God’s Answer to Shame (Zechariah 3)

Big Idea: We’re dirty and Satan accuses us, but God has removed our shame and given us honor.

We’re in a very short series on shame. Last week we looked at the reality of shame: that it’s the residue of sin, both our own and the sin of others against us. It’s the subjective feeling that comes with the objective reality that sin has damaged our lives. It leaves us feeling unsafe and inadequate.

Shame is a difficult issue. For one thing, it’s not black or white. Guilt is black and white. We’re either guilty or we’re not. But shame isn’t like that. As Ed Welch says, Shame can be “because of what you did, what you didn’t do, what others did to you, or what others didn’t do to you. Just for starters.”

There’s another problem with shame. It’s like a weed. You can think you’ve pulled it out. You think you’ve grabbed it be the roots and pulled it out, but then it comes back again. One of the best books about shame that I’ve read says this:

Although it is tempting to hope that we can eliminate shame from our relational diet, it is futile to wish for this…We would like to have it excised surgically from our brains, but instead find ourselves having to grow in our confidence in combating it … we do not execute shame quickly via some behavioral guillotine, but rather we starve it over time, not by avoiding it but by attuning to it as a component of a larger story. (The Soul of Shame)

According to the same book, here’s what shame tells us: “I am not enough; There is something wrong with me; I am bad; or I don’t matter.” To be human is to experience shame. It’s something that all of us carry, and it keeps us from living with freedom and making our contribution to the world.

Today I want to look at one of the most powerful stories in the Bible that I’ve ever read when it comes to shame. The book of Hebrews says that the Bible is “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). This is one of those passages that helps me see the truth of that statement. The story that we’re going to look at is penetrating. It helps us understand ourselves in a profound way. It not only tells us what’s going on in our souls, but it helps us know what to do with what we learn.

Today I want to look at this story and see three things:

  • why we experience shame
  • why there’s a deeper level than we usually realize to our shame
  • what God has done about it

Why We Experience Shame

Let me try to set up this scene for you.

Zechariah was a prophet who lived around 520 BC. He lived right around the time that the Jewish people returned from exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been destroyed, and it was now time to return and to rebuild the city along with the temple. It was time for a second chance. But would they be able to take advantage of their second chance? It’s the exact same question we face. Is there hope for us when we’re people who have blown it before?

In that context, the vision in chapter 3 is profound. Zechariah sees a scene in heaven in which Joshua, the high priest at that time, appears before God. The job of the high priest was to represent the people before God. Once a year the high priest would go into God’s presence on the Day of Atonement and atone for the sins of the people. This day had one purpose: to avert God’s wrath for the sins of the past year, which would allow God to continue to dwell among them.

But think about it. For the high priest to go into God’s presence to atone for Israel’s sins, he had to prepare. He had to be clean. There was no way that he could go into God’s presence without being cleansed himself. Leviticus 16 says that if a high priest went in without preparing, he would die. The high priest had to undergo a set of rituals and clothe himself with special dress in order to go in to God’s presence.

That’s what makes the scene that Zechariah sees so shocking:

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…Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. (Zechariah 3:1,3)

“Filthy garments” is a bit of a euphemism. The word in Hebrew usually refers to excrement. So there’s Zechariah in the courtroom of heaven, and he’s covered in excrement. What a picture.

There’s a lot of truth there. Here’s the reality: this is how we must look to God as we come before him in all our righteousness. This is our condition before God apart from Jesus. Even after all the preparation we can do, no matter how much we try to make ourselves clean, we show up covered in excrement. This tells us a lot about our guilt. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). We’re foul and filthy.

But this isn’t just about guilt. It’s also about shame. Think about how Zechariah would have felt: unfit, condemned, dirty, inadequate. After all his preparations, he was still covered with crap.

But that’s not all. We need to see:

Why There’s a Deeper Level

Look at what happens at the end of verse 1: Satan is standing at the angel’s right hand accusing Joshua.

It’s bad enough to be there in God’s presence covered in excrement. It’s really bad when someone is there to point it out. And that is exactly our position.

We suffer from two conditions: guilt and shame. We are guilty before God, and we subjectively feel our unworthiness before him. Satan attacks us is to accuse us. He says, “What? You sinned again? You’re no good. God could never love someone like you.” That’s one of the key ways that Satan attacks our hearts. He’s our accuser. Revelation 12:10 calls him “the accuser of our brothers…who accuses them day and night before our God.” He loves to point out our flaws. And here’s the thing: he’s not wrong. We are sinners. We do have lots of flaws that he can point out. But the result is shame.

