A Biblical Theology of Clothing
Many years ago I was involved with an evangelistic ministry in New Jersey. A group of us would go out on the Boardwalk ask people if we could talk with them about the Gospel. In the course of our conversations, I would sometimes ask if they knew why they wore clothing. The humorous responses that we received were almost singularly worth the experience; however, the most common answer I would get was, "Because people would laugh at me if I didn't!" While it may seem like a trite question, it actually has profound importance regarding the Scriptural teaching about our need to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. In order to understand a biblical theology of clothing we have to go back to Genesis 3 and understand the problem of spiritual nakedness and the correlation that it holds to physical nakedness. Consider the following:
1. At creation, man was clothed with the righteousness, glory and beauty of God. In Human Nature in its Fourfold State, Thomas Boston explained that Adam was clothed in the reflected glory of God as he lived righteously in perfect, unbroken fellowship with Him. He wrote:
Man was then a very glorious creature. We have reason, to suppose, that as Moses’ face shone when he came down from the mount, so man had a very lightsome and pleasant countenance, and beautiful body, while as yet there was no darkness of sin in him at all. But seeing God Himself is glorious in holiness, (Exod. 15:11) surely that spiritual comeliness the Lord put upon man at his creation made him a very glorious creature...There was no impurity to be seen without; no squint look in the eyes, after any unclean thing; the tongue spoke nothing but the language of Heaven: And, in a word. The King's son was all glorious within, and his clothing of wrought gold.1
2. In the fall, Adam stripped himself--and all of his descendants--bare of the righteousness and glory that he had possessed. The guilt and the shame of the nakedness that our first parents experienced was commensurate with the act of disobeying God.When Adam and Eve sinned against God they lost their original righteousness. This became evident to them in the way in which they perceived that they were naked and they sought to hide themselves from the LORD. Their physical nakedness became a symbol of their spiritual nakedness (i.e. their want of righteous standing before God). Numerous attempts have been made at explaining the nature of the shame that Adam and Eve experienced. Geerhardus Vos gives the three main explanations when he wrote:
According to some, the physical nakedness is the exponent of the inner nakedness of the soul, deprived of the divine image. According to others, the shame of sin is localized where it is in order to bring out that sin is a race matter. According to still others, shame is the reflex in the body of the principle of corruption introduced by sin into the soul. Shame would be then the instinctive perception of the degradation and decay of human nature.2
All three explanations have merit and it is possible that all three are intended from the Genesis narrative. The second, namely, that "sin is localized where it is in order to bring out that sin is a race matter" fits well with the idea of circumcision going on the male reproductive organ, as well as with the OT blood laws for females. Adam's corruption would pass generation to generation and in the place where man was to see God's blessing--namely, in multiplying and being fruitful--he would now see God's curse. All of Adam's descendants would know the guilt and the shame of spiritual nakedness before God. Man's conscience now accuses him of that nakedness. Meredith Kline made the fascinating observation about Adam and Eve's self-discovery of their nakedness when he wrote:
Even before the judicial disclosures made in formal pronouncements of the Lord, a process of self-exposure and self-judgment on the part of Adam and Eve had already occurred. Theirs was the God-like vocation to discern between good and evil and no sooner had they sinned by judging God to be evil and the devil to be good than involuntarily, and more accurately, their own consciences delivered a verdict of evil against themselves. It took the form of a sense of shame over their physical nakedness (Gen 3:7a).3
3. By nature, Man now seeks to self-righteously cover himself. Instead of turning to God for pardon and covering, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. This futile attempt became the symbol of all self-righteousness and attempts of human effort to bring oneself into a right standing before God. There are a thousand different ways in which man seeks to cover himself. Adam disobeyed God by taking from the fruit of the tree, then sought to cover himself with leaves from a tree and then hid behind a tree. Cain then sought to self-righteously cover himself by coming to God to worship Him with the "fruit of the ground." Most significantly, man seeks to cover himself by hiding behind the fig leaves of religion. Drawing out this idea from the language and imagery concerning Adam and Eve and the trees of the garden, Jonathan Edwards wrote:
They first sew fig leaves to cover their nakedness; and then, when that don’t satisfy, they can’t rest, in that when they hear the terrible voice of God coming to them, they hide themselves among the trees of the garden, which well represents the manner of sinners’ flying from one refuge to another when awakened with apprehensions of God’s approaching wrath. The trees of the garden well represent the ordinances and duties of religion that God has appointed in his church to be means of grace and of our spiritual nourishment. That garden was a type of the church, and the trees of the garden were what yielded outward nourishment for men. Sinners under awakenings are wont to fly to those to hide their nakedness from God.4
4. By grace, God comes--in the work of redemption--to clothe man with the righteousness of Christ. Having given Adam and Eve the Gospel (Gen. 3:15) in the curse on the serpent, The LORD does another remarkable thing–He comes and clothes our first parents with the skin of an animal. Most of the old Protestant theologians see in this–by good and necessary consequence–the first animal sacrifice followed by the symbolic act of imputing righteousness to the ones for whom the sacrifice was offered. This is entirely in keeping with what we have considered so far regarding the Scriptures teaching concerning justification. Justification occurs on the basis of the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus. Those for whom He died, when they believe are the recipients of His righteousness by faith.
