrected to incorruptible, imperishable, new creation life. In this Jesus still retains His identity as Israel’s substitute and representative Messiah. In Him Israel itself is born again into the new creation. His resurrection life becomes the ground for a new life for Israel. This new resurrection life empowered by the Spirit is the solution to the biggest problem of the old covenant: Israel’s ongoing sinfulness. Israel formerly consisted only of natural men, unregenerate and without the Holy Spirit. The Torah, God-given as it was, could not penetrate to the depths of human existence to purge sin. But Christ’s sanctified and resurrected life imparted by union with Him through the Spirit is enough. It will finally overcome human sinfulness and turn Israel’s sinners into saints, turning apostasy into faith working through love.

Yet Christ’s victory for Israel was not automatic for those who were already members, and the new covenant of the new creation brought with it new terms of membership, a new stage in election. In this new covenant a relationship to Abraham alone would not be sufficient. The new covenant fulfilled the promise to Abraham exclusively through Christ, the elect Messiah. As God had once restricted the promise from Abraham’s descendants to Isaac’s descendants, excluding Ishmael’s, and then restricted it further from Isaac’s descendants to Jacob’s, so now God further restricted the covenant to those who are in Israel’s Messiah.

This next stage, then, at which people of the old, fleshly Israel are incorporated into Christ and thus Israel in a reborn form, occurs at Pentecost. At this point all is fulfilled as the Father and the Son send the Spirit to Christ’s apostles. These apostles, filled with the Spirit, are the first fulfillment to Israel of the promise. In this the new age and the new creation came to life in the midst of the present by the Spirit. Israel, actual Israelites descended from Abraham, received the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and the Spirit in them. The were incorporated into the resurrected Messiah and so became part of a reborn Israel.

The renewing of election around Christ with a new covenant in place of the old, Torah-based covenant also brings with it an expansion in election. Now it is no longer necessary to be physically descended from Abraham to be a son of the promise. Through the Spirit and faith, even the Gentiles can share in the promise, and thus God’s promise to bless even the Gentiles through Abraham is fulfilled as well. The new terms of the new covenant, reducible essentially to loyalty to Jesus, simultaneously cut off many natural-born Israelites and enable the inclusion of many Gentiles. Thus Israel in its new form, reborn in Christ, becomes also the Church, the assembly of believers.

So what happens to the old, fleshly Israel, Jews who do not recognize their Messiah? They remain in essential exile, having been judged at AD 70 for the last time. Their future lies in the new covenant, the promise of the Spirit. There is no future for them apart from their Messiah. This does not mean that God has abandoned them, for He has fulfilled His promise by instituting a new covenant in which they can have forgiveness and moral renewal. He has taken the next step to rescue them, but those who will not repent and recognize their Messiah cannot benefit from this saving action. The word of God in election and promise has not failed, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, and in the end we see hints that, perhaps out of continued faithfulness to Abraham and His physical descendants, God will see to it that all Israel will one day find salvation in its Messiah and His new covenant. One day perhaps there will be no more old, fleshly Israel, but all will enter the life of Israel reborn in Christ.

Of course, I am sure that many questions about details and implications of this view may remain. I cannot answer them here, as this post is long enough. But if you have any, drop a comment and I’ll look into making a good reply. I believe the narrative I have articulated here is faithful to Scripture and what is portrays about Israel and the Church. Perhaps one of these days I will get around to developing this further and adding more specific Scriptural support instead of relying so much on allusions and themes I just kind of hope people will recognize.

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

Aaron Adorned by Christ: The Meaning of the Priestly Vestments

[This is my term paper for my Old Testament Backgrounds. Enjoy.]

Introduction

If a hundred people had to describe the text of Exodus 28, which covers the garments of the Aaronic priesthood, in a single word, “boring” would probably win a majority, or at least a strong plurality, of the votes. This is probably true even in many Christian circles. Yet this result would be the greatest shame, for “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness,”1 including the entirety of the Torah. Exodus 28 and the instructions therein for priestly vestment is actually breathed-out by God not only for a people thousands of years ago, but also for His people today. This old text to an old people is able to still be relevant today because, like all of Scripture,2 it was from the beginning inspired to point towards Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This paper will examine what the priestly garments both in their parts and as a whole represented in their original contexts and how this meaning finds consummation in the person and work of Jesus. To set the stage for the details of this examination will require looking first broadly at the meaning and purpose of the garments as a whole.

