Clean and Unclean
A sermon on Leviticus 11-15. Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown MA, 11/29/98
It's a pleasure to be back at Community Bible Church after my long trip to Africa. I look forward to sharing with you many of the details of that trip in the weeks ahead.
Whenever I return after a long trip, I am treated to a series of performances at home. Over the course of nearly a month, all of my six children develop new skills or new games that they want to share. So, last Wednesday evening about 6:15, the four youngest boys were presenting a show. The make-up was particularly interesting. All had some black marks on their faces, but the boy playing the Wild Man was the most extreme: dressed only in underwear and a loincloth, the Wild Man was covered from waist to hair with black face crayon. About 6:30, suddenly realizing that we had only twenty minutes to prepare for the Thanksgiving Eve service, I announced, "The show has to end in one minute. We've got to clean up and leave for the church by 6:50!" The Wild Man looked at me and said, "Can't I go like this?"
Now, Community Bible Church has no dress code. Looking around this morning, I see some of us dressed in suits while others are dressed quite casually. But I think more than a few eyes would have turned had the Wild Man walked into church that evening.
Why did we tell the Wild Man to clean his face and arms and torso? Why shouldn't my sons come to church dressed in loincloths?
Certainly the appearance of such a creature would have distracted some of you, and we don't want to distract anyone's attention from the service itself. But preparing one's body and clothes for church is symbolic of the inner preparation that should go on prior to approaching God in worship. And all of us should be well-prepared in our hearts before coming to a worship service.
Consider these points as we turn our attention back to the book of Leviticus. For the last several months we have been making our way through this neglected book, this precious description of God's provision for meeting man's needs. We have seen that the first half of Leviticus describes God's plan for showering his people with his grace. Recall that on Mt Sinai the Israelites committed to keeping the law. "All that you have commanded, we shall do." Yet within a few days they had violated those very laws by bowing down before a golden calf.
God knew that they would never be able to keep the law, they could never become righteous through their perfect obedience. So God set up the sacrificial system to show symbolically how he would deal sin in the person of Jesus Christ some 1400 years later.
But the sacrificial system deals with more than sin. As we have seen, the first 10 chapters of Leviticus detail God's provisions for dealing with all of our deepest needs. The five offerings show how God through Jesus meets our need to belong, our need for acceptance, our need to respond, our need for peace, and our need for reconciliation with our fellow man in addition to our need for forgiveness from God. In the picture of the priesthood, God deals with our need for a priest, someone who will stand by us, to understand us, and help us to see God in the midst of this crazy world.
That is what we have seen in the first 10 chapters. Chapters 11 to 15, which we will consider this morning, constitute a new section of the book. This section is particularly challenging for modern readers, because it focuses on the concepts of being clean and unclean.
The adjective, noun, and verb forms of the Hebrew word translated "unclean" appear about 250 times in the Bible. More than one-third of those occurrences are in the five chapters we consider today.
This morning, we will consider God's purpose in making these distinctions. We will see that the central concept here is preparation for entering God's presence. God is holy, he is essentially holy. In the immediate context -- chapters 9 and 10 -- God has revealed himself to be like fire. At the end of chapter nine, fire shoots out from God's presence and consumes the offering, showing His acceptance. Then, in chapter 10, fire comes from the presence of the Lord and kills two of his selected priests, right after their ordination, because they did not obey his prescribed method for burning incense. God is like fire: unapproachable, devouring -- unless he grants us mercy.
Today's section follows immediately after these events. What can we do to prepare ourselves to come into such a presence? That is the central message of Leviticus 11-15.
The theme of this section is found in 11:44-45:
For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. 45 For I am the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy.
The importance of the Israelites being clean when they come into God's presence is detailed in 15:31:
Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them.
God is holy, and had revealed himself as dwelling in his tabernacle. Entering the tabernacle symbolized approaching God's very presence.
Recall the story of Moses and the burning bush, found in Exodus 3. Moses sees a bush burning but not consumed by the flames. He draws near to examine it, but hears God's voice:
"Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." (3:5)
God was telling Moses that His presence made the ground itself holy. God met Moses to reveal His plan for saving the people of Israel -- but Moses had to approach God on His terms. We cannot simply, lightheartedly traipse onto holy ground. We need to consider the holiness of God, the purity of God, and our own standing before him. Otherwise, we defile his holiness.
Do you have holy ground in your house? In our house, a newly scrubbed kitchen floor is holy ground. Many times I have heard Beth say, "Do not come near here; remove your shoes from your feet, for I have just scrubbed the kitchen floor."
