The Necessity of Purity
Topic: Law Passage: Leviticus 11:1–15:33
From childhood we have heard that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Many people, in fact, are surprised when they learn that expression is not found in the Bible. Search for it as you may...it is not there. That being said, there is a link of sorts between the concept of “cleanliness” and the character of God. If you doubt that, then you haven’t spent much time in the 11th through 15th chapters of Leviticus.
Because He is perfectly holy, God demands holiness and purity on the part of the people who are called by His name. He had chosen Israel to be “his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). And in the key passage of this book He reminded them, saying, “I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).
The five chapters we are about to consider this morning represent what is perhaps the most difficult portion of the entire book of Leviticus. That is because they deal with matters which at first glance seem to be far removed from what we might expect to find in the Bible. Matters ranging from the kind of food that is to be eaten or avoided to the treatment of various skin diseases. There are even chapters addressing the purification of mothers after the birth of a child and the cleansing of bodily discharges. Taken together, this section of Scripture has been called a codified “manual of health and hygiene” for God’s people. And while we do not follow most of the directives found here today, they continue to be the inspiration for books and lectures on the subject of Christian health.
More than fifty years ago a missionary-physician by the name of S.I. McMillen published a widely-read book entitled None of These Diseases. A generation later, his grandson—another medical doctor—updated and republished it. Its title had been borrowed from Exodus 15:26, where God had assured the Israelites, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.” Although Dr. McMillen’s work encourages a healthy lifestyle for Christians, I believe it misses the point of Leviticus 11 through 15.
In last week’s message we made passing reference to Leviticus 10:10 and 11 that the priests were instructed by God to “distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,” as well as “to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD had spoken to them by Moses.” Because the Hebrew root for “unclean” (“tame”) can refer to both ethical and ceremonial impurity, and because that term appears more than one hundred times in these five chapters, it would seem that the Lord has more in mind than merely a listing of rules governing hygiene and sanitation. Perhaps “cleanliness is next to godliness” in ways other than what we might initially think.
None of the other nations were known to have had a similar “handbook” governing both personal and ritual cleanliness. The prescriptions found here appear to have served three primary purposes. The first was, of course, to reflect the holiness God. Next there was the need to keep Israel distinct from the idolatrous practices of the nations around them. And then third, by obeying the Lord in these matters, God’s people would maintain not only their physical health but their spiritual health as well. The overriding purpose of this extended passage is that the spiritual purity of the Lord’s people be preserved.
With that introduction, let’s attempt to wade into these five chapters together. We’ll begin in chapter 11 with the...
Laws pertaining to clean and unclean food (11:1-47)
Holy living governed every aspect in the lives of God’s covenant people. There was no distinction made between what was “secular” and what was “sacred.” All of life fell under God’s dominion...including the food that was eaten.
As we read through this chapter and take note of the various animals that are mentioned, it should be pointed out that the exact meaning of many of the Hebrew names given to the creatures is uncertain. What we are able to observe is that some are described as “clean” or able to be eaten, whereas others are labeled “unclean.” Those referred to as “unclean,” are also at times designated as being “detestable.” Those who eat them, therefore, are said to “defile” themselves in the sight of God.
In verses 1 through 23 the various animals—both “clean” and “unclean”—are arranged by category. There are first the land creatures, then the water creatures, and finally the flying creatures. Some have seen the categorization of animals in this way as relating back to the creation account found in Genesis 1. Certainly there is an intentional arrangement of material, suggesting that it has been compiled in the form of a manual for use by the priests.
The remainder of chapter 11 is describes the ritual pollution incurred by the eating of “unclean” creatures, as well as the prescribed treatment for cleansing one who has been contaminated.
There have been a number of proposed explanations for the purpose of these so-called “food laws.” Some argue that the distinctions found here are arbitrary and for reasons known only to God. Others believe that the “unclean” animals were those used in the worship of pagan deities, and that Israel must indicate their fidelity with the Lord by avoiding them completely. Still others hold that the “unclean” creatures were unfit to eat because they were more likely to be carriers of disease. This last reason has been attractive to many in our day. I have already mentioned the popularity of Dr. McMillen’s book and others like it. There are, however, good reasons for believing that these prohibitions were not primarily hygienic in their purpose.