As the biblical story develops we find specific descriptions of the garments that the Priests ministering in the Temple were to commanded to wear. They were to were robes to cover their nakedness. This detail in the biblical narrative necessarily drives our thoughts back to the Garden and to the nakedness of our first parents. Many biblical scholars have noted, in recent years, the parallels between Adam in the Garden-Temple and the Priests ministering in the Tabernacle and Temple. It is most likely that God intended Israel to understand that Adam had failed as Priest–guarding the Holy Place (i.e. the Garden-Temple) from the pollutions of the Evil One. In the Covenant of Grace, God was reestablishing a Priesthood for the mediatorial work of reconciling God and man in holiness. For these reasons the Priests had to wear holy and beautiful garments.
In addition to the Priestly garments, badger skins were put over the Tabernacle. That sacred space that was a type of the incarnation of Christ brings our minds back to the first animal skin covering, when God covered Adam and Eve with the skins of the sacrifice. This ultimately points back to Adam and forward to Christ. The Apostle John tells us, "The Word became flesh and 'tabernacled' among us." The enfleshing of the Son of God was the coming of God to dwell (lit. 'tabernacle') with man through the work of redemption. Jonathan Edwards drew out the steps from the covering of Adam to the covering of the Tabernacle to the covering of Christ and God's people in Him when he wrote:
Our first parents who were naked were clothed at the expense of life (Gen. 3:21). Beasts were slain and resigned up their lives, a sacrifice to God to afford clothing for him to cover their nakedness. So doth Christ, to afford clothing for our naked souls; the skin signifies the life, so Job 2:4; “Skin for skin,” i.e. life for life. Thus our first parents were covered with skins of the sacrifice, as the tabernacle in the wilderness, which signified the church, was when it was covered with ram’s skins dyed red as though they were dipped in blood, to signify that Christ’s righteousness was wrought out through the pains of death under which he shed his precious blood, Ex. 25:5.5
When we come to the prophetic ministry in Israel we read of restoration prophecies which the LORD promised to fulfill in the days and in the work of the Messiah. One of the richest promises that God makes to Israel is that He will “cover them with robes of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). This would, no doubt, bring Israel’s mind back to the Garden of Eden and to the covering that God provided for our first parents. It was also meant to bring their minds to the priesthood and the holy garments that covered the nakedness of the Priests, allowing them to go into the presence of God.
During the prophetic era of Israel’s history we also find one of the most clear illustrations of imputed righteousness under the figure of clean garments. In Zechariah 3 we read of Joshua the High Priest standing before the LORD. As the High Priest, Joshua was the one who was appointed to go into the Most Holy Place to minister. It was abominable if he was defiled by his own sin. In this case, we read of the sinful defilement of Joshua under the figure of him wearing “filthy garments.” Satan stood beside him to oppose him–accusing him of all the sinful pollution of his life under the figure of these “filthy garments.” Then in an unexpected act, the LORD gave the command, “Take away the filthy garments from him.” He then turned to Joshua and said, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.” This is as clear a picture of justification that anyone can find in the entirety of the Scriptures. Sins forgiven and a gracious covering with righteous robes.
When we move into the New Testament, we find less narratival and more didactic treatment of the subject of justification. There are, however, a few distinct elusive allusions and illustrations pointing in this direction in the Gospel narratives. In the first place we read details in the Markan record that lead us to draw the same conclusions about the use of garments to denote sin nature and imputed righteousness. One of the principle Gospel events in which an elusive allusion to garments finds significance is in the account of Bartimaues (Mark 10:46-52). There we read of a blind man whose only possession was a garment which he probably held onto to keep him warm at night. When he hears of the Savior passing by he does everything he can to make sure that he is seen and heard by the Savior. When Jesus finally calls him to come to Him, Mark notes that he “throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus” (10:50).
