A Brand Plucked From the Fire and Set in Christ – Zechariah 3

I have been drawn recently to Zechariah 3.  For the sake of space I will refrain from typing the whole chapter, but I would recommend it for obvious reasons.  The text provides an illuminating relationship between justification and the Old Testament, adding cohesion to the New Testament rendering of the doctrine.  The chapter refutes the notion that the Jews could have rightly ascertained from the law that just standing could be had with God on the basis of works, or, in light of newer positions on justification, that law-keeping could even maintain their covenant status.  The history of Israel provided in the Old Testament Scriptures bear witness to at least this reality: Israel was sinful and needed more than moral reform; they needed a true salvation.  In Zechariah 3, we see from God’s perspective exactly what needed to happen in order for one to be justified in His court – they needed the imputation of a righteousness that only God could provide; this of course resonates loudly with the New Testament conception of justification by faith.

Zechariah receives a vision of Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.  We have then a law-court scene.  The angel of the Lord will defend Joshua; Satan stands to accuse him.  It appears from the text that the angel of the Lord, that God Himself, has a hard case, for Joshua was standing before the angel of the Lord “clothed with filthy garments.”  There is an echo of Isaiah 64:6 in this picture, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”  The point to make plain, then, is that Joshua’s filthy garments are a metaphor for his unrighteousness before God’s holiness.  This appears to be a difficult case to win.  

The LORD’s words that follow are breathtaking – “And the LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, O Satan!  The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” (3:2).  Romans 8:33 rings in our hearts at this point, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”  Insofar as God has rebuked Satan, Satan is rebuked; insofar as God justifies, Satan may accuse but only without effect – the ungodly is justified.  God is the highest court, and His decision is irrevocable, for God does not change.  Nevertheless, Joshua still stands before the court in filthy garments; it is not pointless to consider the implications of Joshua being the high priest and yet being in filthy garments, but that is tangential (though worthy of meditation).  How can God justify the unrighteous like Joshua?  This is a huge problem.  If God justifies Joshua without Joshua being righteous before God, then God is unjust and He ceases to be God.  We must admit that Satan is not wrong in his initial accusation; and God, in part, concurs with a qualification saying, “Is not this a brand,” – that is, a stick in the fire – but He continues, “plucked from the fire?”  As such, Satan has no more accusation, no more hold, for God has redeemed Joshua in His grace.  Joshua is out of the fire and being justified by God.  This ought to well up within our hearts a deep, deep silence of wonder concentrated on the grace of God.  How, then, is God right to justify Joshua?

Imputation.  Gracious imputation!  The angel of the Lord commanded those who were standing before Joshua, “Remove the filthy garments from him.”  This is the remission or forgiveness of sin.  Notice the angels subsequent words and how he attaches the meaning upon what has just been done, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you.”  But this is only half of the operation.  The angel’s imperative continues, “and I will clothe you with pure vestments” (v. 4).  Moreover, they placed a clean turban on his head.  Joshua’s sin was removed from him, and a new and saving righteousness given to him in its place.  Gracious imputation!  Hear the echoes of Romans 8:34, “Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”  

Redemptive historically, this is a beautiful inversion of Christ Jesus.  Has God just willed a righteousness?  Does He just close His eyes and wave the wand of free justice apart from penalty in some measure?  No, the Judge judges justly.  God does not abstractly justify the ungodly.  A penalty must be paid for sin, indeed, a perfect penalty, a sacrifice.  How did Joshua’s righteousness come about?  The answer is found in the Branch of verse 8.  “Behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. . . . In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree” (vv.8, 10).  While Joshua was given pure vestments, Jesus Christ, the final High Priest, put on the humiliation of flesh, and bore our filthy garments.  When Joshua was given a clean turban, Jesus Christ was tortured with a crown of thorns.  Joshua was restored to service, because Jesus was stripped and beaten.  Joshua had his iniquity taken away from him, because Jesus Christ was crucified in his place.  For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Roman 8:1).  This was Joshua’s experience; this is every believer’s reality.  We who stood in unrighteousness with the expectation of a just condemnation, are for no inherent reason, given a perfect righteousness.  It is a worthy note to take, that this passage presents Joshua as dead, a brand in the fire; but God plucks the brand out of the fire, clothes it with pure vestments, and restores it to life (denoted by the reinstatement of Joshua to proper service (vv. 6, 7), for this service only comes through the vitality of Christ’s life, a life here given to Joshua). So we too were dead in sin and trespasses, but in Christ were made alive to walk in newness of life.

Shall we marvel at the grace of God?  Yes, we must!  It is precious in our sight.  God has justified the ungodly because His Son paid our penalty of death, wrath, and hell, but He was raised and thereby vindicated as Lord.  Satan’s accusations fall back to hell ineffectual, and in the new analysis, wrong, for Joshua and Christ (that is, in union), they are perfectly righteous in God’s judgment.  No charge may stand; no appeal can be heard.  So we are brands – brands plucked out of the fire by God’s merciful hand, and more, we are clothed in Christ’s royal garments, and still further, on the basis of this justification, God (finding no fault against us) embraces us as His own children, loves us as a perfect Father, and pours the vitality of Christ’s life into us by the Holy Spirit.  By the Branch’s vitality, we, like Joshua are restored to service, to walk with God in His ways (He has written them on our hearts), and to invite our neighbor also to come under His vine, His fig tree and thus to taste of the forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting with God.  Salvation belongs to the Lord in Christ; this is our only boast.  May we exult in it.  Amen.


One Response

  1. Brian,

    I was brought to your article by a google search : ” brand plucked from the fire ” . Be encouraged that I was blessed from your exposition of Zechariah 3 as it pointed to our Savior Jesus Christ and His saving work on the cross. Amazing Grace how sweet the sound…..

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