The Nature and Meaning of Priestly Adornment

While there would be little difficulty in taking the unique priestly vestments for granted, they actually pose many interesting questions. What is their purpose? Perhaps the best category for understanding their use is that of the priests as mediators. As mediators, the priesthood stood in a unique position in relation to God and His people. Gordon J. Wenham puts the point this way: “As mediators priests had a dual role: they represented God to Israel and they represented Israel before God.”3 This, he goes on to explain, is a key reason why God ordained such particular clothing for them, for “Their godly authority was expressed by their splendid robes, which evoked the majesty of God himself.”4 In fact, there are two sides for this. One the one hand, the glory of their vestments displayed before the people a representation of the glory of the God for whom they served as representatives. On the other hand, their vestments were also products of human creativity, craftsmanship, and culture, and as such they displayed before God a representation of man’s glory in His image. Thus by taking on their vestments the priests were enrolled as God to Israel and Israel to God.

The Christological significance of this should be abundantly clear. Jesus was (and is) able to serve as an eternal and final High Priest because He not only represents both God and man, as the priests of old did, but in fact is both God and man. In the priesthood of Christ there is no mere role-playing but an ontological reality in which the Priest by nature and not merely by appointment is the one who expresses the glory of God and of man.5 The garments which the Aaronic priests put on to become mediators foreshadow the flesh which Christ put on to become the one Mediator, set apart to save humanity.

On the note of “set apart,” another key purpose of the priestly vestments was to sanctify, or set apart, the priests for their work. After all, no one could merely approach God as himself on his own terms, for all have sinned,6 and God is a consuming fire.7 For this reason God told Moses that the clothes would be necessary to enable the priests to serve before God.8 By donning these clothes, the priests could leave their natural identities behind in order to act in a divinely appointed roll in a divinely appointed manner. Keil and Delitzsch said of this, “These clothes were to be used ‘to sanctify him’…Sanctification, as the indispensable condition of priestly service, was not merely the removal of the uncleanness which flowed from sin, but, as it were, the transformation of the natural into the glory of the image of God.”9 Without the priestly clothes, the priests would have been natural and unclean.

This need for external sanctifying aids also points antitypically to Christ, as when He stepped into the priestly service He needed no such help at all. The Lord Jesus had no sins to cover, and He was to be found clothed with a righteousness of His own work and merit, the very righteousness of God. Jesus’ holy life proved entirely sufficient to qualify Him for priesthood , even high priesthood, after He had perfected His work by persevering in obedience through suffering.10 Thus in Christian retrospect the need of the priests for divinely provided adornment prefigured in contrast Christ’s inherent perfection.

The Ephod: Wearing the Word

With a brief Christocentric account of the priestly garments as a whole established, the individual parts deserve their own examination. The first of these, both in the order of the description in Exodus 28 and in importance, would be the High Priest’s ephod. The exact details of what an ephod was and looked like are historically ambiguous, but the Biblical description includes a front piece, a back piece, and some kind of connection between the two across the shoulders.11 The ephod was to be made out of fine linen, gold embroidery, and blue, purple, and scarlet yarn. These are the same materials as the curtain of the Tabernacle, a point to which Peter Enns calls attention.12 Apparently there is an important link between the servant of God and the Tabernacle in which God dwells. The High Priest is set apart for a unique relationship to the presence of God.

There also appears to be a connection between the ephod and the revelation of God’s will. The ephod bears the “breastpiece of judgment,” which the HCSB translates “breastpiece for making decisions,” and in 1 Samuel the ephod is employed on multiple occasions to seek out God’s guidance.1314 This important strand, when combined with the note above about the link between the ephod and the curtain to God’s presence, seems to paint a picture of the High Priest as the one who is uniquely employed to bear the revelation of God’s will because he alone is authorized to enter the holy presence of God and return.

Once again there appears clear Christological import. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this unique revelatory role, something which the apostle John emphasizes in his Gospel account. He opens by saying of Jesus, “No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son — the One who is at the Father’s side — He has revealed Him,”15 and also records Jesus as saying to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven — the Son of Man.”16 Jesus takes up the role as the one who enters God’s presence to return with revelation, indeed the very revelation of forgiveness. The High Priest needed to don his ephod to bring revelation, but Christ revealed God in donning His own human flesh, clothing which was likewise bound up with the very presence of God.