Actually, the idea in Exodus and Leviticus is similar: This place is clean. You, right now, are dirty. I may welcome you as a person, but I don't welcome your dirt. If you honor me, if you recognize my purity, prepare yourself prior to coming into my presence.
This is the general idea: the need to cleanse ourselves by God's standards prior to entering his presence.
One other element enters into these chapters that we should bring out before looking at some of the details. God wanted the Israelites to separate themselves from the Canaanites, not to mix up His prescribed forms of worship with the Canaanite methods of worship. Some of the restrictions on the Israelites that seem strange to us serve the purpose of ensuring that the Israelites do nothing that even resembles the abhorrent Canaanite religion.
In these chapters God details how an Israelite becomes unclean -- and, when he is unclean, how to become clean once again. We will notice that some of the ways of becoming unclean involve disobedience, but others are unavoidable, simply the result of living in a fallen world.
Forms of Uncleanness
Chapter 11 describes clean and unclean foods. God details different categories of food, and labels them as clean or unclean. As an example, consider 11:24-25. God has just listed categories of insects that are unclean; he concludes:
By these, moreover, you will be made unclean: whoever touches their carcasses becomes unclean until evening, 25 and whoever picks up any of their carcasses shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening.
Note the pattern: God distinguishes between the clean and the unclean, and describes what sort of contact leads to a person becoming unclean. In this case, a person is unclean not only if he eats the insect, but also if he so much as touches its carcass. Finally, God gives the remedy for uncleanness: the Israelite is to wash his clothes, wait until the beginning of the new day (remember, for the Israelites, as for Jews today, the new day begins at sunset), and then he will be clean. We see similar patterns throughout these chapters.
Chapter 12 details how a woman is unclean after giving birth. Giving birth, clearly, is not sinful, nor does it occur by choice. It is a natural consequence of obeying God's command to be fruitful and multiply. Nevertheless, God says that the woman is unclean, is not ready to enter the tabernacle, immediately after birth. Turn now to 12:6-7. She is to wait a specified number of days, and then:
6 'And when the days of her purification are completed, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the doorway of the tent of meeting, a one year old lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. 7 'Then he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood.'
This uncleanness seems to be more serious than that which results from touching a dead insect. Instead of simply waiting and washing, the woman must wait a lengthy period and then offer sacrifices to the Lord. Here shedding of blood is necessary to become clean. Recall that the burnt offering is a symbol of God's complete acceptance of us, while the sin offering is a symbol of the blood of Jesus cleansing us from all sins against God. Through engaging in these sacrifices, the woman is able to see that she is completely accepted by God, and that all her sins are forgiven.
Chapter 15 is linked in some ways with Chapter 12, so let's skip over 13 and 14 temporarily. Chapter 15 describes how various bodily emissions lead to uncleanness. These emissions are in some cases the result of sickness, and in other cases the result of living a normal life. Some of us upon reading this chapter wonder why it's there, why God put it in the Bible. This talk of seminal emissions and menstrual flows sometimes seems inappropriate. But the Bible is never prudish about discussing basic bodily functions; the Bible never sensationalizes or dwells on these functions, it never titillates, but in the appropriate context, they are all discussed. God created our bodies, he invented sexuality, and he declared it to be good. We may be uncomfortable talking about such matters, but God isn't.
So look at verses 2 and 3 of Chapter 15:
Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, 'When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean. This, moreover, shall be his uncleanness in his discharge: it is his uncleanness whether his body allows its discharge to flow, or whether his body obstructs its discharge.'
When a man with an illness produces a bodily discharge -- and this can be anything from an oozing sore to a runny nose to a diarrheal disease -- whatever he touches becomes unclean. Just so, as we find out later in the chapter, a woman with a disease that causes her to have a discharge, such as any of those we have mentioned or menstrual bleeding for a longer than normal period of time, is unclean. In both cases, once the disease ends, the cleansing is similar as for childbirth: wait for a period of time, wash, then offer both a burnt offering and sin offering.
If a man has a seminal emission, whether through normal sexual relations with his wife or as a result of a dream, or any other case, he is unclean. Here the result is more similar to touching a dead insect. He is to wash, and then wait until the evening when he will be clean. No sacrifice is necessary.
