What if clothes not only make a fashion statement but also portray the gospel? A journey through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation will reveal the remarkable answer. In several key passages, references to clothing convey essential elements of the gospel by depicting two human conditions. The first condition is sinfulness, a state of shame and utter inadequacy which alienates people from God. The other condition is purity made possible through a spotless sacrifice, enabling access to God. Let’s see if we can follow the threads of these themes as they weave through the Bible.
As with so many questions, the answer to why we wear clothes traces back to Genesis.
As with so many questions, the answer to why we wear clothes traces back to Genesis. We find the Bible’s first reference to clothing in Genesis 3, which records how human sin brought corruption, death, and suffering into the world. After Adam and Eve rebelled against God, Genesis 3:7 recounts that the “eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”1 Recognizing their need for a covering, Adam and Eve sewed together fig leaves for cloth.
Despite these garbs of greenery, the couple still felt the need to hide from God’s presence (Genesis 3:8). Yet no human can escape accountability to God. As Hebrews 4:13 says, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Adam and Eve understood this truth in every sense, for Adam confessed that he had hidden from God in fear because of his own nakedness (Genesis 3:10).
Clearly, Adam and Eve recognized that their best efforts to cover themselves had failed. Yet God in his mercy provided garments of skin to Adam and Eve, presumably from an animal which needed to die to become a covering. This first biblical reference to clothing anticipates how God would send his Son, Jesus, as the sacrificial Lamb to become the covering for human sin. Hang onto that thought, and we’ll journey forward to the time of Moses.
After God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, he gave Moses detailed laws at Mount Sinai clarifying the terms of the covenant between God and his people. These laws included careful directives about clothing—especially for priests. Under the Sinai covenant, priests served as mediators between God and his people.2 The priests could only approach a holy God in a holy state themselves and solely on God’s terms. But the priests themselves were sinners.
Graciously, however, God provided instructions for how the priests could become ceremonially pure, enabling them to access God’s presence. As part of these instructions, God described exactly what the priests should wear and how these garments must be purified (Exodus 28:1–29:21). Importantly, the priests could not approach God while they were inadequately clothed. They could not wear garments that might reveal nakedness (Exodus 28:42), were ceremonially impure (see Leviticus 6:10–11, 27), or were otherwise considered unholy.3 Instead, the priests needed consecrated garments crafted from some of the same types of materials as the tabernacle, reflecting the priests’ roles as mediators of God’s presence.4
God instructed Moses to consecrate the priests and their garments through a series of rituals requiring animal sacrifices (Exodus 29:1–44). These sacrifices would “make atonement for” the priests so they would not die (Leviticus 8:34–35). Leviticus 8:30 describes the pinnacle of these sacrificial purification rituals: “Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments, and also on his sons and his sons’ garments. So he consecrated Aaron and his garments, and his sons and his sons’ garments with him.”
This use of blood is unique because in most other Old Testament contexts, blood defiled garments.5 But the blood of sacrifice produced the opposite effect of removing defilement. Various commentators describe how this atoning blood anticipates Jesus’ sacrificial death, while the anointing oil may metaphorically represent the Holy Spirit.6 As the priests could access God’s presence through blood and oil, so Christians—who 1 Peter 4:9 calls “a royal priesthood”—can access God through Jesus’ blood, being born again through the Holy Spirit.7 In the laws about priestly garments, we find threads of gospel truths that first tie back to Genesis. Let’s see if these threads continue in biblical clothing references during the times of later Old Testament prophets.
The year is 519 BC.8 Just over 12 years ago, King Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon. King Darius is reigning now, and God is speaking to his people through prophets including Zechariah. Zechariah 3:1–5 recounts one of the visions that God showed Zechariah, where the prophet saw Israel’s high priest, Joshua, standing in “filthy garments” before “the Angel of the Lord.” Meanwhile, Satan stood nearby in opposition to Joshua—although the Lord rebuked Satan in response.
Some commentators suggest that this scene portrays a heavenly courtroom, where the focus of judgment was not only Joshua.9 Instead, as high priest, Joshua also stood for all Israel and for Israel’s status as a priestly nation representing God’s presence to the world. Joshua’s filthy garments, therefore, signified a major problem not only for him but for all of Israel and the world. Worse, the word for “filthy” in this passage (צֹאִי, ṣōî) does not just mean “stained” but completely defiled.10 With this term occurring nowhere else in Scripture except twice in this passage, the inspired wording of Zechariah graphically demonstrates a state of total, abhorrent corruption.11
What did this corrupting filth signify? The angel’s subsequent words reveal the answer. After telling “those who were standing before him” to remove the defiled garments from Joshua, the angel told Joshua, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments” (Zechariah 3:4). This association between the removal of garments and the removal of iniquity shows that the filthy clothing symbolized defilement by sin.
Standing in the heavenly “courtroom,” Joshua was helpless to cleanse these garments by himself. In the same way, we are helpless to cleanse ourselves from sin by our own righteous efforts, which are “as filthy rags before the Lord” (Isaiah 64:6 KJV). Jeremiah 2:22 further echoes this helplessness when speaking of preexilic Israel’s inability to remove her own sin: “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord God.”
