A Burning Stick Snatched From The Fire
Key Verse 3:4
“The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘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.’”
These are the visions of the prophet Zechariah that the Lord showed him to share with the people of Israel who had returned from the seventy year exile to Babylon. All these visions we had been looking at are hard to imagine, let alone to interpret, even when the vision itself gives an interpretation. But even so, we are studying the Book of Zechariah because, in spite of its mysterious nature, we still find in it beautiful words of encouragement and promise; words of wisdom and counsel; and words of hope and faith which God gave his people at a time when they most needed them. Who were these people to whom God passed on these visions through his prophet Zechariah? They were the usual people of God, having returned to their homeland Israel from a prolonged exile in a foreign land, and having to face all kinds of usual and unusual and difficult challenges and hardship of the day, problems that are both physical and spiritual, and all the while having to go on living ordinary lives and making the best of it. That’s whom these visions came to through the prophet. The question is why such elaborate visions to such ordinary people? And the answer is simple. They were anything but ordinary. They were the people of God; and that makes them extraordinary beyond measure! This is something most people don’t know, and sometimes even those who should know don’t know! Sadly even Christians who should know most often don’t know. So were those Israelites who returned from exile and were living ordinary but difficult lives in their native land. They didn’t want their enemies to harass them; They just wanted a good harvest; They wanted to eat their meals in peace; They wanted to see their kids go to Temple and read the Torah. But everything was so hard! Why? Because they were God’s people, and God’s people are ever so special. When God had chosen them he had said: “You will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5b-6)
And when a nation or a people or an individual is special to God, there is nothing ordinary either about that nation or person. The returned exiles looked ordinary and suffered and struggled like ordinary people. But nothing about them was ordinary. God had set them apart as his people, and everything in their lives down to their daily struggles was very much part of God’s purpose. This also applies to us Christians as well— that is, those of us who are in Christ— though it is sad that so few truly appreciate this truth and acknowledge it. However, to return to our visions, these visions were given to these very people because they were in no way ordinary people. They were rather the extraordinary people of God who were called to a very high service; They were called to serve God’s purpose in this world as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people belonging to God; His very own treasured possession! Do you know how high up that calling is? How majestic and special that is? They were in a position where their lives were not their own but God’s, and for that reason their lives, regardless of whether they suffered hardship or persecution, whether their mission from God was difficult or even possible, whatever their lot was, they had to make the best of their lives for the glory of God.
And that’s where the visions come in for those who truly understand and appreciate what the Lord does in the lives of his people, those he has chosen, whether people or nations or individuals. The Lord’s visions to the prophet spoke to the prophet; And in turn they spoke to the people of God. They specifically spoke to the nation of Israel as the nation chosen to be God’s nation on earth, chosen to serve his purpose. Sometimes these visions rebuked the nation and at times the visions encouraged the nation. But here in this chapter and the next (that is, chapters 3 & 4), we will see that the visions involve two specific individuals. In chapter 3, they involve Joshua, the high priest of Israel, who was the spiritual representative of the nation of Israel. And in chapter 4, we will see that the visions involve Zerubbabel, the governor of Israel, who was the social representative of the people and nation. Although we know that the visions speak to the nation as a whole, they also specifically speak to their leaders. What do they say to them? They offer great words of wisdom and encouragements to them on the art of leadership. Of course, the visions give amazing words of grace and truth to anyone who would listen. But for those in leadership position, the counsel in these two chapters can truly raise a shepherd out of anyone whom the Lord has called to take up the mantle of leadership. Today we’re looking at chapter 3, and the scene opens up in the courts of heaven at the throne of God.
Let’s read verses 1-3. “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’ Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.” What a vision! But to those who read the Bible, this is not an unusual scene. What I mean is that Satan is well known to be the Accuser of all people. He not only works to tempt people to sin and to do what is evil, but his work extends to standing before God to also accuse them of all their sins. For this reason, there will never be a human being who will ever get away with a single sin he or she has ever committed during their lifetime, because the Accuser Satan always stands to accuse them of everything they’ve done throughout their life. And if no one comes to their defense, and their sins aren’t atoned for, and there is found no forgiveness for their sins, their judgment will be sealed by the Judge whom God has already appointed (2 Timothy 4:1; Acts 10:42). On the day of Judgment, that will be the fate of all people who have ever lived.