In his article “Why Mention the Garment?” R. Allen Culpepper defends the idea that in the casting off of the garment Bartimaeus was symbolically leaving behind everything he had to follow Jesus. He notes the significance of the plethora of references to “garments” in Mark’s record when he writes:
The chain of references to ιμάτια (i.e. garment) in Mark also suggests that it has symbolic value. In the dispute over fasting Jesus says that if one has an old garment one does not attempt to patch it with new (unshrunken) cloth (2:21). If he does, the new will tear from the old and there will be a worse tear. Jesus’ garments, however, mediate his healing power and are consequently thought to have magical power (5:27-30; 6:56). They too are transformed at his transfiguration (9:3). Shortly after Bartimaeus casts aside his garment to follow Jesus, others throw their garments on the colt for Jesus and spread them in “the way” (11:7-8). Having left his garment behind, the disciple is not tow go back to get it when the eschatological crisis (or the war) comes, for to do so would be to risk destruction (13:16). This pattern seems to indicate that in Mark the old garment represents that which the disciple must leave behind to follow Jesus. Jesus’ garments are sufficient for the believer, so it is fitting that Jesus goes to the cross in them. The soldiers cast lots for these prizes (15:20, 24), but the centurion was nearer to healing than they.
The case for this argument would certainly be strengthened if Mark had included the positive clothing of the blind man. In the Synoptics there is another elusive allusion to the positive clothing of sinners. Consider Luke’s account of the Gadarene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39). Jesus is met by a man who was several possessed with demons. Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the awful condition of this man when they tell us that he lived in the tombs, was chained to a cave, constantly broke free so that no one could contain him, cut himself with stones and that he was naked. This man was a picture of the depravity of all men by nature. After Jesus casts the thousands of demons out of him, Luke tells us that the man was found “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” Here we have a posit allusion of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. So where does the garment theology find its biblical-theological center?
John 19:23 is the strongest defense of a physical garment being used to denote the righteousness of Christ. As John traced the historical steps of the crucifixion, he wove theological themes and allusions into the narrative. Whether it was the fact that they did not break Jesus’ bones, or that water and blood flowed out of his side, John was preeminently interested in the theological meaning behind the death of Jesus. What then are we to make of John recording that Jesus’ “tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece” (John 19:23)? Clearly there is an allusion to the Old Testament Priest with his woven, seamless garment. Jesus is the great High Priest to which all the OT priests pointed. Here He is engaged in the work of redemption, the sacrifice of Himself at Calvary. But can we go further than this with the allusion? Though some would charge them of spiritualizing it was altogether common to find many of the post-Reformation theologians referring to Jesus’ seamless robe as a symbol of the seamless robe of righteousness that believers receive by imputation from Christ. If it is a symbol of the Priest’s clothing, and the Priest’s clothing was a symbol of ritual holiness, it is no illegitimate jump to conclude that it is indeed a symbol of the righteousness of the High Priest Jesus Christ, which is imputed (i.e. reckoned, counted, credited, etc.) to His people by faith.
While the imputed righteousness of Christ is our only sufficient grounds of covering on the day of judgment, it is not the only aspect of salvation that the Scriptures teach us about regarding our spiritual clothing. God is not only committed to removing our guilt, He is also committed to cleansing our corrupt natures. When we come to the last book of the Bible we discover how the work of God in justification and sanctification come together in glorious consummation. The saints who stand in glory with Jesus was repeatedly said to be “clothed in white robes” (Rev. 4:4; 7:9; 7:13; and 14). When John asks who these clothed in white robes are, the Angel explained to him that “these are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” While the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness is not explicitly stated here, clearly the garments of the saints are said to be what they are because of His sacrificial death. Just as that first covering of Adam and Eve was intimately related to the sacrifice, so it is for us spiritually. It must be pointed out that the robes of the saints are also said to be the sanctified good works of the saints wrought by the Spirit of God (Rev. 19:8); but this in no way takes away from the biblical teaching on the imputed righteousness of Jesus in justification. Justification and Sanctification are always distinct, yet inseparable benefits of Christ by faith. John Calvin once noted that to separate justification and sanctification is to “tear Christ apart.” He unequivocally stated in the strongest language possible that justification by faith alone was “the principle of the whole doctrine of salvation and of the foundation of all religion.”
The biblical teaching about the first and last Adam helps us understand a biblical theology of clothing. The first Adam disobediently ate from, self-righteously sought covering from and shamefully hid behind a tree. The second Adam hung naked and shamed on a tree in order to heal, cover and accept us as righteous in His sight. In the last Adam we have our glorious dress renewed and restored forever. If we are in Christ by faith we can boldy proclaim the words that Count Zinzendorf poetically penned:
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Bold shall I stand in Thy great day;
For who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.
*Here is the audio and video of a sermon on Genesis 3:6-24 in which I seek to bring these truths together.
1. Thomas Boston Human Nature in its Fourfold State (Falkirk: Printed by Patrick Mair, 1787) p. 23
2. Geerhardus Vos Biblical Theology: Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948) p. 52
3. Kline, M. G. (2006). Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (p. 129). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.
4. Edwards, J. (2006). The “Blank Bible”: Part 1 & Part 2. (S. J. Stein & H. S. Stout, Eds.) (Vol. 24, p. 137). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
5. Edwards, J. (1989). Sermon Two. In J. F. Wilson & J. E. Smith (Eds.), A History of the Work of Redemption (Vol. 9, p. 136). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.