Dressed for Success (Exodus 27:20—28:43)

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Where I grew up I would often encounter signs at stores and restaurants that read, “No shoes, no shirt—no service.” A person had to be properly attired to be granted access, to be “accepted.” When we were still dating I once took my wife to a restaurant, which required that I wear a jacket and tie for admittance. If I wanted to impress Jill as a big spender, I needed to be dressed for success. Jesus once told a parable relating to this very issue:

And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

(Matthew 22:1-13)

Without the proper attire there was no entrance into the wedding. This, our Lord clearly taught, was a picture of the necessity for one to be properly clothed if they would enjoy access to God. It revealed the need for a sinner to be clothed in perfect righteousness if he would stand accepted before God. It was a parable that pointed to the need for sinners to be clothed in a righteousness provided by God Himself. And since it was a parable, it was for those who have ears to hear. There were probably many of that day who did understand this truth but for far too many in our day this teaching probably sounds so strange. You see, we are a “can do” kind of people who believe that we can make it on our own. Our mantra is a song from another era: “I did it my way.” Or perhaps we are accustomed to the assumed maxim that “God helps those who help themselves.” But for a Jewish person in the first century the concept of their a righteousness supplied by one who stood in their place was fairly self-evident. After all, for 1,500 years they had a real-life picture of this in the Priesthood. The family of Aaron, the brother of Moses, was a priestly family, which served in the tabernacle and later the temple. And you could identify the priests by what they wore. When serving the Levitical priests would wear their specially and specifically designed priestly apparel. They were dressed for service; but more so, they were dressed for success—for spiritual success in their work as the mediators of God’s people. And this was particularly true for the high priest. If the high priest was not dressed in exact accordance with God’s prescribed attire then his representative work on behalf of God’s people would not be accepted. He himself might very well die and the children of Israel would face the wrath of God as well. It is for this reason that this passage in Exodus is so important. In this passage the Lord God prescribed—in minute detail—the garments of the high priest. And these details are important, especially in our day. Sadly, as Rushdoony observed, most today find such passages tedious and irrelevant. “People now do not read as carefully as was the case before the era of films, radio, and television. There is an unconcern for details and an insistence on movement and action. The nuances of meaning and implications are thus lost. Such texts as this were once influential precisely because readers were not racing over the words but pondering their application to their lives and world. We need such intelligent reading again.”1 He observes that “an age which is unwilling to follow directions in any area of life or thought is not likely to be interested in these verses.”2 God expected Moses to be both intelligent and very interested. Several times in our studies we have come across God’s command to Moses to build the tabernacle according to the exact patter that He had shown him on the mountain. We have noted that God not only spoke the design for the tabernacle but also showed Moses a template of the tabernacle, as it was in heaven. Moses was to be sure that everything about the tabernacle corresponded to this heavenly model. And, of course, the primary reason for the prescribed and intricate detail of the tabernacle and its furnishings was because of whom it all pointed to: the Lord Jesus Christ. The lawful construction of the tabernacle was for the purpose of preparation: a preparation of the nation of Israel, and by extension the world, for the coming of the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians and reminded them that the law of God was a schoolmaster that leads to Christ (Galatians 3:24ff). He said this in the past tense. That is, the law of God was a schoolmaster that led the church to Christ. What did he mean? Simply put, Paul was saying that the entire law of God—not merely the Ten Commandments but the entire old covenantal legal system—was a training tool by which the Lord prepared the nation of Israel, the old covenant church, for the eventual arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ—God’s final word to man. The entire Old Testament prescribed form of worship was designed by God for the purpose of overwhelming sinners with the weightiness of their sin problem so that they would be able to more clearly appreciate their need for a Saviour. It was designed to enlighten them to see their need for the Saviour: “Jehovah is salvation.”3 In many of the details that we have looked at thus far we have seen some wonderful types, pictures and symbols of the Lord Jesus. But nothing in the tabernacle points more clearly to Him than what we will begin to study now: the priesthood, with special reference to the high priest. But “he priestly office was not instituted by Moses to last forever, but to direct the people to a better hope.”4 The book of Hebrews on several occasions identifies the Lord Jesus as that better hope, our great High Priest:

  • Hebrews 2:17—Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
  • Hebrews 3:1—Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, Our Compassionate High Priest.
  • Hebrews 4:14—Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.
  • Hebrews 8:1—Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.

