Most of us are concerned with our appearance. We like to look as nice as possible, at least around others. But how concerned are we about our dress or appearance in spiritual terms?
This question is presented in Scripture. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve felt no shame in their nakedness. However, after the Fall they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves, symbolising a vain attempt to conceal their guilt. Later, God clothed them with animal skins, anticipating the atoning work of Christ. Dress in Scripture certainly can have symbolic value.
I want to look at two striking passages in Revelation that speak of clothing. They are found in chapters 7 and 19. Here we read of crowds of people in white robes praising God. At first glance we might think the same picture is in view in both chapters. But though the people are the same, what is being taught is different. Let’s look at the two passages.
Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the opening of seven seals that reveal the stark realities of life as God’s purposes are unveiled: war, famine, martyrdom, judgment. Amidst this, God has his people. They are numbered 144,000 in verses 1-8. There follows (in verse 9) a reference to a great multitude in white robes. Who are they? John is told that they are those who have come out of the great tribulation and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.
Some portions of Scripture are figurative rather than literal and this is certainly true of much of Revelation, including here. If you wash robes in blood, they don’t come out white! It is surely a wonderful picture of salvation. Jesus shed his blood so that we might know forgiveness. By nature our garments – our appearance, our character – are dirty and stained. When we trust in Christ and his work upon the cross, our garments are cleansed and we become ‘clean and white’.
We may appear outwardly ‘clean’ when others see us, especially at church. We like to look respectable, even attractive. But how does God see us? How clean are our hearts? We need the cleansing of the blood of Christ if we are to be clean in God’s sight. How wonderful is forgiveness! To know that we are acceptable before the Almighty is marvellous indeed. This is not just something reserved for a privileged few — it is vital. Unless we are clean in the Lord’s sight, we will know nothing of the heavenly blessings described in this passage. No purity: no heaven!
In the early verses of this chapter there is great joy after the judgment of the prostitute Babylon, which typifies the whole world system (verses 1-3). Then in verse 6 there is a deafening noise like a great multitude or the sound of many waters. The authoritative rule of God Almighty is pictured. That is something worth singing about!
In verses 7 and 8, the song then focuses on a wedding – the marriage of the Lamb. In particular we are shown the bride. As we might expect, she is dressed in white, in fine linen.
As we said earlier, superficially we might take the picture as the same as in chapter 7, but note two things: 1) the bride makes herself ready (v.7); 2) the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints (v.8).
Does this sound like salvation by works? If so, then it would contradict all the teaching of the New Testament. Salvation is by grace through faith. But that salvation leads to good works.
In 2017 we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Several battles were fought at that time, but the main one was over the issue of how we can be righteous before God. Contrary to Roman Catholicism, the Reformers affirmed that it was by faith alone. However, they accepted the importance of good works. Truly saving faith is always followed by good works.
This is pictured in Revelation 19. The bride makes herself ready. How does she do that? By pursuing holiness and obedience to the Lord. The white robes are the righteous deeds of the saints.
So while in chapter 7 we have robes that depict the imputed righteousness of Christ, obtained by faith alone, in chapter 19 we have robes that speak of our practical righteousness. In theological terms we have justification and sanctification.
Balance is needed here. We can focus so much on justification that we neglect to pursue holiness. On the other hand, we can so stress the importance of holy living that we neglect the finished work of Christ. We must hold the truth in balance. We need to be well-dressed Christians, trusting alone in Christ’s atoning work for our salvation and hope of heaven, and at the same time recognising that the genuineness of our faith must be demonstrated by a life of godliness and increasing conformity to Jesus Christ.
How do you stand in the sight of God? Are your garments washed in the precious blood of Christ? Nothing else will get you to heaven. But you also need those garments of righteous deeds or good works as the evidence of salvation. When a bride is approaching her wedding, she doesn’t wait until the day of her marriage to buy her dress. She wants to look her best for her groom. So we should want to look our best spiritually as we prepare for that great day when we shall be perfectly joined to our Saviour at the marriage supper of the Lamb. May God grant that we shall be making ourselves ready for that day so that we will be well-dressed in his sight.
Roger Fellows is Minister in Baptist and Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Ontario, Canada.