So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of judgment over his heart, when he goes into the holy place, as a memorial before the Lord continually. (Exodus 28:29)
I’m always in awe at our God’s phenomenal capacity for detail. It seems He never leaves even the slightest thing to chance. Look through the Bible, and you’ll see countless examples of how He provided His people with very specific and detailed instructions for anything and everything that He required. The building of the ark, the temple, and the tabernacle are just three obvious examples. His blueprint provided everything, even to what people had to wear and how the attire was to be made, and the breastplate of the High Priest is a fascinating example of how God used things to remind His people about Himself and His releationship with them, but also to point out our limitations and point forward to Christ.
Looking into the Old Testament and the New, we discover a unique relationship between the breastplates of righteousness and judgement.
Before digging into this, we should look at the breastplate and see what it actually was. There’s a lot of detail available in the Bible and on the Internet, but is was essentially a kind of ‘backless waistcoat,’ more or less square in shape, and attached to the High Priest’s ephod or garment. It was made of embroidered linen, had an inner pouch for the urim and thummim – articles used by God to reveal His will to the priests in early temple worship – and was attached by blue ribbons and gold chains to various rings on the outer garments. What made it especially significant was that precious stones were fastened onto in in specific sequence and rows, and the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel were engraved onto each stone according to specific instructions.
The breastplates of righteousness and judgement cannot be separated.
The breastplate was called the Breastplate of Judgement, and the High Priest was required to wear it into the Holy of Holies to symbolise his intercessory role. In essence, he was ‘wearing’ the sins and the judgement of the people, bringing them to the mercy seat through the process of atonement, forgiveness, and cleansing that the temple rituals dictated. The people themselves could not approach the dwelling place of God beyond the veil, so the priest was required to represent them. This is the basic purpose of the breastplate – by wearing the names of the tribes, the priest was bringing them before God through atonement and intercession.
This ‘substitutionary’ role of the High Priest is very obviously rendered perfect and complete in and through the cross, and Christ’s eternal role as our High Priest. I find it immensely interesting that God’s instruction was that Aaron was to wear the Breastplate of Judgement over his heart, because this is, as the Bible repeatedly points out, the source of everything in our lives. This reveals the intrinsic relationship between the breastplates of righteousness and judgement, and the eternal grace of God in His provision for His people of covenant, the people of His heart.
For one thing, a breastplate is intended to protect the heart – consider the breastplate of righteousness in the Ephesians passage on the armour of God. So, in the very first instance, the heart is associated with judgement and clearly defines our culpability and the critical need for substitutionary and intercessory intervention. The Bible tells us to guard our hearts, and this is the first purpose of the breastplate. Even in this early and limited type of Christ – the High Priest on earth can never fully realise the perfection of the High Priest of heaven – the implication is plain. Something is needed to protect the heart.
Of course, New Testament grace provides us with another perfect breastplate, the righteousness that is Christ. Just as the priest was required to wear the breastplate in order to enter into the Holy of Holies and the very presence of God, so we are required to wear the breastplate of righteousness in order to draw near. It’s not something we can do or say, it’s actually ‘wearing Christ.’ And this is the eternal truth that reveals the deep message of the Breastplate of Judgement. To understand this fully, we need to understand just how important names are to God, and their relevance in all His dealings with His people.
By wearing the names of all twelve tribes in a very specific order, the High Priest included every single man, woman, and child – the entire people of God. No one was excluded, and each had their own identity in Him. It was no ‘hit and miss’ affair. It was no vague generalisation. Each tribe was included and identified by name. But, we may well ask, why was it the Breastplate of Judgement? The answer is simple. Because all have sinned. It was an immediate acknowledgement that everyone is automatically judged, whether we choose to believe it or not. In the presence of a holy God, the sinfulness of man is inevitably placed in a place of judgement.
But the priest had to wear it over his heart, and this is where the grace of God is fully revealed. Remember, the High Priest stood between the people and God. He approached God on behalf of the people, but he also brought God to the people by receiving, on their behalf, the cleansing and forgiveness of sins. When he entered the Holy of Holies, he manifested the dual relationship of man to God and God to man. He became, as it were, the place where God and man meet. To understand this spiritual truth, we must understand the mercy seat. This was the provision of God to make a way for man to reach Him. It doesn’t erase judgment. It reinforces it, because without there first being judgement there can be no need for mercy.
Wearing the Breastplate of Judgement ‘reminded’ God that these were His chosen people, the people of His heart. These were the people He had called by name, those with whom He had covenant to never forget, never abandon, never turn away from. This is the relevance of the truth that God looks at the heart. When He looked at the heart of the High Priest, He saw the names of His covenant people and their need for grace and mercy.
In the same way, if we are in Christ – wearing Christ, who is Himself the breastplate of righteousness – God sees Him, the perfect sacrifice, the complete atonement, the blood that purchased mercy through total obedience and surrender. In the same way, Jesus ‘wears’ His people in His intercessory role. As He intercedes on our behalf, He is reminding God constantly that we are His chosen, that He knows us by name, that He has engraved us on the palms of His hands, that He wears our individual sin and punishment – the Breastplate of Judgement – so that we may be forgiven, cleansed and reconciled.
Our joy lies in the truth that Christ has already done it all. But this doesn’t mean that we can gloss over the Old Testament instructions and disregard them. Of course, we no longer need to follow the elaborate rituals and detailed instructions for cleansing, sacrifice, etc. But we should look at these from the perspective of Christ. Each of them point to Him. Each reveal truths about His nature, His character, His purpose, and His role, and about the ways in which God relates with His people. We should avoid religious rituals and ‘recipes’ which exclude grace and the work of the Spirit. But we should never avoid learning the lessons behind the rituals which provide deeper and dynamic revelation of the way God desires us to relate with Him.
Yes, it is the gift of infinite grace that our God looks at the heart, and in so doing reminds Himself that we are His chosen people. ‘Remind’ does not suggest that He actually has moments of forgetfulness. It is used rather in the sense that He reiterates the truth that He has chosen us. That He confirms that we are His people, bought by the blood of His Son. By ‘reminding’ Himself, God is, in effect, saying over and over again: “These are my people, and I am their God.”
In the old days, the High Priest was required to ‘wear the people’ to activate this divine covenant. In our age of grace, the people are required to ‘wear the High Priest.’ All the richness and detail point to this single fact. When we approach the throne of grace, God will immediately look at the heart by looking at what we wear over it. This does not excuse sin, nor provide a licence for us to excuse our sin, but it does provide the grace we need for mercy, forgiveness, and empowerment to overcome sin.
If God looks at our hearts, He looks to see if we are wearing the breastplate of righteousness – the righteousness that is only found in Christ. When He looks at Christ, He sees the breastplate of judgement – that Christ, as both perfect sacrifice and complete High Priest, has fulfilled all the judgement and punishment due to the people. He ‘wore’ us so that we could ‘wear’ Him. The ways of God are truly, remarkably, eternally full of grace.