The Challenge of the Wedding Garment
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by Randall Vinson
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verses 1-14, Jesus told the Parable of the Wedding Feast. It went like this: A king prepared a great wedding feast for his son and sent out his servants to invite all the guests. Those who were invited made light of it and rejected the invitation, some even mistreating and killing the servants who invited them. In great anger, the king destroyed those who attacked his servants. He then sent out more servants to invite everyone they could find to come to the marriage feast, and at last the hall was filled with guests. At the celebration, the king noticed one of them who did not have on a wedding garment, and the guest was unable to account for how he had managed to get in without one. The guest without the wedding garment was bound and thrown out.
What was the wedding garment, and what was the problem with the guest? The wedding garment was the clean, white apparel worn at such occasions, not only as a badge of admittance, but also to honor the host and the event. In this particular story, the king provided the garment as a favor to all who were invited to the feast. It would have been complete effrontery for a guest to simply stroll in off the street in his own outer garments and to refuse to wear the proper attire. We might identify such behavior as arrogance or insolence, but we could just as easily call it a display of self-righteousness.
Leaving the many commentators to debate the subtleties of this parable, we will simply state that the wedding garment is a type of Christ’s righteousness, and putting on the garment represents true repentance and faith. The Scriptures provide many examples for us to draw from in this regard. We are washed white as snow in the blood of Jesus Christ (Isa. 1:18; Titus 3:5). Our own garments, our own righteousness, are filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). No one can come to the Father except through the Son, Jesus (John 14:6), and the only way there is through repentance and faith granted by the Father (John 6:44; Acts 17:30; 20:21).
You see, putting on the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness is a challenge to our self-righteousness. Are we going to insist that we are just fine the way we are, or are we going to humble ourselves and admit to a necessary change to be welcome in God’s presence? No amount of cleaning up our own situation is going to gain us entrance into His Kingdom, either. It is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy” that He saves us (Titus 3:4-7). God must grant us repentance by His grace through faith (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8,9) to fit in at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
How else does the Bible describe such a person, one who refuses the wedding garment? Let’s look to the Old Testament briefly. When Nehemiah was rebuilding Jerusalem, there were people who camped outside the city walls to conduct business with the Jews living inside (Nehemiah 13:16-21). They wanted to profit from the activity there, but they had nothing else to do with the city or its people. L. S. Thornton used that episode to make this illustration in his book Christ and the Church: “These are people who do not desire to approach the sanctuary within. For that would involve sacrifices which they are not prepared to make. They would prefer to enjoy the light which proceeds from the sanctuary without themselves entering the sanctuary. There are benefits which they would gladly enjoy, as parasites, without being asked to give in return. . . .They cannot truly enter the city without bringing with them their ‘glory and honour’, to be laid at the feet of the Lamb. To this point, quite literally, they cannot bring themselves. So they linger at the gates, evading the decisive issue. For the open gates of the city constitute a challenge, not only to the powers of darkness, but also to our fallen nature” (Dacre Press, 1956, p. 45). There is the challenge, then, the same one presented to each guest who would attend God’s wedding feast.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great English pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in the late nineteenth century, portrayed the same sort of people in his sermon entitled “The Wedding Garment.” They were those who attended church or who were even perhaps on the church membership rolls, simply for reasons of respectability or religious endeavor. They might even have made great promises and commitments and may have been known for their generosity and great works, but they would not humble themselves to repentance and faith and in so doing not really participate in the true life of the church, for it “would involve sacrifices which they are not prepared to make” (Thornton, above). Church life for them was simply another means of social networking or a way to soothe a guilty conscience. They came to the gates of the sheepfold but could not pass the challenge of entry, and so played the game of escape and evasion under the illusion of self-preservation.
It is possible to keep dodging repentance and the love of the truth (2 Thess. 2:10) by setting other goals before one’s eyes, hopes and dreams that are entirely selfish and shortsighted. Instead of a church full of people searching for the truth and whose aim is to please God (2 Cor. 5:9), it could be a church loaded with people who just want a better job, a new house, a nice car, more success or better health. As our pastor recently asked, what is really on our hearts, and who put it there? What is the message continually presented to us?
Thornton further explains, “To evade the yoke [of repentance] is to repeat Adam’s treachery. . . .So when the Son of Adam comes at length to his kingdom there will be shame for those who have evaded the yoke and renewed Adam’s treachery” (The Dominion of Christ, Dacre Press, 1952, p. 171). This yoke is the same as that spoken of by Christ when He cried out, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, . . . and take My yoke upon you” (Matt. 11:28-30). And what was Adam’s treachery? Disobedience, fear and trying to cover his own sin (Gen. 3). Whom or what did Adam betray? God and His easy provision, and himself and his true identity in Him.
What then transpires in the life of a church and its people when repentance is minimized or ignored? Without repentance, people are led to believe that they are basking in the light of the Gospel, but in reality they have not entered the true ‘sanctuary’ and are cut off from the life of Christ. They are violating an eternal truth. The spiritual law of death and resurrection is as true for those who come to Christ as it was in the life of the Savior Himself. He had to lay down His life in faithful obedience to the will of the Father and then die before He could be raised to victory. In our case, without repentance (a change of heart and mind), we will perish (Luke 13:3). We cannot rise to life until we die to ourselves (John 12:24,25; Acts 3:19). By the way, this principle remains operative from the day we are spiritually reborn and throughout every aspect of the Christian life. We need to live with an attitude of repentance every day, but let’s be very clear right here—this does not mean continual sorrow, self-castigation and dejection. The Bible calls that the sorrow of the world (2 Cor. 7:9-11), so stay away from it. Godly repentance leads to salvation and great joy.
God desires to have mercy upon all, and it is His desire that everyone should come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9) and enter His Kingdom, but to do that, mercy (what we don’t deserve) must find ways of breaking down that which resists mercy—self-righteousness (Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, Friendship Press, 1954, p. 46). Yes, our self-righteousness resists the mercy that God extends to us, and it is sheer presumption to think that since ‘God loves everybody,’ we can all just walk right into heaven in our own merits. No, sin cannot enter His presence, and neither can our own righteous deeds and miraculous claims. Self-righteousness, however, thinks it can work something out with the King of Righteousness. No way! In His mercy God now has to find ways to break down our self-righteousness and get us to yield to Christ’s righteousness. We must abide by the New Covenant, which Jesus confirmed for us in His own blood. It is not our covenant, but His.
God is taking tremendous risks in offering mercy to us, for He knows that we can still resist. We can still refuse the wedding garment. We can choose to love darkness rather than light (John 3:16-19). We can choose death instead of life. But the interesting thing is that the Almighty Lord God is counting on us to yield to Him and accept His offer of mercy and grace. He does not want our promises and sacrifices and commitments. He just wants our hearts. That is something He can work with.
Even as Christians, opening the door to our hearts when God is knocking (Rev. 3:20) constitutes a challenge. We have to put down our agendas and activities to open the door, commune with the Spirit of God, and listen to what He is saying to us. Our fellowship with God must be on His terms, just as accepting His invitation and putting on the wedding garment in the first place had to be on His terms. In like manner, every day we are invited to display the joy of the future wedding celebration in advance. Here is your big opportunity.