One feature of the ephod of particular interest is the placement of two onyx stones on its shoulders. In these stones were carved the names of the tribes of Israel, six on each stone. The Scripture says that they were to be carried by the High Priest as a memorial for all the Israelites. This is very significant, for the whole concept of a High Priest performing atonement rests on what the stones symbolize: one man identifying with his entire people to act on their whole behalf. As John Calvin said, “That the connection between the priest and the people might be made more plain, God not only placed on his breast the memorials of the twelve tribes, but also engraved their names on his shoulders.”17 This absolute identity of priest and people was essential to atonement, so that the one could be for the many. All of Israel was carried into the Holy of Holies on the shoulders of the High Priest.

The unity of one and many represented by the ephod’s shoulder stones is naturally quite directly applicable to what Christ came to do. Jesus became the one who acted for the many not by putting stones on His shoulders but by taking on human shoulders.18 He identified (and identifies) fully with humanity in its broken state, and holding this identity in place He has entered the presence of God the Father Almighty, where He saves us and intercedes for us as one man for all men.19

Lights and Perfections

By this point the most obscure matter of the priestly clothing, the Urim and Thummim, comes to relevance. The last significant part of the ephod is the “breastpiece of judgment” or “breastpiece for making decisions,” which contained the Urim and Thummim. The breastpiece itself was just a square, double-folded fabric block made out of the same material as the rest of the ephod. Twelve different precious stones set in gold filled its surface in four rows of three stones each, and each stone was engraved with a name of one of the tribes of Israel.

So what were the Urim and Thummim? Their names translate to “lights and perfections,” but this is ambiguous. No one knows for sure what they were. One traditional view, accepted by James K. Bruckner, is that they were black and white stones used like lots.20 Enns suggests that they could have involved a luminous gem.21 Calvin argues that they are not distinct objects but some kind of patterns or markings or decorations.22 Whatever they actually were, the agreement is that they bear some relation, either symbolically or functionally, to the nature of the breastpiece as being for judgment/decisions.

The actual meaning of the Urim and Thummim, then, should most likely be understood in light of what was previously stated about the association of the ephod as a whole with the revelation of God’s will. They probably served to mark the High Priest as the authorized bearer of God’s word, the mediator of His will to Israel. They are called “lights and perfections” rightly, for whatever word from God they accompany will be a word of light and perfection. This word represents the justice and truth of God to which Israel was bound and from which she derived her Torah. Whenever the High Priest sought out the will of God bearing the Urim and Thummim, he would return with a message of true righteousness.

If the Urim and Thummim are to be understood in this way, then they should be understood to prefigure Christ Himself. He is the true Light and Perfection, the image of the invisible God and the fullness of divine revelation. As the author of Hebrews proclaims, “In these last days, [God] has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.”23 In Christ God’s Word is revealed as a true, perfect light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

Lesser Parts, No Lesser Meaning

By this point the ephod has been fully examined, but under the ephod the High Priest had to wear a robe. This robe was to be made of solid blue, unlike all of the mixes met so far. In its solid form, blue seems to be Biblically associated with wealth or value in a way similar to purple.24 The bottom of the robe was to be decorated with small pomegranates, which Bruckner also says were associated with abundance or prosperity, and with gold bells.25 The significance of the bells is an issue of debate, with Calvin and some others arguing that they represent the sounding of God’s word of response,26 while Bruckner claims they were a reverential announcement of entrance, akin to quietly knocking on a door.27 Taking these elements all together paints something of a picture of Israel in their High Priest respectfully approaching God on His terms in order to receive from Him a word of abundant blessing and forgiveness.

Yet again, the light of Christ now shines brightly through the Old Testament types. Jesus is Himself both the Word of God28 Israel sought as well as the reverential human word spoken to God in response.29 By this perfect response He won for His people exactly what the High Priest sought to find: forgiveness of sins. His perfect response of faith overflowed to invite from God His blessed word of forgiveness, the righteous declaration of free justification, for all who share in His life as Israel did in their High Priest’s.

Topping all of these vestments in an additional glory was a bright, white turban. According to Keil and Delitzsch, the white color of the turban should be associated with the holiness of their profession.30 This would be in accord with the gold medallion that was also prescribed to the High Priest to be bound to the front of the turban. On this medallion was the inscription: “holy/holiness to the Lord.” Together these two symbols of holiness clearly marked out the High Priest as a sacred servant, claimed by God for His work. Only by this work of God sanctifying His priest could an otherwise fallible man “bear the guilt connected with the holy offerings that the Israelites consecrate as all their holy gifts.”31 He had to keep the turban and medallion on his head, or he would not be able to find acceptance when he served.

