It happened in 520 B.C. The nation of Israel had just returned from years in captivity. Grass-covered rocks and boulders stood in the place of the golden temple that Solomon had built. The decay provided a fitting picture of what had happened to Israel almost seventy years earlier. And the nation’s spiritual leader had a court date in the city of Jerusalem. It was billed as the trial of the century: the case of “Satan vs. Joshua the High Priest.”
The accused and the accuser
“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” (Zech. 3:1).
The prosecutor assigned to this case was as shrewd as attorneys get, full of evil intentions toward the high priest and the nation Israel. His hatred was legendary. Israel’s future looked bleak, and her old enemy gloated. His rage was partially
motivated by the knowledge that God was using a sinful, unrighteous minister representing a sinful, unrighteous people to accomplish His holy, righteous plan (v. 3). The code for priestly conduct had been violated, spurring the lawsuit. Joshua’s conduct did not match his confession.
One could say that in this case not only was Joshua on trial but that every future priest and minister was also on trial. Even though God is unwilling that any should perish, He cannot violate His own standards of holiness. Joshua’s accuser stood at his right in the courtroom as prosecutors did when they had “the goods” on someone. All of Satan’s charges were accurate and provable in a court of law (v. 3). Standing at the right of one’s opponents in the ancient Near East didn’t mean “innocent until proven guilty.” It meant, “You’re guilty. Period.”
Indeed Joshua was guilty as charged. Only his sentencing remained. The enemy brimmed with confidence, knowing he had Joshua “dead to rights” and the presiding Judge in a judicial hammerlock. The scheme was working to perfection. The accuser’s case had been argued with a serpent’s tongue and the ulterior motives of a preacher with a Swiss bank account.
A Surprise Twist
Throughout the ages, however, trials have been known to take surprising twists. And this was no exception. When the angel of Jehovah took the floor in defense of Joshua and the nation of Israel, he set a precedent not only for Joshua but also for every priest and minister who would bear the titles for generations to come. The schemes and arguments used by this prosecutor were yesterday’s news.
True, the angel of Jehovah knew his client to be sinful, unrighteous, and deserving of judgment as was the nation to which he ministered. But as any good defense attorney does, he turned on his adversary. The provision. “The LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you!”
He looked the judge in the eye, and asked a penetrating question: “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’
The text goes on to tell us, “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 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 [Zechariah?] 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” (Zech 3:2–5).
Applause came from the gallery as murmuring jurors looked at one another. The angel of Jehovah had struck a decisive blow. His adversary had not anticipated provision made for solving this dilemma. The angel of Jehovah laid before the court a precedent found in the journals (Gen. 15:6; 22:1–14).
Abraham had taken his son Isaac to the land of Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice to God. Isaac had grown concerned when his father hadn’t brought any lambs or goats for sacrifice. Isaac knew human sacrifice to be the practice of the surrounding nations, but surely not of his own father.
“Where is the sacrifice father?” he asked. Abraham’s response to Isaac set the precedent for generations to come: “God will
provide for Himself a sacrifice” (Gen 22:8).
And what a precedent!
Abraham’s sacrifice became a model for every generation. Later, as we’ve just read, God would make provision for Joshua’s sins. He provided for the sins of every person who had ever lived, transferring them to a man hanging on a cross in the city of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon in A.D. 33. Our sins today would be transferred back to A.D. 33 to that same man. Once and for all sins were dealt with judicially. So we are forgiven. We are declared righteousness, thus meeting God’s standards
Joshua was acquitted—declared innocent (Zech 3:2). And so was every priest and minister of God who would come under the condemnation of men (Rom 8:1). The nation of Israel was found “not guilty” by reason of God’s choice and forgiveness (Zech 3:2). Their representative was holy, and so would the future priestly nation be holy.
Those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for payment of our sins share the holy nature of God (2 Pet. 1:4). When God purchased a people for Himself giving us a bright future, He also made us partakers of His holy nature. No principles, promises, or standards kept can make us righteous. Our conduct will never match our confession. We will find ourselves dragged into someone’s judgment court on a daily basis.
Yet as partakers of God’s holy nature, we are no longer under His judgment. When Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah in chapter 61:2, His act had significance for us today. He read that He was there, “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.”
We are in the acceptable year of the Lord. We were never made to keep laws; rather, we were made to build relationships. We drink new wine from new wineskins. We wear new garments that will never need patching. We have been declared righteous.