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Lesson 4: How Can Sinners Serve a Holy God? (Zechariah 3:1-10)

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The evangelical church today has minimized the problem of guilt by portraying God as very tolerant of sinners, and by viewing ourselves as not such bad folks after all. We see God primarily as our good Buddy in the sky, who may sigh about our sin, but who would never get angry or deal severely with His children. And, thanks to the insights of “Christian” psychology, we now know that the high calling of Christians is to love ourselves and build our self-esteem. As a result, we think that God chose us because of the great potential He saw in us.

But it is essential that we form our view of God and ourselves from Scripture, not from the prevailing views of our times. When we examine Scripture, we find that God is far more holy than we ever imagined, and we are far more sinful than we ever fathomed. As F. B. Meyer puts it (The Prophet of Hope [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 44), “The more we know of God, the more we loathe ourselves and repent.” If loathing ourselves strikes us as a bit out of sync with building our self-esteem, perhaps we do not know God as F. B. Meyer knew God!

Suppose that you had been working on your car and you are covered with grease. Your wife is inside, working on a new white dress. She calls out to you that she needs help getting the zipper up on the back of her new white dress. How can you possibly help your wife in that situation?

That hypothetical situation is a picture of a real, more serious matter: How can defiled sinners like us serve a holy God? The Jews to whom Zechariah ministered felt the sting of that question. They had just returned from the Babylonian captivity, which had taken place because of the nation’s gross, persistent, unrepentant sin. Now a remnant was back in the land, attempting to rebuild the temple and reestablish the proper worship of God. But the past was there to haunt them.

As anyone who truly knows God will testify, when you try to serve God, your conscience kicks into high gear. “Who do you think you are to teach the Bible to others?” So they think, “Some day when I get my life together, I may serve God. But not now!” So a practical question facing all of God’s people is, “How can a sinner such as I serve a holy God?”

Zechariah’s fourth night vision answers that question. It showed the returned remnant that God would cleanse the nation and restore them as a priestly people before Him. He would remove their defilement so that they could again serve Him. As with most of Zechariah’s visions, it is designed to give hope and encouragement to the Lord’s chosen people.

Before we apply this text to ourselves on an individual level, which will be the thrust of this message, we need to understand that the proper interpretation of Zechariah 3 is national and prophetic in scope. Joshua, as the high priest, is representative of the nation Israel. As Merrill Unger explains (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiahs Glory [Zondervan], p. 56), each of these eight night visions involves “the nation as a whole, seen in panoramic prophetic sweep extending from its failure and judgment to its final restoration in Kingdom blessing.” The picture here is of God restoring His people corporately to their place as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). The ultimate final fulfillment of this still awaits Messiah’s second coming.

But the vision had an immediate application to the people who were rebuilding the temple, to show them that they were not laboring in vain. It also applies to us who are seeking to build God’s living temple, the church (Eph. 2:20-22). How can we as sinners serve a holy God? We learn that…

God cleanses sinners through Christ on the basis of His grace and then uses them to serve Him as they walk in His ways.

1. God cleanses sinners on the basis of His sovereign grace, not on the basis of their merit.

Some professing Christians try to serve God as a way to work off their guilt. I once asked a pastor who had entered the ministry in his forties how it was that he felt called to the ministry at that point in life. He replied with a very stern look on his face, “I had to live with myself!” Apparently the ministry was a form of penance!

But any idea that we have to work off or pay for our guilt through good works or penance or purgatory undermines God’s grace, which is undeserved favor. As Paul explains (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor [grace], but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” As Paul so boldly states, it is not that God justifies those who work hard to earn it. Rather, He justifies the ungodly!

A. Joshua had no merit of his own.

Zechariah sees Joshua, the high priest (whose name means, “Yahweh saves”) standing before the angel of the Lord, who is identified in 3:2 as “the Lord.” As we have seen, the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is Jesus Christ in preincarnate form. The Hebrew expression “standing before” is used of priests standing before the Lord to minister (Deut. 10:8; Judges 20:28; 2 Chron. 29:11; Ezek. 44:15). So the picture is that Joshua is attempting to minister before the Lord in his priestly capacity. But he is clothed with filthy garments, representing his own sins and the sins of the nation. This gives Satan, whose name means accuser or adversary, grounds to attack him.

