A Brand Plucked from the Fire

Series: Zechariah Part 1: The Coming Kingdom

Sermon by David Strain on Mar 16, 2014

Zechariah 3:1-10

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Now if you would please take your copies of God’s Word and turn with me to the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 3, Zechariah chapter 3, which you will find on page 794 if you’re reading with me in one of the church Bibles.  Before we read, let me remind you a little bit about the context and then we’ll pray and then we’ll read the Word of God together.  It’s been a few weeks since we were last in Zechariah so you’ll remember that God’s people have been in exile in Babylon and have begun to return to their ancestral home, the city of Jerusalem.  And the temple is really rubble.  Things are particularly challenging for God’s people and the prophet Zechariah has been sent to them in this most difficult time in their history to encourage them, to rebuild, and to prepare themselves for restored fellowship with God.  And if you look at the first seven chapters in this opening chunk of the book of Zechariah and these opening visions, the first and the last vision are sort of parallel.  They form - the structure is a bit like an hourglass.  The first and last visions are widest in their scope and speak about the judgments and purpose of God in grace for the nations and then they narrow.  The next visions end on their side deal more narrowly with God’s people.  And then here in chapters 3 and 4, if you like, are the narrowest point, the most focused point in all of these night visions and deal not with the nations, not with the people of God, Israel, nor the city of Jerusalem, but with individuals, with the high priest, Joshua in chapter 3 and with Zerubbabel in chapter 4.  The message of chapter 3, as we’ll see, is that the real challenge facing God’s people was not first of all geo-political nor even archeological - not “archeological” - “architectural” is the word I’m reaching for, as they try to rebuild the temple, but spiritual and supernatural.  They are opposed by the evil one himself, and that will be the focus of the chapter that we’re about to read.  Before we do, let me invite you to join me as we pray together.  Let’s pray.

Our Father, would You help us please as we study the Word of God to hear the voice of our Savior, to hear Him calling us and in His Word providing for us and nourishing us.  Would You, by this portion of Scripture, lead us by green pastures and quiet waters.  Grant that in this portion of Scripture we might find rest for our souls and profound nourishment as we rest on the Gospel of free grace.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

Zechariah chapter 3, reading from verse 1.  This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God:

“Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.  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?’  Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.  And the angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’  And to him he said, ‘Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.’  And I said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’  So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments.  And the angel of the LORD was standing by.

And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts:  If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.  Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign:  behold, I will bring my servant the Branch.  For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day.  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.’”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Supernatural Reality and the Malice of the Evil One

Well the passage before us opens, doesn’t it, with a dramatic scene.  Joshua, the high priest, appears before the angel of the Lord, a shadowy Old Testament figure who, in the light of the New Testament Scriptures can only be the pre-incarnate Christ.  Worship at the altar had been re-instituted as the people had come back to the city even though the temple had not yet been fully restored.  So perhaps Joshua is here in a liturgical context in his capacity as the high priest ministering at the altar and here he appears before the Lord Himself.  But what may have begun as an act of worship quickly becomes a tribunal doesn’t it?  At the right hand of the angel of the Lord, notice, stands the Devil.  He is called Satan; actually here he’s called “the Satan.”  The noun simply means “accuser,” but this Satan, this accuser, is the Satan, the chief accuser, the opponent of God and of His people.  And he is there to accuse Joshua before the heavenly courts to press his lawsuit and to sue for Joshua’s destruction. 

And so before we can say anything else we are forced to preface our meditation on Zechariah chapter 3 tonight with a reminder of the spiritual battle that is the context for our lives.  We do not often think of it, perhaps. We may even set the supernatural at a discount.  How easily we slip into the allusion that our world is defined and its limits described only by the things that we see and touch and taste and hear.  And meanwhile, others of us are perhaps inclined to the opposite extreme.  We exaggerate and distort the supernatural, finding demons under every doily and spirits behind every strange event, so much so that we reduce the reality of supernatural evil to a caricature and a parody of itself, something that is too easily dismissed by thinking people.  “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devil,” writes C.S. Lewis.  “One is to disbelieve in their existence.  The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.  They themselves,” he says, “are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

