This is now our third week studying the book of Zechariah, who was a prophet of the Lord who was ministering in Jerusalem alongside Haggai after the Lord’s people had returned from the exile in Babylon. When the people returned at first they began to rebuild the temple. But their enemies opposed them and the work on the temple stopped. About 16 years or so went by; and, while the people had rebuilt their homes, they had not yet rebuilt the temple of the Lord, which still lay in ruins. And so, the Lord sent them Haggai and Zechariah to stir them to action by preaching the word of the Lord. In the opening verses of Zechariah’s prophecy, he called on the people to return to the Lord. In other words, they were to turn from their sins in repentance and they were to obey the Lord by rebuilding the temple. And then, after that opening call to repent, Zechariah received from the Lord eight visions in the night to comfort and to encourage his people. So far we’ve studied three of them.
In the first, he saw the Angel of the Lord who appealed to the Lord Almighty on behalf of Jerusalem. And in response to the Angel’s appeal, the Lord Almighty spoke kind and comforting words about how he will return to Jerusalem with mercy so that the temple and city will be rebuilt and the towns around Jerusalem will again overflow with prosperity and he will once again choose Jerusalem as the city where he will dwell. And so, that first night vision was given to comfort God’s people at that time. God has not abandoned you, but will bless you once again.
In the second night vision, Zechariah saw four horns which symbolised all the nations who had been hostile to the Lord’s people and who had risen up against them. But then Zechariah also saw four craftsmen who had come to throw down those four horns. And the message of the second night vision was that the Lord was going to punish those nations who had been hostile towards his people.
And in the third night vision, Zechariah saw a man who has going to measure the city of Jerusalem. But then the Lord made clear to Zechariah that the city of Jerusalem would become an ever-expanding city without walls, because of the number of people and animals living in it. And the Lord would be a a wall of fire around it to protect it. And the Lord would dwell in the midst of the city. And the message of the third night vision was that Jerusalem would become a great city once again.
And so, by means of those three night visions, the Lord brought comfort and encouragement to his people, who no doubt needed a message of comfort and encouragement, because though they had returned to Jerusalem, they were still living under the rule of a foreign king and they still had many enemies who were hostile towards them and it may have seemed to them that the glory days, which God’s people had once enjoyed, had gone. So, no doubt they were often discouraged and afraid. But the Lord came to them through the prophet Zechariah to encourage them and to speak kind and comforting words to them.
But we’ve also seen how Zechariah’s message to them was not only for them, but it was also for believers in every generation, because many Christian interpreters believe that the Angel of the Lord who appealed to the Lord on behalf of Jerusalem in the first night vision is in fact God the Son. Before he came into the world as one of us, he visited the earth from time to time in the form of an angel. And just as he appeared in the vision as Jerusalem’s mediator with God, so he is our mediator with God. And by his life and death and resurrection he has made peace for us with God so that instead of hearing words of terror and judgment, which is what we deserve, we hear from God kind and comforting words and words of peace and salvation. And the vision of the horns and craftsmen reassures us that though the people of the world may rise up against God’s people to oppress and persecute us, in the end those who set themselves up against the Lord and his people will be overthrown, whereas those who belong to Christ’s kingdom are under his special protection. And the vision of the ever-expanding Jerusalem with it wall of fire and with the glory of God in its midst is an announcement of God’s plan for the church which will be ever-expanding until Christ comes again and which will always be shielded by God’s mighty power and it’s where God will always dwell by his Spirit.
And so, the night visions which Zechariah received were given by the Lord not only to comfort the people in Zechariah’s day, but they were given to comfort God’s people in every generation and they were given to comfort us. When we wonder what will become of the church, which is often oppressed and persecution and which often appears so weak and insignificant, these visions reassures us that our times are in God’s hands and he has a plan for his church which can never be thwarted.
And so we come to Zechariah’s fourth night vision. And this one is about cleansing from sin. All of us are sinners and we sin against the Lord continually. And therefore all of us need to be cleansed from our sin. And in this vision, the Lord cleanses Joshua the high priest. And the Lord also goes on to speak about his servant, the Branch, who will remove the sin of the land in a single day. And we can divide the passage into three parts. There’s verses 1 to 3 and verses 4 to 7 and verses 8 to 10. In verses 1 to 3, Joshua is accused and defended. In verses 4 to 7, Joshua is cleansed and commissioned. And verses 8 to 10 are about God’s servant, the Branch.
