Just like with the tabernacle itself, the priest, his clothing and his duties are shadows of what is to come. The Lord gave very specific directions regarding the priestly attire in Exodus 28, right down to their underwear! (Exodus 28:42)
The problem with priests is that they are supposed to mediate between unholy man and holy God, yet they are unholy men themselves. Despite the inscription on the priest’s turban: “Holy to YHWH” (“Holy to the LORD”), the priest was as sinful as the others he was representing before God. (This will become very clear in Exodus 32, when Aaron, the high priest, leads the people in making an idol out of a golden calf while Moses was still up on the mountain.) The priest was just a man, and God accepted the priest and the priest’s offering as an act of sovereign grace – not because the priest was anything special in himself. The priest foreshadowed a different priesthood that God would later create under the high priest Jesus Christ.
The idea of needing special covering to stand before God began when sin entered the world through Adam’s disobedience. (Genesis 3:7, 21) Prior to the fall, man and woman “were both naked and were not ashamed” before God. (Genesis 2:25)
In Zechariah 3, God gives the prophet a very interesting vision in which the priest is standing before the angel of the Lord wearing “filthy garments,” and Satan is there to accuse him. (The word translated “filthy” actually means “human excrement.”) This is how God in His holiness would have viewed the high priest in Old Testament times, despite the beautiful and intricate clothing that he was wearing, it looked like excrement-covered rags compared to the holiness of the Lord. (Isaiah used a similar analogy in Isaiah 64:6, when he says that all our righteous deeds are like a “polluted garment,” which is actually even a nastier word picture.) But notice what happens next. The angel of the Lord takes off the high priest’s nasty clothes, removes his iniquity from him, and clothes him in purity. (Zechariah 3:4-5) Do you remember what Jesus said that the father of the prodigal son said when his son returned smelling like the pigs he had been eating with? (Luke 15:22)
Just like in the garden of Eden, God needs to clothe us with garments of salvation and righteousness. (Isaiah 61:10) Because of what Christ did on the cross, we can actually “put on” Christ as a garment to cover our shame (Romans 13:14) and serve as priests (Revelation 1:6), under Christ as our high priest forever. (Hebrews 7:23-28) Because of what Christ did on the cross, we no longer need a man to stand between us and God. Not only is Christ our tabernacle, sacrifice, and altar, He is also our garment and our priest! (Hebrews 5:1-10)