The Hebrew word for “filthy” literally means, “excrement-covered”! Picture a farmer who had been cleaning the barnyard and his overalls are covered with manure. He reeks of the stuff. Without bathing or changing clothes, he walks into a church meeting. That’s how Joshua appeared before God in this vision.

You may wonder, “Why didn’t he put on his finest, clean robes before he went to minister before the Lord?” Perhaps he did. But what looked clean to men on earth did not look so clean when it came into the brilliant light of God’s holy presence. When we compare ourselves with ourselves, our good deeds may seem adequate to commend us to God. But in God’s sight, even our most righteous deeds are as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6, where the Hebrew word pictures soiled menstrual rags!). If we come before God on the basis of any human merit, we are doomed from the start. We have nothing to offer God except filthy, excrement-covered deeds!

In the vision, Satan is standing at Joshua’s right hand to accuse him, and he’s got a good case, because Joshua did not dress properly for court! In Revelation 12:10, Satan is called the accuser of our brethren, “who accuses them before our God day and night.” He doesn’t need to do a lot of homework to prepare his case. He just points to our many sins and says, “This man does not deserve to be Your child. He does not deserve to get into Your heaven. And he most certainly does not deserve to serve Your cause. I rest my case.” Two practical observations:

(1) We need to be careful to distinguish between Satan’s accusations and the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction.

When we walk in the light of God’s Word, His Spirit will often graciously convict us of wrong thoughts, attitudes, words, or behavior: “The way you snapped at your wife and kids this morning did not reflect the patience and kindness of Christ.” We would be in error to label such inner promptings as the accusations of Satan. It is the Lord putting His finger on a sin that I need to confess and turn from. I need to ask forgiveness both from the Lord and from my family for my sinful behavior. I need to apply the shed blood of Christ to my heart in that instance. But if I have truly done that, but still feel guilt and accusation, it is not from the Lord. It is from the enemy. How do we deal with this?

(2) We cannot defend ourselves against Satan’s accusations by pointing to our own merit, but only by letting the Lord defend us.

Joshua didn’t pipe up by saying, “Now wait a minute, Satan! I’m not such a bad guy. I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve never murdered anyone. I am regular in synagogue attendance. I pay my tithes! I even serve God as a priest.” No, Joshua didn’t say a word, because he could see (and smell) his filthy garments. He was guilty as charged. The only way to answer the devil when he brings up your sins that you know are under Jesus’ blood is to say, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Take it up with the Lord. If His shed blood is not sufficient to pay for my sins, I am doomed.” Like Joshua, we all stand guilty as charged, with no merit of our own. Note how the Lord defended Joshua:

B. God defended Joshua on the basis of God’s sovereign election, not on the basis of Joshua’s merit.

“The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?’” (3:2). The Lord did not rebuke Satan by pointing out Joshua’s finer qualities. He didn’t read the list of Joshua’s good deeds over the years.

Instead, the Lord rebukes the devil on the basis of something that the devil cannot contend against, because it lies in the very nature of God as the Sovereign of the universe. God points Satan to His sovereign choice of Israel. Jerusalem (which stands for Israel) is mentioned rather than Joshua personally because he represents the nation in this vision. But clearly, God’s sovereign choice of the nation included His choice of specific individuals in Israel, such as Joshua. Many Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, show that God sovereignly chooses individuals for salvation, not just an impersonal group. That’s how God works in His plan for the ages, by His sovereign choice.

