Written by Chris Comis
The nature of clothing is more than merely the attempt to cover our unseemly members. Clothing is not just for the sake of keeping the body at a certain temperature; nor is clothing merely for the purpose of displaying glory and honor. Clothing is an external and bodily manifestation of our inner-most convictions and loves. In other words, our ultimate need to clothe ourselves is not because we are Homo erectus, but rather because we are Homo adorans. We worship someone or something and our dress reflects who or what we worship.
Clothing has three primary functions and goals: to give life, to bestow glory, and to impart wisdom. We need to take a little closer look at each of these three primary functions and goals of clothing:
To Give Life: Without any clothing whatsoever we would all probably die within a matter of a few days, or weeks. We need clothes to live. Clothing serves as a basic life-giving function for all of us. From the womb forward we are all clothed in something. In fact, even before we were born, we were clothed in our mothers’ wombs. Our mothers’ wombs act as physical clothing in order to protect us while we are knitted together. This is the most practical and pragmatic aspect of clothing that I can think of. It is a basic necessity of life.
To Bestow Glory: Glory is probably the least practical and pragmatic aspect of clothing. It is here that mere utilitarians and pragmatists have the most difficult time with clothing. Clothing has one purpose and one purpose only – to preserve life. But if this were the case, then beauty and honor would have nothing to do with clothing. Clothing would not be worn in order to display worth, power, beauty, sensuality, social position, etc. But obviously, the multi-billion-dollar-a-year clothing industries didn’t get that way as a result of knitting together bare rags just so consumers could stay alive. Clothing is glorious; and it will bestow some kind of glory.
To Impart Wisdom: This is the aspect of clothing I will be addressing the most because it is the most underrated and undervalued. This is a result of our culture losing its sense of symbolism. Symbolism is no longer seen as a necessary means to understanding truth, goodness, and beauty. Some may consider symbolism important for some endeavors, like for use in road signs, desktop icons, or highly abstract symbolic logic. Science, mathematics, and logic itself (remember symbolic logic) would not be possible if it weren’t for symbols. Indeed, symbolism is at the heart of all of thought and life. This includes – and especially so – the life of clothing.
Clothing symbolically represents our hearts, our minds, and our loves. Clothing reveals to the world who we are; and more importantly, who we worship. Clothing is an essential aspect of the gospel.
It’s not enough to simply assume certain biblical truths in our day and age, the way some of our forefathers did as a result of enculturated Christianity. We are living in a post-Christian America. We need to be much more biblically intentional and explicit in our approach to these issues. We can no longer assume that the Scriptures provide the presumed backbone for how our culture views these things. Our culture has been in a downward spiral for a few generations, and although the issues of propriety and modesty with clothing seemed to remain relatively intact over the years; it is becoming more apparent that our culture is losing its Christian moorings.
The first time the issue of clothing comes up in the Bible is in the garden, on the first Sabbath of the first week of creation, and after the man and the woman’s eyes were opened to their nakedness. The first thing they sought to do was to cover (clothe) themselves with some fig leaves in order to cover their nakedness. They were naked and unashamed prior to eating the fruit, but after they were naked and afraid. So the clothing they have put on is just another attempt at self-justification/self-righteousness. Men (and women) who are spiritually naked will always try and cover/clothe themselves with whatever they can in order to hide their true shame. They might even offer the pretense of “I was afraid because I was naked,” but this is done only to hide their shame even more.
Wicked men and women will always use clothing to try and hide their true inner shame. It’s not even a matter of whether they will use clothing to do this; but only a matter of which clothing will be used.
God then took care of this pretense of self-righteousness by stripping the man and woman naked, and then re-clothing them with tunics of skin. And by stripping them naked, He would have revealed to them their true inner shame. So God used clothing in order to re-cover their inner shame, but this time with clothing which could actually accomplish this.
But this clothing He put on them wasn’t just for the purpose of covering their inner shame. The very next thing the text tells us is that God Himself beholds mankind’s “coming of age.” God declares that the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. Man has just been clothed with the arraignment of judgment. To know good and evil is to be able to judge between good and evil. So man has “grown” into a god-like judge.
Clothing doesn’t just have a restorative aspect to it, but also an official/judicial aspect to it.
The next time clothing comes up in the bible, it is with Noah. Noah has a little too much wine to drink and he becomes uncovered in his tent. But Noah’s shame is only partial, because he’s still being covered by his tent. Ham had to go inside the privacy of his father’s tent in order to see his father’s shame. But Shem and Japheth were able to cover their father’s shame, without seeing their father’s nakedness – “their faces were turned away.” Once Noah is re-clothed with his official robes of righteousness and judgment, he then passes judgment on Ham, Shem, and Japheth. So what’s the point here?
Even when the righteous stumble and their shame is revealed to some extent; they are still to be treated with the utmost respect and honor. And once they are re-clothed their right to pass judgment still stands.
There are several other references to clothing in the book of Genesis, but I want to only focus in on three more:
Genesis 35:1-3 Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother.” And Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in the way which I have gone.”