In the first place, hygiene can account for only some of the prohibitions. For example, the great majority of us have eaten pork and seafood all of our lives with no adverse health effects. Furthermore, the Old Testament makes no direct statement that eating these creatures posed any significant health risks. And third, if hygiene is the motive, why are not poisonous plants also listed here among the “unclean” foods?
A better explanation is offered by the Lord Himself near the end of this chapter. We have looked at these verses before, but they bear mentioning again. They state for us the main purpose of the Book of Leviticus, and especially the chapter under consideration. I call your attention once again to verses 44 and 45:
“I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy for I am holy.”
We do well to pause and reflect upon the matter of “holiness” once again before we proceed. The “holiness” of God refers to His separateness from His creation. Theologians refer to both the “immanence” and “transcendence” of God. To put it in layman’s terms, He is both “near to us” and “faraway.” The fact that He is “near to us” is a concession on His part because everything He is, we are not. Therefore, for us to experience His presence we must do so His way, and not our own. That begins with the recognition of our sin and His righteousness. God would have remained absolutely just to leave us in our sin and depravity...to be born and die and spend eternity without ever knowing Him. Instead He chose to make Himself known and, in so doing, to call sinners to Himself.
The symbolic interpretation of the food laws had the purpose of demonstrating and expressing Israel’s special status as the holy people of God. It is important for us to recognize that the Scriptures do not make a direct correlation between “uncleanness” and sin. The former is merely used throughout this entire section as a symbolic illustration of the latter. The division into “clean” (or edible) foods and “unclean” (or inedible) foods served to highlight the distinction between “holy Israel” and the “unholy Gentile world.” Among the animals that could be offered in sacrifice, there were only a few types. Similarly there was a group of men who alone were able to offer those sacrifices, namely the priests. Through this system of symbolic laws, the Israelites were reminded of their redemption as God’s elect people and of their need to reflect and to demonstrate His holy character.
With the coming of Christ and the offering of Himself as the final sacrifice, these symbolic distinctions were rendered obsolete. This becomes personally practical for us when we consider how the specific food regulations are dealt with in the Book of Acts. You recall Peter’s vision of the sheet being lowered from heaven in which were all kinds of animals, clean and unclean alike. Peter was instructed three times to “kill and eat.” Peter initially protested, saying, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” Then came the Lord’s authoritative reply, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (cf. Acts 10:9-16). It would take Peter some time to process the meaning of the vision, but it would eventually become clear that the “food laws” had been surpassed by something—or Someone—far greater.
The Levitical laws relating to food brought about one of the first controversies in the early church. Although the matter was hotly debated, it was settled at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Nearly every New Testament writer addresses this subject in one way or the other. We find Paul speaking to the matter of “eating and drinking” and its relationship to “the Kingdom of God” in Romans 14(:17). In other passages it is linked with the New Covenant relationship and the grace-bought freedom that is ours in Christ. Therefore, as the New Testament reveals, these food regulations represented calls not so much to diet as to devotion and distinction.
Even today that application holds true. Employing similar language to what we find in our passage, Paul instructs Christians in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
As we move into chapter 12, we find a small but significant section dealing with the...
Laws pertaining to the uncleanness of childbirth (12:1-8)
The birth of a child is one of the happiest days in a couple’s life. In recent months, our church has been blessed to be able to share in the joy of several families as they have welcomed newborns into their home. The Bible places high value on children. The psalmist has said, “Children are a heritage of the LORD, the fruit of the womb is his reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Psalm 127:3-5).
It is therefore surprising and possibly even shocking to learn that under the Mosaic Law new mothers were declared “unclean.” They experienced a period of social segregation and were required to bring animal sacrifices to the Tabernacle in order to experience ceremonial purification after giving birth. These ordinances following the birth of a child served as reminders that sin is something that is transmitted from generation to generation.
The lone exception to that, of course, was the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, because it was “fitting (for Him) to fulfill all righteousness” (cf. Matthew 3:15), He was brought by His parents to the Temple on the eighth day and circumcised according the Law (cf. Luke 2:22-24). As with all Hebrew boys, the rite of circumcision identified Jesus as a member of the covenant community.
