A Theology of Nakedness: Key to Understanding the Gospel?

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What does nakedness have to do with the gospel? It may seem like a strange connection, but nakedness is a key theme in redemptive history. The gospel is as deep as God is deep. It is something that we understand and yet never really understand. Through nakedness, God gives us surprising insight into his mysterious purposes.

Nakedness and the Fall

Man’s blissful condition in a perfect world was characterized by happy nakedness. One of the first things that we learn about Adam and Eve is that “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). Like everything in God’s original creation, nakedness was very good (Gen. 1:31).

The greatest tragedy in the Bible, man’s fall and corruption, is told in terms of nakedness. The first thing we learn after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit in the garden (Gen. 3:6) is that “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). We know from the rest of Scripture that, in that moment, Adam and Eve became sinful, losing the holiness and righteousness that is inherent in the image of God.

Man’s guilt, shame, and relational separation from God is expressed in terms of nakedness. After the fall, God came looking for Adam: “And he [Adam] said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he [God] said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (Gen. 3:10-11). Instead of enjoying the immediate presence of God and walking beside him in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8), Adam and Eve hid. Why? They were ashamed of their nakedness.

Nakedness, Clothing, and the Coming One

Man’s first post-fall instinct was to cover his shameful nakedness. When Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness, “they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3:7). Instead of confessing their sin and asking God for forgiveness, Adam and Eve’s first instinct was to cover themselves. We soon learn that God considered their covering to be insufficient.

God’s first redemptive act was to properly cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, and this act came hand-in-hand with his promise of a Redeemer. In the midst of God’s curses on the man, woman, and serpent, we hear the first great promise of redemption (Gen. 3:15). The verse that follows God’s curses and promise of a Redeemer is Genesis 3:21: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”

The clothing that was sufficient to cover man’s nakedness was provided through the bloody death of an innocent member of creation. Before Genesis 3:21, there is no indication that anything died in creation. But the clothing that God provided was the skins of an animal. God’s immediate response to man’s nakedness was to sacrifice an innocent creature for their sake.

Nakedness and God’s Holy People

A severe curse came upon Ham’s descendants because of Ham’s casual treatment of his father’s nakedness. In Genesis 9:22, “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.” But “Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness” (Gen. 9:23). While some have speculated about the exact nature of Ham’s sin, the Bible only contrasts his casual attitude towards nakedness with his brother’s careful attitude towards nakedness.

The Bible contrasts Ham’s casual attitude towards nakedness with his brother’s careful attitude towards nakedness.

The Levites were required to go to great lengths to ensure that their nakedness was covered. In Exodus 20:26, God said, “you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.” God forbade activities that risked exposing areas of the body that were considered part of a person’s nakedness. He required that the thighs be fully covered at all times: “You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die” (Ex. 28:42-43).

The law explicitly and repeatedly forbids the uncovering of nakedness in any context outside of marriage. Leviticus 18:6-16 and 20:11-21 safeguard a man’s exclusive right to the nakedness of his wife; exposing the nakedness of a parent or sibling is strictly forbidden. In Leviticus 18:6, God commands, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord.”

Nakedness and Clothing as Symbols in the Old Testament

The public uncovering of nakedness is always treated as shameful and often associated with God’s judgment. God warns Israel, “I will shew the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdoms thy shame” (Nah. 3:5). Babylon’s humiliation is likened to public nakedness: “Take the millstones and grind flour, put off your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen” (Isa. 47:2-3). Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign of the Egyptian captives who would be lead away naked and barefoot by the Assyrians (Isa. 20:3-4). Nakedness is sometimes used as a symbol of being oppressed or impoverished, but often it is a symbol of being ashamed—linking it to its original post-fall context.

Jerusalem’s shame because of her sin is likened to nakedness. “Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns her face away” (Lam. 1:8). Nakedness is a prolific theme employed by Ezekiel, minister to Jerusalem; some form of the word naked shows up fourteen times in the King James Version. Most references are to the shamefulness associated with sin or judgment (see Ezek. 23:29).

God’s covenant love for Israel is described in terms of covering her nakedness. “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine.” (Ez. 16:8). As God communicated love to Adam and Eve by covering their shameful nakedness, he continued to cover his people’s nakedness through his redemptive covenant.

Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness is described in terms of casting off God’s covering for their nakedness. In Ezekiel 16, God pronounces judgment on his spiritually naked people, to their shame:

35 “Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness.