Jacob understood the significance of going up to the House of God (Bethel). This is why he tells his whole household to not only forsake any foreign gods, and not only to purify themselves, but also to change their garments. Then they could arise and go up to the House of God. Jacob was not the type of Christian to simply say, “As long as my heart is pure,” or, “As long as I’m not worshiping any false gods.” He knew exactly what was required of him. And that was a change of heart and body; a putting off of the old idols as well as the old clothing.
Genesis 41:14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him quickly out of the dungeon; and he shaved, changed his clothing, and came to Pharaoh.
Here we see Joseph come to the king of all the earth (Pharaoh) in only the best condition possible. He was brought quickly, so his outward appearance couldn’t have been too impressive. But at the very least he shaved and changed his clothing. The king of all the earth would settle for nothing less.
Genesis 41:39-42 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall be ruled according to your word; only in regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring off his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand; and he clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck.
Now Joseph gets re-clothed in garments of fine linen. The original clothes that were put on him to come into the king’s presence are now stripped off of him and he is forced to wear something altogether different for the purpose of overseeing the land of Egypt. Vice-regent rule required new clothing. Indeed, Jesus recognized this same principle, that certain clothing was appropriate for one stage of life as opposed to another. Jesus told the multitudes this, “But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” (Matt 11:8) Jesus is not pointing out here that kings ought not to be arrayed in “soft clothing,” but that He Himself was not wearing this kind of clothing, at least not yet. But when we get to John’s vision of the ascended and glorified Lord in the book of Revelation, we see Christ arrayed and adorned in exactly this manner.
Just these three passages point to the importance and relevance of clothing for our relationship with God, with people in high office, with other men, etc. There are a plethora of other passages we could look at in the old covenant that deal with the issue of clothing, and from which we could draw principles of application to our time. Remember, Paul tells us in 2 Tim 3:16 that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. “All Scripture” to Paul at the time he wrote Second Timothy could only have referred to the whole old covenant Canon. So even as new covenant Christians, we must learn how to apply old covenant laws, ceremonies, types, symbols, examples (and whatever else is in there) to the Christian life.
Pastorally speaking, these passages, according to the apostle Paul, are just as relevant to the new covenant situation as they were in the old. The difference is that they are relevant in and through the coming of the Christ; as well as relevant and applicable through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So let’s look next at how the authors of the new covenant sought to apply many of these principles.
The first hermeneutical principle we need to keep in mind when we come to the newer covenant is this: the new covenant is not the abrogation of the old. Jesus tells us this in Matt 5:17-19, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The time of the new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant, not its destruction. We are now living in the post-70 AD fulfillment of the old covenant. We are living post-Pentecost and so have the Spirit of God dwelling in us (and in the midst of the Church) with greater power and efficacy in order to guide us into all truth. All this to say, when it comes to applying old covenant examples/principles to new covenant life, we should be much better at applying these to our lives than any saint in the old covenant administration (this theme of “much better” is one of the main points of the book of Hebrews about the new covenant Christian life).
Let’s begin our new covenant exploration of these clothing issues by looking at what the King of the new covenant says. Jesus is great at helping us to keep the Law and the Prophets in perspective, and He does quite a bit of this in His Sermon on the Mount.
Throughout Matthew 6:25-34 we see Jesus giving us a proper and healthy perspective on clothing. But notice, the fundamental heart issue here is one of worry. We should not be worrying ourselves to death about food, clothing, and shelter – or indeed, about life itself. There is a kind of life which is more than any or all of these things. A kind of life which is more, but it isn’t less. Nowhere in this passage does Jesus say that life is some inner mystical experience that can be obtained without food, clothing, and shelter. Life (and specifically eternal life) is so much more than the everyday worry we all face when it comes to trying to figure out what we’re going to eat for breakfast; what we’re going to have for dinner; what we’re going to wear in the morning when its 20 degrees below outside. Eternal life is so much more than the bare essentials of bare existence, but not less. And worrying about obtaining the bare essentials will only add to our troubles, not relieve them.
We need to notice the driving principle behind all this – we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” This is not a suggestion, but a command. We are commanded by the Lord Himself to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. But notice the little promise of blessing tacked onto the end there: “and all these things shall be added to you.” These things will not be taken from us. It’s not as if the kingdom of God and His righteousness will have nothing to do with such earthly matters and concerns. Quite the contrary. God in His kingdom and righteousness will bestow these things upon us.
First off, God’s kingdom and righteousness should be the bedrock, the foundation, for the food we eat and the clothing we wear. In other words, this doesn’t mean that the only food and clothing at our disposal must now be immaterial and invisible. As if we no longer need earthly food and clothing; and all we need to live and survive now are ethereal hot dogs and pants. God’s kingdom and righteousness are very material and very visible. We know this because Christ Himself was very material and very visible, and He was the embodiment of God’s kingdom and righteousness. So our food and clothing must also be very material and visible because these too have been added to us on the basis of God’s kingdom and righteousness in Christ.
We must primarily pursue God’s visible kingdom and righteousness in Christ, and we must also pursue the visible food and clothing which is the fruit thereof. We are to do all of this without worry.