Full Question from Nora: Hi Charles, my question is from John 19:23 where it says our Lord’s robe/garment was seamless? I started to read or learn about what was the meaning, and I got totally overwhelmed, I would love to hear your insight. Thanks so much.
Answer: Thank you Nora, for another thought provoking question. I think it’s really great for all Christians to really reflect and meditate on small details like this from the Gospel, because every word was inspired by the Holy Spirit, so every word has significance. By meditating and reflecting on the details, we can come to have a better understanding of the broader picture.
There’s really a lot of significance attached to Jesus’ seamless garment, but it makes its only appearance in John’s account of the crucifixion. It is mentioned in the synoptic Gospels that the soldiers divided Christ’s garments, but the seamless tunic isn’t mentioned.
It’s often said that the Gospel of John presents a “High Christology” while Mark presents a “Low Christology” and this is true in certain respects, but false in others. I think the mention of the seamless garment is a case of John adding a detail that the other three evangelists left out. That’s not to say John was inventing details, everything he wrote was true and actually happened, but his focus was more on filling in things that weren’t included in the synopsics, because he wrote his Gospel last and was writing to people already familiar with the basic outline of Christ’s life.
So with all that being said, what is the significance of this item that’s mentioned once in all four Gospels?
Before we get to the seamless garment, let’s take a look at the common passage from all the Gospels:
And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. ~Matthew 27:35
And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. ~Mark 15:24
And Jesus said, ” Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. ~Luke 23:34
And finally the passage that prompted this question:
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom. ~John 19:23
In all four Gospels, the soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes. This is actually a fulfilling of a passage of scripture from the Psalms. This same Psalm is quoted by Jesus from the cross,
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ” E’lo-i, Elo-i, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ~Mark 15:34
This cry to God wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a quote from the first line of the twenty-second Psalm. This particular Psalm begins with a cry of anguish from a man being mocked and persecuted for his righteousness, it continues with him being beat and seemingly crucified, but ends in his vindication. This Psalm was quoted by Jesus from the cross, and faithful Jews within earshot would’ve recognized this Psalm, and would’ve known that He was pointing towards the victory at the end of it (even though Mark’s account indicates that some mistook His words for being a call to the prophet Elijah).
In this same Psalm, the man being persecuted has his garments taken and dived by casting lots,
Yes, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet- I can count all my bones- they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. ~Psalm 22:16-18
In John’s passion narrative, he goes beyond just mentioning the soldiers dividing Jesus’ garments among themselves, and mentions a seamless tunic that was not torn in verse 24.
This tunic was recognized as being valuable by the soldiers. But Jesus was an itinerant rabbi, without a regular income, and from a poor family, so how could He afford something so valuable? The Gospels give us a clue to answer this question.
Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Mag’dalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Jo-an’na, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for themout of their means. ~Luke 8:13
Someone gave, or made, this expensive piece of clothing to Jesus before His death, and just like when Mary anointed Him with expensive perfume before His passion, Jesus accepted this gift. This is an indication to us that we should give our best to God, just like the sacrifice of Able the just, just like the Israelites in the desert gave their best Moses for the building of the tabernacle and it’s furnishings, just like Solomon built the Temple with the finest furnishings in the world, and just like medieval Christians built soaring Cathedrals as a monument to their God.
The seamless tunic wasn’t just mentioned for its monetary value, it was also part of the liturgical vestments, that were designed by God and given to Moses in the desert of Sinai. Throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, there are many mentions of linen garments that are to be worn by the priests that serve at the tabernacle, and even Ezekiel mentions several times the linen garments to be worn during Temple service.
Interestingly, according to the Talmud (A collection of Jewish teachings on the Torah) a priest was divested of his divine office if he failed to wear the proper vestments,
While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them. ~BT Zevachim 17:B
But many of these references are to the vestments worn by the Levitical priests, and not necessarily reserved to the High Priest, except for a couple of places in Leviticus and Exodus. These passages go into great detail about the vestments to be worn by Aaron, who was the first High Priest of Israel, and all who follow him in that office. Part of his vestments was an under robe, to be make seamless, and to be reinforced around the neck opening so to prevent tearing,
It shall have in it an opening for the head, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a garment,that it may not be torn. ~Exodus 28:32
All of this is to say that the seamless garment mentioned only by John, is to point directly to the fact that Christ is the High Priest Of the New Covenant. What was alluded to by John, would later be spelled out by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews,
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come,then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, takingnot the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify yourconscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. ~Hebrews 9:11-15
(Really the entire book of Hebrews is on this theme of Christ’s covenant being greater than the old covenant, and His priesthood greater than the old priesthood. It’s worth reading in its entirety.)
Christ the High Priest
At the very beginning of the Gospels we hear Jesus called “the lamb of God” by John the Baptist (John 1:29), He calls His own body “greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6) and “this temple” (John 2:21), and the seamless garment designated Him as the High priest.
These elements all point to the sacrifice that took place on that Friday in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. That the great High Priest was both the celebrant and the sacrificial victim that enabled our salvation.
Saint Cyprian read a further, allegorical meaning from the seamless garment and it’s symbolism of Christ’s everlasting kingdom,
The seamless tunic signifies the indivisible kingdom of Christ. Although Solomon’s kingdom was rent asunder like a garment and its glory passed away (1 Kings 11:29-32), the Church of Christ is forever glorious and will always remain intact (Jn 19:24). ~ St Cyprian
(Edit: I forgot to add that according to some, it was Jewish custom for the priestly robes to be made by the mother of the priest. I can’t say for sure that this was the case with Jesus, but imagine Mary watching the soldiers play dice to decide who wins the robe that she lovingly made for her only son. It only adds to the sorrow she would’ve felt at the foot of the cross.)