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Clean and Unclean

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Leviticus 11–15

Fellowship with the holy God demands holy lives of His followers. At the heart of the Levitical laws relating to what is clean and unclean is this truth, as well as the assurance that God Himself has provided the way to holiness.


In Leviticus chapters 11–15 we’re going to encounter laws that might seem very strange to us today. But they were designed to teach the Israelites to walk in fellowship with God. With the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ, these laws now have been set aside, but the principles behind them still have much to teach us about relating to a holy God.


In chapter 11, God distinguishes between animals that are clean, and animals that are unclean, or not to be eaten. But why is so much attention given to this issue of clean and unclean? Well, God wants His people to develop discernment in life. The same principle applies in the New Testament, where the growing Christian learns to distinguish between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14).


So, in Leviticus 11, the Israelite is taught the spiritual discipline of making God-honoring distinctions in daily life. The Lord says in verse 47 that the Israelite is to make a distinction “between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.” And all kinds of fish, birds, insects, and critters “that swarm on the ground” (verse 29) are referenced. And from each group of animals, the Lord tells His people, through Moses, which animals they can put on the menu. 


For example, in verse 4 the camel is declared unclean and not to be eaten. The rock badger in verse 5 and the pig in verse 7 also are forbidden, along with birds of prey like the eagle and the vulture in verse 13. 


What God is doing here is taking the normal activity of eating and using it to teach the spiritual discipline of making distinctions according to His Word. He doesn’t tell the Israelites why they can’t eat camel meat or a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. 


God knows why, and many times, He’s not telling. PQ - But the point was simple: whether they understood it or not, their obedience was a bigger issue than a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. And by the way, lettuce and tomatoes were fine. 


As we move into chapter 12, we discover some laws that teach the spiritual truth of original sin.[1] For instance, the Lord establishes a designated period after childbirth, when the new mother is considered unclean. As verse 4 tells us, “She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed.” 


The blood related to childbirth would make the mother ceremonially unclean, but there’s more to her uncleanness here. It’s a reminder that the child she’s given birth to has been born with a sin nature—as sweet and cuddly as that baby might be. She has delivered a sinner into the world (see Romans 5:12).


That child has been born into the fallen family of mankind and needs to be redeemed in order to join the family of God. So, the Lord is teaching the truth about original sin—and that all of mankind is sinful and fallen.


Both in chapter 13 and over in chapter 15, God teaches the Israelite the spiritual truth of the desperate condition of sin. God illustrates that truth by cataloging a number of different diseases.


And let me say, very quickly, disease is not always related to someone’s personal sin; however, disease has indeed afflicted humanity because sin entered our fallen world.


In chapter 13, we have all kinds of laws related to ceremonial uncleanness caused by skin diseases and disorders. Verse 2 speaks of “a swelling or an eruption or a spot.” Verse 18 talks about boils, burns are mentioned in verse 24, and even itching is referred to in verse 30. 


Any skin blemish was to be examined by a priest to determine if it was a leprous disease—or leprosy. And if the priest confirmed the presence of leprosy, the person was declared unclean. This required a minimum of seven days of quarantine from the rest of the community and from worship in the tabernacle. 


The priest could not prescribe medicine or treatment because there wasn’t any. The only hope for healing was for God to intervene. Apart from God’s healing, this leprosy was permanent, and the person’s life was hopelessly cut off from the nation and from public worship. 


You can imagine how this isolation was especially painful for a person—cut off from family and friends and the religious community. In verses 45-46 instructions are given concerning the person who has leprosy: 


“The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”


This is a powerful picture of sin! Can you imagine a leper as he walked through his village crying out, “Unclean, unclean!”? There was nothing anybody could do for him, and there was nothing he could do for himself. Cleansing had to come from God alone. That’s why leprosy served as a graphic illustration of the hopeless effects of sin and the need for a Savior. 


Chapter 15 deals with various bodily discharges that made a person temporarily unclean. The prescription here would be bathing, a time of quarantine, and specific offerings for atonement. 


A chronic discharge of some sort could result in long-term isolation. I can’t help but think of the woman who had an ongoing hemorrhage and doctors had given up on her. She was perpetually unclean and without any hope or help. But she believed Jesus could heal her, and she came up behind Him and quietly touched His garment. Her faith in Jesus was rewarded as she was immediately healed (Mark 5:25-29). What a wonderful illustration of our need for Christ and the satisfaction that comes through faith in the Savior.


Let’s back up for a moment and notice how chapter 14 teaches the spiritual truth of restoration. This chapter opens with the isolated, leprous person in mind, but you will read more than twenty times in this chapter some form of the word clean and the repeated phrase “he shall be clean.” Also, showing up seven times here is the word atonement, the covering of sin by means of a substitutionary sacrifice. The path of cleansing and restoration is through an atoning sacrifice.


From the time the leper goes to the priest to show that God has healed him, to that moment in verse 20 when “the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean,” there’s a sense of anticipation and even celebration! Why? Because there’s someone very eager to share the news of God’s mercy, and grace, and healing power and restoration to life and community and worship. 


Beloved, this is our testimony. We have all been diagnosed with a terminal case of sin. We are isolated from God and true worship, we are hopeless and helpless, and there’s nothing a medical doctor or religious leader can do to cleanse us. We come by faith to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and claim His healing for our sin-sick souls. 


And with that, we are no longer isolated but included—cleansed, forgiven, and brought into the family of God, all by His amazing grace.

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