Clothing as Confession
Practicing Hope in the Resurrection — Part 4
Skin is your tie to me
a curse from Adam and Eve
but far from the garden we
still find blood at the root.
— Zach Winters, “Skin”
A Theology of Clothing?
If I were to ask you what your theology of clothing is, where would you begin? Would you start with the question of modesty? Would you walk me through your closet, explaining how each piece of clothing fits within a biblical standard for dress? Would we get into a conversation about what is and isn’t appropriate dress for church gatherings? Would you bring up head coverings? What about loincloths?
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Or maybe you’ve long held the belief that God doesn’t care about what you wear—that He’s concerned with your heart, not your outward appearance. After all, if God has a standard for dress, how does that translate to the abundant diversity of cultures, climates, and eras to which He has sent His word?
I think it’s safe to say that most of us have not heard many expository sermons that address God’s purpose for clothing. Yet the fact is that clothing matters in Scripture—on both a literal and figurative level. Not only is clothing a repeated metaphor for sin and righteousness throughout the Old and New Testaments, but God actually appoints particular garments to particular characters throughout Scripture in order to communicate His relationship to mankind.
So if you’ll allow me, I’m going to take another look at some of the intricacies of Scripture’s tapestry in order to work out what God has to say about clothing. I hope that what I’ve found surprises and delights you, as it does me.
The Skins of the Prophets
In my last piece, I discussed the significance of bodily shame and the need to cover the naked body on account of sin. After eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness and began to feel shame. Sin had made them vulnerable, and the knowledge of their sin brought that vulnerability to light. This new knowledge compelled them to throw together some makeshift clothing from fig leaves. They had broken fellowship with one another and with God, as we see in their attempts to hide from God and in Adam’s attempt to blame his wife for his sin.1 Glory had been lost. Enshrouded in death’s curse, their bodies could no longer perfectly communicate their meaning.
God sends Adam and Eve out from the garden with a curse upon their bodies: as from the dust they were made, so to the dust will they return. Moreover, man and woman each receive their own curses, specific to their bodies: the woman will have pain in childbearing, and the man will have pain in the work it will take to survive. Before sending them out of the garden, though, God gives them a gift: “garments of skin.”2
These garments serve as a sign of their mortality. Theologian Ephraim Radner refers to them as the “skins of survival” because they are the garments of the wilderness, signifying man’s vulnerability.3 From now on, man and woman will carry a symbol of their sin on their bodies as they labor to survive in God’s creation. In this way, the garments proclaim the reality of death: both the death of the animal whose skins God used to make them, as well as the death that Adam and Eve must now face as the wages of their sin.
God’s gift of the animal skins tells us that Adam and Eve’s fig leaves were an insufficient covering—that they require something more substantial. The fig leaves, after all, had been sewn together in shame, in an attempt to conceal their sin. Pastor John Piper observes that in clothing themselves, Adam and Eve were trying to “close the gap between what they were and what they ought to be by covering what is and presenting themselves in a new way.”4 In this way, he says, this act was the “origin of hypocrisy.”5
By providing Adam and Eve with garments of his own, God at once affirms the reality of their fallenness and rejects their “self-clothing.”6 Piper puts it this way:
Negatively, [God] is saying, “you are not what you were and you are not what you ought to be. The chasm between what you are and what you ought to be is huge. Covering yourself with clothing is a right response to this — not to conceal it, but to confess it. Henceforth, you shall wear clothing, not to conceal that you are not what you should be, but to confess that you are not what you should be.”7
Clothing, then, confesses “the glory we have lost.”8 Yet at the same time, Piper goes on to say that the animal skins testify to the fact that God alone will be able to restore what has been lost. God’s gift bears witness to the promise that He will “solve the problem of their shame decisively and permanently… with the blood of his own Son.”9 As God slayed the animal to cover Adam and Eve, so He will slay His Son to cover the sins of the world.