This restriction, making normal sexual relations between husband and wife a source of uncleanness, may have been the result of God distinguishing the Israelite religion from the Canaanite religion. Canaanite worship included engaging in sexual relations with temple prostitutes. God here is putting a wall of separation between sex and tabernacle worship. Sexual relations with one's spouse are good, but sex is not part of one's worship of God. Not only is sex not performed in the tabernacle, but a man cannot come into the tabernacle directly after engaging in sexual relations. This provides a sharp contrast with the worship practices of all the surrounding tribes.
Chapters 13 and 14 deal with what is frequently translated "leprosy." The Hebrew term, however, is much broader than our English word. All sorts of skin diseases are included here, as well as "diseases" that infect clothing and houses (probably some form of fungus or mildew).
The procedure for identification and cleansing is much more involved in this case. The leper cannot simply wait until evening, wash and be clean. Nor can he wait for a longer period of time, offer burnt and sin offering, and be clean. Leprosy is treated as a much more serious form of uncleanness.
Read with me13:2-3:
2 When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling or a scab or a bright spot, and it becomes an infection of leprosy on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons the priests. 3 And the priest shall look at the mark on the skin of the body, and if the hair in the infection has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is an infection of leprosy; when the priest has looked at him, he shall pronounce him unclean.
Note that if there is anything suspicious at all on the skin, the Israelite is to consult with a priest. And the priest is to examine the suspicious spot carefully. If it looks to be more than skin deep, if death is advancing as indicated by hair turning white, the priest doesn't pronounce judgment but isolates the person for seven days. The priest then reexamines the man to see if the disease has advanced. If leprosy is actually present, the disease is treated seriously, as described in verse 45:
45 As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, 'Unclean! Unclean!' 46 He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
With the other forms of uncleanness, the unclean person is excluded from the tabernacle. With leprosy, the person is excluded not only from the tabernacle but from the entire camp. The leper must live outside the camp, and use symbols of mourning because of his exclusion from fellowship: he tears his clothes and goes about with his head uncovered.
Chapter 14 describes an elaborate ritual for the cleansing of the leper. Note that this is not a procedure for curing the disease; this is not a medical textbook. Nothing is said about treatment for the disease. Chapter 14, instead, deals with the cleansing of a leper who believes he is cured. In this case, the leper gets word to a priest to come outside the camp to inspect him. If the priest finds that the leprosy indeed is cured, then the leper follows a long process of cleansing. This process includes the sacrifice of a bird, sprinkling with blood, a seven day wait, and then the presentation of four offerings: the trespass offering, sin offering, burnt offering, and present offering (with an unusual ritual for the trespass offering -- we will discuss this ritual in some detail during the Sunday School hour.) Chapter 14 also includes a somewhat similar ritual which is used for purifying unclean houses.
These are regulations for the Israelites, distinguishing between clean and unclean. While becoming unclean in and of itself was not a sin -- in the everyday course of events many would become unclean -- to enter the tabernacle while unclean was a serious sin. So God makes sure that all the Israelites know when they are unclean, and how they are to become clean again.
Uncleanness for Christians
What is the importance of this idea for us? What lessons for Christians today are included in Leviticus 11-15?
Recall that in our opening sermon on this topic we discussed our hermeneutic, our method of interpretation of Leviticus. We noted that interpreting Leviticus was more akin to interpreting Jesus' parables than interpreting a letter of Paul. When Jesus talks about a farmer sowing seed, he's not giving lessons for how to plant crops; he is giving spiritual lessons through the picture of the sower and the seed.
So in Leviticus, we must ask ourselves: Are these statements pictures of New Testament truth? If so, we need to elucidate those truths. We also need to ask: Are the specific regulations and restrictions relevant for us today? Does the New Testament clarify this relevance?
Let us take the second question first. The specific restrictions are not relevant for us today. The very concept of clean and unclean helped the Israelites to know whether or not they were fit to enter the tabernacle. Tabernacle and temple worship is over; the New Testament makes clear that those buildings were symbolic of God's presence.
Furthermore, ceremonial washing and dietary restrictions are addressed directly in the New Testament, where we are told that these regulations are no longer binding.
So the importance of Leviticus 11-15 for us today is in the pictures these chapters provide for us of God's holiness, and the need for preparation prior to entering His presence. Let's look at some New Testament passages that clarify this. In Mark 7, the Pharisees are complaining that Jesus' disciples are not engaging in ceremonial washing prior to eating. Jesus responds:
18 Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?" (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."
Jesus here says that the pictures of the unclean foods and the need for ceremonial washing were pictures of forms of defilement from within. The questions are not, what have you touched, or what food have you eaten? The question for us is, What is in your heart? What is inside you?