But Zechariah chapter 3 will not leave us to the enjoyment of that comfortable delusion that dismisses Satan as a mere myth, neither will it give any place to the warped conjectures of an overripe imagination.  No, in our text, Zechariah chapter 3, the curtain is lifted on the real state of affairs.  There are no horror stories here.  There’s no gore; there’s nothing that goes “bump” in the night.  No, the reality is far more chilling than the worst inventions of Hollywood.  Satan needs no special effects to help him carry out his tasks.  Look at our passage here.  We see that Satan, that his daily business is customary work, pressing his suit against God’s child; in this case against Joshua the high priest, the representative of the people.  Here he is accusing, demanding the swift execution of God’s justice upon him.  That’s the reality.  He’s the accuser of the brethren.  That is what he is doing.  That is the world we inhabit.  If today you are a Christian, you need to understand that you are opposed.  The fiercest, deadliest enemy you face is not to be found among the culture warriors of the age.  You won’t find it among the militant secularists or the Islamic fundamentalists or the political pragmatists.  The fiercest enemy facing you today, Christian, is the accuser himself, the Devil. He is the great enemy of your soul.  He stands to accuse you before God.  He delights in nothing so much as to point out your sin and your failure.  He’s constantly seeking your condemnation and your destruction.

And the point of Zechariah chapter 3, as I hope we’ll see, is to show us God’s marvelous provision in the Gospel of grace for all of us as we face the malice of the evil one.  And I want you to see four things in our passage in particular.  In verses 1 to 3, first of all, notice the defense that Jesus mounts.  The defense Jesus mounts.  Then secondly, the cleansing Jesus provides, verses 4 and 5.  The cleansing Jesus provides.  Thirdly, there’s the challenge Jesus issues, verses 6 and 7.  And finally, the deliverance Jesus brings, verses 8 to 10.  The defense He mounts, the cleansing Jesus provides, the challenge Jesus issues, and the deliverance that Jesus brings. 

I. The Defense that Jesus Mounts

First of all let’s look at verses 1 to 3 - the defense that Jesus mounts. The court is assembled.  Joshua, the defendant, is arraigned before the Heavenly Judge.  The satanic prosecutor stands to accuse.  And notice carefully here that Satan needn’t invent any of the charges that he brings against Joshua.  That’s not at all how it was, remember, at Jesus’ trial.  Jesus was wholly harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners.  As Hebrews 4:15 reminds us, “He was without sin.”  And so at Jesus’ trial, His accusers had to bring trumped up charges against Him, didn’t they?  They found people who’d be willing to lie and bear false witness against Him in the courtroom.  Satan was forced to such extremes because his accusing work could find no purchase in the sinless character of Christ.  He had to invent what he could not identify in Jesus.  There was no sin to condemn. 

But that’s not at all how it is with Joshua.  Verse 3, “Now Joshua was standing before the angel clothed with filthy garments.”  Now that would have been a shocking image, particularly for Zechariah, who was himself a priest.  The high priest had to wear sacred, pristine, white linen vestments before he could appear in the presence of God in the temple.  But here he is, covered instead, in filth.  The word actually can mean “excrement.”  He is unclean, literally and ritually and in every sense of the word.  He appears before God utterly unacceptable, contemptible, vile.  It’s a powerful representation of Joshua, the sinner.  And all Satan needs to do is to point.  The evidence is irrefutable and undeniable.  Joshua was stomach-turning and repulsive in his filth.  No trumped up charges necessary; the facts are damnable enough.  The Devil needed false accusations for Jesus but he needs none for Joshua and he needs none for you and none for me.  Like Joshua, apart from Christ we are filthy, defiled, degraded in the muck of our own sin.  And all the Devil ever need do is simply point to the facts, right?  It’s an irrefutable case. The defense cannot possibly counter the facts.

