Priest of the restored kingdom (Zechariah 3)

How does Zechariah’s story about a high priest in filthy rags relate to Jesus?

Read Zechariah 3.

The prophets inspired Jesus’ kingdom vision. After God’s nation disintegrated in the exile, prophets like Zechariah delivered God’s promise to restore his kingdom. He said that God had scattered them among the nations because of their unfaithfulness, and God would gather them as his kingdom again because of his covenant faithfulness (Zechariah 1–2).

The two markers of God’s kingship in Jerusalem were gone: the house of God (the palace for his throne), and the house of David (the anointed kingship representing his reign). Zechariah addresses these two problems in Chapters 3 and 4.

The temple was where the priests (intermediaries between the heavenly sovereign and his people) maintained the covenant relationship, as specified in his Law. Without the temple, they were unable to maintain this relationship.

The high priest was meant to be dressed in linen robes, bearing the symbols of the twelve tribes on his vest as he entered God’s holy presence to make atonement between the sovereign and his people (Exodus 28). Without these temple rituals, he was unable to restore the covenant relationship, so they were stuck in exile. That’s the accusation the satan brings: the high priest who represents the people to God is covered with their filth, their covenant unfaithfulness, the reason they went into exile in the first place. The accuser’s point is that there is no way for this high priest, dressed in the filthy rags of the homeless people, to restore the nation into covenant relationship with their holy sovereign.

But that’s a one-sided argument. The covenant has two sides. The people are incapable of restoring covenant relationship, but the Lord can rescue them (3:2). God can remove the filth of the people that the high priest is wearing, and gift him the garments he needs to function as mediator between God and his people (3:4-5). The high priest’s name contains the message of who performs the covenant rescue: Joshua means “YHWH saves.”

So, God’s first step is to restore Joshua the high priest, appointing him to look after the courts of the heavenly king and his presence among his people (3:7). This enabled the second temple to function when it was dedicated in 515 BC.

But that’s just the first step towards the restoration. For the kingdom of God to be restored, the kingship must be restored as well:

Zechariah 3:8–10 (NIV)
‘Listen, High Priest Joshua, you and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day. 10 ‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

We recognize the Branch as a metaphor used by other prophets for the promised king. The exile felled David’s family tree, but God promised a shoot from the stump, a son of David who would reign as God’s anointed (e.g. Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5). The coronation of God’s Anointed would signal the end of exile, that the sin of the land no longer isolated the nation from their sovereign in heaven.

The kingdom is restored by God restoring a) the servant who maintains relationship with God in his house and b) the servant who reigns in David’s house as God’s anointed. Zechariah has more to say about these two characters in Chapter 4.

Relevance to Jesus

Matthew’s Gospel opens by summarizing the story of the kingdom of God in three stages:

  • the rise of the kingdom, from Abraham to David (Matthew 1:2-6)
  • the demise of the kingdom, from David to the exile (1:7-11)
  • the Davidic descendants who were unable to reign, due to captivity to foreign powers (1:12-16).

They desperately need God anointed ruler. Matthew effusively tells us he has come (1:1, 1:16, 1:17; 1:18; 2:4).

In fact, a messenger from heaven instructed Jesus’ parents to give him the same name as the priest who established the second temple: You are to give him the name Jesus [=Joshua in Hebrew], because he will save his people from their sins (1:21).

That’s the issue Zechariah 3 addresses: how could Joshua the high priest — dressed in the covenant failures of his people — take away the sin that held them in captivity?

Matthew says that God has sent a new Joshua, born into captivity. The temple restored in Zechariah’s day was still standing, but the high priest (Caiaphas) wasn’t helping. According to Jesus, all the blood of previous generations is coming on the temple gangsters who ordered the execution of the one God sent to save his people (21:13; 23:29-36; 26:65-66).

So how could the kingdom of God be restored when the temple servants were dressed in blood-soaked rags? That was Satan’s accusation. The initiative would have to come from the other side of the covenant: The Lord rebuke you, Satan! … Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire? (Zechariah 3:2).

And that is precisely what God did: rescuing his man, the new Joshua, from destruction when the rulers put him to death, raising up out of death and giving him authority to govern my house and have charge of my courts (3:7).

That’s how God saves his people. In saving his Anointed from the grave, God has also rescued the community that exists in him. In raising him from death to the throne — the Branch sprouting from David’s dead stump — God has restored his people into covenant relationship as his kingdom, removing the sin of the land in a single day (Zechariah 3:9).

Zechariah saw the second temple in his day, but he did not see the restoration of the kingdom through the Branch from David’s line. He recognized that what he was seeing was only a sign of things to come (3:8). We see more in the later visions of Zechariah: the king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to proclaim peace to the nations in fulfilment of God’s covenant (Zechariah 9:9-11). This is how the world becomes the community at peace under God’s providence (3:10).

This is the backstory for the promises Jesus proclaimed, the good news of God’s kingship for the world, the good news of the kingdom of God.

What others are saying

Barry Webb, The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come, BST (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 88:

The Branch by this time has become a technical term for the Messiah, the ideal future king of David’s line. This brings us to an astonishing promise, which bridges the gap between what Zechariah has just seen in the vision and the massive problem that faces the whole community in the real world. It is a promise that sums up the good news of the gospel in a single sentence: I will remove the sin of this land in a single day (9b). That is, what Zechariah has just seen done symbolically for Joshua the high priest will one day be done actually for the whole land (the entire community).

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

2 thoughts on “Priest of the restored kingdom (Zechariah 3)”

  1. Allen, I told my friends tonight about the unlikely combination of resources I found in you: First, a decade and more of priceless instruction on best practices for software; Second, a treasure-house of Bible understanding and spiritual inquiry.

    I’m thanking you, my teacher and brother in the Lord. Thank you particularly for these last five years of sharing your insights, speculations and earnest concerns.

    Liked by 1 person

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