Exodus 28 is special because it embodies an idea of outward holiness reflective of how we should approach God. These verses describe the different parts of clothing that the Priests of God (Aaron and his sons) were to wear. As verse two says, these garments were made for glory and for beauty. They are meant to distinguish the priests from the rest of the Israelite population, recognizing their ordination as ministers to God. They are consecrated and meant for godly service and the clothes make it obvious. Herein are described a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a tunic, a turban, and other articles.
The ephod – The ephod was like a vest or apron and it came to mean that if you were wearing an ephod, you were serving as a priest. It was made with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread with fine woven linen. The ephod was an outer garment to be worn under the tunic. Two onyx stones, each engraved with six names of the sons of Israel, completing the twelve names, were to be set in gold and placed so that they would be on the shoulders of the priest when he wore the ephod. Wearing the names in this way testified to God that the priest knew it was whom God had chosen. By bearing the names of the sons of Israel on his shoulders as he ministered to God the sacrifices and other rituals and rites, the high priest would always know for whom he was ministering.
The breastplate – The breastplate was the most elaborate of all of the garment pieces. Named in verse 15 as the “breastplate of judgment,” it was to mirror the artistry of the ephod and also made with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, with fine woven linen. The breastplate goes further in documenting the twelve tribes as there are twelve precious stones to be embedded in the breastplate, each representing a tribe. The breastplate, not unlike the ark of the covenant, was to be connected by gold rings, in this case to the ephod. The detail and value of the precious stones drive the point home of how special God considered the relationship He had with His people. The high priest is ministering to God on behalf of the people and this likely weighty ephod is a physical representation of how the high priest represents their interests, gratitude, worship and supplication to God.
The Urim and Thummim mentioned in this section are mysterious in their nature and makeup. Most likely stones, many consider them to have been physical symbols of light and perfection and that their inclusion in the priestly garb helped assure the priest and the people that the decisions coming from the Lord would be true, great, and in the best interest of the people.
The robe – The robe was to be blue and would go underneath the ephod and breast plate. Surely beautiful and striking in its appearance, the bright blue color with the ornate bells described along the hem would serve to draw attention to the priest and to his movements. The mention “that he might not die” is a reference to the priest’s attitude before God. Recall Moses’ taking his shoes off before God at the burning bush. This was a recognition of God’s holiness and man’s ineptitude before his Creator. Likewise, the priest, wearing these detailed garments as God specified, attributes that He is approaching God with the right amount of humility, respect, and awe.
The turban – Along the same lines of being holy, the turban was to include a plate of pure gold which had engraved on it the phrase, “Holiness to the Lord.” Verse 38 says about this plate, “So it shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things which the children of Israel hallow in all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.” God required this plate to distinguish the high priest as consecrated for holy duties. The high priest belonged to the Lord for the purpose of service and ministering and the gold plate was a reminder to all of this relationship.
The tunic – The tunic and trousers were the innermost pieces, the trousers serving as undergarments and the tunic being that article that came between the trousers and the robe. The tunic was to be made of fine linen and a sash mentioned here that would go around the waist, would be of intricately woven work.
With all of the symbology inherent in the physical sight of the priest, none would doubt who he was or whom he was serving. These articles are meant to draw attention because the relationship that the Israelites had with God was the most important thing in their lives. It is the same for us today. Our relationship with God is more important than the ones we have with our parents, our children our friends, and even our spouses. God comes first.
So, what can we learn from this chapter detailing the holy raiment of the high priest? Initially, we should be reminded of the importance of our attitude when approaching God. This is true for how we approach Him in prayer and in our thoughts. When I regard God, do I do so with a sense of awe and reverence, keeping in mind how lop-sided the relationship is? It might seem like a hard truth, but God does not owe you or me anything at all. And yet the relationship that He created with us in the present day is priceless, the greatest gift in all the world. When I pray, and when I consider my actions, and when I consider my speech, and when I consider the patterns of my heart, am I as wonderfully clothed with respect and reverence as the high priest?
Also, there is something that we “put on” in our present age as New Testament Christians, Christ Himself. Leaving our old man of sin behind, we find ourselves indebted to Him eternally as we are forgiven. Being baptized in Christ, we come out of the water a new creature, having put on Christ. This is a garment that transcends the priestly garments in every way. Because the putting on of Christ for me and for you is a spiritual act. And it is holier than even the glory of the priest’s garments.
This week, let us remember the garments of the ancient high priests with fondness and reverence, but also in the proper context. For what we wear to sanctify ourselves before God in Jesus Christ is greater, simpler, and perfect:
“And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” Romans 13:11-14