Read by itself and without understanding how it fits in the larger narrative of Exodus and the rest of the Bible, Exodus 28 sounds like a cross between a jeweler’s catalogue and a tailor’s procedural manual. If seen in this way alone, it can make Exodus 28 feel unfamiliar and unimportant. However, what Exodus 28 does for the Christian is give a colorful explanation of what Christ has done for his saints. It lists a number of priestly garments worn by Levitical priests, and it foreshadows a number of important things that Christ did when he assumed the mantle of a priest greater than Aaron.
Today, we will consider the priestly garments in the order they appear in Exodus 28.
In the Bible, ephods are typically involved in the process of worship—true worship and false (cf. Judges 18:14-20). In Exodus 28, God gives Israel the true ephod for worship. It was a royal apron, as R. K. Harrison describes it, “a sleeveless vest, which fitted close to the body and may have extended somewhat below the hips.” It was made of the finest fabrics–“gold, blue, and purple and scarlet yarn, and fine twined linen”–materials that matched the make up of the tabernacle. In other words, when the priests came into God’s house, they had to dress for the occasion.
Significantly, the ephod is fastened to the high priests body by two onyx shoulder pieces. And on each of these of shoulder pieces are the names of Israel’s twelve tribes—six on one shoulder, six on the other. What were they for? “They were a reminder that Aaron served God as high priest, not for his own benefit, but on behalf of the Israelites” (T. D. Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land, 198).
Breast Piece of Judgment
On top of the ephod was the “breastpiece of judgment.” Like everything else, it was a “skilled work,” one that corresponded to the ephod—literally, “in the style of the ephod,” Moses was to make the breastpiece “of gold, blue, and purple, and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it” (verse 15).
The shape of the breastpiece is square and sits in the middle of the chest—over the heart. It is doubled, or folded over, so that the Urim and the Thummim may be placed in the breastpiece (v. 30). Now on the breastpiece are 12 stones—four rows of three. Verses 17-21 describe it like this,
A row of sardius, & topaz, carbuncle shall be the 1st row; the 2nd row an emerald, a sapphire, & a diamond; the third row a jacinth, an agate, & an amethyst; & the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.
These precious stones indicate the value of God’s people in eyes of God, but God’s love is not mere sentimentality; it is effective. The names of the tribes of Israel indicate the way the priest represents the people before God. As verse 29 states, “So Aaron shall bear the names of sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD.” The breastpiece then is not simply for glory and beauty; it serves the purpose of mediating God’s blessing towards Israel, and protecting God’s covenant people from imminent danger.
Urim and Thummim
The function of this breastpiece is also seen in verse 30, “And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly.” No one definitively knows what these are. When they are mentioned in Scripture they are involved in decision-making and discerning the will of God. For instance in 1 Samuel, when God does not respond to Saul because of Saul’s foolish leadership, to determine where the fault lies, he employs the Urim and Thummim.
Therefore Saul said, “O LORD God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped (14:41).
Under the ephod, Aaron was to wear a robe. More than ephods, robes appear throughout the Bible: They were usually adorned by people of rank; they symbolized authority and/or status; kings often adorned robes as did their court and their brides. In short, robes function as a status symbol. Think of Joseph’s multi-colored robe. Such is the case with priests. These men are the chosen instruments of blessing and mediation in Israel. Their apparel and adornment–especially the high priest as he served–reminded Israel of their important role.
In the NT, this imagery continues. For instance, Jesus in Revelation is clothed in a royal robe (1:13; 19:16). And so are his people (6:11). All those who trust in Christ, will be clothed in royal, maybe even priestly garments (3:18). In fact, in Revelation, the book is filled with royal priests—Christ is the priest who now reigns as king; and all of his people are blood-bought royal priests.
So in Exodus, the robe demonstrates the especially favored position of the priest, who has intimate (though dangerous) access to God’s royal throne. The robe itself has bells on it. Some have said this was to announce his coming into God’s presence, but this seems a little odd. He doesn’t need to be warned of what he already knows. Rather, it points to another reality, namely that the tinkling of bells announces the sacrifice is being effected. Verse 35: “It shall be on Aaron when he ministers, its sound shall be heard when he goes into the Holy Place before the Lord, & when he comes out, so that he does not die
There rests on Aaron’s head a turban. Like everything else, it is made for beauty and glory, but the beauty and glory are not limited to the visual. There is a gold plate on the forehead that says much about what the high priest achieves as he makes atonement. Douglas Stuart explains, “The gold forehead plate was not primarily decorative but apparently symbolized Aaron’s role as representative of the people in the process of atonement (v. 38).” To say it another way, the work that Aaron did on behalf of Israel achieved or maintained their holy standing.
In Exodus 19:6, Israel is called to be a holy nation. They are not naturally holy. They, like us, are a sinful people. The question is: How can they be holy? The answer: God’s holiness is imparted to them by the priest. As the Exodus 29 shows, Aaron is consecrated and made holy, but even more his service purifies the people of Israel from their sins, which defile them and make them unholy.
This is a beautiful picture of the way God cleanses sinners from the acts and attitudes that defile them. This is true in part in the Levitical system; this is increased infinitely in Christ.
The Coat and Under Garments
Finally, not only are the external garments holy unto the Lord, but his undergarments are as well. Verse 39 describes a fine linen coat that would have been up against the body, that the priest would have worn. And verses 40-43 describe a holy undergarments for the purpose completely covering the nakedness of the priest.
While it may seem strange to us that Exodus includes this mention of nakedness. It reminds us that from Genesis forward, man is not innocent. While in the Garden Adam was naked and unashamed, now mankind’s nakedness is a mark of shame and impurity before the Lord. Because of our sin, all humanity is in need of holy apparel–clothes that man cannot manufacture, but rather that must come from the Lord (cf. Isa 61:10; Rev 3:18).
Overall, Exodus 28 is a wonderful picture of the way God clothed the priest in Israel, such that this sinful man could come into the presence of the Lord and atone for the rest of Israel. But still this doesn’t touch the rest of humanity or people today. So, in the days ahead, we will see how these garments point to Christ and apply to believers who have been clothed with Christ and his righteousness. In this way, Exodus 28 helpfully shows us our shameful nakedness before God and the way that God has intended to clothe us once and for all. Stay tuned!
Soli Deo Gloria, dss