“What do you think dignity’s all about?”
The directness of the inquiry did, I admit, take me rather by surprise. “It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,” I said. “But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.” (Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day)
This quote comes from a delightful little book about a British butler looking back on his life. Much of his reminisces center around this idea of dignity. He connects dignity with “a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” A butler who cannot do this is “like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and shirt and run around screaming.” In short, a good butler keeps himself covered in the role he is committed to no matter how trying the circumstances.
I would probably not have connected this with the Bible if not for a message I heard on the same day I was taking The Remains of the Day back to the library. The Rabbi at my local Messianic congregation taught on the priestly garments and how we choose to “cover” ourselves with either good or bad actions, words, and character traits.
When we go back to the Torah and read about the priest’s garments, we learn they occupied a key role in temple service. The initial instruction in Exodus 28 reads “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. … Aaron’s garments, to consecrate him, that he may minister to Me as priest. ” (Ex. 28:23). The garments were qodesh — holy, sacred, set apart (H6944) — and they were part of what made Aaron qadash — consecrated, sanctified, set apart, holy (H6942). The priests had to wear the holy garments when ministering before the Lord “that he may not die” (Ex. 28:35, 43).
These garments were only worn within the tabernacle or temple. When a priest stepped into the temple to work before God, he “put on his linen garment” (Lev. 6:10). After his service was done he “shall take off his garments, put on other garments” before leaving the holy places (Lev. 6:11).
They shall enter My sanctuary, and they shall come near My table to minister to Me, and they shall keep My charge. And it shall be, whenever they enter the gates of the inner court, that they shall put on linen garments… . When they go out to the outer court, to the outer court to the people, they shall take off their garments in which they have ministered, leave them in the holy chambers, and put on other garments; and in their holy garments they shall not sanctify the people.(Ezk. 44:16-17, 19)
Today, Jesus fully fills the role of High Priest and has torn-down the veils and ordinances that separated God from His people. He has made us holy and opened the way for us to be in God’s presence (Heb. 10:19-22). On top of all this, we’ve also been given a role in the New Covenant priestly order.
You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 2:5)
What should we wear as we serve God? They should be our best garments, as Ruth and Ester wore when they went to Boaz and the king (Ruth 3:3; Est. 5:1). Yet, like the virtuous woman, it’s not the physical which is most important for us.
Strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come. (Prov. 31:25)
We’re a “spiritual house” made priests to offer “spiritual sacrifices.” It makes sense, then, that the most important garments we can put on to serve God are spiritual.
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. (Col. 3:12-14)
That’s what we need to wear when we come into God’s presence. We can sum this whole list up by saying we need to “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). The holy priesthood He is building in His church must be recreated in His image and clothed with His character.
Unlike the priests in the physical temple, we don’t remove these holy garments. They stay with us all the time, for we are always in God’s presence. Under the New Covenant, “you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Cor. 3:16). You can’t leave the temple without leaving your relationship with God.
This brings us back to the idea conveyed in the Ishiguro quotes from The Remains of the Day. Just as the ideal butler had to always wear a “dignity in keeping with his profession,” so must we always wear Christ. We don’t set aside our dignity, our commitment, when hard times come — we continue to behave in a right and proper manner that reflects well on the One we are serving. To do this, we need to take our spiritual clothing one step further. We need to put on armor.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. … Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:11, 14-17)
When we put on the character of God and let our High Priest clothe us, it acts as an armor. By walking with Jesus, we learn how to keep our righteous garments on all the time. We clothe ourselves in His character and it becomes so much a part of us that we never take Him off.
What we wear is very important to God. In the letters to the churches in Revelation, for example, He commends those in Sardis “who have not defiled their garments” and promises, “they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4). In contrast, those in Laodicea are warned to get their act together and buy from Jesus “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed” (Rev. 3:18).
God has washed us clean in Jesus Christ and given “the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Is. 61:3). He wants to cover us in righteousness that will act as a breastplate and carry over into the next life as beautiful wedding garments (Rev. 19:8). He wants us to walk around every day clothed in character traits that let everyone see we’re walking as priests — not shuffling around trying to hide our naked shame. We’ve been made holy and beautiful in Him. Let’s act like it!