Welcome to my ROLLED SCROLL study, where I follow cultural and literary images found in the Bible in an attempt to unearth God’s meaning in His pattern of usage.
The finest clothing made is a person’s skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.
—Mark Twain, New York Times, 1906
It’s always the badly dressed people who are the most interesting.
—Jean Paul Gaultier, Designer
Poets and wags have much to say on the subject of what to wear, but the story of clothing is most fascinating as told through Scripture. In last month’s post we followed OT images of clothing that illustrate God’s character as Creator, Provider, and Judge; they relate to the Fall of mankind into sin, God’s care for Israel physically through daily supply and spiritually through priestly blood sacrifice, and His promises to one day bring His people back to Himself again.
The New Testament carries on the motif of clothing with meaning progressively added, beginning with the Gospels where a sort of salvation history can be traced chronologically in the life of Christ:
- At His Nativity, Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and (though not specified here) we can imagine the rich outfits of the visiting Magi, the rags of the peasant shepherds, and the shining glory of the angels’ apparel (Luke 2:7-13; Matt. 2:1ff).
- John the Baptist preached in camel’s hair and leather so distinct from the long robes of the religious leaders, marking him as a prophet and indicating his message of Christ’s very different in-breaking kingdom (Matt. 3:4; Luke 7:24-27; Luke 20:46).
- The element of clothing was involved in Jesus’ ministry. Those who touched His garments in faith were physically healed (Mark 5:25-34; Mark 6:56). He warned against false teachers as wolves dressed like sheep, and admonished believers to care for the poor and naked (Luke 12:23-28; Matt. 7:15; Matt. 25:36-43). Where the OT Law had disallowed lending or taking of one’s cloak, Jesus’ law of love prescribed turning the cheek and giving more than was demanded (Matt. 5:40; Luke 6:29; see also Exod. 22:26).
- In Jesus’ parables the prodigal son received his father’s best robe upon returning as believers receive God’s gracious welcome home; the “purple and fine linen” of the rich man did not get him into the Heaven that poor Lazarus entered; and wedding clothes depicted righteousness in Jesus’ economy (Luke 15:22; Luke 16:19-20ff; Matt. 22:11-14).
- On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus’ clothing became “bright as a flash of lightning” (NIV) as He spoke to Elijah and Moses about His coming departure from this world through which He would bring salvation (Matt. 17:2; Luke 9:28-31).
- In the Triumphal Entry, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a saddle of His disciples’ cloaks, His donkey treading on the coats that the crowd spread before them (Matt. 21:6-8).
- During the arrest and trial, He was brought before Caiaphas who, in fury over Jesus’ “blasphemous” statement of His deity, tore his own priestly garb (which, incidentally, the Law forbade; Lev. 21:10; Matt. 26:65). Soldiers stripped the condemned Jesus, dressing Him in the scarlet robes of a king to mock and humiliate Him (Matt. 27:27-31).
- At the Crucifixion, His garments were divided up into lots in fulfillment of prophecy (Matt. 27:35; John 19:23-24).
- But at His Resurrection from the dead, He left behind the linen shroud in which His body was wrapped, exchanging it for transcendent, heavenly clothing (Matt. 27:59; John 20:3-7; Rev. 1:13).
- The angels attending the tomb were dressed resplendently, as were the angels standing beside the disciples at Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven (Matt. 28:3; Luke 24:4; Acts 1:10).
The literary emblem of clothing is sustained past Jesus’ departure from this world, with the rest of the New Testament continuing to teach and interpret God’s message for believers. Acts notes that the early church included Dorcas and Lydia, the first a seamstress who donated dresses to widows and who died and was brought back to life by Peter, the second a tradeswoman who dealt in the highly prized purple cloth from Thyatira (Acts 9:39-40; Acts 16:14). Paul (who before conversion gave his approval to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, by the act of guarding the garments of the killers) taught that we believers are to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Acts 7: 58-8:1; Acts 22:20; Rom. 13:12). We’re further instructed to dress modestly in worship (for our beauty as women does not come from outward adornment), to be content with God’s provisions of food and clothing, and not to show preferential treatment based on the richness or shabbiness of a worshiper’s attire (1 Tim. 2:8-10; 1 Pet. 3:3-4; 1 Tim. 6:8; James 2:2-3; Luke 12:27-28). For we have “put off” the old self of sinful ways and “put on” the new self like a garment (Col. 3:9-10).
In a future day, when Jesus calls us Heavenward, our bodies will put on imperishability and immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). We will then be dressed as His Bride in the “fine linen” of righteousness that God has declared belongs to those who trust Christ’s payment for sin, and the robes of the Tribulation saints will have been washed in the blood of the Lamb to remove all stains (Rev. 7:14). The church is Christ’s Bride, comprised of saints who work righteous deeds in His power, and by His work on the Cross Jesus has purchased our wedding gown for us:
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (Rev. 19:7-8 ESV)
In perhaps the strongest declaration of the glorious Coming of Jesus Christ the Prophet, Priest, and King, we read again of His attire:
He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Rev. 19:13-16 ESV)
Clothing is a comprehensive biblical motif expressing God’s judgment against sin demanding blood atonement, His provision of Jesus as the final sacrifice of complete covering, and our marriage to His Son for which we, the church—the Bride of Christ—are dressed in the robe of His righteousness.
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These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: www.versebyversecommentary.com.