The Clothes Make the Man: Seeing the Priesthood of Christ in John’s Gospel


For the month of April, Crossway Books has graciously allowed our readers to freely download The Cross by Martin Lloyd-Jones. This book is a collection of excellent sermons from one of the foremost preachers of the twentieth century.

“Clothes make the man.” Or, at least, that is what Mark Twain thought, when he put in print the meditations of a Russian ruler in the “The Czar’s Soliloquy.” Twain writes,

After the Czar’s morning bath it is his habit to meditate an hour before dressing himself.—London Times Correspondence.

[Viewing himself in the pier-glass.] Naked, what am I? A lank, skinny, spider-legged libel on the image of God! Look at the waxwork head—the face, with the expression of a melon—the projecting ears—the knotted elbows—the dished breast—the knife-edged shins—and then the feet, all beads and joints and bone-sprays, an imitation X-ray photograph! There is nothing imperial about this, nothing imposing, impressive, nothing to invoke awe and reverence. Is it this that a hundred and forty million Russians kiss the dust before and worship? Manifestly not! No one could worship this spectacle, which is Me. Then who is it, what is it, that they worship? Privately, none knows better than I: it is my clothes. Without my clothes I should be as destitute of authority as any other naked person. Nobody could tell me from a parson, a barber, a dude. Then who is the real Emperor of Russia? My clothes. There is no other.

So begins the humble reflection of the exalted czar. And so begins our modest reflection on the glory of Christ’s priesthood in John’s Gospel.

In John, clothes play an important role in identifying the person and work of Christ. And in what follows I will show one of the many places where Jesus’s garments reveal his priestly service. If space permitted, we could consider the clothes Jesus removed and the towel he donned when he washed his disciples’ feet, or the seamless tunic that was stolen from Jesus on the cross, or the folded-up clothes in Jesus’s empty tomb. Each of these garments demonstrate how Christ is a priest, but instead of looking at each, I will only address the last example—the folded clothes of Jesus’s tomb.

Still, before demonstrating this point and marveling at the finished work of Christ, I need to establish the way that clothes make the man. And in particular, I will show how David’s ephod reveals his priesthood, a priesthood that arises from his status as a son of God.

The Clothes Make David a Priest

1. This is a point I make in my article “Son(s) of God” in the Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (forthcoming, November 2023).

For those familiar with John’s Gospel, they know that the Beloved Disciple is making a twenty-one-chapter argument that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:20–31). Indeed, John does not limit Jesus’s trial to the kangaroo court of the priests and Pilate (John 18:12–19:16). Instead, the whole Gospel puts Jesus on trial, as it were. Countless witnesses are brought forward, and the unfailing testimony is unified: Jesus is God’s Son. But what kind of son is he?

2. G. K. Beale, “Adam as the First Priest in Eden as the Garden Temple,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 22, no. 2 (2018): 9–24.

In the Old Testament, Adam (Gen. 5:1–3; Luke 3:38), Israel (Exod. 4:22–23), and David (2 Sam. 7:14 are “sons of God,” and as sons of God they not only possess royal prerogatives, but priestly prerogatives.[1] Adam is called to “cultivate and keep” the garden (Gen. 2:15). These exact same Hebrew words are enjoined to the priests and Levites in the tabernacle, even though they are better translated in this context as “serve and guard” (see Num. 3:7–8; 8:25–26; 18:5–7).[2] Israel, a corporate Adam, is also identified as a royal priesthood.[3] And even David, though not a son of Aaron, is identified in priestly ways.[4] How so? Among all of his priestly actions and his patronage of the priesthood, it is his clothing that makes this man a priest.

3. See my “How a Kingdom of Priests Became a Kingdom with Priests and Levites: A Filial-Corporate Understanding of the Royal Priesthood in Exodus 19:6,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 23, no. 1 (2019): 23–56.

In 2 Samuel 6:14, David leads the procession of the ark to Jerusalem, and as he does so, “David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod” (emphasis added). Space does not permit a full wardrobe check, but two things stand out with David’s vestments.

4. Carl E. Armerding, “Were David’s Sons Really Priests?,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 75–86; cf. Eugene H. Merrill, “Royal Priesthood: An Old Testament Messianic Motif,” Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (1993): 50–61.

