It is well known that Isaiah uses a lot of imagery in his writings. By imagery we mean the use of word pictures to describe something. For example, in the above verse, Isaiah uses the image of someone being clothed in beautiful garments when speaking about salvation and of someone putting on a robe when describing righteousness. But does he mean this literally? Most Biblical commentators say this verse is only to be understood symbolically. In other words, God didn't actually put a piece of clothing on Isaiah that was labeled salvation and neither did he literally put a robe on him that made him righteous. Instead, they say, this verse is meant to convey the image of salvation and righteousness coming upon us as though it were a garment.
But is that the correct understanding of what Isaiah meant?
The problem many people have with the Bible is trying to determine when something is to be understood either literally or symbolically. For example, consider when Paul talked about girding our loins with truth, putting on the breastplate of righteousness, shodding our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace, taking the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit so that we can extinguish the fiery darts of the wicked (Ephsians 6:14-17). No one believes that the wicked literally run around throwing darts of fire nor are we expected to go through life actually wearing a special outfit as Paul has just described. Therefore, we interpret these words in a symbolic sense rather than taking them as being an accurate statement of dress.
And, for many people, the same is true for the verse just quoted in Isaiah. Since righteousness is something that God imputes to us and salvation comes through the atoning grace of Christ, it would seem reasonable to assume that there are no such things as "robes of righteousness" or "garments of salvation." But such an interpretation may not be entirely correct because some things can be taken both literally and symbolically at the same time.
Communication is the means by which information is passed from one person to another whether it is done obviously or subtly. Symbols are a form of communication and since they can be anything that represents something else, they convey their information in a veiled manner. More than that, one symbol can be understood on many different levels. For example, a car is an actual piece of machinery but it also serves as a status symbol. The bigger and newer the car the more it conveys the wealth of its owner to others. Often the make, color, and style of a car are indicators of the owner's personality. On a deeper level it reveals the refinement, attitude, and character of its owner, especially when observed how well the car is maintained and cared for and the way in which it is driven. On still a deeper level, this symbol represents how its owner sees themselves and their relationship with others.
Similarly, as with a car, what a person wears tells us a lot about what kind of person they are. Therefore, clothing is something that is not only real and tangible but it also symbolizes or represents something more that the actual material itself.
But this still doesn't answer the question of how are we to interpret the words of Isaiah as quoted above. To do that we need to look at how God uses clothing and the symbolism He attaches to it.
In Exodus 28:2-3 we read, "And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty. And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office."
There are several things we learn from this scripture. The first is that there is such a thing as "holy garments" and that they are distinctly different from ordinary clothing. In the thirty-ninth chapter of Exodus we are given a more detailed description of what these garments look like. They included linen breeches or undergarments that were to be worn next to the skin, a girdle or sash made out of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, a mitre for the High Priest and bonnets for the priests (vs. 27,28), a coat or tunic (vs 26), a robe made out of blue cloth (vs.22-26), a breastplate (vs. 8-14) and the ephod (vs. 2-7). Considering that all of these were to worn in the hot desert where there was very little if any shade, shows the importance God placed on the wearing of these garments despite their inconvenience.
Second, one of the purposes of these garments was to be "for glory and for beauty." Third, only the High Priest could wear them. In other words, they were not something that everyone was permitted to put on. Fourth, these sacred clothes were meant to consecrate Aaron in the performance of his duties. And associated with this consecration was the ceremony of washing (Exodus 30:20) and anointing with oil (Exodus 29:7). Fifth, Aaron's duties were that of "the priest's office" as he ministered unto the Lord, but he could only function as a priest while wearing these holy garments.
Although these articles of clothing were real and literal, they also had great symbolic meaning to them. They represented authority to minister unto the Lord in things pertaining to salvation, it symbolized a life that was consecrated or set apart to the service of God in behalf of others, it was meant to signify that the priest who wore the garments was righteous, and it indicated an attitude of obedience and reverence to God.
Although under the law of Moses only the high priest was permitted to wear the full ensemble of holy garments, and then only in the temple, the Levite priests were likewise required to wear special garments during the performance of their duties (see Ezekiel 42:14). When we understand the symbolism that these garments represent, the words of the psalmist takes on a greater meaning when he wrote, "Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness and let thy saints shout for joy… I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy" (Psalm 132:9,16).
Since, with the death of Christ, God no longer required animal sacrifices as performed in the temple by the priests, many people today believe that the need for priests and their attending "holy garments" has also been done away with. Yet, the writers of the New Testament continued to make reference to the use of special clothing in regard to Christians.
The apostle John was shown a vision of a future event and wrote, "I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands… And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9, 13-14). "And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled" (Rev. 6:11).
