A great illustration that Tim Keller recounts in his book Jesus the King:
“Years ago my wife Kathy and I heard a sermon preached by Ray Dillard, an Old Testament professor at Westminster Seminary and friend of ours who has since passed away. He wept through most of the sermon, which was based on Zechariah 3. Zechariah is one of the prophetic books in the Old Testament, and in the first line of chapter 3, Zechariah, in a vision, is transported into the center of the temple. He says this: ‘Then [the Lord] showed me Joshua, the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord.’
The temple had three parts: the outer court, the inner court, and the holy of holies. The holy of holies was completely surrounded by a thick veil. Inside was the ark of the covenant, on top of it was the mercy seat, and the shekinah glory of God, the very presence and face of God, appeared over the mercy seat. It was a dangerous place. In Leviticus 16, God says, ‘If you come near the mercy seat, put a lot of incense and smoke up in the air, because I appear in the cloud over the mercy seat and I don’t want you to die.’ Only one person on one day of the year was allowed to go into the holy of holies: the high priest of Israel on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Zechariah, then, was experiencing a vision from the center of the temple, inside the holy of holies, and he saw Joshua the high priest standing before the Lord on Yom Kippur.
Ray Dillard, preaching his sermon, then drew on his scholarship and spoke in great detail about the enormous amount of preparation that took place for the Day of Atonement. A week beforehand, the high priest was put into seclusion- taken away from his home and into a place where he was completely alone. Why? So he wouldn’t accidentally touch or eat anything unclean. Clean food was brought to him, and he’d wash his body and prepare his heart. The night before the Day of Atonement he didn’t go to bed; he stayed up all night praying and reading God’s Word to purify his soul. Then on Yom Kippur he bathed head to toe and dressed in pure, unstained white linen. Then he went into the holy of holies and offered an animal sacrifice to God to atone, or pay the penalty for, his own sins. After that he came out and bathed completely again, and new white linen was put on him, and he went in again, this time sacrificing for the sins of the priests. But that’s not all. He would come out a third time, and he bathed again from head to toe and they dressed him in brand-new pure linen, and he went into the holy of holies and atoned for the sins of all the people.
Did you know that this was all done in public? The temple was crowded, and those in attendance watched closely. There was a thin screen, and he bathed behind it. But the people were present: They saw him bathe, dress, go in, come back out. He was their representative before God, and they were there cheering him on. They were very concerned to make sure that everything was done properly and with purity, because he represented them before God. When the high priest went before God there wasn’t a speck on him; he was as pure as pure can be. Only if you understand that do you realize why the next lines of the prophecy in Zechariah 3 were so shocking: Zechariah saw Joshua the high priest standing before the presence of God in the holy of holies- but Joshua’s garments were covered in excrement. He was absolutely defiled. Zechariah couldn’t believe his eyes. Ray said the key interpretive question is: How could that have happened? There’s no way that the Israelites would ever have allowed the high priest to appear before God like that. Ray’s answer was this: God was giving Zechariah a prophetic vision so that he could see us the way that God sees us. In spite of all our efforts to be pure, to be good, to be moral, to cleanse ourselves, God sees our hearts, and our hearts are full of filth.
All of our morality, all of our good works, don’t really get to the heart, and Zechariah suddenly realized that no matter what we do we’re unfit for the presence of God. But just as he was about to despair, he heard: ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you…Listen,…I am going to bring my servant, the Branch,…and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day’ (Zechariah 3:4 and 8 – 9). Zechariah probably couldn’t believe his ears. He must have thought, ‘Wait a minute, for years we’ve been doing the sacrifices, obeying the cleanliness laws. We can never get this sin off ourselves!’ But God was saying, ‘Zechariah, this is a prophecy. Someday the sacrifices will be over, the cleanliness laws will be fulfilled.’
How can that be? Ray Dillard closed the sermon like this: Centuries later another Joshua showed up, another Yeshua. Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua- it’s the same name in Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. Another Joshua showed up, and he staged his own Day of Atonement. One week beforehand, Jesus began to prepare. And the night before, he didn’t go to sleep – but what happened to Jesus was exactly the reverse of what happened to Joshua the high priest, because instead of cheering him on, nearly everyone he loved betrayed, abandoned, or denied him. And when he stood before God, instead of receiving words of encouragement, the Father forsook him. Instead of being clothed in rich garments, he was stripped of the only garment he had, he was beaten, and he was killed naked. He was bathed too, Ray told us- in human spit.
Why? ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). God clothed Jesus in our sin. He took our penalty, our punishment so that we, like Joshua, the high priest, can get what Revelation 19:7-8 pictures: ‘Let us rejoice and be glad…Fine linen, bright and clean, is given [to us] to wear.’ Pure linen – perfectly clean – without stain or blemish. Hebrews 13 says Jesus was crucified outside the gate where bodies are burned – the garbage heap, a place of absolute uncleanliness – so that we can be made clean. Through Jesus Christ, at infinite cost to himself, God has clothed us in costly. clean. garments. It cost him his blood. And it is the only thing that can deal with the problem of your heart.”