First, the linen ephod is a priestly garment. This is evident by comparison with Exodus 28:6–14 where instructions for priests’ multi-colored ephod (i.e., a priestly coat) are given. And the priestly nature of the ephod is confirmed by a second comparison to young Samuel’s apparel. When Samuel entered into priestly service, he wore a “linen ephod” (1 Sam. 2:18). So too, as David leads the ark of the covenant into the city of God, David’s ephod identifies him as a priest.[5]

5. I understand that calling David a priest may raise all sorts of questions, which is why I wrote a book about it. See my Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God.

Second, the source of David’s ephod is priestly. If you follow the story of David in 1–2 Samuel, you discover that his acquisition of the ephod comes from Abiathar the priest. As 1 Samuel 30:7 reports, “And David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” So Abiathar brought the ephod to David.” This is the last time an ephod is mentioned before it shows up on David in 2 Samuel 6:14.[6] Reading with the grain of the narrative, David’s ephod has a priestly source.

6. David had previously sought the ephod in 1 Samuel 23:9 when he sought the Lord’s direction. The connection between the ephod and the Lord’s direction may relate to another proof of David’s priestly status—namely, the use of the Urim and Thummim, which were held in possession of the high priest (Exod 28:30), and which helped Israel make decisions in times of rendering judgment (Num. 27:21).

Even more, we can surmise that when Saul had the priests (i.e., “eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod”) slaughtered in 1 Samuel 22:18, the entire priesthood came to an end, so to speak. Ahimelech, the high priest, was killed and the only remaining priest was Abiathar. Accordingly, David becomes something like Moses, a covenant-mediator who will install a new priesthood. Indeed, this is what David does when he brings the ark to Israel. Unlike Uzziah who would later usurp the authority of the priesthood (2 Chron. 26:16–23), David dons the ephod in order to set up the priesthood, a fact that 1 Chronicles 22–26 records. Much more could be said, but the point I am making is singular: David’s priestly service is witnessed in his clothing.

Just as Moses marked out the priests by means of their priestly garments, so David’s priesthood is suggested by his priestly clothing. In David’s case, the clothing was temporary and did not give him ongoing access to the altar, but as he established the priesthood in Israel, his clothing indicated his priestly status. And, as we are about to see, the same is true for Jesus in John’s Gospel.

The Clothes Make Jesus a Priest

John is subtle in the way that he casts Jesus as Priest. John does not explicitly say Jesus is a priest, for that might suggest Jesus was a priest like Aaron, rather than Melchizedek. Instead, for those with eyes trained by the Old Testament, John shows Jesus to be a priest—a priest, who in contrast with Annas and Caiaphas, was not breaking the law but keeping it.[7]

7. Another creative argument for priesthood in John’s Gospel is that of J. P. Heil, “Jesus as the Unique High Priest in the Gospel of John,” CBQ 57 (1995): 729–45, who contrasts the priestly character of Jesus with the other priests in John. Using a “narrative critical approach,” he states, “the Johannine Jesus does function as high priest, not in the systematic and sweeping manner of the Letter of the Hebrews, but in a more subtle and symbolic way as part of the Fourth Gospel’s well-established dramatic irony” (730).

To put it succinctly, Jesus’s priesthood is based on what we see, not what John (or Jesus) says. Befitting the redemptive-historical placement of Jesus, John does not confer on Jesus the title of priest, nor could John do so without running afoul of the Law of Moses. When Jesus took on flesh (John 1:14), the Levitical priests ruled in Jerusalem, and until Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus could not sit down at the right hand of God as the true and final priest. All of this the book of Hebrews makes plain.

Nevertheless, prior to Jesus’s appointment as high priest (see Heb. 5:1–10), Jesus’s actions, like David’s, could be seen as priestly when they are observed in the light of the Old Testament. Moreover, if the clothes make the man, then we can see in John’s focus on Jesus’s clothing an intra-biblical testimony to the priesthood of Christ. That is to say, as the Levitical priests of Israel proved their wickedness by offering Jesus as a sacrifice to save the nation (John 11:51–52), so Jesus proved himself a faithful priest by laying down his life as a sacrifice for others.

As we are about to see, therefore, the cross of Christ revealed the end of the Levitical priesthood, and the empty tomb declared the birth of a new priesthood—one that would never die. For wonderfully, this priesthood came to life when Jesus rose from the grave.

The Priestly Garments in the Grave

If we were reading the whole book of John, we would have already noted countless times when John introduces Jesus as a priest.[8] So, it is not strange for him to present the empty tomb with priestly symbolism. Instead, it might even be expected.