Verses 1 to 3
And so, in verse 1 Zechariah tells us that someone showed him Joshua the high priest. This, of course, is not the Joshua who took over from Moses as the leader of God’s people and who led the people into the Promised Land of Canaan. This is another Joshua. Haggai mentioned him in his book. He was also known as Jeshua and he appears with that name in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. And he’s the high priest. So, there were lots of priests, but there was one who was set apart as the high priest. And in the vision, Joshua is standing before the Angel of the Lord. Remember, many Christian interpreters believe the Angel of the Lord is God the Son, because sometimes he is distinguished from God and sometimes he appears to be identical with God. Sometimes he speaks to God and sometimes he speaks for God. So, before he came to earth as one of us, he appeared on the earth in the form of an angel. So, there’s Joshua and there’s the Angel of the Lord. And then there’s Satan. So, this is the Devil. And in the NIV there’s a little footnote next to the name Satan which tells us that the word Satan means accuser. And, according to verse 1, that’s precisely what he’s doing here. Here’s there, in the presence of the Angel of the Lord, to accuse Joshua and to bring charges against him.
And, of course, he’s got a case, hasn’t he? Even though Joshua was the high priest, he was a sinner like everyone else. He was a sinner who sinned against the Lord continually. And that will become obvious when we get to verse 3 where it tells us that Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes. The commentators make clear that the Hebrew word translated ‘filthy’ refers to something utterly disgusting. So, his clothes were not just a little dirty, but they were covered with the dirtiest and smelliest dirt you can imagine. Now remember: this is a vision. And visions contain images and pictures which need to be interpreted. And Joshua’s filthy clothes therefore symbolise his sinfulness. And presumably, since the priest represented the people, his dirty clothes also symbolised the sinfulness of the people. And that makes sense, because the reason the Lord sent the people into exile was because of their sin and rebellion. And even after they returned from exile, they continued to sin against the Lord. So, when Satan appeared before the Angel of the Lord to accuse Joshua, he didn’t have to make anything up. Whatever charges he had against Joshua were not false charges, because Joshua’s filthy clothes symbolise his sinfulness and the sinfulness of the people he represented.
But then the Lord speaks. However, since the speaker goes on to refer to the Lord in the third person, it seems likely that the one who is now speaking is the Angel of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord is speaking for God. And if Satan is the Great Accuser, who stands before the Lord to accuse us, the Angel of the Lord is the Great Defender. He’s there to defend us and to speak up for us. And therefore, in the name of the Lord, he rebuked Satan. And then he adds:
The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you.
Since God had chosen the people of Jerusalem, and since he was willing to dwell among them as their God, then Satan had no right to bring charges against them.
And the Angel of the Lord went on to describe Joshua as a burning stick snatched from the fire. When he refers to the fire, he’s referring to the exile. All of God’s people had been suffering because of the exile, which was God’s punishment on them for their sin and rebellion. But the Lord — who is gracious and merciful and who does not treat us as our sins deserve — had mercy on Joshua and on all the people and he pulled them from the fire. That is, he rescued them from the exile. They were precious in God’s sight and God did not want them to be destroyed as a stick of wood would be destroyed if it was left in the fire. He did not want them to be destroyed; and therefore he pulled them out and brought them out of Babylon and back to the Promised Land. And since he had decided to show them mercy, he was not willing to listen to Satan’s accusations.
Verses 4 to 7
However, while the Lord was not willing to listen to Satan’s accusations, the fact remained that Joshua and the people he represented were still sinners, as signified by Joshua’s filthy clothes. But look now at verse 4, where the Angel of the Lord spoke to those who were standing before him. It’s not clear who was standing before him, but presumably these are the angels who stand in the presence of the Lord to do his bidding. And the Angel of the Lord spoke to them and told them to remove Joshua’s filthy clothes. And the very next verse explains for us the significance of removing his filthy clothes, because the Angel of the Lord said to Joshua:
See, I have taken away your sin….
Since the filthy clothes symbolise his sinfulness, taking them away symbolises taking away his sins and pardoning his iniquity. And this is what God does for all his people, this is what he does for you, because he promises to remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west; and he promises to hurl them into the depths of the ocean; and to cover them up; and blot them out; and to remember them no more.