And yet in our text, something extraordinary happens.  Look at verse 2.  “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan!  The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!  Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?”  One images Satan as the court assembles before the judgment seat of Christ.  As with a look of triumph, he denounces Joshua, recounting all his sins.  And now we see him, waiting for the sentence to fall, a self-assured smile playing across his diabolical features.  And at last the sentence does fall, the condemnation does come, but it does not fall on Joshua.  The anathema of the angel of the Lord, the curse of divine wrath - this is stunning, isn’t it - the curse of God falls not on the accused but on the accuser.  “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!”  Understand these aren’t empty words.  Psalm 106 verse 9, “He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up.”  Mark 4:39, “Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ and the wind ceased and there was a great calm.”  The rebukes of Jesus, the angel of the Lord, bring the judgments they call for.  The self-assured smirk playing on Satan’s face soon slides as the angel of the Lord defends His people. 

And notice what the angel calls God here.  He is “the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem.”  Joshua is the representative of the people of the city, Jerusalem.  The condemnation Satan wants for Joshua is the condemnation he hopes will fall on them all. But the Lord has chosen them.  They are His elect, precious to Him, and all those whom He has chosen He defends.  Jesus prayed concerning His disciples, “I am praying for them.  I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me.”  Having been given a people in the electing love of God, He intercedes on their behalf.  He defends them against every charge.  We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  Romans 8:33 through 34 - “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  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.”  All the elect of God, all His beloved people, have in Christ a perfect defender.  In fact, Joshua far from being consigned to the fires of judgment much, no doubt to the Devil’s chagrin, is made instead “a brand plucked from the fire.”  A brand plucked from the fire - what an image that is.  That’s what you are if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ - a brand plucked from the burning, rescued from the final conflagration of God’s eternal wrath.  Spared the judgment to come by God’s infinite mercy and grace you are a brand plucked from the fire.

Now no doubt the smile that once played on Satan’s face is replaced by a look of confusion, astonishment.  I wonder even if Joshua himself has on his face the mirror image of that same astonishment as he hears the Lord’s words.  Maybe Zechariah felt it as he looked on.  Everyone in the heavenly courtroom, you see, knows Joshua is guilty.  He’s guilty.  Satan knows it, Zechariah knows it, even Joshua knows it; the Lord Himself on His throne knows it.  And yet he is not condemned.  He’s not condemned; he is defended.  If you’re trusting in Jesus Christ the same can be said for you.  You sin; me too.  Our sin is undeniable and it is damnable and it is filthy.  Satan knows it, we know it, the Lord knows it, and still, in His great love for you, Jesus defends you.  That’s stunning.  He defends you.  We are indefensible yet He defends us.

II. The Cleansing that Jesus Provides

And just to add to the astonishment we all ought to feel at that look what happens next, verses 4 and 5.  First the defense Jesus makes, now secondly the cleansing Jesus provides.  The angel of the Lord tells His attendants to remove the filthy garments from him and then He turns to Joshua and He says, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”  And as the angelic attendants obey, [oor Zechariah is so overcome that he quite forgets himself and he bursts out, he interjects into the middle of the scene that’s playing out before him, “Don’t forget the turban!” he says to Exodus 28:36, you know the high priest’s turban.  He carried a golden plaque with an inscription that read, “Holy to the Lord.”  Holy to the Lord.  Don’t forget the turban that crowns the whole with the final great declaration.  Instead of the degradation and the filth, Joshua is now, by the grace of God, gloriously holy to the Lord.  His shout is answered in the actions of the heavenly court.  Zechariah sees Joshua now, standing at last arrayed in pure vestments, his iniquity taken away by the cleansing work of Jesus Christ, the angel of the Lord.

Now do you understand what has happened?  Satan, remember, is right about Joshua’s worthiness to be condemned.  He is right about my worthiness to be condemned and your worthiness to be condemned.  But not only does Jesus defend us if we are believers, He makes us clean in the sight of God.  He robes us with righteousness and He takes our filthy garments away.  Joshua can take up the words of Isaiah 61:10, so can we if the Lord has acted for us to defend us and cleanse us by His grace.  We can say, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.  My soul shall exult in my God for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation.  He has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.”  The garment of salvation, the robe of righteousness, the beautiful headdress of the priest who has unfettered access to the throne of God - all of that has been given to us if we trust in Christ. 

