As you begin to pay close attention to coats, tunics, mantles, and robes in the Bible you will begin to see that they have more significance than just keeping someone dry and warm. Many times in the Bible a tunic or robe will represent someone’s identity or status. A modern day equivalent might be a High School Letter Jacket.
More than likely you’ve seen someone wear a Letter Jacket at school or in the mall. There are some common features of this type of jacket. The colors of the jacket are the same as the school colors. Typically, there is some type of symbol showing the sport or activity in which the wearer is involved. You might see a football shaped patch, or a musical note. The year the student graduates is also shown. Many times there is a favorite verse or quote. Perhaps there are also ribbons or other indications of special achievements.
In the same way, coats and outer garments in the Bible often give some clues about the person wearing that piece of clothing. As you read the Bible always pay attention to the description of clothes and see what they might tell you about the wearer. Below are some examples beginning with the first mention of garments in the Bible:
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.
[Genesis 3:21, NASB]
After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden they made coverings for themselves. When God found them hiding in the garden, He made them more suitable clothes. These “garments of skin” provide us with some clues about who they had become (aware of their nakedness) and what they had done (sin and death have now entered the world).
Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.
[Genesis 37:3–4, NASB]
Joseph’s father, Israel, made a special tunic for Joseph. We commonly refer to this tunic as being multicolored, although exact meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain. What is certain is that this special tunic reflected Israel’s love for Joseph, and this message was clear to his brothers.
So it came about, when Joseph reached his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the varicolored tunic that was on him; and they took him and threw him into the pit. Now the pit was empty, without any water in it.
[Genesis 37:23–24, NASB]
Interestingly, or perhaps as expected, one of the first things the brothers did was to strip Joseph of his special tunic. Their action reveals their contempt. They literally stripped Joseph’s identity from him and put him in a very lowly position.
Aaron and his sons wore several special pieces of clothing that clearly identified them as priests and servants of the LORD. Anyone who saw their apparel knew exactly who they were and who they served.
“You shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the tunic and the robe of the ephod and the ephod and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod; and you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. Then you shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. You shall bring his sons and put tunics on them. You shall gird them with sashes, Aaron and his sons, and bind caps on them, and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute. So you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.”
[Exodus 29:5–9, NASB]
Tamar, the daughter of King David, also wore a special garment that indicated something about her purity. The Hebrew word translated in this passage as “long-sleeved” is the same word translated “varicolored” when describing Joseph’s tunic. Although the exact meaning of this word is not known, it clearly indicated something special about the coat and the person who wore that particular garment.
Now she had on a long-sleeved garment; for in this manner the virgin daughters of the king dressed themselves in robes. Then his attendant took her out and locked the door behind her. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her long-sleeved garment which was on her; and she put her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.
[2 Samuel 13:18–19, NASB]
Notice that after Tamar was attacked by her half-brother, Amnon, she indicated a change in her identity by tearing the garment. We see similar stories throughout the Old Testament where people are identified by the characteristics of their coat, tunic, robe, or mantle. Many times people change their clothing to indicate a change in their identity or status. Both Joseph and Daniel exchanged prison clothes for royal clothes. Several kings laid aside their robes for sackcloth. When he was taken to heaven, Elijah’s mantle was picked up and worn by his successor, Elisha.
From the Old Testament examples we see a pattern of clothing indicating someone’s identity or their status. When we get to the New Testament we find a very interesting event that is interpreted in many different ways.
The disciples went and did just as Jesus had instructed them, and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats. Most of the crowd spread their coats in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in the road.
[Matthew 21:6–8, NASB]
As Jesus was entering Jerusalem some of the disciples took off their coats and placed them on the colt. Many people in the crowd took off their coats and placed them on the ground. Some people suggest they laid down their coats to smooth the road or to reduce flying dust. Based on the examples of the Old Testament, I suggest that they took off their coats as a sign of laying aside their identity and showing that they were associating themselves with Jesus.
Using the example of a Letter Jacket, the people laid aside their school colors, their achievements, and their individual markings. They simply showed that whatever they held dear was now replaced by their loyalty to the Kingdom of God.
With this example in mind, look at this description of a multitude in heaven. Notice how they, too, are holding branches. However, instead of laying down their coats, they have been given new coats which clearly indicate their new identity.
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
[Revelation 7:9–10, NASB]
Whenever you read about someone wearing a coat, tunic, mantle, or robe in the Bible stop to think about the message being sent by this garment. If this was a Letter Jacket what would it tell me about this person's identity?