The people whom John saw were believers in Christ. But why were they given white robes to wear? According to what John was told, it was because they had successfully endured great tribulation for their faith. And the reason why these robes were white was because they had been washed clean and made white by the blood of Christ's atonement. Implied in this statement is the fact that these robes were not available to everyone. In other words, they were given only to certain qualified people who had earned the right to wear them. As such, the white robe symbolized the righteousness and the faithfulness of the people wearing them. Obviously, then, these robes are "holy garments."
Jesus often used parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like. In one such parable Jesus taught, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son,… Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garments? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:2, 8-14).
The first thing we see in this parable is that some people were worthy to attend the wedding and others were not. The next thing this parable teaches is that the King (who represents God, the Father) sent His servants out to invite as many people as they could to attend the wedding of His Son (who represents Jesus Christ). Most biblical scholars agree this has reference to the gospel being offered to the Gentiles and inviting them to accept Christ. However, we are then told that it is not enough merely to be invited, but that we must be properly clothed in a specific type of garment as well. And those who are not so clothed will be cast out of the kingdom of heaven along with all those who were not found worthy.
And then Jesus concluded this parable by saying, "For many are called, but few are chosen." Many people are called to accept Christ's offer of salvation, yet not everyone answers that call. But in this parable, one man who did answer the call was still not permitted to enter into the kingdom of God. And the only reason why he was rejected was because he was not wearing the proper garment. If the clothing we wear represents or symbolizes who we are, and the white robes John saw the saints being given represents their faithfulness and righteousness, then it is clear that our worthiness to wear a white robe and enter into the kingdom of God is dependant upon our own personal faithfulness and righteousness.
As Christians, we accept as fact that under the law of Moses the sacrifices for sin made in the temple clearly symbolized the sacrifice that Christ would one day offer for our sins. But, in order to offer up those sacrifices Aaron and the priests were required to wear special "holy garments." Therefore, to be consistent, we would have to say that the garments the priests wore likewise were symbolic of something connected with Christ. But what are they symbolic of?
The Lord said that the reason why the priests were to wear these holy garments was so that they "may minister unto me in the priest's office." John saw that the faithful believers in Christ will also be given special robes to wear as they are made "priests unto God." Jesus further told John to tell the believers in Christ, "Behold, I come quickly; [therefore] hold fast [unto that] which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. [for] him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out" (Rev. 3:11-12). "Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them" (Rev. 7:15).
Aaron was required to wear holy garments when he ministered unto the Lord in the temple. Jesus tells us that those who endure afflictions for His sake will be given white robes and those who overcome all things will go into the temple of God and "shall go no more out" but will be "before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple." Thus, the holy garments that Aaron and the Levite priests wore as they served God in the earthly temple were symbolic of those holy garments that the believers in Christ will someday wear as they serve God in His heavenly temple.
But how will we serve God?
When John wrote to the seven churches in Asia, he told them that Jesus "hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father" (Rev. 1:6), "And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:10). "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection… they shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with him a thousand years" (Rev. 20:6). Then John saw a new heaven and a new earth and "the holy city, new Jerusalem coming down from God" (Rev. 21:1-2) and "the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it and his servants shall serve him… and they shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 22:3,5).
John tells us that those who merit salvation and inherit the kingdom of God will become both a king and a priest and they will "reign" with Christ. As a priest they will have the authority to enter into the heavenly temple where God lives, and as a king they will have the authority to reign with Christ.
Jesus explained it this way: "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Rev. 3:21). A king sits on a throne and those who overcome the world through Christ have been promised that they will also sit with Christ on the same throne that He does and will therefore rule and reign along with Him, thus making them a king along with Christ. Hence, Jesus will literally become in reality the King of kings.
As we have already read, Jesus said that he that "overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God" which has reference to being made a priest unto God, while "they which came out of great tribulation" will be given a white robe, thereby dressing them in holy garments. When we couple that with "to him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne," we see that those who overcome will be made both a king and a priest, not in a figurative sense but in actuality.
One of the distinguishing items a king wears is a crown. As we have previously read, Jesus said, "hold fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God" (Rev. 3:11-12) showing that the crown will be worn in the heavenly temple where the priests serve God. The idea of Christians receiving a heavenly crown is a common theme that runs throughout the New Testament. While there are biblical commentators who say this is only meant to be symbolic and should not be taken literally, the scriptures themselves seem to suggest otherwise.
Jesus said, "Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life" (Rev. 2:10) and James echoes these words when he says "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation, for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him" (James 1:12). Paul says that we are striving to obtain an incorruptible crown (1 Cor. 9:25), and Peter likewise wrote, "And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away" (1 Pet. 5:4). Paul also wrote, "there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Tim 4:8).
The scriptures repeatedly tell us that if we remain faithful, endure and overcome temptation, then we will be given a crown. Paul says that this is what we should be striving to achieve. There is no indication in the wording of any of these statements that this is mere imagery.