Many Christians wrongly believe that God works on the basis of human choice, not divine choice. As they see it, God chooses us on the basis foreknowing that we would choose Him. This makes election not Gods choice, but rather, mans choice! And it would then no longer be on the basis of grace (unmerited favor), but rather on the basis of something good that God foresaw that we would do, namely, choose Him. And then we would have a reason for sharing the glory with God in our salvation, because there was something inherently good in us that caused us to choose God. But Paul forcefully refutes this in Romans, where he shows that “there is none who seeks for God” (3:11), and that salvation “does not depend on the man who wills [human choice] or the man who runs [human effort], but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

Note also that the cleansing from sin mentioned in Zechariah 3 is not potential, waiting on Israel’s response, but actual, according to God’s purpose. The Lord doesn’t turn to Joshua and say, “I’d really like to cleanse you, I’m out here knocking on the door of your heart, but it’s your decision, Joshua. I’m waiting for you!” No, the Lord powerfully rebukes Satan and then commands those standing near Joshua to remove his filthy garments and put clean garments on him. Then He explains what He is doing to Joshua. As Charles Feinberg states, “It is clearly God’s work without any help from man” (The Minor Prophets [Moody Press], p. 285).

Dr Feinberg also says, “Let those who rail at the choice of God note this passage, and let them rejoice that this is their certainty and assurance for eternity also” (ibid.). If you deny God’s sovereign gracious election as the basis for your salvation, you not only deny the clear teaching of His Word, but also rob yourself of a major ground of assurance! To make your cleansing from sin rest on your feeble choice of God is to ground your salvation on a faulty surface. God grounds your cleansing from sin on the sure foundation of His sovereign choice, and not even Satan can bring a charge against God’s elect (Rom. 8:33)!

Thus we’ve seen that Joshua had no merit of his own. Rather, God cleansed him according to God’s sovereign election. Third,

C. God not only removed Joshua’s sin, but also clothed him with clean garments.

The Lord commands those standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him” (3:4). Then He puts the clean festal robes on him. At this point, Zechariah gets so excited that he gets involved by asking them to put a clean turban on his head. This refers to the linen turban the priests wore that had a gold plate on the front with the inscription, “Holy to the Lord” (Exod. 28:36).

This is a picture of the truth that when God cleanses a sinner, He not only takes away his sin, but also He imputes to him the very righteousness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22, 26; 2 Cor. 5:21). We stand before God not in our own good deeds, but in the righteous deeds of Jesus Christ, imputed to our account. It is not a lifelong process of God infusing enough righteousness into us that eventually we qualify for heaven, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Rather, it is a judicial decision on God’s part that takes place in an instant, as the clothing of Joshua here pictures. God justifies the guilty sinner by grace alone through Christ alone, received by faith alone. Our good deeds have nothing at all to do with it.

2. God cleanses guilty sinners through Christ, the Messiah.

The angel of the Lord, who is Christ, is there to defend Joshua from Satan’s attack. Joshua passively lets Christ be his total help and hope for acquittal. But also, in 3:8-9 the Lord explains to Joshua that he and his friends who were sitting there with him are “men who are a symbol.” The word means that they are a “sign of a future event” (Unger, p. 65). The Lord gives them the prophecy that He will bring in “My servant the Branch.” He also sets before Joshua “the stone,” which has seven eyes and an inscription that God will engrave on it. These terms point to Christ.

*My Servant the Branch—Both “servant” and “branch” are names for Messiah (“servant,” Isa. 42:1; 53:11; “branch,” Isa. 4:2; 11:1; 53:2; Jer. 23:5; 33:15). Both terms point to Messiah in His lowliness and humiliation in His first coming, as the shoot of David. C. F. Keil (Commentary on the Old Testament [Eerdmans], with Franz Delitzsch, on Minor Prophets, 2:260) explains, “[Branch] … denotes the Messiah in His origin from the family of David that has fallen into humiliation, as a sprout which will grow up from its original state of humiliation to exaltation and glory, and answers therefore to the train of thought in this passage, in which the deeply humiliated priesthood is exalted by the grace of the Lord into a type of the Messiah.”