The term “unclean,” therefore, does not equate with sin. This is confirmed because there was never the least association of sin with Jesus. Therefore, the “uncleanness” referred to throughout this section does not refer to immorality, but rather to ritual impurity. A “ritual” is a symbolic act or series of acts designed to convey a message, and there seem to be two messages suggested in this brief passage. The first refers to the sanctity of life, as illustrated in the first five verses of the chapter; and the second is the sanctification of life, as illustrated in verses 6 through 8.
One of the features of the purity laws is the necessity of time in the process of purification and reintegration into the community. Purification was always a timed process, and never an immediate event. No convincing explanation has as yet been offered as to why the process was twice as long for the birth of a female than for a male, although a number of curious ones have been suggested.
In some way, these instructions seem to relate to what the New Testament refers to as the “sanctification” process. To this day, even though the setting apart of the believer for the Lord is positionally instantaneous, it is also experientially progressive. That is to say, Christian maturity—or being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ—is a lifetime process. Even though the details of this chapter are minimal and vague and do not appear to be found in kind in the codes of other ancient societies, I am persuaded that in some way they relate to the demonstrated uniqueness of God’s special covenant relationship with Israel. To avoid wandering onto a trail of speculation, that is perhaps all we can say about it for now.
As we come to chapters 13 and 14, we encounter a unit of thought dealing with...
Laws pertaining to skin diseases and mildew (13:1-14:57)
These chapters group a number of different conditions and circumstances under the heading of “leprosy.” Some believe that what the Scriptures refer to as “leprosy” is what is known today as “Hansen’s Disease,” a chronic and infectious disease caused by a bacterium that attacks the nerves, eats away the skin, and creates multiple upper respiratory problems.
In actuality, however, there is no single English word that can convey the meaning of the Hebrew term (“tsaraath”) used throughout these chapters. The term “leprosy,” for example, is perfectly understandable when speaking of skin diseases, but it would not be appropriate to use in cases of mold and mildew on clothing or in houses. And while it sounds strange to modern ears to give the same name to such diverse conditions as psoriasis and mildew, the Hebrews saw enough similarities between them to do so. In short, both these and similar conditions were all rendered “unclean.”
Again, there is no correlation to be assumed between “leprosy” and sin, although in the New Testament we find “lepers” being looked down upon as “sinners” and considered “outcasts of society.” It is possible that the Hebrew term comes from a root word meaning “to strike.” Thus, the leprous condition was often looked upon as a “stroke” from God...if not a result of sin, then certainly a fitting illustration of the sinful state.
Chapter 13 graphically describes many of the skin diseases falling under the heading of “leprosy.” Included in these would be conditions like eczema, psoriasis, hives, and rashes. Scabies and shingles might also be included. Once again we need to remember that the distinction between “unclean” and “clean” was not synonymous with “sinful” and “unsinful.” Many of these conditions had resulted from accident, illness, or merely the normal living of life. Because that was the case, they served as ideal illustrations of the universal and pervasive nature of sin to the human experience. With every defilement and the cleansing it necessitated, the community was reminded of the need to be “holy” before God and to be perpetually cleansed from sin.
The key to understanding this passage is recognizing that any kind of disease rendered a person unfit to enter into the presence of God, who was the Lord of life and holy perfections. It was the priest who drew the assignment of examining and evaluating individuals thought to possess infectious skin diseases. In a manner of speaking, he served in the role of a “physician,” not prescribing a cure but leading the person through the ritual process of purification and eventually pronouncing him “clean” or fit to approach the Lord in worship. Any healing was the result of God’s activity, not the priest. This is borne out by the fact that the ritual cleansing always followed—and never preceded—the afflicted person’s having been pronounced “well.”
The state of being “unclean” or ceremoniously defiled meant a temporary “cutting off” of the individual’s fellowship within the covenant community. During that period, both social and religious privileges were suspended. However, this suspension would not necessarily mean that the unclean person was the subject of divine judgment. God’s grace is such that even an “unclean” person would have the privilege of identifying himself with the atoning sacrifices perpetually being offered. The specific laws regarding the cleansing of lepers are found in chapter 14. Six times in verses 18 through 32 we read of the priest “making atonement” or the removing of the person’s ceremonial “uncleanness” on behalf of the afflicted person.