In fact, the apostle John had a vision where he saw, with his own eyes, "four and twenty elders sitting [in heaven], clothed in white raiment, and they had on their heads crowns of gold" (Rev. 4:4). More than that, these twenty four elders were seated on thrones themselves that were surrounding the throne of God Himself. This was not a symbolic vision of something that doesn't exist. John actually saw the throne that God sits on and he even described what it looked like (Rev. 4:2,3). He actually saw the crowns which the twenty four elders wore on their heads and he even describes what they looked like. As Paul clearly said, "There is laid up for us a crown of righteousness." It's real and it does exist.
All kings wear a crown of some sort. The ancient Pharaohs wore a unique tall, white looking crown that came to a point at the top. The Emperors of Rome wore a distinctive wreath as a crown. Among the American Indians, their chief ruler wore an elaborate headdress. Although the form of the crown may differ from one another, they all symbolize the same power of supreme authority. Even though the crown was an actual physical object that they literally wore on their head, it nonetheless was a symbol of their power.
But, just wearing a crown doesn't make a person a king. In fact, the exact opposite is true. A person must first be invested with kingship authority before they are permitted to wear a crown. Anyone caught wearing a king's crown without being authorized has committed a serious, punishable offense. Therefore, the crown itself is not what makes a person a king. Instead, it is a symbol that shows that the person wearing it has the right to rule. Although he has that right whether or not he is wearing a crown, yet he still wears it when performing his duties in public.
Since most people today are not that familiar with kings, perhaps we can use another example. In the American military there are five branches of service - the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard. Each one of these services wears a distinctive color uniform that easily identifies which branch of the military that person belongs to. In addition to that, there are two groups of people in the military - enlisted personnel and commissioned officers. Enlisted personnel wear their rank on the sides of their sleeves while commissioned officers wear their rank on the top of their shoulders, thereby making it easy to determine which group they belong to. Thus, the actual uniforms they wear symbolizes, represents and communicates to others who they are.
In addition to this, each rank designates the level of authority of that individual. For example, in most services, an officer with two silver metal bars on each shoulder signifies that they hold the rank of a Captain Someone with a gold leaf on each shoulder is a Major, while someone with the same leaf in silver is a Lieutenant Colonel. Thus, we see that both the shape and the color of the insignia and where it is placed on the uniform has symbolic meaning.
When someone is promoted, they are then authorized to remove their former insignia and replace it with the one which identifies their current rank. But, let's say, a Major decided to change his gold leaf to a silver leaf without qualifying for the higher rank. Even though that would be very easy for them to do physically, if they did so without proper authorization they would be subject to being stripped of all their rank and being court-martialed (expelled from the military) with no service connected benefits, as well as possibly serving time in jail.
On the other hand, let's say that a person was promoted from being a Major to a Lieutenant Colonel but they wanted to be humble about it and so decided not to change their insignia. This would also be a violation of the military code of uniform which states that while on duty all personnel must be dressed in the appropriate uniform of that service with their current rank visible for all to see. This is not a matter of personal preference or a sign of vanity. It is a written regulation that must be adhered to by all military personnel. Any one who deviates from this policy is subject to disciplinary action.
In much the same way, a king is required by tradition to wear his crown when performing certain functions of his office. Under the law of Moses, whenever the priests of the temple performed the duties of their office, they were required to wear certain holy garments that were made in a specific manner out of specific material, having specific colors, with specific items attached to it. As such, it was, in effect, a heavenly uniform. And the reason God was so specific in how these holy garments were to be made was because every aspect of this uniform represented or symbolized something about God and His salvation for man. As such, the priests did not have an option of deciding what they wanted to wear. Any one caught not dressing according to the commandments God had given was placing themselves at risk of being severely punished by God.
One of the items that were part of this holy uniform was a mitre that the High Priest wore on his head and a bonnet that the Levite priests wore on their head. Since God is a king (hence, He rules over a "kingdom") He literally wears a crown because that is what symbolizes His power and glory. Therefore, the mitre or bonnet that the priests wore represented the crown that God wears. But, more than that, God told the apostle John "be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life" (Rev. 2:10).
In speaking about the crown that all believers in Christ will be given, the New Testament scriptures we have already looked at describes them as being a crown of "glory" and of "righteousness," which is the same language used in describing the holy garments which Aaron was required by God to wear (i.e., they were to be "for glory and for beauty,"), and which Isaiah used when talking about being clothed "with the robe of righteousness,"
It is not the wearing of a crown that gives us glory. Rather, the wearing of the crown communicates to others that we have overcome the temptations of the world and have been found worthy of being glorified. It is not the covering of a holy robe that makes us righteous. Instead, it symbolizes that those who wear it have proved their righteousness through their faithful observance to the commandments of God. In the same way, being clothed in the garment of salvation doesn't save us. It merely is an outward sign that those who wear it have obtained salvation.
Only those who are heirs of salvation through their righteousness will be permitted to wear these heavenly sacred garments. Thus, to those who wear them they will literally become robes of righteousness and garments of salvation.
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