And how important it is that we be reminded of that fact.  Satan delights to remind us, doesn’t he, of the filthy garments of our sin?  Some of us who believe in Jesus have gotten this quite wrong; we have a sensitive conscience and all we can see is our remaining sin.  And Satan thrills to keep it always before our view, holding us in a paralysis of shame.  But that is not the final truth concerning you, believer.  That is not the final truth concerning you.  The message of Zechariah chapter 3 is that if you are one of the chosen of Jerusalem, a brand whom Christ has plucked from the burning, if tonight you do trust in Jesus you are counted righteous in the sight of God.  Certainly Satan will remind you of your sin, but the Gospel of grace, the good news, reminds us of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.  You are covered in clean vestments.  The Devil denounces our failures, to be sure, but the good news celebrates Christ’s obedience for us.

And we need to learn, I think, to be like Joshua here in the face of the Devil’s schemes.  Notice, Joshua never opens his mouth, does he?  The angel defends him.  The angel cleanses him.  Joshua makes no defense of his own.  He trusts no work of his own to remedy the stain of his sin.  He rests instead entirely on the work of Christ - Christ’s obedience and blood.  Listen, Christ’s obedience and blood is a sufficient answer to all the enemy’s assaults.  You remember the story that’s told of Martin Luther in Wartburg Castle?  Luther dreamt that Satan appeared to him one night reciting the long litany of his sin.  As the Devil heaped failure upon failure, transgression upon transgression accusing Luther, Luther’s terror grew unbearable until at last he burst out, “It’s all true, Satan, and much more besides! Many more have committed in my life which are known only to God!  But right at the bottom of your list, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”  Right at the bottom of your list, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin. That’s the message that will break the paralysis of satanic accusation.  We need enter no defense on our own, on our own behalf when he comes against us to accuse.  We need remember only Jesus has acted for us and we are robed in His righteousness.  You are clean; you are clean, believer in Jesus.  Praise God for the Gospel. 

III. The Challenge that Jesus Issues

The defense Jesus mounts, the cleansing Jesus provides, then thirdly, the challenge Jesus issues. Look at verses 6 and 7.  “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.”  There’s a wonderful balance in this chapter, isn’t there, between the gracious gift of clean robes given to us in place of our filthy garments between our justification on the one hand and the gracious challenge to Gospel holiness, a call to sanctification, on the other hand.  Having had his sin forgiven, Joshua here now is being called and commissioned to a life of growing, personal holiness and obedience.  He is to “walk in My ways and keep My charge.”  Those two facets of the Christian life cannot, must not, ever be divorced.  Those whom God justifies He sanctifies.  Those to whom He gives the robes of Christ’s righteousness must bear Christ’s likeness.  There can be no holiness without forgiveness.  The forgiven always grow in holiness. 

Obedience and the Privilege of Gospel Usefulness

And notice carefully here that the exhortation to growing in obedience and in personal holiness in our text comes in the form of a conditional promise.  There are two privileges promised, contingent upon Joshua’s obedience.  First, we learn if we obey we will enjoy the privilege of Gospel usefulness.  The privilege of Gospel usefulness.  “If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts.”  Joshua’s usefulness in the priestly ministry - that’s what God’s house and courts is a reference to - the temple and his function as the high priest.  His usefulness in that ministry that was given to him was contingent upon his obedience, his growing personal holiness.  Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the author of the famous Bible reading plan, once put it this way.  He said, “In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument will be the success.  It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.  A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”  It’s not great talents that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus.  God blesses and uses obedient servants.  Gospel usefulness follows growing personal holiness. 

Obedience and the Privilege of Gospel Access

The second great privilege contingent on obedience is Gospel access.  “If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.”  The angel of the Lord is speaking about the court of heaven.  That is a staggering promise.  “I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here, around My throne, in My presence, communing with Me.”  There is a connection, you see, between growing obedience and deepening communion with God.  Just as there’s a real correlation between backsliding and the withdrawal of the smile of the Father.  Let me try and put it a little provocatively.  There is no use praying, there is no use reading your Bible, there is no use coming to church on the Lord’s Day seeking spiritual encounter with God if you will not get serious about dealing with sin.  Obedience and the enjoyment of real communion with God by His Spirit through His Word ordinarily go together.  Do you see?  Not as mechanical cause and effect but normally, organically.  Really if you want more of the felt presence of God in your life, if you want to enjoy more of the sweetness of communion with Jesus in the means of grace - the Word preached and His promises prayed and the Gospel made visible in the sacraments - if you want a growing awareness of the ministry and the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, obey.  Work at obedience.  Root out sin.  Give yourself to the diligent pursuit of holiness.  Get serious about the Christian life.  Get serious.  The highway that leads to deeper fellowship with the triune God is paved with Christian obedience. 