Our text for this study is a long one, but we will consider succinctly with a view to appreciating more than ever the truth that we have a High Priest who is set on the right hand of God. May we see this truth, and may that lead us to worship and witness on His behalf. May this truth be used of the Holy Spirit to lead us as a schoolmaster to Christ, and as we are found in Him, may we be dressed for success.

The Priestly Appointment

We considered the golden lampstand in an earlier study. The lampstand was placed in the holy place to give light to the priests as they performed their duty. Our text opens with instructions for the lighting of the lampstand.

And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn continually. In the tabernacle of meeting, outside the veil which is before the Testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening until morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to their generations on behalf of the children of Israel. Now take Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to Me as priest, Aaron and Aaron’s sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.

(Exodus 27:20—28:1)

Verses 20-21of chapter 27 are included in this section because they clearly indicate that Aaron and his sons—the priestly family—were entrusted with the spiritual leadership of the nation. We see this in that Aaron and his sons were given the stewardship of the lampstand and were responsible to ensure that it kept burning. But this responsibility also implies the responsibility to ensure that the children of Israel fulfil their responsibility! Namely, the children of Israel were to feed a regular supply of crushed olive oil to the priests who would then daily tend to the Lampstand. They were to keep it burning and part of this responsibility was to keep the people of God mindful of their responsibility to supply the oil. This all points to the fact that the priesthood was entrusted with the spiritual leadership of God’s people. If the oil did not come from the people then it was the priesthood which was held accountable (see 1 Samuel 3:3). John Currid helpfully writes, “The lamps are to burn without interruption every day from evening until morning. It is the duty of the priesthood—that is, of ‘Aaron and his sons’—to make certain that this happens. This command anticipates the establishment of a priesthood, which is the subject of the very next section.”5 The opening verse of chapter 28 establishes the God-ordained priesthood that was reserved for the family of Aaron. This is often referred to as the Aaronic priesthood. It was from the tribe of Levi that the priesthood came, but the high priesthood was uniquely the privilege of Aaron’s family. Of course, this privilege had nothing to do with nepotism and everything to do with God’s sovereign appointment. “Nadab” and “Abihu” have their names recorded in the halls of infamy for offering an unauthorised sacrifice on the altar (Leviticus 10). God killed them for their tainted worship and replaced them with Eleazar and Ithamar. In speaking of the priesthood, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “No man takes this honour to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was” (Hebrews 5:4). This is clearly portrayed in the opening verses of this section. I appreciate Ryken’s insight when he writes, “The tabernacle was not self-service. Rather, its sacred duties were performed by holy men with a holy calling.”6 We would do well to remember the enormity of this task. As Motyer writes, “Priesthood brought many duties, covering many areas of religion and life, but what was priesthood really about? . . . The priest was to enter and stand in the full light of God’s presence. . . . The priestly privilege is access; its responsibility is mediation.”7 Apart from this the tabernacle was an empty invitation to sinners. God chose this family line by His wise grace, not because they were more worthy. Though we must be careful of false parallels between the old covenant priesthood and that of pastors under the new covenant, it is still legitimate to point out that those who are entrusted with the leadership of the local church in our day should be followed but they should not be elevated as though their position means they are worthy in of themselves. It is still due to God’s grace. Pastors should be humbled by such a privilege and weight of responsibility.

The Prescribed Apparel

In 28:2-35 we are given a description of the garments that pertained specifically to Aaron as the high priest (v. 2). “Aaron and his sons wore clothes fit for a priest to make them fit for the holy service of God.”8 If the priests failed here then the nation too would fail to be accepted before a holy God. We also must see our need to be dressed for “success” before God. We will look at each part of this apparel before we pause to consider the primary application from the text.