Nakedness and Clothing in the New Testament

Paul likens a spirit without a body to a man who is naked, since God intends for people to be embodied both in this life and in eternity. Paul writes “we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked” (1 Cor. 5:2-3). The general metaphor of nakedness as something that needs to be clothed is picked up by the Apostle Paul.

God’s full knowledge of man’s sinfulness is described as God seeing man’s nakedness. The writer to the Hebrews explains that God’s word cuts to the heart, exposing what is there, for “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). Man cannot hide the shame of his sin—his nakedness—from God.

The sinful condition of the Laodicean church is described in terms of nakedness. Jesus condemns the church in Revelation 3:17: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Nakedness is associated with a sinful, shameful condition.

Jesus provides the answer for spiritual nakedness. Jesus’ solution for the naked Laodiceans was to offer them white garments: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Rev. 3:18). A white garment is a symbol of righteousness and salvation (Rev. 3:5; Rev. 4:4).

Those who survive God’s end-time judgments are those whose nakedness is covered. “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” (Rev. 16:15). To take off one’s garment of righteousness is to be naked and lost.

Covering Our Nakedness: Symbol and Reality

A Biblical theology of nakedness reveals that the feeling of shame we experience when we are naked outside of marriage should remind us of the common human condition: shameful, spiritual nakedness before a holy God. We try to clothe ourselves with good deeds, but our clothing is insufficient; “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). God’s answer for physical nakedness is modest clothing, pointing us to his grand redemptive purpose: to cover the nakedness of our sin with the righteousness of his Son, Jesus.

Galatians 3:27 says, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The New Living Translation captures the idea implicit in the Greek word enduō which means “to clothe oneself”: “all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.” Christ is God’s covering for our nakedness. Through the bloody death of the innocent Christ, we can be properly clothed and restored to a relationship with God.

The clothing for our nakedness is not only an imputed righteousness but also an imparted one: “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on [enduō] the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Christ within, the covering for our spiritual nakedness, becomes to us a source of true righteousness and holiness (1 Cor. 1:30). He prepares us for heaven when we will once again be physically naked and unashamed. Meanwhile, we enjoy holy nakedness in marriage as a foretaste of our unashamed standing before Christ in heaven (Eph. 5:32).

The whole gospel can be told in terms of nakedness, including its consummation. God’s Old Testament judgment was often to uncover the nation’s nakedness. Paul writes of “that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Ro. 2:16). In the final judgment, God’s judgment will be to uncover people’s sin, to their shame. On the other hand, God will reveal the glory of his fully clothed people—a people who are unashamed at his return. As God’s holy people, we await this day, embracing both the symbol of clothing to cover our physical nakedness and and the reality of Christ to cover our spiritual nakedness. Properly covered, we enjoy God’s presence and walk with him in the cool of the day; because of Christ our clothing, we boldly approach the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16).

Implications for Clothing and Culture

Embracing God’s gift of clothing to cover our nakedness is one of the most basic ways in which we symbolically communicate that we have embraced God’s gift of righteousness to cover our sins. While someone may receive Christ and yet, in ignorance, dress immodestly, there is a significant disconnect between the symbols he or she wears and the reality he or she has experienced through Jesus. In the Bible, our treatment of symbols is never disconnected from our attitude towards the reality those symbols communicate (1 Cor. 11:10).

While Christ has redeemed nakedness, physical nakedness outside of marriage is still forbidden until his return. This includes depicting the naked body in art or tolerating the presence of nakedness in our media (Mt. 5:27-28; Job 31:13). William VanDoodewaard writes:

To reject nudity in art and film is no denial of artistic ability, nor of created beauty. It is a realistic, careful, humble acknowledgment of God’s redemptive work in Christ and His precepts for a grace transformed, holy, happy life in a fallen world. This includes the need for covering nakedness. Real redemptive activity seeks to preserve and rescue from sin by pointing men and women to Christ and His Word.

A holy, happy people are serious about nakedness because they are serious about sin, God’s holiness, and Christ’s righteousness. The sexual sin associated with nakedness in a fallen world mandates that God’s people be careful like the Levites in their dress, not careless like cursed Ham. Modest clothing removes distractions from the glory of our inward spiritual clothing (1 Pet. 3:3-4; 1 Tim. 2:9-10). Being fully covered in our dress and abstaining from cultural expressions of nakedness helps to ensure that there is not even “a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity” among “God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3, NIV). To be casual or carless about nakedness has implications that the world simply cannot understand.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as Associate Pastor of God's Missionary Church in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.
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