*The Stone—most scholars agree that this also refers to Messiah, in line with a number of biblical references (Ps. 118:22; Isa. 28:16; Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:6). The seven eyes on the stone probably refer to the omniscience of Messiah, although some interpret them to refer to God’s eyes looking on the stone from the outside, which would point to God’s loving protection of it. The imagery of the stone means that Christ is the foundation of His true temple, and also the one who will crush His opponents when He comes in judgment.

The engraving on the stone is difficult to interpret, since we don’t know what it said. It may point to the stone as a costly, precious stone. Some commentators interpret the engraving to refer to the cuts on Messiah made by the thorns on His brow, the nail prints in His hands and feet, and the wound in His side, authenticating Him as the Servant obedient unto death (Unger, p. 67).

Through this Servant Branch and Stone, the Lord declares that He “will remove the iniquity of the land in one day” (3:9). This refers both to the day of the cross, when Christ atoned for the sins of His people, and the future day of salvation for Israel that Paul refers to in Romans 11:25-27. The point is that God removes our sin entirely through the work of Christ on the cross, and not through any good works that we add to His finished work.

Thus God cleanses guilty sinners by His sovereign grace apart from their own merit through Christ alone. There remains one point that I can only touch on:

3. God uses cleansed sinners to serve Him as they walk in His ways.

In verse 7, the Lord states, “if you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here.” It is also alluded to in the Lord’s description of Joshua as “a brand plucked from the fire” (3:2). The only reason to rescue a stick from the fire is that you see a further use for it. It means that God saves His people for His purpose, that they would serve as believer priests before Him. Our text mentions both the requirement for and the results of service.

A. The requirement for service is that we walk in God’s ways.

Although God cleanses us apart from any merit in us, His grace is never an excuse for loose living (Rom. 6:1-2). A person who knows that God has graciously rescued him from the fire will not want to jump back into the flames. The one who has been clothed with the righteousness of Christ will not want to jump into the mud. As those cleansed by God, we should always seek to be clean vessels, ready for the Master’s use (2 Tim. 2:21). Whenever we sin, we must apply Jesus’ blood to our hearts in order to be clean for God to use us in service.

B. The results of service are the privilege of access to God and blessing on God’s people.

The priests who walked in God’s ways would govern His house, have charge of His courts, and have free access to Him. The governance of God’s house and courts referred to the duties of the Old Testament priests in guarding the temple from defilement. The word “free access” means “comings and goings” and refers to the ready access to God that the priests would have, even as the angels standing there had (Unger, p. 63). The picture in verse 10 of everyone inviting his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree was an expression picturing God’s people at peace and amply supplied (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4).

The application for us is that God pours out His abundant blessings on those who walk in His ways and who minister as priests before Him in worship and prayer. Although it will not be ultimately fulfilled until the Millennium, we can experience a foretaste of it now. When we are right with God through faith in Jesus Christ, walking in holiness before Him, we will be at peace in His house, in our own homes, and with our neighbors. Peace with God is the key for peace with one another.


When John Wesley was six years old, he awoke one night to the horror of being in a burning house. Everyone else had gotten to safety, but somehow he had been forgotten. At the very last moment, just before the roof collapsed, a neighbor climbed through the window and pulled the terrified child to safety. He always saw himself as a brand plucked from the burning. After his conversion, which came after years of trying to earn salvation by his good works, he realized even more how much God had rescued him from the eternal flames of hell.

If God has not rescued you from your sins, you must let go of your good works and allow God to cleanse you by His sovereign grace through Christ alone. If He has rescued you, it is so that you can now serve Him as you walk in His ways.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can our consciences be over-sensitive? How can we know if the Holy Spirit is convicting us or we’re over-sensitive?
  2. How does the doctrine of God’s sovereign election apply to our assurance of salvation? Why should it comfort you?
  3. Why is justification by grace through faith alone an essential of the gospel that cannot be compromised?
  4. When (if ever) is sin so significant that it disqualifies a person from Christian service? Give biblical support.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Predestination, Prophecy/Revelation, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

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