Zechariah 3 shows a future fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. This book was written after Judah's return from Babylon. Even after that national chastening, the people were still carnal, just as Israel is today. Here, the prophet receives a vision of the high priest, Joshua. Notably, the chapter contains the same elements and sequence as Leviticus 16. It starts with the cleansing of the high priest and ends with the cleansing of the nation. What is missing is the sacrificial animals, and this is because, here, God is providing the atonement through a different means.
The essential function of the high priest was to represent the nation to God, which is part of why the Golden Calf incident was so appalling—the nation's representative was directly involved in the sin of idolatry. Similarly, in Zechariah 3:3, the high priest is depicted in filthy garments, yet in verse 4, the filth and iniquity are taken away. The high priest receives rich robes, symbolic of righteousness from God Himself (compare Revelation 19:8).
Verse 5 mentions the high priest's turban. Exodus 28:38 reveals that the purpose of the turban was to bear iniquity, so the high priest symbolically carried iniquity throughout the year. Then, on Atonement, the iniquity was symbolically transferred to the goat of departure and sent away. In Zechariah's vision, the priestly garments are filthy, and a clean turban is needed. The high priest's defilement shows that the nation had been completely unclean. But God restores the high priest, giving His explanation in verses 8-9:
Hear, O Joshua, the high priest, you and your companions who sit before you, for they are a wondrous sign; for behold, I am bringing forth My Servant the BRANCH. For behold, the stone that I have laid before Joshua: Upon the stone are seven eyes. Behold, I will engrave its inscription, says the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.
Zechariah makes no mention of animal sacrifices. This removal of iniquity can only come through the Messiah, the Branch mentioned in verse 8 (see also Isaiah 4:2; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 6:12).
Leviticus 18:28 speaks of the land becoming defiled and vomiting out its inhabitants. The Day of Atonement is an annual type of bearing away of sin, out of the land, so the land and its people become clean before God. This national cleansing of land and nation, however, did not happen at Christ's first coming. Though the means of that true cleansing was created through His sacrifice, it has not yet been applied. God's cleansing of the land and people of Israel is still future.
The beginning of this vision (verses 1-2) contains another significant factor. Note that God rebukes Satan before He cleanses the nation. There is a possible connection here with Satan's binding (Revelation 20:1-3): In other instances of God rebuking a party, it typically goes beyond divine words and involves divine action (see Psalm 9:5; 68:30; Isaiah 17:1-3). God's rebuke may find its fulfillment in Satan's binding, and Israel's cleansing follows it.
The critical point is that atonement—expiation, satisfaction of the legal debt—can come only through Christ's removal of guilt, not through anything that happens to Satan. The nation is cleansed by God removing the iniquity, not through rebuking the accuser. In this vision, if Satan were only rebuked—and in parallel, if Satan were just bound—the nation would remain in its defiled state, still separated from God, unatoned.
David C. Grabbe
Who Fulfills the Azazel Goat— Satan or Christ? (Part Four)