Israel could not free herself from sin before the exile. Joshua could not free himself from his or Israel’s sins after the exile. And we cannot free ourselves from sin either. Is there any hope? Thanks be to God, there is. What happened next to Joshua highlights this reality. Not only were Joshua’s defiled garments removed for him, but also, the angel promised to clothe Joshua with “pure vestments.” This phrase, from the Hebrew word מַחֲלָצוֺת (măḥălāṣôṯ), has also been translated as “festal robes.”12 A closer look at this word will cast light on the incredible transformation underlying Joshua’s change of garments—and what this transformation signifies for us.
Specifically, only one other time does the word מַחֲלָצוֺת occur in Scripture, in Isaiah 3:22.13 In this verse’s context, God was pronouncing that part of the judgment for the sin of Judah and Jerusalem would be the removal of their festive robes, turbans, and other finery in exchange for “a skirt of sackcloth” (Isaiah 3:24) during exile. This passage, where sin entails rags instead of robes, depicts the opposite of Zechariah’s vision, where forgiveness entails robes instead of rags. Zechariah 3:5 makes this allusion to Isaiah 3 even more explicit, as Joshua receives a clean turban and garments while the angel of the Lord stands nearby.14
With this provision of a turban and festive robes like the ones lost during exile, Zechariah 3:1–5 portrays Israel’s postexilic restoration.15 This restoration would be ultimately fulfilled through the first and then the final comings of Jesus.16 As the incarnate “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Jesus would offer himself as the only sacrifice sufficient to atone not only for Israel’s sins but also “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Both “steps” involved in Joshua’s change of clothing—the removal of the defiled garments and the bestowal of pure ones—foreshadow this ultimate cleansing through Jesus. We’ve seen how Joshua’s need for someone else to remove his defiled garments reflects humanity’s helplessness to purify itself from sin. Multiple commentators have interpreted Joshua’s then receiving “pure vestments” in exchange for the defiled garments as illustrating the way Jesus “clothes” believers with his own purity in exchange for our sin.17
Other biblical passages use similar imagery of clothing in ways that support this idea that our garments of guilt can be exchanged for Another’s robe of righteousness. Isaiah repeatedly refers to the Messiah (the “Anointed One”) as being clothed with righteousness (e.g., Isaiah 59:17 and 61:10), while New Testament passages refer to believers being clothed with Christ (the “Anointed One,” e.g., Galatians 3:27). Christ imputes to us his righteousness, which we could never achieve through our own efforts (e.g., see 2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:3–4; Philippians 3:9).
For us, as for Joshua, the transition from a sinful condition to a pure condition does not occur through human works but through divine grace. Robed with Christ’s perfection, we, like Joshua, can stand before God in purity while Satan is rendered unable to accuse us (see Romans 8:1). In these ways, Zechariah’s vision of Joshua carries forward the gospel threads we first found in Genesis. Will these threads also show up in clothing references throughout the New Testament?
The New Testament opens with the four Gospels—historical accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. John’s Gospel identifies Jesus, the Living Word of God, as the Creator who took on human flesh to become the sacrificial Lamb of God.18 When recounting how Jesus offered himself to atone for sin on the cross, John mentions that the soldiers who crucified Jesus took away his clothing (John 19:23–24). They kept his garments for themselves, casting lots to decide who would get the seamless one. John noted that these events fulfilled one of the Old Testament’s many precise prophecies about the Messiah.
These historical details about the clothing of Jesus, the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), summon us to think back to the clothing of the first Adam.
These historical details about the clothing of Jesus, the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), summon us to think back to the clothing of the first Adam. Remember how Adam hid from God in fear, recognizing his own shameful condition of nakedness which his self-efforts could not adequately cover? John’s Gospel shows an incredible reversal of this image. The last Adam took upon himself the figurative and literal nakedness of the first Adam before God while paying the spiritual and physical death penalty for sin.19 Through his death, Jesus offered himself as the only adequate covering for sin. If our faith is in Jesus, he has given us his robe of righteousness in exchange for our shame, enabling restored access to the presence of our Creator forever.
