Friday 1 July 2011

Priestly ipods and holy underpants (Exodus 28)

Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honour.
Exodus 28:1-2

What do your clothes say about you?

This week, as thousands of students process down King’s Parade and gather in front of Senate House, they will be smartly dressed in formal attire and robed in black gowns trimmed with white fur. Their attire says that they have come to the end of their academic journey, having earned a degree from the prestigious Cambridge University.

From the t-shirt clad, backward baseball cap wearing, Nike-sneaker sporting teenager; to the Moss Brothers pin-striped suited up executive; what we wear speaks volumes about our background, our tastes, our income, our profession and even our favourite football team.

So here in Chapter 28, God gives specific instructions to make a suit. Yet not just any suit. It is one of a kind, to be worn by one man, whose most important task is to enter God’s presence once every year. This is the suit of the High Priest.

Dressing the part

Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. They are to make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests. Have them use gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.
Exodus 28:3-5

These were the best materials in the hands of their most skilled craftsmen. Don’t get me wrong. There is theological significance here. But throughout these chapters, which essentially form an instruction manual for worship given by God - for the construction of the Tabernacle, the altar, the courtyard and here, the priestly clothing - God says to Moses, “You have to get your best and most talented guys working on this project.” This isn’t Ikea. The instructions may be brief, but they are exact. Every minute detail has to been observed. But more than that, it has to be handled with care and with skill. “Tell all the skilled men to whom I have given wisdom in such matters.” God is saying that the skills you have are given you by God; they are given you to worship God.

God is essentially describing worship as something that has to be engaging; something that is beautiful.

The priestly iPod... I mean, ePhod

Make the ephod of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen—the work of a skilled craftsman. It is to have two shoulder pieces attached to two of its corners, so it can be fastened. Its skillfully woven waistband is to be like it—of one piece with the ephod and made with gold, and with blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and with finely twisted linen.
Exodus 28:6-8

The ephod was - for want of a better description - a very ornate-looking apron. What is interesting about the ephod was the materials used; notice how it repeatedly says to use “blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of fine twisted linen”. Aside from being very expensive materials (blue and purple were the most costly of dyes in the ancient world), these were the exact materials used in the construction of the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31). The Most Holy Place was the most restricted place in all of Israel. It symbolised the very throne room of God in heaven. No one - absolutely no one - entered the Most Holy Place, except the High Priest, and even so, only once a year to offer sacrifices on behalf of the nation. Yet when the Israelites saw the High Priest dressed in the ephod, they got a glimpse of what it meant to enter into God’s presence.

In this way, the High Priest represented God to the people. His clothing symbolised a glimpse into the presence of God. And yet the High Priest’s job was also to represent Israel to God. We see this next in the two stones - kinda like headphones that go with your iPod; the ePhod had two onyx stones, one on each shoulder.

“Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other. Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the LORD. Make gold filigree settings and two braided chains of pure gold, like a rope, and attach the chains to the settings.
Exodus 28:9-13

Verse 12 calls them “memorial” stones. The names of the twelve sons of Israel were engraved on them. In way, they reminded Aaron, the high priest, he was an ambassador. When he walked into God’s presence, he was representing the whole nation, as he performed his duties of sacrifice and offering.

Yet looking closely at verse 12, Aaron bears these stones as “a memorial before the LORD”. Meaning God looks at Aaron and what does he see? Israel. He sees this one man, and God sees all men. He sees the names of the sons of of the man he gave his promise to - Israel; the promise of descendants and land and blessing (Genesis 28:13-15).

Decked out in bling

“Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of a skilled craftsman. Make it like the ephod: of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen. It is to be square—a span long and a span wide—and folded double. Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. In the first row there shall be a ruby, a topaz and a beryl; in the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and an emerald; in the third row a jacinth, an agate and an amethyst; in the fourth row a chrysolite, an onyx and a jasper. Mount them in gold filigree settings. There are to be twelve stones, one for each of the names of the sons of Israel, each engraved like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes.
Exodus 28:15-21

Verse 15 we find two words you would never associate with guys: “fashion” and “breastpiece”. I mean, this guy was decked out in bling! This time, not simply with gold, blue and purple cloths - but jewels like ruby, topaz and beryl.

Yet there was substance to this style. Like the two black onyx stones on his shoulders - these twelve stones represented the twelve tribes of Israel. These were precious valuable stones signifying how valuable Israel was in God’s eyes. In fact, we find the same stones listed at the very end of the bible in the book of Revelation. Describing the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God, John the apostle writes of the twelve foundations of the city walls:

The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.
Revelation 21:19-20

Furthermore, these stones had function. The King James version called this the “breastplate of judgement”. Now that sounds a bit more manly!

“Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastpiece of decision as a continuing memorial before the LORD. Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the LORD. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD.
Exodus 28:29-30

How the Urim and Thummim worked we’re not sure. We don’t even know what they looked like. But what we know for sure is they were means of discerning God’s will. We find King Saul using this in 1 Samuel 14, to enquire of God’s verdict on a judgement he has to make. The context there seems to imply something similar to casting lots. Others infer from the twelve stones of the breastpiece and root word of the Hebrew for Urim, meaning “light”, that there God’s will was indicated through the luminance and reflection of these stones (I wonder if it’s a bit like traffic lights that lit up!)

The point is verse 30. Aaron has the means of making a judgement on behalf of the people. It was a judgement before God and it was a judgement from God. Israel was to seek God’s guidance and submit to God’s sovereign will.