Distinctive Apparel

We first read of the actual garments to be worn by the high priest: “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. So you shall speak to all who are gifted artisans, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron’s garments, to consecrate him, that he may minister to Me as priest. And these are the garments which they shall make: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a skilfully woven tunic, a turban, and a sash. So they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons, that he may minister to Me as priest” (vv. 2-4). First, notice that their clothing was to be “holy.” “The Hebrew term is qodesh, which means ‘to be set apart / distinct / unique.’ These garments are to be different, and used solely in the sanctuary ministry of Yahweh. . . . These items are reflections of Yahweh’s character.”9 These clothes literally set apart these individuals from the rest of the nation. Second, consider that those entrusted with authority were to wear it well. They were to dress “for glory and for beauty.” “The garments of the high priest were to give him dignity and honor (v. 2), i.e., they were to exalt the office and function of the high priest as well as beautify the worship of God.”10 They were to be so clothed that their dress symbolised dignity. The dignity of what a leader is called to do should be displayed in his demeanour and this can rarely be divorced from his dress. There is a reason that I do not preach in jeans and a T-shirt. What I am doing is too important to demean by sloppiness. This has nothing to do with a generational or cultural preference. It rather has everything to do with the respect I have for the Word of God and the immense responsibility that I have to both God and to the flock. I want my congregation to know that what I am doing is important—because God says so! The sloppiness and the familiarity that so plagues our society in a multitude of ways has both manifested and contributed to a breakdown of respect for those entrusted with authority. Third, great care was to be taken in making these clothes. They were to be made skilfully rather than shoddily (vv. 3, 4, 6, 8, 11, 15, 39, 40). Not only should we not be sloppy in our approach to God neither must we allow a culture of being shoddy. We must guard against a dualistic approach to life in which all things material are deemed evil while the non-material is considered good. As I have noted on several occasions in our studies, God was not opposed to His people investing their wealth into His worship. And neither was God opposed to the exercise of their artistic skills. He in fact commanded it! When God told Moses to make these garments He very specifically and deliberately highlighted that this was not to be done by the volunteer work of the congregation but rather those gifted artisans—gifted by the Lord who had filled them with the spirit (Spirit?) of wisdom—were tasked with the privilege and responsibility of making the priestly garments. Interestingly, this is the first time that both wisdom and being filled with Spirit are mentioned in Scripture. The significance of this is that when it came to the garments of those who were appointed by God as His representatives, He expected excellence. He expected “glory” and “beauty”; He expected their appearance to be weighty and worthy rather than slipshod and shameful. We should learn from this that God is our audience and deserves the best. We (believers) are now all His priesthood (1 Peter 2:5) and therefore what we do should be for glory and for beauty. “We are required to see our skills and aptitudes as gifts from God to be used for His Kingdom. . . . In no area of life does Scripture advocate cheapness, superficiality, or shoddiness. ”11 This has very important and practical applications for the church of our day. God expects excellence in our artwork, in our architecture, in our meeting places for the gathering of the church and in our materials (tracts, adverts, etc.). In our legitimate desire to guard against violation of the Second Commandment let us not become guilty of violating the Third! Plainness and simplicity in worship (a biblically legitimate desire) should never be an excuse for dullness, drabness and ugliness. “For glory and for beauty” would be a wonderful mindset, motto and motivation for the new covenant priesthood of God.

Designer Apparel

This was a very exclusive line, designed by God Himself, and not available in stores. In addition to the actual robe, the high priest was to attire himself with several other pieces of clothing.

The Ephod

The ephod was an outer garment worn by the high priest, which looked something like a waistcoat, open on either side, joined at the shoulders and tied about the waist with a sash of the same material. Several other minute details are included in the text.

They shall take the gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and the fine linen, and they shall make the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen, artistically worked. It shall have two shoulder straps joined at its two edges, and so it shall be joined together. And the intricately woven band of the ephod, which is on it, shall be of the same workmanship, made of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen. Then you shall take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on one stone and six names on the other stone, in order of their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall set them in settings of gold. And you shall put the two stones on the shoulders of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. So Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders as a memorial. You shall also make settings of gold, and you shall make two chains of pure gold like braided cords, and fasten the braided chains to the settings.

(Exodus 28:5-14)

This waistcoat was made of fine linen and was beautifully embroidered with threads of blue, purple, crimson and gold. It was of the same colours as the gate into the courtyard as well as the screen at the front of the tabernacle. There was, however, the addition of gold, which was otherwise only found within the tabernacle. This signifies that this garment was very closely connected with what went on inside there. This garment was connected with heaven. “It was almost as if the high priest ‘embodied the tabernacle.’ Anyone who saw him immediately recognized that he belonged there. The holiness, glory, and beauty of his apparel associated him with God’s sacred space.”12 On each shoulder was to be placed an onyx stone set in gold on which the names of the 12 tribes of Israel would be engraved (six on each stone, in accordance with birth order). Each of these was to have a gold chain hanging from them. The purpose of these stones was so that the high priest might “bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders as a memorial” (v. 12). That is, the high priest was serving as a covenantal mediator between the Lord and His chosen people. The priest would be reminded of his awesome responsibility, the people would be reminded of theirs, and all would remember that God remembers His!