The old preacher Charles Simeon describes Satan’s accusations:

Numberless are the stratagems which this subtle enemy uses to obstruct his progress and to damp his hopes. He represents to the believer’s mind the enormity of his sills; and intimates, that they are too great to be forgiven. He adduces them as proofs that God has not elected him; and that therefore to seek for mercy is a hopeless task. It is on this account that Satan is called “The accuser of the brethren,” because he accuses them to God, and God to them; yea, and accuses them also to themselves, in order to bring them to despair.

Remember that this is a courtroom scene. The high priest is there covered in excrement. The prosecution, Satan, has an airtight case. He is pointing out the obvious. And there’s no higher court anywhere. It’s devastating. It’s horrifying. The minimum penalty, according to God’s law, is that Joshua be expelled and cut off (Leviticus 22:3).

We have an enemy, an accuser. This means that your shame is not just a matter of positive talk. I wish we could just read a book to deal with shame, or use positive psychology. Those things can help, but they don’t go far enough. The problem: we don’t just have to change the voices in our head. We’re not the only ones condemning ourselves. We have an accuser. He loves to accuse us. He loves to keep us in shame.

Satan loves to accuse us before God. But he also loves to rub our noses in our shame. This is why shame is such a big issue. Shame operates at a very deep level.

But there’s good news in this story. It’s really good news.

What God Has Done About It

But look what happens when Satan accuses Joshua:

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?” 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.

This is not what I would have predicted! Look at what happens.

First, God shuts Satan down. Only God can do it, and he does it soundly. “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” When Satan accuses you, you don’t have to defend yourself. Someone has already done that for you. We find out later who that is: Jesus. Jesus is the Advocate of all who trust in him. Whenever Satan makes the case against you, Jesus is making the case for you. 1 John 2:1 says, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” You have an Advocate. There is “therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

I’m not assuming you know a ton of church history, but I can tell you that one of the most colorful characters in church history is a man named Martin Luther. If you know anything about him, you know that he struggled with a guilty conscience. But he also knew the truth that he has a defender. And so this is the advice he gave when people felt the accusations of Satan:

So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

Remember: don’t defend yourself! You have a Defender. Remind Satan of that.

Second, God redefines who we are. We need to tell a new story about ourselves, and here is the story that God tells us. It’s the new story that we can believe and live in. God says that Joshua is a brand plucked from the fire. What does this mean? It means Joshua has been in the fire. He’s been exiled. But now God’s pulled him out of the fire. He’s charred, he’s a little polluted, but the fire has gone out. Tim Keller says that it’s as if God is saying, “I have taken this one out of the fire of sin. The condemnation is gone. The guilt is gone. The pollution remains.”

That’s us. If you look at us, we’re all a bit charred. Nobody’s made it this far in a completely pristine condition. But we’ve been pulled from the fire. The condemnation, the guilt, and the shame is gone. That’s what God has done for us.

Third, God reclothes us. The word is given. The clothes that are covered in excrement are taken off. In their place, Joshua is given pure vestments and a turban on his head. It’s interesting: he isn’t reclothed in priestly garments. He’s reclothed in kingly garments. We reclothes us so that we’re clean. He reclothes us so that we’re like kings.

You can come now directly into the presence of God without shame, because you’re now clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The accuser has been silenced; you’ve been snatched from the fire; you’re reclothed and you’re clean.

I mentioned that he need a new story. I got this idea from the book I mentioned called The Soul of Shame. The book says that we need “a new story rather than the one shame has been trying to tell from the beginning.”

Here’s the story that shame has been telling you: you’re covered in crap. You can’t be loved. You’ve done so much that is wrong. Not only that, but there’s something wrong with you.

Here’s the new story, the true story, that God is telling you. Satan is silenced. God won’t tolerate him telling the same old lies about you. You have an Advocate who’s given his life for you, and who pleads your case for you. You may be charred, but that’s only a sign that you’ve been plucked from the fire and rescued. Never forget that you’ve been reclothed, and that you’re perfectly righteous in Jesus. You’re royalty. You’re part of God’s family, and that will never change.

That’s my story. If you’re in Jesus, it’s your story too. It’s a story that’s available to anyone who wants it.

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