The bells are ringing

The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the LORD and when he comes out, so that he will not die.
Exodus 28:34-35

This is the bit Aaron would have paid special attention to. Yeah, yeah, it’s about some silly sounding bells. Ding-a-ling-aling, haha, very funny! But not so funny for Aaron the high priest. If these bells don’t ding-a-ling, he’s dead!

The reason is holiness. God is holy. The bells are heard when the high priest enters the Holy Place. The bells are heard when he exits the Holy Place. One is for God’s benefit - like a doorbell. The other is for the people of Israel. It means their offerings have been accepted. Their sins have been forgiven.

Because as the passage goes on to tell us, as the high priest enters God’s presence, this one man bears the sin and guilt of the entire nation of Israel.

“Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD. Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the LORD.
Exodus 28:36-38

Not only was God holy, Israel was to be holy. Holy simply means separate, or set apart. When I set aside the nice plates for guests (ie. the exact same plates as all the rest, except that these aren’t chipped on the side) - these plates are holy. They are separated from the rest of the plates.

Israel was holy to the Lord. Meaning: they were set apart to God. They were not to seek after other gods. They were not to serve idols. They were exclusive to God.

And yet what this passage makes very clear is that Israel was unholy. They were guilty of sin. They were sinners before a holy God, fully deserving of God’s righteous judgement of death. Aaron’s job as high priest  - in wearing the gold plate on his turban, in offering the gifts and sacrifices in the Holy Place, in entering into God’s presence - was to bear their guilt.

Aaron was Israel. That’s the point of the stones and clothes and sacrifices. When he entered the Holy Place, Israel entered God’s presence. As Israel was unholy and sinful, so Aaron would bear their sin.

And as God accepted the sacrifices and offerings of Aaron, this one man, this high priest; so God would accept Israel, the nation and people he represented.

His was a dangerous job. Forsaking any of the instructions meant death. His was an important job. Once a year, according to Leviticus 16, he offered the sacrifice on behalf of the entire nation. Acceptance of this sacrifice - this true worship - meant forgiveness for the whole nation.

So the question is: Why don’t we do this today? Should pastors dress in ephods, turbans and put on a golden breastplate?

Before we answer that, let’s look at the last piece of holy clothing instructed by God. The underwear.

Holy underpants

Make linen undergarments as a covering for the body, reaching from the waist to the thigh. Aaron and his sons must wear them whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar to minister in the Holy Place, so that they will not incur guilt and die.
Exodus 28:42-43

What does this tell us (aside from perhaps the origin of white underwear - why not brown or yellow?). It tells us that the priests themselves were guilty.

You see, Aaron and his sons were not chosen because they were less holy than anyone else. They were just as guilty and just as sinful. Yet as high priest, Aaron would bear the guilt of everyone else. His sacrifices in the Most Holy Place made them acceptable.

But verses 42 and 43 remind that he himself needs to be acceptable. Down to the undergarments, Aaron and his sons were clothed to cover their guilt. They were accepted not because of who they were of what they did. No, they were accepted by God because God had provided a way to cover their guilt with his righteousness.
So today as Christians, we do not wear turbans and ephods because we know that these are mere shadows pointing forward to a better covering. We cover ourselves with the righteousness and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

By ourselves, we are sinners deserving death. We turn our backs to God and reject him as God over our lives. But God covers over our sin with the righteousness of Jesus, just like a suit or jacket. Such that when he sees us, he sees Jesus. In Jesus we become “Holy to the LORD”.

Our true high priest

John’s gospel records the final moments leading up to the death of Jesus in a way that is peculiar to the other gospels. He tells us what Jesus wore.

Jesus was handed over to the soldiers to be tortured. But more than that, they wanted to humiliate Jesus. So they put a crown of thorns on his head, a robe on his shoulders, and bowed down to him calling Jesus the King of the Jews. But John adds one more detail. He tells us that the robe was purple. Now, to the guards and to the average reader - we read of the purple robe and think of a king. But to the Jewish reader who knows his history, and who has read Exodus 28, he knows that John is talking about the high priest.

Later, as Jesus hung on the cross, the scene turns to the soldiers again, dividing up the spoils of Jesus’ clothes. But the most precious clothing they resort to casting lots over is Jesus’ undergarment.

Now, John spend time detailing this event; telling us about the robe then the undergarment. Why? Because what we see here at the crucifixion is the disrobing of the true high priest. Jesus is stripped of these articles of clothing - clothing that was symbolic of the righteousness of the high priest - such that when he hung on the cross, he was naked and exposed. There he bore our nakedness. On the cross he took our shame.

Speaking about Jesus, the book of Hebrews says this:

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
Hebrews 7:26-28

Jesus is the true high priest. A truly sinless man who enters God’s presence bearing the guilt of the world. And through his nakedness and from his death, our sins are forgiven and our guilt is covered.

As Romans 13:14 says to us as Christians, we “clothe (ourselves) with the Lord Jesus Christ”.

What do your clothes say about you?

For Christians covered in the righteousness of Jesus, it says we are loved; we have been forgiven; it says we are holy to the Lord.

You placed a crown of grace on my head
You covered me in robes of righteousness
Forever I will always be Yours, Jesus

Father, thank You for Your Spirit’s work in me
For opening my eyes to the Christ of Calvary
Jesus, You gave Your life in exchange for mine
Now I will live for You who died, Jesus
(From “Who made me to know you” by Sovereign Grace)

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