The Breast-Piece

The NKJV speaks of a “breastplate of judgement,” which could perhaps be better translated as “breast-piece of decision.” The breast-piece highlighted the fact that the high priest represented both God to man and man to God.

You shall make the breastplate of judgement. Artistically woven according to the workmanship of the ephod you shall make it: of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen, you shall make it. It shall be doubled into a square: a span shall be its length, and a span shall be its width. And you shall put settings of stones in it, four rows of stones: The first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and an emerald; this shall be the first row; the second row shall be a turquoise, a sapphire, and a diamond; the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold settings. And the stones shall have the names of the sons of Israel, twelve according to their names, like the engravings of a signet, each one with its own name; they shall be according to the twelve tribes. You shall make chains for the breastplate at the end, like braided cords of pure gold. And you shall make two rings of gold for the breastplate, and put the two rings on the two ends of the breastplate. Then you shall put the two braided chains of gold in the two rings which are on the ends of the breastplate; and the other two ends of the two braided chains you shall fasten to the two settings, and put them on the shoulder straps of the ephod in the front. You shall make two rings of gold, and put them on the two ends of the breastplate, on the edge of it, which is on the inner side of the ephod. And two other rings of gold you shall make, and put them on the two shoulder straps, underneath the ephod toward its front, right at the seam above the intricately woven band of the ephod. They shall bind the breastplate by means of its rings to the rings of the ephod, using a blue cord, so that it is above the intricately woven band of the ephod, and so that the breastplate does not come loose from the ephod. So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of judgement over his heart, when he goes into the holy place, as a memorial before the LORD continually. And you shall put in the breastplate of judgement the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD. So Aaron shall bear the judgement of the children of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually.

(Exodus 28:15-30)

The high priest (along with the priesthood in general) was responsible for teaching God’s people His revealed will as manifested in His Word. (See for example Nehemiah 8.) This piece of the garment also indicates that he was responsible for discerning the will of God for His people. It speaks of the reality of the dependence of God’s children upon Him for guidance. The material was of the same makeup as the ephod.  It measured about 230mm by 230mm after it was doubled over (v. 16). On the front of this breast-piece were four rows of three precious stones. When Ezekiel received the revelation from God about the fall of Lucifer (Satan) he was informed that Eden contained nine of these 12 precious stones mentioned here (Ezekiel 28:13). Thus it would be safe to say that this breast-piece had some symbolic significance to the once perfect and sinless Garden of Eden. God is renewing the world and He will do so through His new creation, the nation of Israel. On each of these 12 stones (much like the onyx stones) the names of one tribe of Israel was to be engraved (v. 21). The priest represented the whole nation. We can thus see that “his clothes made a fashion statement. They said, ‘Here we are, Lord, all twelve tribes of us—your precious kingdom of priests.’”13 With great detail Moses was then told how to secure this breast-piece to the ephod (vv. 22-28). By the use of gold rings on the top two corners it was to be secured to the shoulder straps (by gold chains connected to the onyx stones on the shoulder pieces). By two more rings on the bottom of the breast-piece it is to be secured tightly to the ephod by both a gold chain and a blue ribbon. It was very important to God that this breast-piece be securely tied to the ephod so that was never displaced (v. 28). God was passionately committed to the security of His people when they came before Him. He may not be safe; but He is good! The significance of this piece of the garment is revealed in v. 29. Not only was the high priest to bear the children of Israel upon his shoulders (v.12) but he was also to bear them upon his heart. This matter of being the covenantal representative of the people of God was of immense important. The high priest would be reminded of this by the weight on his shoulders as well as the weight that hung over his heart. It was good that he be continually reminded of this. It would keep him humble and no doubt would go a long way toward exhorting him to be humble. By the will of God, the high priest had a weighty responsibility. There is one other part of this breast-piece which we must look at a little more closely. It is identified in v. 30 as “the Urim and the Thummim,” or “the lights and the perfections.” What was this? First, let us note its function. The Urim and the Thummin is mentioned several times later in the Bible and clearly had something to do with discerning the will of God. With regard to the ordination of Joshua as Moses’ replacement, Numbers 27:21 reads, “He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall enquire before the LORD for him by the judgement of the Urim. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, he and all the children of Israel with him—all the congregation.” According this verse it is obvious that the Urim and Thummim was a means to discern direction for God’s people. In Ezra and Nehemiah’s day the returned remnant to Jerusalem sought to know the will of God and they therefore sought the Urim and Thummim (Ezra 2:63; cf. Nehemiah 7:65). Commentators are not in full agreement as to the nature of the Urim and Thummim but the consensus seems to be that these were two stones that were placed in the pouch of the breast-piece (v. 30) that were used by the high priest as a form of casting lots. Such a practice was prevalent under the old covenant and only came to an end after its last recorded usage in Acts 1:26 (cf. Leviticus 16:8; Joshua 18:6; 1 Samuel 14:42; Nehemiah 10:33; Proverbs 16:33; 18:18). Though there is much that we do not know about this we do know that it was the responsibility of the high priest to discern the will of God for His people. When decisions of importance needed to be made the high priest would go before the Lord and ask Him for “judgement,” for direction. Once again, this would lay heavy upon his heart. We can sum up what we have learned so far by saying that to be appointed as the high priest might be a heady privilege. But the shoulder pieces and the breast-piece would go a long way to deflate any temptation to arrogance.