8. For example, when Jesus says to Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree, I have argued in Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God, 126–27, that this is a priestly reference to Zechariah 3; when Jesus cleansed his disciples feet, he performed a priestly action (cf. Lev. 8–9) of cleansing the priests who will go on to serve like him (John 13:1–20); when Jesus removed Judas in the immediately adjacent passage (John 13:20–30), he also performed the priestly function of cleansing his household; when Jesus promises to go a prepare a place for his disciples, in a house with many rooms, he is describing the work of a priest (John 14:1–3); when Jesus calls his disciples “friends” (John 15:14), he is using language that comes from the priestly passage of Zechariah 3:8; and, when Jesus prayed for his disciples he demonstrated his priestly intercession (John 17). All of these set the context for seeing Christ’s death and resurrection in priestly ways.

Indeed, in Jesus’s first resurrection sighting, John gives us two references to Jesus’s grave clothes—that is, the linens which bound Jesus in the grave. The first is found in John 20:5–6, which says that John looked in and “saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.”

In these two verses, the grave clothes invite a battery of questions. Why does he mention the linens no less than three times? Why describe the clothes as “folded”? What significance does the “face cloth” have? These questions and more invite us to think deeply about what Jesus was wearing in the grave.

Second, John’s focus on grave clothes is heightened a few verses later, when Mary Magdalene looks in and sees “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet” (John 20:12). Again, John adds a peculiar detail—the placement of the angels. Why does he mention their locations? What is he describing?

At the risk of moving too quickly, I would propose that John is depicting the place where Jesus lay as a virtual (no, a literal) mercy seat. That is to say, just as the ark of the covenant was forged with two angels on top, one on each side facing the middle (Exod. 25:17–22), so the place where Jesus’s bloody body had lain is described by John as the true mercy seat.[9] This fits his Gospel.

9. The word for mercy seat is hilastērion, a word that is often translated “propitiation.” Indeed, reinforcing the identification of Jesus with the mercy seat of God, Romans 3:25 calls Jesus “the mercy seat” (hilastērion) that God put forward.

If Jesus is the temple, he must be everything else in the temple. Previously, Jesus is presented as the bread of life in John 6:35, a figuration that matches the bread of the presence (Exod. 25:23–30), and the manna stored in the holy of holies (Exod. 16:33). Likewise, Jesus declares himself to be the light of the world (John 8:12), a light that matches the lampstand in the tabernacle (Exod. 25:31–40). Similarly, Jesus is the one who brings prayer before the Lord (John 17), just as the priests would offer prayer at the altar of incense (Exod. 30:1–10; Ps. 141:2).

Wonderfully, if Jesus is all of these things, then it makes sense that he is also the mercy seat of God. But better, he is not merely a passive victim; he is the active priest who laid his life down and took it back up again. This is what Jesus said explicitly in John 10:17–18, and now in John 20, we see how the true priest made a final sacrifice for sin. And we see this in the folded clothes.

The Folded Clothes Proclaim the Priest’s Finished Work

Consider again the way in which John highlights the folded linens. Jesus did not just die and rise again; Jesus died, rose again, and made his bed!

John makes clear that when Jesus took his life back up again, he folded his grave clothes. This not only shows that Jesus was far more than a passive victim in his death; he was the active priest who entered the holy of holies to make a final sacrifice. And critically, it is the way the clothes are folded and left in the tomb that make the priestly connection to the Day of Atonement.

On the Day of Atonement, the priestly garments of glory and beauty were set aside and laid down, so that the priest could adorn more humble apparel as he approached the mercy seat in the holy of holies. That is to say, the high priest purified the house of God when he sprinkled blood upon the mercy seat. Indeed, by means of this one sacrifice, the high priest purified God’s house and ensured that every other sacrifice would be acceptable to God throughout the rest of the year. And critically, in this service, the priest had to give attention to what he was wearing.

10. Mark Rooker, Leviticus, 214–215, writes, “These linen garments were not as elaborate as those the high priest might wear during his other priestly functions. These garments represent the abject state of the high priest in seeking expiation.” Cf. P. P. Jenson, Graded Holiness: A Key to the Priestly Conception of the World, 200.

Listen to how Leviticus 16:4 instructs the high priest, “He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.” Important for understanding the clothing of the occasion, the four-fold use of “linen” suggests an identification with the common people, who could only wear garments of one material (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:11).[10] By contrast, priests when clad in their glorious garments (Exod. 28) enjoyed the benefit of wearing linen and wool (cf. Ezek. 44:17).[11]

11. The rationale for this mixture lies in the difference between the holy (the priests) and the common (the people). Jenson, Graded Holiness, 85–86.

