I read a chapter in my Bible each night before bed, and I recently finished Exodus and moved into Leviticus. This book is full of God’s laws and instructions for His people Israel, and much of it has to do with ceremonial uncleanness.
Those parts of the Torah might not seem as if they have anything to do with us today. There isn’t a temple building anymore or a priesthood conducting animal sacrifices. We don’t worry about doing things that might make us unclean until evening or take turtledoves and lambs to the temple to ask God to pass over our sins. But the fact that we don’t have to worry about that anymore means something changed, and that something isn’t God. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). He’s still just as holy as He was in the Old Testament. What’s changed is something having to do with our holiness and God’s relationship with us.
This “something” is that Jesus’s sacrifice cleanses us from our sins. The fact that we say “cleanses” us from sin, though, points to the same problem Leviticus was trying to deal with. God is holy, but holiness is not the default state of human beings. Sins (and even things that aren’t sin which once resulted in ceremonial uncleanness) would separate us from God if there wasn’t a way of washing us. I think this is why the New Testament writers spend so much time talking about cleanliness and holiness. When they described what Jesus is doing in us, they’re working with this background knowledge that God didn’t allow unclean people into His temple.
Uncleanness and Sin
In the Old Covenant law, people became ritually unclean in several ways. One was by sinning, which required sacrifices offered as atonement even though they couldn’t actually remove sin. There were also ways to become ritually unclean without sinning, such as by touching animal carcasses or dead bodies, contracting leprosy, having a baby, and having sex (Lev. 5:2;12:2; 13:3, 44-45; 15:1-33). All sin made people unclean, but not all the ways to become unclean involved sin.
Even though many of the things that resulted in ritual uncleanness weren’t sins, they could still disqualify you from entering the temple or eating of the holy things (Lev. 7:19-21; Chr. 23:18-19; Rev. 21:23-27). Because God is holy, His people had to “make a distinction between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” so they wouldn’t die by defiling God’s dwelling place with their uncleanness (Lev. 10:10-11; 15:31). God is still holy today, but the process for making us clean is much more lasting and complete.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify to the cleanness of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without defect to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?Hebrews 9:13-14, WEB
Washed by Jesus
Jesus spent quite a bit of time during his earthly ministry engaging in debate with the religious leaders of His day. One thing in particular that He pointed out to them was that their efforts to be clean had gotten off-track. It wasn’t the outward cleanliness that mattered the most, but the holiness of the heart (Matt. 23:25-27; Luke 11:40-42). This doesn’t mean we ignore the outside, but outward things aren’t our focus; the outside becomes clean as a result of the cleaning happening inside us.
In John’s account of Jesus’s final Passover, he mentions that “many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually” (John 11:54-56). This is a detail I’ve overlooked in the past; it just seems like a note explaining something about the culture at the time. But a short time later at Passover, Jesus has this conversation with Peter:
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus said to him, “Someone who has bathed only needs to have his feet washed, but is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you.” For he knew him who would betray him, therefore he said, “You are not all clean.”John 13:8-11, WEB
We are clean in every sense–ritually and in terms of forgiveness for sin–if Jesus Christ washes us. Paul emphasizes this in one of his letters, saying “Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the assembly to himself gloriously, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without defect” (Eph. 5:25-27, WEB).
Jesus’s sacrifice mediates a new covenant that involves more immediate and lasting cleansing than was ever available under the old covenant (Heb. 9:13-15, 22-24; 10:1-14). Instead of making it possible for us to walk inside a physical temple dedicated to God, Jesus’s cleansing makes us part of God’s undefiled spiritual temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:16-20; 2 Cor. 6:15-18). It goes beyond just being allowed to visit God. We actually get to be part of His dwelling place.
Dwelling in the Clean Vine
Becoming clean is something that Jesus does to us. Staying clean is something we’re involved in. It’s part of a lifelong process of becoming holy the way that God is holy (Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). We need to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1, WEB). We’re actively involved in the process of sanctification because we choose what behaviors shape the sort of people we are (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 2 Tim. 2:20-21).
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. …
“In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love.”John 15:1-4, 8-10 WEB
The way we stay clean is by staying firmly attached to Jesus and following Him. Under the Old Covenant, we could have become “unclean” in all sorts of ways and becoming clean again involved the passage of time and/or ritual washing or sacrifice (depending on how you became unclean). Now under the New Covenant, Jesus washes us clean all the time so long as we’re sticking close to Him.
Staying in God’s Presence
Jesus doesn’t let anything that could make us “unclean” stand in the way of us getting into God’s presence. The relationship we have with God isn’t cut off if we touch an unclean animal or become seriously ill; there’s no more ritual uncleanness to worry about. However, God still cares about the way we live our lives.
Just like there was a difference between ritual uncleanness and law-breaking sin in the Old Testament, there’s a similar difference today. The first doesn’t matter at all anymore–Jesus takes care of washing us from any ritual uncleanness. The second doesn’t have to matter, but still could. Jesus’s sacrifice washes sins away as easily as any other uncleanness, but in this case we’re also supposed to stop sinning after we’re washed clean and repent if we make a mistake.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are.1 Corinthian 3:16-17, NET
The word translated “destroy” here is phtheirō (G5351), and it can also mean “corrupt” or “defile,” though most modern translations use “destroy” (see Thayer’s Dictionary and KJV translation). I wonder if Paul was thinking about the effect that uncleanness had in the Old Testament when he wrote this. If something that was holy touched something that was unclean, then the holy didn’t sanctify the unclean–the holy thing became corrupted (Haggai 2:11-14). God doesn’t want that happening in His temple (i.e. the church body of believers).
If you look back at Jesus’s words in John 15, you see that remaining in Him involves keeping His Father’s commandments. Jesus washes us from sins as well as from ritual uncleanness, but we’re still not supposed to do things that would defile us. If we do realize we’ve sinned, then we’re supposed to repent and ask for forgiveness so He can wash those sins away again just like He did the first time we were sanctified (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The cleanness of our souls should matter to us because one of our chief desires should be to dwell in the presence of God (Psalm 16:11; 140:13), and He doesn’t have close relationships with people who won’t let Him wash them (as Jesus told Peter in John 13:8-11). So let’s stay close to God, repenting if we sin and continually praising Him for cleansing and making us holy so we can dwell with Him.
Featured image by jplenio from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “In Your Presence” by Paul Wilbur