But what’s surprising about this vision is that no ordinary man is standing before the judgment seat of Almighty God. What Zechariah is witnessing here is none other than the holy high priest of Israel, Joshua. Won’t look at him! And who’s at his side? None other than the Angel of the Lord whom we know to be the Pre-Incarnate Christ! But there’s also someone else standing beside him. We see Satan standing by him accusing him. However, before we go there— look at what the high priest is wearing! In the NIV we read that he is dressed in “filthy clothes”, and that’s putting it very mildly, as he stands there before the Lord. But in the original Hebrew language, the word is literally translated as dung. In other words, Joshua’s clothes were as good as smeared and covered with poop! And why is this so significant? Because the high priest in all his glory, was supposed to be dressed in gloriously ornamented and immaculate garments, studded with brilliant jewels when he came to pray in the presence of the Lord in the tent of meeting. He was to represent not only the people of God, but he was also to reflect the glory of the Lord! That is why his appearance was so important! The slightest breach of this law brought about condemnation and death! Look at him now, dressed in poop in the presence of the Lord! What do you make of that?
It may have several meanings. Joshua stood before the Lord as a representative of no ordinary people, but of a Holy Nation and a Priestly Kingdom. (Exodus 19:5) He was wearing really filthy clothes, not because of his own sinfulness (though of course, he too was a sinner before God), but because the nation itself had greatly sinned against the Lord. In that way, they had become so terribly unclean in God’s sight. We need to remember that Joshua himself was only “symbolic of things to come” (if you would look at verse 8). We will talk later of the things to come. But for now, what of the things that had been? Look at verse 2. “The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’” Long ago, God had chosen Jerusalem— which also stands to represent the people of God. Out of all nations, God had chose them above all else. But they betrayed him and went after other gods— gods who smelled of Power and of Lust and of Money! The stench of betrayal is like the stink of an unfaithful husband or of a cheating wife. So God sent them into exile to train them in the furnace of suffering. And when he brought them out and back to Israel to rebuild their lives, they were like a stick that’s been snatched right out of the fire! (2) What does it tell us about God? It tells us first that in spite of everything they had done, God still loved them! It tells us that even after they were disciplined in the fires of Babylonian exile, they still badly stunk with the stench of sin. It also tells us that they needed cleansing!
Now Joshua the high priest, representative of the returned exiles, stood at the Lord’s side dressed in his dung smeared clothes. The sin of the people was evident on his body. As for him personally, what does it tell us about him? It also tells us that he too was a man snatched from the fire. He was the high priest of Israel. Yet he was dressed in dung clothes— clothes that stunk with the stench of feces before the throne of the living God. How could that be? That is precisely the situation however of all people, even the most holy high priest of Israel. Zechariah the Prophet was observing all this, and not participating. Perhaps he was aghast at what he saw. He could not believe that his high priest would be as filthy as that, and so close in the presence of the Lord. Yet he too was a man snatched like a burning stick from the fire. As a young man Zechariah may have had to learn that all men, even the holy priest is a filthy sinner before God. Why would this be significant for the young prophet? Because unless he learns that all men are sinners before the Lord, he may not be able to understand the grace of God at all. This may have been the most important lesson Zechariah would ever learn— that even his high priest is dressed in the filthiest clothes before the Lord and deserving the most condemnation!
What else did the prophet witness? Look now at verse 1. He saw the accuser Satan doing what he does best. He saw Satan accusing Joshua. We are not told what the accusations were. But we can only imagine that the accusations were horrendous, because Satan does not play games nor does he sympathize with the sinner. Rather he hates people, especially God’s people and he would see them accused of all their sins and judged and condemned to hell. Satan was not only accusing the nation Israel of its sins of unfaithfulness to God, but perhaps accusing Joshua the high priest of his own crimes against the Lord as well as he does to every one of God’s people and servants— as he does and will to every one who belongs to the Lord. It is unsettling to think about the scene that Zechariah was witnessing at the moment of Joshua’s accusation. However, we should go on and look at the Lord’s response to these accusations. Look again at verse 2, where the Lord graciously rebukes Satan for such accusations. Not only that, but the Lord’s reason is that while the Lord has chosen an entire huge nation of people to be his own people and to serve him and his purpose in this world, the man standing there in dung clothes is nothing more than a stick snatched from the fire! In other words, Satan’s desire is to completely destroy, while God’s heart’s desire is to rescue and save even a burning stick, a small remnant, a handful! What a beautiful picture of the heart of God we have here!
