Truth Unfolded: The Curious Case of the Castaway Clothes

It has often been said that the devil is in the details. However, when it comes to the matter of biblical interpretation the opposite is usually the case. But in considering the minutia there is a way that seemeth right unto man and the end thereof is often total bunk. 

For instance, have you ever heard a sermon about the discarded grave clothes of Jesus and the “napkin” left neatly folded in Joseph’s tomb? This subject was a regular Easter preachment in the circles in which I was brought up. It was proclaimed with great enthusiasm that the significance of these details lay in an ancient Jewish custom regarding masters and servants around the dinner table. According to them, whenever a wealthy master entertained guests at his table the servants would observe his napkin in order to know when to clear the table. If the master of the house crumpled his napkin and tossed it aside then that would indicate to them that the meal was over and they could begin the task of clearing and cleaning. However, if he purposefully folded his napkin and laid it to one side this one indicate that he was returning to the table later on to finish dining with his guests. So preachers jubilantly explained to us the hidden meaning of the text based on this ancient Jewish custom: “The Master had gone away but not to stay; He’s coming back again! The folded napkin means that He will return in the future to gather us around His banqueting table at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.” The only problem with any of that is that it isn’t true. Aside from being completely fabricated, it’s wonderful! After all, Jesus is coming again at some point.

Let me list three problems: 1.) There seems to be no reputable evidence that such a custom was ever practiced in Jewish antiquity; 2.) The word translated “napkin” literally means “burial cloth,” and the word rendered “folded” literally means “twisted up together;” 3.) Most importantly, the true significance behind the discarded garments is infinitely more glorious than the mythological account would have you believe. There is no need to go mining for fools gold outside the biblical canon when there be real gold in those hills!

The reason that most ride roughshod over these “minor details” in the text is because most of us aren’t as familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures as we should be. If we knew the Pentateuch like we presumably know the Gospels we would see a wealth of gems hidden in plain sight. I submit that there really is something to see in those castaway clothes, but we only see it when we understand something of the priestly aspect of the ministry of Jesus which runs through John’s narrative like a crimson cord. Jesus, the Great High Priest, was fulfilling the work of all of the shadowy types and figures which came before Him.

Consider the details which are unfolded for us in Moses’ description of the Day of Atonement. After having offered a prayer for his people, the high priest would enter the sanctuary. But he did not enter while wearing his “garments of glory” in the course of the work of atonement (Ex. 28:2-39; Lev. 16:4). He was covered only with a cloud (of incense) and plain linen garments. He stood before the throne of God, flanked on either side by cherubim, and offered the blood of a sacrificial substitute for the people of God. After presenting the blood, he would leave the linen clothes in the sanctuary before the throne between the two cherubim (Lev. 16:23). Then he would emerge in his “garments of glory” to offer an ascension offering to God (Lev. 16:24).

Such “tabernacle” and “priestly” imagery abounds in John’s gospel. The incarnation itself was said to be a tabernacling, but it was a tabernacling that discarded the “garments of glory,” for “the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled]among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth.” He discarded those garments with which He was adorned in the Ivory Palaces; robes pressed with myrrh, aloes, and cassia, and He took upon Himself the clothing of commonality—flesh and blood. All this so that we might behold the glory of the Incarnate Son; God with us, God for us, God as us.

When you come to the heart of John’s depiction of the passion he begins the final sequence with Christ’s “high priestly prayer” for the people of God. As we move toward the cross the robes of Christ are forcefully stripped away. Then, yonder upon Calvary’s brow, the Roman gibbet becomes the Altar of God shrouded in a cloud of thick darkness; there the blood of the sacrificial Substitute is offered before Israel’s God and humanity’s Judge.

But the imagery is only then half complete. The resurrection continues the picture: the first thing noticed in the tomb was the discarded linen clothing—the High Priest had finished the work of atonement. There they were—lying there on the slab flanked by cherubim on either side—the true Mercy Seat. The Anointed One emerges from the tomb in glorified robes now ready to ascend to His Father to continue His intercession for His people.

That is so much better than a myth about a half-used dinner napkin…

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