We must not miss the fact that not only was the person having the skin condition declared to be “unclean,” but so was anyone touching or having contact with that person. That is why he was commanded—as we see in verses 45 and 46 of chapter 13—to “cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’” whenever he was in public or when anyone drew near to him.
Interestingly, in Matthew 8:1-3, we read of a leper who approached Jesus one day, kneeling before Him and saying, “‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched Him...” Did you get that? He “touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” What is most significant about this incident is that the man was cleansed “immediately”—without having to go through the formality of all of the ritual cleansings prescribed in Leviticus 14. Jesus is here demonstrating His superiority over the Law. It was subject to Him, and not vice versa.
But that is not all. In this same passage from Matthew, Jesus instructed the newly-cleansed leper, to “Say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” In other words, even though He was the Lord over the Law, He still respected it, submitted Himself to it, and exhorted others to obey it as well. In time He would fulfill the Law in every respect, and by doing so render it obsolete.
The “cleansing” ritual would not be complete until an animal was slain on behalf of the individual who had been afflicted. The priest would take some of the blood and place it on the person’s right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe—in a manner similar to his own cleansing for the priestly ministry (as we saw last week in chapter 8)—signifying that every aspect of the person’s life was being “cleansed,” and that he was then worthy to draw near to the Lord.
This is reinforced even further when we notice the concluding verses of chapter 14, which deal with the “cleansing” of houses which had outbreaks of mold or mildew. Problems of mold and mildew are probably more prevalent in our area than they were in the dry Middle East. If you have experienced such a predicament in your home, then you know the difficulty of ridding yourself of it. Every indication of infection—just like the sin in our lives—was to be completely purged. When the Lord charged His people to “consecrate” or set themselves apart for His glory (cf. Leviticus 11:44), He meant for that to be the case in every facet of their lives. They were to be “holy,” just as He is “holy.”
So far we have looked at these purity regulations regarding food, childbirth, and infectious outbreaks. There remains yet one more area for discussion before we conclude this section relating to the purification of God’s people. Chapter 15 brings us, therefore, to the unpleasant and difficult-to-discuss topic of...
Laws pertaining to bodily discharges (15:1-33)
Some of you have asked me how I intended to handle the topics before us this morning. Admittedly, it has been a difficult task. None of these areas we have considered make for easy conversation. Nevertheless, they are in our Bibles for a reason. The Scriptures at times can be very graphic, and for that we make no apology. Discretion, however, demands that we not go into unnecessary detail with regard to the specifics being spoken of here. But we do need to try and see the main point of what is being said.
The distinctions between male and female discharges serve, if for no other reason, to highlight the differences between the genders. No cultural modifications can ever obliterate the plain fact that “from the beginning (God) made them male and female” (Matthew 19:4). For the most part, people experienced bodily discharges merely by virtue of their being human. Others were no doubt due to sinful behavior, but once again, we are not to assume that there is a straightforward link between a person’s physical condition and his spiritual state. Many of the laws that are found here are certainly hygienic, but once again the purpose they serve in this chapter illustrates a deeper truth. Not every “healthy” person is a saint any more than every “ill” person is receiving just reward for his sin.
It is from the ministry of Jesus that we see an illustration of this. In our recent study of Mark 5(:24-34), we read of “a woman who had a discharge of blood for twelve years.” We are told that she “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.” But “she had heard the reports about Jesus,” and she approached Him. Without rehearsing that account in its entirety, we are told that Jesus healed her with only a word—“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” What is interesting—unlike with the leper whom we saw earlier—is that no further instruction was given to her. No need to go to the priest and go through the elaborate ceremonial rituals. Just “go...and be healed.”
Today as Christians we do not practice these laws, certainly not in the manner that those to whom they were initially addressed did. That is because these laws have been realized in the complete and perfect obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember Exodus 15:26, He is our “healer.” These rituals are not directly applicable to us as Christians, but they are profitable for us when we look for their correspondence to New Testament instruction.
