Clean and Unclean

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Clean and unclean—this pair of words strikes fear into the heart of the average Bible reader. It conjures up the text of Leviticus 11-15 with its long list of clean and unclean animals, its extended discourse on leprosy, and the “too much information” section on bodily discharges. The average Bible reader doesn’t quite know what to make of these things, and they have no apparent application to him as a Christian. So, in his Bible reading, he quickly pages through the section, glancing briefly at the subheadings, and breathes a sigh of relief, reasoning that he has “read” those chapters as much as they need to be read.

Unfortunately, this all-too-common approach to the material fails to deal with a couple of important considerations. First, this material is part of the Word of God, and in the book of Leviticus it is a substantial part of God’s instruction for Israel. Second, this was part of the law given to Israel that defined the life of the people of God under the administration of Moses. Thus, it had significance for Israel, and, implicitly, has lasting significance for the church.

We must recognize that there are two aspects to this material: a practical aspect and a theological aspect. The practical aspect is that these regulations were part of the directions that God gave His people in order to set them apart from the surrounding nations who did not know God. As Deuteronomy 4:6 puts it, the laws “will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ ” The theological aspect is that this material was provided to teach the people truths about themselves, about God, and about their relationship to Him.

So far, so good. But how is the reader to make sense of this material? As we might expect, God has placed a couple of keys in the immediate context that enable us to unlock something of the practical and of the theological significance of these regulations.

The first of these keys is found in Leviticus 10:3, in which the Lord says, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.” In other words, in interacting with God, in living coram Deo, the people are to remember that God is holy, and that they are to live for His glory.

The second key is in Leviticus 10:10-11, where God says to Aaron, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” From this, we learn that the priesthood had the special responsibility to instruct the people in how they were to live as God’s “holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The distinctions between holy and common and between clean and unclean were part and parcel of that instruction.

The people as a whole were holy. That is, they had been set apart by God for Himself and for His glory. However, in approaching Him, they were to maintain that holiness by coming to Him only when they were in a state of cleanness. But that was a difficult state to maintain, as almost anything, at any time, could plunge them into a state of uncleanness. They might touch a dead body. They might eat the wrong kind of food. A woman might be having her menstrual period. A man might have a bodily discharge. A person might have some sort of skin disease. A family’s house or garments might be infested with mold or mildew. Some of these uncleannesses were, so to speak, natural, and required only washing and waiting until the end of the day for cleanness to be restored. Others, such as bleeding beyond the time of the normal menstrual period, or some sort of skin disease, required the offering of sacrifice for purification, as well as the washing with water. By these means, the people maintained, or rather, regularly restored their cleanness before God through the ordinary course of life.

These practical considerations no doubt provided numerous beneficial side effects, such as a good level of general health. But, even at the practical level, these were side effects, not the main purpose of the laws.

As to the theology of these laws, Jesus Himself gives us another clue as to their significance. In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus makes clear to His listeners that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him. He is speaking here about the cleanness laws, because defilement was what produced uncleanness in a person. But Jesus says it is not what goes into a man that truly defiles. Instead, what truly defiles a person is what is in his heart—his sinful thoughts, desires, and intentions.

By this statement, Jesus is telling the people that those laws of clean and unclean were intended to be a picture that showed them that the totality of their lives was, by nature, unclean. Uncleanness was not sin, but it was a picture of sin. As it was almost impossible to get through a day in ancient Israel without contracting some sort of uncleanness, the Lord by these laws was showing how thoroughly sin had corrupted human life. There was really no escaping it. In reality, their hope was not to avoid uncleanness. Instead, their hope was to be delivered from it. As the author of Hebrews says, the blood of bulls and goats only sanctified for the purification (or cleansing—again, an obvious allusion to the cleanness laws) of the flesh. It is only the blood of Christ that cleanses our consciences from dead works to the true service of the living God (Heb. 9:13-14).

So the next time you read through Leviticus 11-15, slow down. Read the details. Contemplate how deeply sin affected the ordinary life of the ancient Israelite. From that, be reminded how deeply, and how thoroughly, sin affects your life. Give thanks that you do not live under the burden of the shadow of the law, with its washings and its sacrifices. Rejoice that you live under the easy yoke of Christ, whose blood has cleansed your conscience from dead works and enables you to serve, from the heart, the living God.

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