IV. The Deliverance that Jesus Brings

The defense Jesus mounts, the cleansing Jesus provides, the challenge Jesus issues, finally the deliverance Jesus brings.  There remains an unanswered question in our text.  Joshua is guilty as charge, remember.  God is holy, we are not, and yet Satan is condemned, Joshua is forgiven, and even more than that, commissioned for service.  Now how does that work?  How is it legal for God to do anything other than condemn Joshua?  Or to put it in the language of the apostle Paul in Romans 3:26, how is it that God can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”?  Look at verses 8 to 10 please.  Joshua and his friends, we learn, are signs who point to another still to come in the future, verse 8.  Notice the text uses three titles for this one who is to come.  He is the servant of the Lord, He is the Branch, and He is the stone.  “Behold, I will bring my servant the Branch.  For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription.”  The servant of the Lord, of course, references passages like Isaiah 53 where the servant makes atonement for our sin by His wounds and His afflictions.  The Branch is a metaphor for a future King who would be descended from David.  So for example, Jeremiah 23 and verse 5 - “Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch and He shall reign as King and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” 

And the image of the stone set before Joshua, in context probably refers to one particularly significant building block in the reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple then underway.  Was it perhaps the capstone, the cornerstone, a foundation stone?  Either way, Psalm 118:22-23 take it up in the New Testament, made to refer to Jesus, takes just such a stone as symbolic of the coming Messiah.  “The stone the builders rejected became the capstone.”  This particular stone has seven eyes, symbolic of the perfect gaze of God’s Spirit resting on the Messiah.  But more than the Messiah’s identity, notice particularly what the Messiah will do.  Verse 9 - “I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day.” In a single day - that’s the one who is the angel of the Lord who will be the suffering servant, the branch from David’s line, the stone that is rejected of men and yet precious.  He will atone for sin.  That’s a promise of the cross, isn’t it?  That’s a promise of the cross.  How can God be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus?  Romans 3:25 - “God put forward Jesus as a propitiation by his blood.”  Jesus suffered the just execution of divine condemnation for us instead of us.  Another Joshua has come; a perfect Joshua, our true High Priest, Jesus who knew no sin who was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
 

The filthy garments taken from Joshua were given to another.  Jesus put them on when Joshua took them off.  Jesus takes our filthy garments, wears them in our place, and becomes the object of the destruction for which Satan rightly pleads before the heavenly courts.  The wrath of God is poured out upon our sin, but it does not fall on us; it falls on our substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He has died that Joshua might live.  He has died that you might live.  Now what does that mean for us as the Devil comes, as he will come, tonight perhaps, tomorrow, the day after, the day after that when he comes?  What does that mean for us as we face down his accusations day by day?  Doesn’t it mean that we can sing with confidence, “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see Him there, who made an end of all my sin.  Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free.  For God the just was satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me.”  You sing that in Satan’s face and silence his accusations.  “Jesus died, I am clean.  Get behind me Satan!”  And all the glory goes to God. 

Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we bless You for the Gospel, for the Gospel of free grace.  We deserve destruction, filthy.  You defend us.  Christ intercedes for us and cleanses us and robes us with His righteousness and takes our filthy garments and wears them Himself.  He puts them on and is condemned instead of us.  How we praise You for the Gospel!  We praise You for the Gospel.  And as Satan comes against us as he doubtless will, reminding us of the filth of our rebellion and failure in sin, oh would You help us to cling to that glorious truth - the tomb is empty, the work is done, and my Savior who bears the wounds of His finished works sits at the right hand of the throne of God and the Devil must take up his argument there with Him.  His wounds silence every accusation; the debt is paid.  Hallelujah, what a Savior! So be with us, we pray.  Help us to keep a firm hold of the good news in the maelstrom of accusation and believing, help us to obey and live for Your glory joyously.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

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