One cannot read them without realizing that even the most basic routines of life are subject to God’s careful scrutiny. There was nothing in the daily life of the Hebrew people that the Word of God did not impact. The modern notion of having a “secular” life and a “religious” life was totally foreign to these people. Holy living began with a relationship with God, and from that came a lifestyle that the Word of God called for. Both then and now, relationship must always precede regulation.
There are many people today who think that “holy living” is a synonym for morality. In other words, if they can measure themselves by how well they can keep the Ten Commandments and conform their lives to the Sermon on the Mount, then they feel that God is pleased. And while there are corresponding relationships, “living morally” does not equate with “being holy.”
“Holy living” at its most fundamental level speaks to the relationship we have with God, secured for us through the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. His blood atonement on our behalf has “cleansed” us of every sin and reconciled us to God. But that work on our behalf must be applied and appropriated. It is not enough to know these things, we must “do them” (cf. John 13:17).
Because we are not “holy” by nature, the Word of God demands a fundamental realignment of our basic worldview and way of life. In fact, some passages—like the one we have looked at this morning—“rub us the wrong way.” What are we as Christians to make of these chapters? What are we to do with it? How can this portion of Scripture be “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16)? As we prepare to conclude, let me suggest the following:
In the first place, chapters 11 through 15 of Leviticus are “profitable for teaching” because they lead us in the path of truth. You and I must never stop learning about God’s infinitely holy character, as well as the incurably sinful condition from which He has saved us. In his book, The Holiness of God, R.C. Sproul reminds us that...
“This special call to Israel was really not new. It did not begin with Moses or even with Abraham. The call to holiness was first given to Adam and Eve. This was the original assignment of the human race. We were created in the image of God. To be God’s image meant, among other things, that we were made to mirror and reflect God’s character. We were created to shine forth to the world the holiness of God. This was the chief end of man, the very reason for our existence.”
God did not choose Israel because they were holy. He chose them in order to make them holy. And He is doing the same today with repentant sinners like you and me. His desire is to make us and keep us pure for the glory of His great name.
Secondly, these five chapters are “profitable for reproof” because they keep us from the path of error. There are many voices being heard today, each claiming to be the guardian of truth. There is only one authentic voice of truth, and it belongs to God. The Lord has clearly spoken, and to Him alone we must pay attention. This passage reminds us that He is the exclusive keeper of truth because it originates with Him. Therefore, you and I must come to Him on His terms. He defines “purity,” and our responsibility is to walk in it.
Furthermore, in the third place, these five chapters are “profitable for correction” because they return us to the path of truth. Each of us deviates in our attempts to walk in holiness. Each day we become “defiled” and “impure,” which explains our need for daily cleansing, forgiveness, and restoration. Passages like this cause us to cringe with discomfort. Nevertheless they are in our Bibles in order to remind us that when we stray from the path of truth, there is a way back. In that day, it was through various purification rites. Today it is through the blood-stained trail walked before us by the Lord Jesus. In fact, His is the only path that leads to the Father, and the one to which we must continually return.
Fourth and finally, chapters 11 through 15 of Leviticus are “profitable for training in righteousness” because they direct us along the path of truth. In other words, they help us through the daily application of God’s statutes to maintain purity and to sustain our daily walk with Him. Whether it is in “routine times” or when facing the “abnormalities of life,” maintaining a consistent walk of holiness is challenging and difficult. The Word of the Living God repeatedly calls us to “be holy, because He is holy.”
When we began this series I pointed out that the first half of Leviticus was devoted to instructions regarding how God’s people are to draw near to Him in worship. I am persuaded that our concept of God’s holiness determines how we worship Him. Worshiping God is fundamentally a matter of theology. Corrupt theology—namely a weak view of the holiness of God—will produce a confused worship. Our goal should ever be to worship Him more faithfully. Right worship begins with a correct vision of the one true and living God. And when that vision becomes clear, our worship of Him will evoke lives of holiness and purity.
Spiritually speaking, “cleanliness” is not just “next to godliness;” it is the essential mark of Godliness.