The Purpose of the Clothing Metaphor in Scripture


A metaphor is a figure of speech which expresses the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. In most instances, a common, usually physical object is used to illustrate a more abstract or less familiar idea or concept. There is an implied comparison between the two, but this comparison does not always use the words like or as. An example of this is the statement “my father is my rock.” Most people easily understand this to mean that the father is strong, is consistent, is a place of safety, etc. Only the most insanely literal person would take this statement to mean that the father is an actual piece of granite or limestone.

Scripture uses metaphor all the time in order to illustrate spiritual concepts and one such metaphor is clothing. This metaphor can be easy to miss because there are also many instances in Scripture where clothing means exactly that: literal clothing. However, careful reading reveals that clothing is a frequent biblical metaphor and as such it is rich with meaning. Therefore, it is critical for the believer to recognize the instances where this metaphor appears and to understand its implications. First, let us look at several Old Testament instances of the use of clothing as a metaphor.

Clothing as a picture of one’s standing before God in the Old Testament:

In Genesis 3:1-13, we read that Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness after they committed the sin of eating the forbidden fruit. This awareness caused them to immediately attempt to rectify their condition by constructing garments from fig leaves. The question is why did they consider their nakedness to be a problem? After all, God had seen them naked, they had seen each other naked and there is nothing to indicate that this kind of nakedness was a sin (or else they would have been sinning during all the time prior to the eating). Furthermore, if modesty was the issue, why did God not accept the fig leaf coverings? Was it because the fig leaves showed too much leg or too much cleavage?

Obviously, physical nakedness was not the issue and the manner in which God solved the problem demonstrates this to be the case. Scripture says in Genesis 3:21 that God “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” God had to kill (sacrifice) an animal in order to show Adam and Even how to make atonement for sin. It was only after atonement was made that Adam and Eve could regain the covenant relationship with God that had been lost after the Fall and it is this reconciled status or standing that is pictured by their clothing. Their clothing became an ever-present reminder of the atonement that had been made on their behalf and their new covenant with God.

Now, it may appear to be a logical and exegetical leap to arrive at this conclusion that Adam and Eve’s clothing should be seen as a metaphor simply on the basis of Genesis 1-3. It is true that this conclusion would be a stretch of the imagination – if the Bible ended there. However, this is merely the first instance in Scripture where clothing is used in this way and a look at this metaphor in the rest of God’s Word will prove the idea that Adam and Eve’s clothing was indeed such a picture.

For instance, in Genesis 35:2, we see Jacob instructing his household to put on clean clothing prior to making covenant with God.

Then after the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, we again find clothing being cleansed prior to making covenant with God:

When Moses told the words of the people to the LORD, the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. . . So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments -Exodus 19:10-14

God told the people of Israel to wash their garments as part of the preparation for His arrival at Mount Sinai and for the establishment of the Covenant of Moses. Without clean garments which symbolized their right standing, the covenant could not have been established.

Then once the Mosaic Covenant was established, we find extensive and repeated instructions regarding the clothing of the priests. They were not permitted to minister (could we say: stand?) before God without specific types of clothing (Exodus 28:41-43; Leviticus 16:1-5), without consecrated clothing (Exodus 29:21; Leviticus 8:30) or without clean clothing (Numbers 19:7).

In Zechariah 3:3-5 we read the account of Joshua the high priest whose filthy garments are removed from him and he is left standing in “pure vestments.” In the midst of this clothing change, Joshua is told by the angel of the Lord that his iniquity has been taken away from him. Once his clothes are pure, symbolizing the removal of his iniquity, God says to him:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here – Zechariah 3:6-7

While his garments were filthy, Joshua could have no relationship with God. Once his garments were cleansed, God granted him access as long as he walked in God’s ways.

The function and scope of the clothing metaphor symbolizing one’s standing with God finds even greater evidence in the New Testament.

Clothing as a picture of one’s standing before God in the New Testament.

