Linen Undergarments and Holiness?

by Pastor Dave on May 14, 2013

This week, in our Journey readings, we find ourselves in what many would consider a rather tedious or arduous (or if really honest we might even say – boring) section of scripture. Here, in the latter portion of Exodus, God is laying out to Moses the laws for his covenant people and detailed instructions regarding their religious practices, regulations, and even detail regarding the tabernacle and its furnishings. Not exactly the stuff of a block-buster summer movie. I have been finding my own mind wandering a bit, and struggling to find the application for my own life. So, this morning I found myself praying a little prayer something like… “God, this is your word and I believe you can speak to me through this part of scripture as well. So, speak Lord, I am listening.”

Well, sure enough I did sense God speaking to me through a rather unusual, or maybe obscure text (haven’t ever really heard sermon on this one, but here it is… “Make linen undergarments as a covering for the body, reaching from the waist to the thigh. Aaron and his sons must wear them whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting or approach the altar to Minister in the Holy Place, so that they will not incur guilt and die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants” (Ex. 28:42-43)

Just being honest about this text, but my first reaction when I read this was, “Really? Does there need to be instructions about the undergarments of Aaron and his sons? And don’t the consequences of not wearing them seem a little extreme? And why a lasting ordinance about undergarments?” However, as with any text of scripture, when you dig a little deeper into the context things begin to make a little more sense. God instituted this lasting ordinance to counteract pagan religions of that time, which involved certain rituals of nakedness. To separate from such practices and encourage holiness in their worship, God instructed the priests to cover their nakedness. Besides ensuring literal modesty, the linen underwear also symbolized a spiritual covering for our earthly nature.

What can we learn from all these details?

When reading some of the more tedious details of the temple worship, practices, and furnishings etc. it is good to remember that there are generally 3 layers of meaning:

1) There is a Practical element. These served as blueprints for the people of the tabernacle was to be made and function. The people of God really didn’t have detailed instructions before this time.

2) There was a Holiness element. These religious instructions revealed more than how it was to be made, but why it was made: to bring glory to God. From the tabernacle we learn about God’s glory – something far beyond blueprints. What for many of us might seem like tedious details probably inspired awe in them. In a very real way these things brought heaven to earth (as these symbols were a kind of archetype of heaven), and these symbols and practices lifted the people heavenward.

3) There was a Spiritual Parallel. None of these symbols or practices were meant to be simply religious rituals. They were meant to bring strong spiritual significance and impact to the people’s lives then and today. That is what Jason’s book Sacred Space and the Renewal Weekend that we are preparing for is all about.

The Lost Virtue of Holiness

Let me share how this rather obscure ordinance regarding underwear impacted me personally. Approaching a Holy God requires personal holiness. We don’t hear much about holiness today in the church. It is not nearly as popular as things like “spirituality” or “prosperity” today. But the scriptures remind us to “consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy (Leviticus 11:44). Today, because of what Christ has done for us on the cross, we don’t have to make endless sacrifices for our sin, but it doesn’t erase the need for us to examine ourselves, repent, and put into place the kinds of spiritual practices (e.g. prayer, scripture reading, silence, repentance) that will help us to lead a holy life and become more like Jesus. I recognized in myself the need to not just gloss over my sin, but to truly seek to be Holy even as God is holy.

Listen to this quote by Richard Foster, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but where, oh where, are those who think of changing themselves? People may genuinely want to be good, but seldom are they prepared to do what it takes to produce the inward life of goodness that can form the soul. Personal formation into the likeness of Christ is arduous and lifelong.” Just as the sometimes arduous attention in all the religious practices of Israel were meant to transform the people to become more like God, it takes intentional practice and attention to our lives to allow Christ to transform us.

Words of Encouragement

So here are some words of encouragement as we wade through some of the more arduous portions of scripture:

1)  Look for those 3 layers of meaning in each of the symbols, practices and furnishings described in this portion of scripture. Particularly look for the spiritual parallels and significance for your life today.

2) Listen for the voice of the Lord and how he might speak to you, particularly in regard to your own holiness. Ask God to speak to you – yep, even in this section!

3) Respond in repentance, thanksgiving and love for Jesus even as leads you. Dig in and let this portion of scripture nourish and enrich your soul.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Deborah May 26, 2013 at 8:05 am

Thanks Pastor Dave for that insightful blog.

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Dave August 20, 2015 at 6:01 am

Thanks. I did a google search on “linen undergarmets not incur guilt and die” and got your site. I’ve been thinking too that the detailed instructions taught the Israelites that God cares about detail and wants us to follow his instructions to the detail. As well, I’m amazed Moses could follow them correctly; I’d have to go back for clarification and probably build a lot of it wrong! Makes me understand why God chose Moses, he had a gift for understanding detailed instructions on all matter of things.
God bless

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