As the high priest entered the holy of holies then, he was wearing “work clothes,” not the glorious garments that he would wear among the people. This removal of his glory (Exod. 28:2) was what identified him with the people, even as it humbled him before entering the holy of holies. Thus, when he approached the Lord to make atonement, the priest wore these simple garments. And only after finishing his work could he resume his glorious apparel, when he left God’s presence and returned to visit the people with the good news that atonement in God’s house had been made.

Indeed, as Leviticus 16 goes on to say, the priest would change his garments after the priests had made atonement at the mercy seat (Lev. 16:15–19) and sent the scapegoat in the wilderness to die with the sins of the people on his head (Lev. 16:20–22). And more than just change clothing, verses 23–24 indicate how the priest would leave his work clothes in the temple. “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people.”

This is the point of connection with John. In the Day of Atonement, the high priest left his work clothes in the house of God, when he had finished making atonement at the mercy seat. And so in John. Jesus’s folded clothes reinforce Jesus’s declaration—“It is finished!” What is finished? Namely, the atoning sacrifice that fulfilled the Day of Atonement, which in turn would begin the proclamation of Jubilee.[12] And how do we know that Jesus’s atoning sacrifice was effective? Because Christ rose from the grave as a new and better Adam (i.e., “the gardener” in John 20:15), a high priest who was qualified not on the basis of genealogy, but on the basis of an indestructible life (cf. Heb. 7:16).

12. In Leviticus 25:9–17, we discover that Jubilee was to begin on the Day of Atonement.

In truth, Hebrews supplies all the theological connections that are lacking in John’s testimony. But read with the light of Scripture, John 20 becomes a powerful testimony to Christ’s priesthood. While the priests of Israel all died, this high priest was raised to life, never to die again. And more, he would now live to intercede for his own (John 17), as their exalted high priest.

Wrapping Up Jesus’s Clothing

13. In answer to the question, “Why are Jesus clothes not torn?” Leviticus 21:10 is fruitful, because it indicates that priests do not tear their garments. By itself, the untorn nature of Christ’s tunic might not be meaningful. But when compared to Matthew 26:65 and Mark 14:63, two passages that speak of the priests tearing their garments, we find a double argument. First, the priests tearing their clothing indicates the end of their ministry. And second, the untorn garments of Christ suggest the start of his.

In my estimation, the folded clothes in John 20 make the strongest case for Christ’s priesthood in John’s Gospel, but it is certainly not the only one. On the cross, the seamless and untorn tunic is also a witness to Christ’s priesthood (John 19:23–24).[13] And so are the garments that Jesus took off and put back on again when he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:4, 12).[14]

Indeed, in a Gospel that spends so much time describing Jesus as the true temple (John 1:14; 2:19–23; etc.), and the final sacrifice (John 1:29), as well as, the fulfillment of every Jewish festival,[15] it seems most odd not to include the priesthood. Odd . . . until we discover that it is included.

14. As the standards of priesthood go, priests are identified and ordained by a greater priest (see Leviticus 8–9). And in the case of Jesus’s followers, their status as royal priests depends upon the priestly service of Christ. In John 13, when Jesus unrobes himself to become a servant, he shows what it takes to be a priest, or at least what kind of priest he is (cf. Phil. 2:5–8). Even more, John makes this evident by drawing attention to Christ’s service as a priest by way of the clothes he will strip off. This removal of garments both anticipates the cross (John 19:23–24), and it may also relate to the way John focuses on Peter’s garments in John 21:9, 18.

And what I have begun to show here is how we might see Christ as the true and better high priest in John’s Gospel. To repeat, it is not in what John says about Jesus, but in what John shows about Jesus. And for all those who see the clothes that Jesus wears with Old Testament eyes, it becomes apparent that Jesus is the Man (cf. John 19:5). And this man, who is the Son of God, is not only the king of the Jews (John 19:14, 19), but he is also the priestly mediator of a new covenant.

Indeed, this is what the clothes of Jesus indicate. Long before Mark Twain suggested that “The clothes make the man!” John tells us to look at Jesus’s clothes so that we could come to know who he is, so that we would trust in him as the one who is our great and merciful high priest.

15. On Jesus fulfilling the various festivals, see Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Jewish Festivals.



  • David Schrock

    David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.

David Schrock

David Schrock

David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.