The Robe

The High Priest wore a blue robe underneath the ephod and one can imagine how this would have accentuated the beautifully embroidered ephod.

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. There shall be an opening for his head in the middle of it; it shall have a woven binding all around its opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it does not tear. And upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, all around its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around. And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound will be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD and when he comes out, that he may not die.

(Exodus 28:31-35)

This robe was a seamless garment that had a reinforced neck and shoulders. At the bottom, the robe was decorated with an alternating series of blue, crimson and purple embroidered pomegranates golden bells. Pomegranates speak of fruitfulness and are mentioned in Scripture in connection with the bountifulness of the Promised Land. The bells served the practical purpose of announcing, as it were, the high priest into the presence of God. In the ancient world no one would dare enter the presence of a king without being formally announced (see the story of Esther). To do so was considered an affront to the king and could easily cost one their life. Since God is King of the universe it only made sense for the high priest to remember in whose presence he was entering. This would certainly be another means by which his otherwise heady position would be guarded from going to his head! This idea of entering God’s presence with reverence—with fear and trembling—rather than with a sinful and arrogant familiarity is perhaps why v. 35 ends with the words: “that he may not die.” It is a fearful thing—or, at least, it should be—to enter the presence of God. The ringing bells were also a means by which those in the courtyard outside the tabernacle could trace the movements and the ministry of the high priest. As long as they heard the bells then they knew that God was accepting their mediator on their behalf and thus they were safe and sound; their sacrifice was accepted as proven by the continuing life of the high priest. There is a bit of an urban legend that the high priest entered the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement with a rope tied around his leg. If the bells stopped ringing it was assumed that the high priest had died and they would drag him out with the rope. This is nothing more than creative fiction. No mention is made anywhere of ankle rope with relation to the Day of Atonement. Moreover, the high priest on the Day of Atonement did not wear the blue robe with the bells at the bottom; he entered the most holy place dressed only in the white garment described at the beginning of the chapter.

The Tunics and Trousers

In the closing verses the Lord commands Moses to make sure that the regular priests (as opposed to the high priest) are properly attired. They were to be clothed in simple tunics of fine linen. They were to have simple turbans (or hats) and both they and Aaron were to be sure to have properly fitting underwear. Yes, underwear!

You shall skilfully weave the tunic of fine linen thread, you shall make the turban of fine linen, and you shall make the sash of woven work. For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics, and you shall make sashes for them. And you shall make hats for them, for glory and beauty. So you shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him. You shall anoint them, consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister to Me as priests. And you shall make for them linen trousers to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from the waist to the thighs. They shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they come into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place, that they do not incur iniquity and die. It shall be a statute forever to him and his descendants after him.

(Exodus 28:39-43)

The trousers mentioned in v. 42 were to be made of linen and their purpose was to cover their nakedness. God was concerned that they present a proper modesty in His presence. Why was this important? First, probably because the pagan religions of that day (as in ours) were long on sensuality and short on theology. God did not want His people to adopt the ways of the world in their worship (see 20:26). Second, because God is holy and improper nakedness is an affront to Him. As Genesis 3 informs us, where there is shame over sin there is also a concern for modesty. When people boast about letting it all hang out they are testifying that they are defiant about their depravity. Though Adam and Eve sinned, we can be thankful that they did not sear their conscience as evidenced by their covering their then realised nakedness. The priesthood needed to minister with a sense of their own depravity and their being prone to wander. The undergarments were a practical means to remind them both of how holy God is and how unholy they and the ones that they represented were. The church of our day would do well to pay heed to their underwear rather than exposing it for everyone else to pay attention to it! You might be tempted to ask, how important is this, really? Well, according to v. 43 it was so important that if they violated this rule then God might kill them! That should give us some indication of how the Lord expects His priesthood of our day to practice modesty.

