We take colored cloth for granted but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, in days gone by, the cost of a piece of fabric was directly related to its color because of the expense and the difficulties in dyeing material. The most expensive color of all was purple.
Purple dye was extracted from the glands of certain tiny mollusks. According to Greek legend, Hercules discovered this secret when his hungry dog began eating the shellfish on the beach and the meat dyed the dog’s lips purple!
In 1204, when Byzantium was sacked, the last of the men who knew the secret process for making “Tyrian Purple” died, however Pliny the Elder had recorded the process long ago and in 1993, a retired English chemist, John Edmonds, uncovered the secret. (You can see it on YouTube: http://www.imperial-purple.com/clips.html .)
The dye was extremely expensive to produce. David Jacoby remarks that “twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to colour only the trim of a single garment.” It was so expensive that only royalty could afford it hence the phrase “born to the purple.”
Purple plays an important role in the New Testament too. Herod Antipas arrayed Jesus in one of his old purple robes to mock the Lord (Mark 15:17). The Rich Man in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus “was clothed in purple and fine linen,” (Luke 16:19). The Great Prostitute of Revelation “was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls,” (17:4).
Since only the very wealthy could afford true purple garments, there was a demand for a cheaper imitation. The people of Thyatira discovered the root of the madder plant that grew there could produce a very similar color inexpensively and so Lydia from Thyatira, the first convert in Philippi, had a very lucrative import business as a “seller of purple,” (Acts 16:14).
In contrast, Christ the King is clothed in white – “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them,” (Mark 9:3) – and, if we are faithful, so will we: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life,” (Revelation 3:5).