And not only were Joshua’s filthy clothes removed, but he was given rich garments to wear. And so, what a transformation, because he goes from wearing filthy clothes to wearing rich clothes. Think of the Lord’s parable of the prodigal son, who returned to his father in rags and with bare feet, and the father clothed him in the best robe and gave him sandals for his feet and he placed a ring on his son’s finger. He arrived back at the house in the clothes of a slave and was given the clothes of a son to wear. And Joshua’s filthy clothes are removed and he’s given the best robe to wear to signify that he’s been washed and cleansed and forgiven and accepted.
And Zechariah, who has been watching this vision silently, is silent no more, because he speaks in verse 5. It’s as if he’s caught up in the wonder of God’s grace to Joshua and he asks the angels standing before the Lord to give Joshua a clean turban for his head. Now, Joshua was the high priest and it was normal for the high priest to wear a turban on his head with the words ‘Holy to the Lord’ written on the front. But the Hebrew word which Zechariah now uses is not the normal word for the priest’s turban. The commentators say he’s referring to something grander and that he’s referring to the kind of turban which a king might wear. So, some commentators therefore suggest that Joshua was being made king. However, it’s perhaps more likely that Zechariah uses this word to underline the wonderful exchange that has taken place when Joshua’s filthy clothes were removed from him and he was given this royal turban to wear. And at the end of verse 5, Zechariah tells us that the Angel of the Lord stood by, which suggests that he’s watching over these proceedings, giving his approval to what was happening.
And then the Angel of the Lord gave Joshua a charge. And by this charge, he was recommissioning Joshua to serve as his priest. So, this is what you’re to do, now that you’ve been washed and cleansed and forgiven and accepted. You’re to walk in my ways. And you’re to keep my requirements. Walking in the ways of the Lord means obeying his commands and doing his will. Keeping his requirements means doing what the High Priest was required to do. So, Joshua is to obey the Lord and he’s to fulfil his calling as priest. And, according to verse 7, if he does those two things, then he will govern God’s house and he will have charge over God’s courts. When the Angel refers to God’s house and his courts, he’s referring to the temple, which contained the Holy Place in the centre and which was surrounded by various courts, where the people gathered for worship. And so, by means of this vision, the Lord was making clear to Zechariah that though Joshua had sinned and had done wrong, and that his sins were as offensive to God as a filthy coat is offensive to us, nevertheless the Lord was willing to pardon Joshua in full so that he could continue to serve as priest in the temple.
And not only was the Lord allowing Joshua to serve in the temple, but in verse 7 the Lord promised to give Joshua a place among ‘these standing here’. It’s not entirely clear what this promise is, but if ‘these standing here’ is a reference to angels, who stand in the presence of the Lord, then he’s saying that Joshua will be allowed to enter the Most Holy Place in the temple, which was the earthly counter-part to God’s heavenly throne room. And so, it once again highlights the wonder of God’s grace, because now there is nothing to keep Joshua from the presence of God now that he has been washed and cleansed and forgiven and accepted.
Verses 8 to 10
And so, we come to the third and final part of the vision in verses 8 to 10. And the Angel of the Lord spoke to Joshua and to his associates seated before him. Presumably Joshua’s associates are his fellow priests. And the Lord says about Joshua and his associates that they are symbolic of things to come. In other words, they are signs. And if they are signs, what are they signs of? Well, every priest foreshadowed the Great High Priest who was coming into the world, who is Jesus Christ our Saviour, who offered to God the perfect sacrifice for sins and who now lives to intercede for his people in the presence of God in heaven. And so, these priests were signs, because the pointed beyond themselves to Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest.
And the Angel of the Lord, who is speaking for God, reveals how he was going to send his servant, the Branch. And, I wonder, do the words ‘servant’ and ‘Branch’ ring any bells for you? In Isaiah we read about the Servant of the Lord, who would be anointed with the Holy Spirit and who was coming to do God’s will and who was coming to suffer for the sins of God’s people. He was despised and rejected by men; and he was a man of sorrow, who was familiar with suffering; and he was pierced for our transgressions and he was crushed for our iniquities; and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all; and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah wrote about a Suffering Servant of the Lord. And Isaiah also wrote about a Branch, or a root, which would grow up from the stump of Israel. So, when Israel was cut down and humbled, a new branch or root would emerge. Isaiah was referring to a new king who was coming who would become a great and mighty king and who would rule over a transformed world where all of God’s people will live in perfect peace and rest on God’s holy mountain.