The Propitiated Approval

The verses that we momentarily skipped over describe the headset of the high priest.

You shall also make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet: HOLINESS TO THE LORD. And you shall put it on a blue cord, that it may be on the turban; it shall be on the front of the turban. So it shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things which the children of Israel hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD.

(Exodus 28:36-38)

The word used here for “turban” is only ever used in Scripture to describe the headdress of the high priest. Some have said that this turban was made out of seven metres of fine linen. The most significant part of this turban was the gold front piece, which was secured by the blue ribbon. This plate of pure (lit. “shining” or “brilliant”) gold was engraved with the words, “HOLINESS TO THE LORD.” It thus served as a reminder of the glory of the One in whose presence the high priest served, and also as an encouragement to both priest and people. Note with me several things here. First, the fact that this was worn on the forehead made it very conspicuous. The message that any worshipper would get upon one look at the fully attired high priest would be a stark reminder of whom they were worshipping: Yahweh, who is holy. This would no doubt enhance the solemnity of their worship. Second, as mentioned, this would also serve to remind the high priest of the reverence with which he must carry out His duties. Third, it would serve to remind people and priest that God is holy and that they were not. They (like us) constantly needed this reminder. Note the phrase “that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things which the children of Israel hallow in all their holy gifts.” Three times the sacrifices of the children of Israel are said to be holy and yet they are also characterised as being tainted with “iniquity.” What this reveals to us is that our best offerings are corrupt. We cannot approach God with our own righteousness. If we will ever find acceptance before the Lord then we will need a Mediator who is identified as being “holy to the Lord.” In other words, this head plate of holiness was symbolic of a Holy One standing before God in our place. This mitre would help the children of Israel to realise and to revel in the grace of God. Alec Motyer notes, “In v. 38 this holiness is linked with bearing iniquity, in accordance with the scriptural principle that only the sinless can bear the sins of another. Here the “holiness” of the high priest makes good every deficiency of the people.”14 The principle is simply this: “We must be gloriously and beautifully holy . . . or else be represented by someone who is.”15 It is a marvellous revelation that the holy creator God, who is the Judge of every sinner, is willing not only to dwell with man but to deliver sinful man as well! Finally, let me just make the observation that the high priest in his divine apparel was represented as one who carried the children of Israel on his shoulders, on his heart and on his head (thoughts). “Always on my mind” was the ministry of the priesthood. Praise God that His people are on His!