In a similar way to this, Jesus was Himself sanctified, set apart for God’s service, at priestly age when the white dove of the Spirit descended from heaven to Him and anointed Him for ministry. Quite relevantly, this happened at His baptism, precisely the moment when He freely identified Himself with needy human sinners. By creating solidarity with sinful humanity in a baptism of repentance, while also being unbreakably sanctified, He was also able to bear the guilt of sinners on their behalf. Without the artifice of any medallion or turban, He is Himself so sanctified that He finds and wins for His people acceptance with God.

Near the end of the line, finally, are the questions of underwear and footwear. All of the priests, High Priest and others, were required to wear special linen undergarments while serving in the Tabernacle. Keil and Delitzsch suggest that the purpose of this was to cover the symbolism of human frailty, corruptibility, and impurity exposed in a man’s most private parts. That side of humanity is not fit to serve as God’s representatives, therefore underwear was required. Footwear, on the other hand, is never mentioned. In the entire chapter, nothing is said about what to wear on feet, despite the detailed regulations for everything else. Obviously, nothing too conclusive can be drawn from such silence, but there seems a possibility that the priests actually served barefoot, as though the Tabernacle were portable “holy ground” like that which Moses had so recently encountered.32 This is, at least, a possibility which Enns is quick to mention. His comments are worth fully quoting:

What is conspicuously absent from the list is shoes, perhaps because of what has already been suggested in 3:5: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” These words were spoken to Moses as he approached God on Mount Horeb. As we have seen, the tabernacle is an earthly representation of a heavenly reality — a portable Mount Horeb/Sinai. Although 3:5 is not explicitly reiterated in chapter 28, this connection seems a fruitful avenue of approach. The priests stand in God’s presence and must conduct themselves appropriately.33

If this is correct, then the barefoot priests certainly would have found their feet to be entirely covered in blood, caked by the son, at the end of the day. This graphic routine would have undoubtedly created a strange and messy connection between priest and sacrifice.

With these thoughts in a mind, a few more Christological insights seem available. In regards to the undergarments, Jesus demonstrated the created goodness of even the most private human parts by assuming them to His divine person, and yet still overcame human impurity and corruptibility by His glorified resurrection. He also became the embodiment of holy ground, the walking presence of God, and made the unity between priest and sacrifice total and literal.

Conclusion

In the end, then, if even half of these observations are on the right track then the case seems to be that Exodus 28 and the priestly vestments described therein are not, as so many are certainly tempted to imagine, merely boring or unnecessary. Rather, the adornment of Aaron should be viewed as an essential part of God’s shaping of Israel’s life and pulling it ever forward towards the Incarnation of Christ. With these kinds of thoughts in mind, a vision of Jesus at the heart of every chapter of the Scriptures, then by no means should even priestly garments appear dry or dull. Instead let all Christians say that in the priestly code and clothing, in the vestments as a whole and in their parts, they were and remain a powerful testimony to Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the Savior of the world. Can anything be more relevant than that?


1 2 Tim. 3:16. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

2 John 5:39.

3 Gordon J. Wenham. “The Priests.” In Exploring the Old Testament: The Pentateuch. Vol. 1. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003.

4 Ibid.

5 Heb. 1-2.

6 Rom. 3:23.

7 Deut. 4:24.

8 Exod. 28:4.

9 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch. “Directions Concerning the Sanctuary and Priesthood.” In Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002.

10 Heb. 5:8-10.

11 Exod. 28:6-8.

12 Peter Enns. “Priestly Garments.” In Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.

13 Ibid.

14 1 Sam. 23:9-11, 30:7-8.

15 John 1:18.

16 John 3:13.

17 John Calvin. Harmony of the Law – Volume 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2009. Accessed 18 April 2016. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom04.

18 Heb. 2:17.

19 Heb. 6:20.

20 James K. Bruckner. “Instructions: Priestly Garments.” In Exodus (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012.

21 Enns, “Priestly Garments.”

22 Calvin, Harmony, comments on Exod. 28:30.

23 Heb. 1:2-3a

24 Num. 4:6-12, 15:28; Jer. 10:9; Ezek. 27:24.

25 Bruckner, “Instructions: Priestly Garments.”

26 Calvin, Harmony, comments on Exodus 28:31.

27 Bruckner, “Instructions: Priestly Garments.”

28 John 1:1.

29 John 17.

30 Keil and Delitzsch, “Directions Concerning the Sanctuary and the Priesthood.”

31 Exod. 28:38.

32 Exod. 3:5.

33 Enns, “Priestly Garments.”

Aaron Adorned by Christ: The Meaning of the Priestly Vestments