So many people think that our God is a vengeful God, eager and ready to pounce on the man or woman who does what is evil and who deserves to be condemned to hell. But the picture we have here is so different. It is the accuser who is eager and ready to snuff out those who are deserving. And it is the Lord who is the merciful one who is eager and ready to rebuke the accuser and snatch even those who are deserving from the fire. “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire”? It reminds me of what the Lord Jesus said: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s One and Only Son.” (John 3:17-18) Indeed the problem is never the Lord, for the Lord is merciful and always eager to save the sinner; The problem is usually the Accuser, and those who stand condemned already because they choose to believe the accuser rather than believing God.
What did the Lord have in mind for the high priest dressed in dung clothes? God had a plan that would make the ears of anyone who hears them tingle! As the prophet watched his high priest accused, and the angel of the Lord rebuke him for his audacity, what did the angel of the Lord also do? Read verses 4-5. “The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘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.’ Then I said, ‘Put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.” Look at what the Lord of glory does for Joshua! He orders those who were standing before him to take off his filthy clothes. One thing is clear. Joshua himself, as embarrassed and helpless as he is before the accusations of the Accuser, could not take off his own filthy clothes. Even if he wanted to, he could not take off his own filth. That is the conditions of all people. Hard as we may try, no human being can ever rid themselves of their own sins. People still try. Some ignorantly or foolishly even make new year’s pledges thinking that if they muster enough will power they might just overcome their sinful urges. But it doesn’t work. No one can take off their own dung clothes or help someone else take off theirs! The stink of our sin is so bad that we have grown accustomed to our smell, and sometimes to the stink of the sin of others. There is nothing more pathetic than not being able to smell other humans’ sinful stench, or worse, liking their smell so much to go after it. That’s what the world is like today! But we shouldn’t be like that.
“See, I have taken away your sin, and will put rich garments on you…. Put a clean turban on his head. So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him.” What a glorious day for Joshua it was. What a glorious day for the nation whom Joshua represented. What happened? What happened is that someone had to take away his sin, and someone else had to put on clean clothes on him, and dress him up so that he might become a clean man— a new man— a man purified and worthy to stand before God Almighty. After his clothes were changed he became righteous! Why? Because as the Lord said, his sin was taken away! New clothes were given him! In other words, he was forgiven, and clothed with righteousness— a righteousness that was never his own but someone else’s! Who could have done this for him? Who else, but the Lord Jesus Christ himself! The Pre-Incarnate Christ, the only one in heaven and on earth who’s able and worthy to do this for sinners. There is no one but Christ who can take away people’s sin. Only Christ Jesus is able to deliver people from sin, because he is the One whom God promised to all people— first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. Only Christ is the deliverer. Only Christ is worthy and able to remove our dirty sins and to save us. How does he do so? He does so by shedding his own blood and giving his own life on the cross; He does so by rising from the dead as the Son of the living God (Romans 1:4); He does so by his ascension to highest heaven to take his rightful place at the right hand of the Living God to become the Judge of all. And he does so when by faith we put our faith in him, confessing with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe it in our hearts. (Romans 10:9)
Zechariah watched as the high priest was transformed from a filthy sinner into a glorious newly born righteous man of God. In his amazing and mysterious heavenly vision, he witnessed the Angel of the Lord, the Pre-Incarnate Christ do the unthinkable. Historically, the nation of Israel as led by its high priest had to shed the blood of countless animals, hundreds of thousands of animals at the altar in order to take away the sins of the people, beginning with the sins of the high priest himself down to the last person belonging to the people of God. None was exempt from shedding the blood of animal after animal to atone for their sins, sometimes day after day, month after month, and certainly year after year. But as Zechariah watched the vision unfold on that fateful eve, he saw the remarkable and unthinkable happen. He saw the Angel of the Lord remove the filthy Dung Garments removed in a moment from his high priest, and new clothes of righteousness put on in an instant. He witnessed the sin of his people removed instantly, and righteousness imparted at that same moment. And he heard the words that brought atonement and forgiveness and redemption and salvation and hope all at once. In his awe, he may have not have fully comprehended the depth of what he was witnessing (Matthew 13:17), but we who have had the glory of witnessing his vision come to pass in part do. Zechariah received the gospel from the lips of the Lord himself. Read verses 8-9.