One of the first mentions of clothing as representative of something truly important occurs in the parable of the wedding feast. Here, Christ tells of a man in attendance at the wedding, but when the host spotted him, he orders the man to be thrown out into outer darkness for apparently no other reason than that he was without a wedding garment (Matthew 22:1-14). Clearly, a right standing was required to attend the feast and this wedding garment was essential to that right standing.

In 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Paul further connects the dots of the clothing metaphor when he writes:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Here Paul tells the Corinthians that they do not want to be “found naked,” and that they must be “clothed” because they all were going to “appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Obviously, Paul’s point was not that the Corinthians needed physical clothing of some kind, rather he was telling them to make sure that they were in a right standing with God at the judgment. And is this not identical to the concern of Adam and Eve? Were they not afraid that God would find them naked, just as Paul is warning here in Corinthians 5?

In Galatians 3:27, we see another connection between clothing and a right standing with God. Here Paul points out a close relationship between this right standing and the sacrament of baptism:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Here the phrase “put on” is a reference to clothing oneself in Christ and other translations bring this emphasis out more clearly:

NIV: have clothed yourselves

NLT: like putting on new clothes

NASV: have clothed yourselves

In Jude 23, we find another, fairly rather dramatic instance of clothing used to symbolize a right standing. Jude talks about a person wearing a garment which has been “stained by the flesh” and Jude’s choice of the Greek word, chiton (kee-tone) here is significant. A chiton was a long garment traditionally worn under one’s cloak close to the skin and a chiton was usually worn by new converts during baptism, the formal entrance into a right standing with God. The use of this word in this manner by Jude is no mistake as Peter makes a similar point about baptism:

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, – 1 Peter 3:21

Clearly, some of Jude’s readers had gained this right standing before God through faith and baptism, but since they had defiled their garments in the time following their baptism, they were in danger of hellfire. The people with the stained garments caused those around them to “hate” this garment because the faithful members of the church had no choice, but to reject the hope that this wayward person was still in a right standing with God. The result was that the person wearing the stained garment could no longer be recognized as a believer, and therefore their garment, symbolizing their entrance into a right standing, was to be hated.

The metaphor of garments as representative of one’s standing with God is carried on into Revelation where we find a host of allusions to garments, clothing or robes. As a result, is in the book of Revelation where the clothing metaphor finds its fullest expression. Look at the mention of garments in the letter to Sardis:

Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. – Revelation 3:4-5

Then at the end of the same chapter, where as a part of the severe letter to Laodicea, Christ points out that the church in Laodicea was wealthy in temporal terms, but the in spiritual terms had no clothes:

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen . . . – Revelation 3:17-18

Clearly, the metaphor of clothing is incredibly important and as Revelation 3:22 says, we need “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Therefore, to misunderstand the meaning of the garment metaphor is to run the risk of misunderstanding a large portion of what the Spirit is saying.

To this end, let us briefly consider other instances of the garment metaphor that we find in Revelation:

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. – Revelation 4:4

Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothersshould be complete. – Revelation 6:11a

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. – Revelation 7:9

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. – Revelation 7:13-14

(“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) – Revelation 16:15

Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel saidto me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” – Revelation 19:6-9

Blessed are those who wash their robes,so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. – Revelation 22:14

Clearly, the state of one’s clothing is a big deal in the book of Revelation and when we take into account the instances of this metaphor throughout the rest of Scripture, it becomes easy to understand the picture given to us in Genesis 3: the clothing worn by Adam and Eve signified the atonement that had been made on their behalf and their restored standing with God. In Genesis, this clothing was necessary for entrance into a covenant with God. In Revelation, one must be clothed in a similar, though now even more clearly metaphorical garment in order to enter Heaven. Thus, at a minimum we can conclude that the worst possible scenario for a human being is to be found in a state of undress before God.

But this is not the only truth to be gleaned from the biblical clothing metaphor. This metaphor also answers questions such as, how do we get dressed in this garment? How do we know that we have it? Can we defile it? Is it possible to remove it? There are no coincidences in Scripture. Therefore, the frequency, consistency and depth of the clothing metaphor indicate that it cannot be easily dismissed and that its implications must be fully explored. Our next article on this topic will deal with the implications and application of Scripture’s use of clothing as a metaphor.