The Primary Application

As I said from the outset, this passage prefigures the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. In these closing moments allow me to make a very direct and pertinent application. The primary application of this passage is that, in every way possible, the Lord Jesus Christ was thoroughly dressed for success and therefore He was successful—and will forever be successful—as the High Priest Of course, the priests who ministered in the tabernacle, including the high priest, were sinners. They were appointed by God to be the mediators between the people and God. Their prescribed dress depicted the majesty and the holiness of God. And, as we have seen, unless they adhered to this dress code they would fail as mediators. But this attire was only external; inwardly the priests were as much sinners as those they represented, with the result that sacrifices had to offered over and over, day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. And even then, sin was never cleansed nor carried away; it could only be covered. You see, even though the high priest would follow God’s dress code—down to his underwear—and even though, technically, he was dressed for success, the problem was that no high priest was ever impeccably dressed. A dictionary definition of the word “impeccable” is as follows: “not capable of sinning or liable to sin; free from fault or blame; flawless.” This matter of being impeccably dressed was especially highlighted on the Day of Atonement. As I mentioned above, on the Day of Atonement the high priest entered the tabernacle (and the Most Holy Place) dressed only in his linen trousers and tunic, tied with a linen sash, head covered with the linen turban (Leviticus 16:2-4). In other words he was dressed only in white. This spoke of the holiness of God. It spoke of the necessity of being without sin in the presence of God. It spoke of being impeccable. Outwardly the High Priest was customarily dressed for success, but to truly take away sins he would need to be impeccably dressed—inwardly. “Unfortunately, the inward reality of the priest’s life never matched the outward splendor of his appearance. Enter Jesus. Jesus is pristine in his holiness, magnificent in his glory, and sublime in his beauty.”16 But Jesus Christ was “the brightness of [God’s] glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). On the Day of Atonement the high priest and the people were symbolically reminded that they lacked the righteousness which God required. They were reminded once again that the blood of millions of bulls and goats could never take away their sin. They were reminded that the tabernacle was only the shadow of the substance of the Saviour that they needed. The children of Israel were being taught that apart from an absolutely sinless High Priest they, like the Gentiles who were excluded by the courtyard curtains, were without hope and without God in the world. But enter Jesus. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). And therefore, “we have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (8:1). And, because He is without sin “He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25). Those whose sins are forgiven by God and thus those who are accepted into fellowship with God are those who boast in the fact that all they have is Christ! That is, they no longer trust in their own good works (whatever that means) but instead in the sinless, substitutionary sacrifice of the sinless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. They trust the Lord Jesus Christ as their great High Priest. In closing allow me to illustrate this biblical principle from another biblical picture found in Zechariah 3. The picture here is of Joshua, the human high priest, who was seen for what he was in his fallen humanity: sinful. In spite of being attired in the prescribed priestly garments he was in fact covered (literally) in excrement. That is how God views our sins—even our so-called little ones. Satan was standing there pointing an accusing finger at the high priest. In fact, at this point, Satan was spot on. Joshua the high priest, and those he represented, were in fact sinful and deserving of judgement, death and the wrath of God. But there was another standing by (v. 5): the Angel of the Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. The LORD commanded that Joshua’s filthy garments be removed and that he be reclothed in rich robes. The iniquities of the people and priest were removed and replaced with righteousness. But we might ask, how or on what basis did this exchange take place? The answer is found in v. 5: The Angel of the Lord stood by. The Lord Jesus Christ was making intercession for these sinners and on that basis the high priest (and those he represented) were deemed not only dressed for success but they were also being accepted as impeccably dressed. Jesus is the High Priest who is impeccably dressed. He is dressed for success for the work of salvation. My friend, the Lord Jesus Christ will do that for you if you will confess and repent of your sins. If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you, like Joshua the high priest, will be saved. Believer, remember and rejoice that the Lord Jesus Christ continues to intercede for you. Calvin says it beautifully:

Out of Christ we are all corrupt, and all our worship is faulty; and however excellent our actions may seem . . . they are still unclean and polluted. Thus, therefore, let all our senses remain fixed on the forehead of our sole and perpetual Priest… Our acts of obedience, when they come into God’s sight, are mingled with iniquity, which exposes us to His judgment, unless Christ should sanctify them.17


We must remember the reason why our High Priest is said to bear us on His shoulders. . . . We are plunged into the lowest depths of death; how then should we be able to ascend to heaven, unless the Son of God should raise us up with him? . . . We must be borne up by His strength alone. . . . However weak then we may be in ourselves, herein is all our strength, that we are His burden.18

In the words of Paul in Romans 6, we have been buried with Him in death and raise with Him to walk in newness of life. And this is because, through Christ, we have been dressed for success by being impeccably dressed! Don’t allow Satan, or others, or yourself to define you by your failure. Rather run to Christ embracing His righteousness in the place of your filth. He is a faithful High Priest who invites you moment by moment to come boldly to the throne of grace, that you may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Show 18 footnotes

  1. Rousas J. Rushdoony, Commentary on the Pentateuch, 5 vols. (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2004)2:398.
  2. Rushdoony, Commentary on the Pentateuch, 2:407.
  3. The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “Jehovah is salvation.”
  4. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), II.2:192.
  5. John Currid, Study Commentary on Exodus, 2 vols. (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2001), 2:190.
  6. Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 867.
  7. Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus: The Days of Our Pilgrimage (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 256.
  8. Ryken, Exodus, 892.
  9. Currid, Study Commentary on Exodus, 2:192.
  10. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 2:465.
  11. Rushdoony, Commentary on the Pentateuch, 2:396, 406.
  12. Ryken, Exodus, 870.
  13. Ryken, Exodus, 872.
  14. Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus: The Days of Our Pilgrimage (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 257.
  15. Ryken, Exodus, 878.
  16. Ryken, Exodus, 874.
  17. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, II.2:202.
  18. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, II.2:199.