“’Listen, O high priest Joshua 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.’” The Lord says, Listen all of you to Joshua the high priest and all his associates, who are the people of God, Zerubbabel the governor and all the returned exiles who had a hand in rebuilding the temple and the wall and in serving the Lord. He says Listen! For this is the gospel of good news. In one single day, the Lord will remove the sin from this land, and from this people. How will it happen? God had already been saying it in prophesies for generations now. It is the same Messianic promise. Listen to what he tells Zechariah and Joshua here. “I am going to bring my servant the Branch. See, the stone I have set in from of Joshua.” This is the Righteous Branch of the Messiah God promised to raise up for David (Jeremiah 33:15), and as for the stone, let me read you an except from Peter’s sermon in the temple when he and John were brought before the religious council for healing a crippled man using the illegal name of Jesus Christ. Peter told them: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is ‘The stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone’. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’” (Acts 4:10-12) This is the audiovisual gospel Zechariah witnessed as well in his vision which Peter and John lived through. This is the gospel you and I heard and received by faith, for faith is the only way we can receive it, and experience it, and live it, mature in the depth of all the grace and truth that it embodies.
The gospel message today does not change according to the times. The Lord who spoke in a vision to Zechariah and who spoke to Joshua the high Priest, symbolically to all God’s people, or to anyone who would follow Christ, still speaks today the same language and still delivers the same message. What message did he have for his people then? Well, of course, he encouraged them through the gospel. The gospel of our Lord Christ is the most encouraging message one can ever receive because in life unless we receive forgiveness of sin, there is no peace for the wicked. Praise Jesus for giving his life in our stead. And thank God for faith, the only way to embrace Christ’s sacrifice. But there is another message as well, which we have skipped till now. Read verses 6-7. “The angel of the Lord gave this charge to Joshua: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.’” After the cleansing and the forgiveness, what then? In today’s Christian atmosphere, there is an overwhelming sense that the end of all things is God’s love and forgiveness for the soul. That is all that’s needed. The message goes out for one’s cleansing. You need to be cleansed. You need to get into heaven, so you need to accept Christ who loved you enough to die for you. And the message sounds as if the sinner is doing a favor for Christ rather than the other way around! Sometimes we forget who we are and who Christ is, and the condition we’re in when Christ gave his life to save us. And we certainly forget what he saved us for. Christ saved us for love, that’s true. But he also saved us to restore our dignity and purpose in God, for as sinners we had regressed to our animal nature living no more than selfish lives to please no one but ourselves and our sinful nature. So after forgiving him, what did God tell the high priest?
Verses 6-7 read very clearly. He gives him a charge to walk in God’s way. He charges him to keep God’s requirements. Accordingly, God would allow him to restore his purpose as keeper of God’s house and serve his courts. Accordingly, God would elevate him once again to his rightful place among God’s creatures who belong alongside God himself serving God’s majesty. Forgiveness and atonement came at a price. God had to sacrifice his Own Son so that we might be delivered from the hand of a vicious enemy and restored. Restored to what? Where had we been before this? We were at the basest place in the order of things. We were alongside the beast of beasts, doing his bidding, serving his side, wearing his filthy clothes. But the Lord snatched us from the fire, cleansed us with his own blood, for what? So that we might just enjoy our lives and continue living our own selfish lives doing our own thing? Never! As God called Joshua and the others after the cleansing to serve him in his own courts, back to service, back to glory, he calls you and me. We have to find our place in God’s history and strive to serve and honor God in the new life he gave us. Every one of us who has been touched by his grace needs to reflect on this carefully, and pray about it, and find our calling as his servants. Let’s repent our selfishness, and dedicate ourselves once again to serve at God’s side, at each other’s side.
That is the first lesson we learn in the art of leadership. This lesson was for Joshua, that the art of leadership is to find oneself (1st) clothed in Christ— righteous in Christ and (2nd) serving at his side. Let’s pray about this for ourselves and for each other. Let’s stop now and do so two by two.
Read verse 10. “’In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” Perhaps this is a vision of the heavenly kingdom when all is done and Christ has delivered the whole world from sin, sat on his eternal throne to rule the hearts of men and nations. Then we can rest each under his or her own fig tree. Amen.