Look at Jesus' list again. I think it is easy for us to skim over it and to say, "Well, that doesn't apply to me. I don't engage in such behavior." But look again at what is included: Evil thoughts. Murder -- and Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that if we are angry with our brother we are guilty of murder. Fornication and adultery -- and Jesus says that he who lusts after a woman in his heart has committed adultery. Coveting. Envy. Pride. Deceitfulness -- such as telling small lies that make you look better. Slander -- such as telling an untruth about someone else, or telling a truth in a way that makes another person look bad. Can any of us honestly say that we lived this entire week without exhibiting in our thoughts at least one of these defilements?
These inner thoughts defile us. These inner thoughts make us impure. These sins make us unclean, and detestable to God. When we come to worship him full of such impure thoughts, we defile our house of worship, and show contempt for God himself. When we go through religious rituals of prayer, bible studies, or services of any type, and our hearts are full of such defilements, we show contempt for God. That is the meaning of clean and unclean.
"But hold it!" you might say, "Aren't we made righteous once and for all when we are saved? Aren't we covered by the blood of Jesus? Aren't we made clean forever?"
To answer this question we need to distinguish between our salvation and our cleanness. This parallels the distinction between the leper's healing and his becoming clean. Recall that the leper could be healed of his disease, and he was still not ready to be admitted to the tabernacle.
Consider the interaction between Jesus and Peter in the upper room, the night of Jesus' arrest. Jesus is washing his disciples feet. He comes to Peter, who says:
8 "No, you shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." 9 "Then, Lord," Simon Peter replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!" 10 Jesus answered, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.
Now, when we teach on this passage, we frequently emphasize the last clause: our whole body is clean, meaning that we are saved. But Jesus is also saying we need to have our feet washed -- in our walk through this world we become defiled in many ways, some intentionally, some unintentionally; some defilements can be avoided, others cannot. There are times when we need to have our feet washed. It is important that we seek cleansing for those defilements -- and then we are prepared to enter God's presence.
Paul elaborates on this thought in 1 Corinthians 11. He is discussing the inappropriate attitude prevalent in Corinth towards the communion meal, and says:
27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. 30 For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Paul's command is: Examine yourself! What is your attitude? How are you approaching this act of worship? Are you defiled? Are you suffering from selfishness? Are you filled with pride? Are you lustful? Judge yourself! If you don't, says Paul in verse 30, God may provide a temporal judgment by sending sickness, or even death. So don't be foolish -- seek cleansing! Then you can worship rightly!
Furthermore, then you can have complete confidence of your standing before God. Leviticus 11-15 tells the Israelites what is unacceptable, but also shows them how to become acceptable. Just so, Jesus tells us what defiles us, but also tells us how to be cleansed from those defilements.
Hebrews 10:22 reads like this:
let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
We can draw near; we need to judge ourselves, we need to be cleansed by the washing of water with the word, as Paul puts it in Ephesians. This washing involves letting the word of God dwell richly in our lives, cleansing us, opening us up before him, laying bare before him our inadequacies and our defilements, our mistakes and our sins, our thoughts and our deeds. And God will cleanse us! We need never fear his rejection. This holy God, this pure and spotless being, this one in whom no darkness dwells, has determined that he will save to the uttermost all who come to Him through Christ -- and he will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
So do you have a clear conscience? Are you sprinkled clean? Are you preparing yourself day by day by day, feeding on God's word, letting it wash you and cleanse you? Are you controlling your thoughts, so that you are dwelling on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy? Are you keeping short accounts with God, confessing your sins?
This is the message of Leviticus 11-15 to us today. Steer clear of the defilements of the heart that so easily enter our lives. Seek God's cleansing forgiveness for those diseased emissions, those thoughtless words and cruel actions that we say or do even unintentionally; clear your heart of the infectious diseases of pride and hate and bitterness that, if unattended, will isolate you from God and man, leaving you excluded from the camp, isolated in your suffering.
God is holy, but this holy God invites you into his presence -- on His terms. Won't you accept those terms?
Let us pray: Lord, we thank you for the message of this book -- a message that emphasizes both your holiness and your cleansing power. That you for the sacrifice of your son Jesus through whom we may approach you. May each of us examine our hearts and live in daily communion with you, reading and meditating on your word, seeking forgiveness for all sins, so that each of us might walk before you with a clear conscience. May we know your forgiveness, and have the confidence to approach you boldly, as your beloved children.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 11/29/98. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him.
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