Given its prophetic origins, it is no surprise that the garments of skin later become the garb of the prophets—of Elijah first, and then John. Both men come from the wilderness, “clothed in the tunica of Eden’s gate”: a picture of the displaced, wandering Adam awaiting a new and better garment.10 Both come preaching the Day of the Lord, calling Israel to prepare by means of repentance. Their clothing reflects this message by illustrating the fact that God’s people require a superior garment to cover that which they cannot cover: their sin.
In this way, clothing becomes a messianic symbol as it orients us towards Christ’s death and resurrection. By becoming flesh and dwelling among us, Christ himself takes on the skins of survival in order to redeem man from Adam’s shame and clothe him in a new garment: a “robe of righteousness.”11 The animal skin, which itself “‘holds’… life within itself, in the form of blood,” is taken to the cross.12 Thus, Radner points out that “the skins of Adam” become the “garments of salvation” of which the prophet Isaiah speaks.13 14
The Garments of the Priests
God elaborates the significance of clothing when He establishes the priesthood. Here, God reclaims clothing as a sign of His glory. After giving meticulous instructions for the tabernacle’s ornate design, God gives equally detailed instructions for the garments the priests are to wear. These “holy garments,” He says, will be “for glory and for beauty.”15 They are lavishly ornate and “skillfully woven,” made from precious materials and brightly colored cloth.16 Like the tabernacle in which the priests are to serve, these garments depict God’s splendor. They are highly symbolic: each piece of clothing is meant to depict the priest’s role as mediator between God and man. The “breastplate of judgment,” for instance, serves as a reminder to the people that the priest bears the judgment of Israel on his heart before the Lord. The purpose of the priest’s clothing, then, is to bring Israel to “regular remembrance before the Lord.”17
Thus, we still see echoes of the fall in the priestly garments. In addition to the outer garments, God also instructs the priests to wear “linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh,” which are to reach “from the hips to the thighs.”18 These they will wear when they approach the altar or minister in the Holy Place, “lest they bear guilt and die.”19 Already God has prohibited anyone from approaching the altar naked, and this second prohibition of “naked flesh” reinforces the message: nakedness profanes the altar, because man in his shameful nakedness has fallen short of God’s glory.20 Israel is still in the wilderness awaiting redemption. The skins of survival are not yet done away with, as the prophets later remind us.
In this way, the priestly garments catechize Israel in the story of God’s glory and man’s fall from glory. Their beauty depicts God’s holiness and majesty while also reminding them of what is required to bridge the chasm between God and man on account of their sin. Thus, God extends the redemptive symbolism of clothing through the priestly garments. These garments communicate who He is and what He does: He is a God who clothes His people and covers their sin. Moreover, by clothing them, God takes His people up into His beauty. In adorning them with His name, He makes them lovely to behold.
Confessing with Our Clothing
We see that throughout Scripture, clothing serves as a memento of the fall while at the same time orienting us towards the promise of future glory. God clothes his people in order to tell them that they need to be redeemed and that He will be the one to do it; in this way, clothing serves as a means of confession. The garments He makes for his people identify the conflict while at the same time proclaiming the resolution to that conflict: the firstborn of creation will come in “a robe dipped in blood” to cover their sins and make them glorious once more.21
Thus, clothing pulls the saints into the story of redemption in a physical way. The bodily act of putting on clothing every day reminds us that our bodies will one day be raised out of shame and into the glory of Christ’s righteousness. Daily we are called to “put off the old self with its practices” and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”22 Taking off the animal skins, we must put on the robes of Christ.
So the gospel changes how we dress. The way we outwardly clothe our bodies communicates our inward beliefs about who we are and who we were made to be as creatures of a most holy God. It is the responsibility of the saints, then, to dress with the intention of proclaiming the truth of the gospel and preparing for Christ’s glory.
How then do we put all this into practice? How do the saints dress for glory? In the third and final part of this series, I will propose some ideas for this.
Gen 3:8-11 (ESV).
Radner, Ephraim. A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life, 40.
Is 61:10; Zech 3:4; Rev 19:8.