Isaiah wrote about the Suffering Servant of the Lord; and he wrote about a Branch who was coming who would be a great King. And now, in this fourth night vision, the Lord announced to Zechariah that he was going to send his servant, the Branch. In other words, he was going to send the Suffering Servant who is also a Great King. And he’s referring to the Lord Jesus, who come into the world as God’s Suffering Servant to suffer and die for the sins of his people and to make peace for us with God. And he’s also God’s Great King who calls us into his kingdom and who promises to keep us in his kingdom. And when our Great King comes again, he will bring his people into a transformed world, where all of his people will live in perfect peace and rest for ever and for ever.
And the Angel of the Lord, who is speaking for God, also refers to a stone in verse 9 which contains seven eyes or facets and which has an inscription on it. The commentators are divided over what this stone is. Some think it’s another reference to the Lord Jesus who is the stone the builders rejected, but which has become the capstone. In other words, he was rejected by the people he came to save, but God has exalted him to the highest place. However, other commentators think the stone refers to the kind of precious stones which the priest would wear in those days. For instance, the high priest wore a breast-piece with 12 precious stones to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. And so, here’s a new stone for Joshua to wear.
And what are the words inscribed on this stone? Again it’s not clear, but perhaps the words inscribed on this special stone are the promise which appears in verse 9 that God will remove the sin of this land in a single day. And you know what those words refer to, don’t you? He’s referring to that day when the Lord Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, bore our sins in his body on the tree; and when he suffered in our place the punishment we deserve; and when he gave up his life to pay for all that we have done wrong and when he shed his blood to cleanse us from all our guilt. Up until that day, the priests would offer sacrifices on the altar in Jerusalem again and again and again for the sins of the people, but the blood of bulls and goats could never take away their sins. In fact, the sacrifices they offered at the altar in Jerusalem were only a reminder to them that they were sinners who needed to be cleansed. But those sacrifices were also designed to make them long for the day when God would provide the true sacrifice for sins, so that with one single sacrifice, offered on one single day, the sins of the whole world would be dealt with once and for all. And that longed-for day has come, because when the Lord Jesus died on the cross, he was offering himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins so that whoever believes in him is pardoned by God, because, with his life, he has paid for our sins in full.
And, according to verse 10, in that day, each of you will invite his neighbour to sit under his vine and fig tree. It’s a picture of perfect peace and rest, isn’t it? These people are not living in fear of their enemies. And they’re not burdened down by hard labour. And they’re not worried about anything. They’re not sick. They’re not troubled in any way. They can take it easy and sit and relax and enjoy each other’s company in this Eden-like land full of vines and fig trees. It’s a picture of perfect peace and rest. It’s a picture of the new and better world to come, where all of God’s people will live in perfect peace and rest and where all the sorrow and sadness and trouble and trials of this life will be forgotten. And the way into that new and better world to come has been opened to us because of Christ who died to bring us to God.
This is Zechariah’s fourth night vision. God had sent his people away into exile because they were sinners who sinned against him continually. And even though he had brought them back from exile, they knew they were still sinners and their sins were as offensive to God as filthy clothes are offensive to us. However, by means of this vision, God revealed to his sinful people that he is gracious and merciful and he does not treat us as our sins deserve and he does not repay us according to our iniquity. And so, instead of listening to Satan, who only wants to accuse us, God was prepared to take away the sins of his people and to wash them and to cleanse them and to forgive them and to accept them. And he’s able to take away the sins of his people because of Christ the Saviour, who is God’s Suffering Servant and our Great King, and who offered himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And by believing in him, we are not only washed and cleansed and forgiven and accepted, but we receive the hope of everlasting life in the new and better world, the Eden-like world to come where we’ll enjoy perfect peace and rest.
Here’s a message we all need to hear and believe, because the Devil accuses us, and our conscience accuses us, and other people accuse us and they remind us of our faults and failings. But the Lord will not listen to their accusations, because, with his life, Christ has paid for our sins in full. And so, every charge which may be brought against us is dismissed from God’s heavenly court. And instead of fearing the day of Christ’s return, we can look forward to it, because when Christ comes again it will be to bring us into that new and better world to come.
And in the meantime, now that we’re been washed and cleansed and forgiven and accepted, what are we to do? After Joshua was given clean clothes to wear, he was appointed by God to serve the Lord in the temple. And now that we have been given, as it were, clean clothes to wear, God calls on us to serve him in our daily lives. In view of God’s mercy, Paul wrote in Romans 12, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to the Lord. In other words, devote yourself to serving him so that by the things you say and do you will bring glory to God who was merciful to you.