The final book in Scripture, Revelation, picks up these gospel threads we’ve found in biblical clothing references and weaves them together with further truths. One striking instance appears in Revelation 3:1–6, which records Jesus’ dictated letter to the angel of the church in Sardis. This letter presented the fourth of seven messages from Jesus to different cities’ churches in light of his impending return as Warrior, Judge, and King. One of these cities, Sardis, was the wealthy and idolatrous capital of Lydia, an ancient kingdom in the western region of modern-day Turkey.20
In contrast to Jesus’ commendation for the good works of believers in some of the other churches, little could be said positively about Sardis.21 Jesus observed that although the church had “a reputation of being alive,” it was truly dead (Revelation 3:1). The church’s works were “incomplete in the sight of God” (Revelation 3:2), demanding repentance; otherwise, Jesus warned he would “come like a thief” against them (Revelation 3:3). In verse four, however, Jesus stated, “you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”22
Apparently, all but a handful of individuals in Sardis wore “soiled” garments. Given that the wider church would be unable to stand before God if Jesus should come “as a thief” without their repentance, these soiled garments corresponded to the majority church’s condition of sinful inadequacy before God. Commentators have noted that Jesus’ reference to soiled clothing recalls Old Testament principles of uncleanliness, showing that most church members in Sardis were unfit for life with God in the New Jerusalem.23 These individuals needed purification through the only means possible—the atoning blood of Jesus.24 Most professing believers in Sardis, however, were living as enemies of the only Person who could save them.25
Still, a few faithful Christians remained undefiled, being found worthy to “walk with [Jesus] in white” (Revelation 3:4). Commentators have observed that this worthiness stemmed not from the Christians’ own attempts at righteousness, but from “keeping their garments undefiled and white through the blood of the Lamb,” 26 who preserved them in holiness by his grace.27 Jesus described these believers’ reward in verse five: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”
In the New Testament, the word white (λευκός) almost always refers to what some commentators call “heavenly purity and brightness.”28 The white clothes depict a state of purity which allows believers to live in God’s presence. To reiterate, believers do not actively achieve this state by clothing themselves in their own righteousness. Instead, Jesus promised that faithful Christians in Sardis would “be clothed.” This phrasing suggests the believers’ righteousness is a gift from God. Again, we find that a biblical reference to clothing portrays the gospel, illustrating how Jesus alone can present us pure before God (see also Ephesians 5:26–27).
We find gospel threads again in another reference to clothing a few chapters later. In Revelation 7:9, John saw a multitude of people from every nation worshipping before God’s throne, “clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” One of the elders whom John had earlier seen before God’s throne (Revelation 4:4) asked John, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”29 Upon John’s reply that the elder knew the answer, the elder disclosed, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14; see also Revelation 19:7–8).30
This striking image reiterates three themes from earlier biblical references to clothes. First, the blood that washes white is not the saints’ own, shed through their personal strivings or sufferings.31 Instead, it is the gift of Another’s life. Second, this blood does not stain garments but rather whitens them, symbolizing imputed purity. Third, this purity requires a substitutionary sacrifice.
As the elder’s next words to John highlight, the portrayal of the saints’ robes purified through sacrificial blood looks back to the purification of priestly garments in the Old Testament.32 The elder explained that because the saints have washed their robes white, they “are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple” (Revelation 7:15). Like Moses applied sacrificial blood to the garments of the priests so that they could serve God in his earthly temple, the saints in Revelation applied Jesus’ blood to their garments so that they could serve God in his heavenly temple.
Notably, Revelation 21:22 clarifies that the temple in the New Jerusalem will not be a literal building, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” But like the priests of the Old Testament, believers under the new covenant enjoy a life of service to God and direct access to God’s presence. Furthermore, the reference in Revelation 7:15 to saints performing priestly service echoes Peter’s words that Christians are “a royal priesthood,”33 along with John’s words that Jesus “freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.”34 These connections between New Testament saints and Old Testament priests sharpen the picture that Scripture portrays through clothing imagery—that access to God requires purity enabled by sacrifice.
Key passages from Genesis to Revelation reveal how biblical references to clothing depict the gospel truth that Jesus exchanges believers’ condition of sinfulness for the condition of his own purity.
In the end, key passages from Genesis to Revelation reveal how biblical references to clothing depict the gospel truth that Jesus exchanges believers’ condition of sinfulness for the condition of his own purity. The earliest threads of these truths tie back to Genesis 3, where God provided skin garments to cover sinful humans. We can follow these threads through the law, where blood-sprinkled garments let the priests access God’s presence, and the prophets, where God exchanged Joshua’s defiled garments for “pure vestments.” The threads lead to the cross, where the last Adam bore the first Adam’s shame before God to become the covering for the sins of “whoever believes in him” (John 3:16). From the cross, we can trace these gospel threads to Jesus’ letter to Sardis, which calls churchgoers with “soiled garments” to repentance while promising that true believers will “be clothed” in white. These threads weave all the way through history from Genesis to when the saints who washed their robes in the Lamb’s blood will enjoy God’s presence forever.
Why does this biblical theology of clothing matter practically for Christians? In answer, these gospel threads in Scripture’s clothing references serve at least three purposes. First, the reminder to consider the state of our garments serves an ecclesiological purpose, calling churchgoers to examine whether we stand in pure robes like the saints of Revelation 7:15 or in defiled garments with the majority church of Sardis (see 2 Corinthians 13:5–7). Second, the striking continuity of gospel themes in clothing references across the Bible serves an apologetic purpose, demonstrating how all redemptive history is written by one Author. Finally, the image of Jesus exchanging our defiled garments for his pure ones serves an evangelistic purpose, offering a simple but vivid illustration of the gospel. Far more than a fashion statement, clothing in Scripture points us toward Jesus so that we might be—in the old hymn’s words—“dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.”35