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. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” 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.
Reflection In this vision we are invited to see into a heavenly courtroom where Joshua, the High Priest, in a representative role on behalf of all God’s people, stands trial for their collective sin – he is ‘unclean’ (dressed in filthy clothes). The character described as ‘Satan’ is more accurately (following Hebrew usage) ‘the adversary’, or what we call the prosecuting counsel. The one who passes judgement on Joshua is God.
We don’t get to hear any evidence against Joshua, nor any plea of mitigation from him. Instead God immediately decides in favour of Joshua, provides an explanation for why he appeared to be unclean; and rebukes the counsel for bringing the case at all! No guilt remains, God has removed it. Joshua is to be re-clothed in festal garments. Zechariah imagines himself as a participant in this scene and suggests that Joshua be given a clean turban as a sign of the high office he is to fulfil. (This relates to Aaron’s priestly garments described in Exodus 28.) As the new temple and its structures are established Joshua will be the one who enters ‘the holy of holies’ each Day of Atonement to mediate between God and people; and he will oversee the whole sacrificial cult.
As Christians we understand the work that Jesus did on the cross to save us from the consequences of our sin as marking an end to the former cultic system. This vision also, though, makes clear that God may choose to pour out divine grace and mercy when no specific sacrifice has been offered, nor any repentance expressed. Joshua has done neither.
Like Joshua, we do not deserve such grace; nor can we take for granted that God will always acquit. I will continue to confess and repent, asking for God’s mercy – what about you?
Prayer Gracious God, we believe that your steadfast love never ceases and that your mercies never come to an end. You have revealed the truth of this through Christ; and in Christ is our hope. Forgive us if we presume upon your grace. May we always approach you in humility, conscious of our failings and frailties, seeking to love and serve you more deeply, in the name of Jesus. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister living in Cambridgeshire; she is a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.