Uncleanness

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him "unclean" by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him "unclean".'

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 'Are you so dull?' he asked. 'Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him "unclean"? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.' (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean'.)

He went on: 'What comes out of a man is what makes him "unclean". For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man "unclean".' (Mar 7:14–23)

About sin

Some Christians view uncleanness as an Old Testament doctrine that bears no relevance to their lives. But that is not true. Uncleanness is very important to us because uncleanness symbolized things that are unacceptable to God, particularly sin.

In the previous study we saw how the Pharisees and teachers of the law had criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat their food with 'unclean' (ie ceremonially unwashed) hands (Mar 7:5).

The washing of hands before a meal was not a requirement of the Law, it was a tradition the religious leaders had imposed on the people. But in doing so they showed they had not understood the meaning, or purpose, of uncleanness in the Old Testament.

In Gen 7 God told Noah to take seven of every kind of clean animal and two of every kind of unclean animal, into the ark, to preserve their lives on earth during the flood. But how did Noah know which animals were clean and which were unclean? God must have told him because the Law, which detailed cleanness and uncleanness, wasn't given until much later.

But why should God, who after creating the animals and declaring them all to be good (Gen 1:25), then decide that some were unclean in his sight (Hebrew: defiled, impure)? He did it to illustrate spiritual truth. And by introducing the subject of uncleanness at the beginning of the Bible he was showing how important it was going to be.

Ceremonial uncleanness

Before we look at what made a person unclean under the Law, we should note that the uncleanness they were guilty of was only ceremonial.

Eating pork didn't really make a person impure in God's sight (as Jesus explained in our opening text), any more than shedding the blood of an animal atoned for their sin (Heb 10:1–4)—but it did for the purpose of illustration.

Through the ceremonial aspects of the Law, God had commissioned his people to act out a spiritual play. They were to perform that play day in, day out; week in, week out; year in, year out. Its purpose was to teach spiritual truth.

The people didn't understand what they were doing, they were merely following commands. But in the light of the New Testament, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can understand its teaching.

Separation from God

As we've seen, the Hebrew word translated 'unclean' in the Old Testament means defiled, or impure. Uncleanness resulted from certain physical conditions, or from doing certain things, and it separated the person from God. In that way it symbolized sin, which also separates us from God. In most cases the uncleanness lasted until evening.

To be cleansed an unclean person had to wash their clothes (Lev 11:25). Righteousness, in the Bible, is symbolized by clothing (Rev 19:6–8). By washing their (symbolically) unclean clothing they became clean (righteous) again and were restored to a right relationship with God.

Things that caused uncleanness

The things that caused uncleanness came under six headings: food, death, infectious skin diseases, mildew, bodily discharges and childbirth. The regulations governing them were extensive, so we'll only look at the main points.

1. Food

Animals
In respect to animals, only those that had a split hoof and chewed the cud were clean. Every other type of animal was unclean; they couldn't be eaten nor their carcasses touched (Lev 11:1–8).

But why should only animals that had a split hoof and chewed the cud be clean and acceptable to God? A split hoof, completely divided, symbolized separation from sin, and chewing the cud symbolized meditation on God's Word—chewing it over and thinking about it deeply (Jam 1:22–25).

Birds
In respect to birds, all birds of prey and scavenging birds were unclean (Lev 11:13–19). They, too, could not be eaten nor their carcasses touched. This was because they fed on death which, as we'll see later, was also unclean.

Aquatic creatures
Of creatures found in water, only those that had fins and scales were clean (Lev 11:9–12). Fins bring direction; they guide the creature through the water, both vertically and horizontally. That symbolized the Word of God.

Psa 119:105 says that the Word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path: it brings direction to our lives. It shows how God wants us to walk in this spiritually dark world, both vertically (in our relationship to him), and horizontally (in our relationship to man).

Scales reflect light. God is light (1Jo 1:5), and his glory is manifested as light. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, his face shone like the sun—it emitted a bright light (Mat 17:1–2). Luke tells us that the light the disciples saw was our Lord's glory (Luk 9:32).

Christians, also, are the light of the world (Mat 5:14–16); we radiate God's light (his glory) on earth. Paul wrote that we, with unveiled faces, all reflect the Lord's glory (2Co 3:18). Because scales reflect light, creatures with scales symbolized this aspect of spiritual ministry, and were therefore clean and acceptable to God.

Crawling things
God said that every creature that crawled on the ground was unclean. God told the serpent in the garden that because of what it had done it would crawl on its belly all the days of its life (Gen 3:14). Consequently creatures that crawled on the ground symbolized that which was earthly, unspiritual, of the devil (Jam 3:15).

Similarly every flying insect that walked on the ground (apart from those that could hop) and every creature that moved about on the ground—whether on paws, or on many feet (insects)—were unclean for the same reason (Lev 11:20–23,27,41–43).

Unclean tents
Before we leave this section I want to draw your attention to a detail that concerned the construction of the tabernacle in the desert. We've already seen that only creatures found in water with fins and scales were clean, and yet God told Moses to cover the frame of the tabernacle with hides of sea cows (Exo 26:14).

Sea cows are aquatic mammals that have neither fins nor scales and were therefore unclean. So why should God instruct Moses to cover the tent he was going to dwell in with the hides of unclean animals?

The answer is because God chooses to dwell on earth today in unclean tents such as you and me—people who have been defiled by sin (the Bible likens our bodies to tents, 2Pe 1:13). In that way the tabernacle in the desert was a picture of what God was going to do in the New Testament.

However, even though the hides of sea cows were by nature unclean, when used in God's service they became holy (sacred) and acceptable to him.

And that is also true of us. Even though we were sinners from birth and unclean in his sight, through the death of Jesus Christ we have been cleansed and made holy (set apart for God's service) and can now serve in ways that are acceptable to him (Heb 10:10; 1Pe 2:4–5).

2. Death

Anyone who touched a dead body, or the carcass of an unclean animal or bird etc, became unclean. That was because the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23) and, as death is the result of sin, it was itself unclean. When God heaped the sins of the world upon his Son on the cross, he died. Jesus reaped the wages of sin for you and for me.

Ecc 7:2 says:

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.

Death is a reminder of sin. When you weep over the dead body of a loved one, you are weeping because of sin: sin has caused their death (Gen 2:15–17).

However, God didn't create man to die, but to live forever. Jesus came to restore everlasting life to mankind by dealing with the cause of death, which is our sin. Sin is the sting that results in death (1Co 15:56). Death is an enemy, and will be the last enemy to be destroyed (1Co 15:25–26).

'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' (Rev 21: 4)

What a day that will be! Thanks be to God.

3. Infectious skin diseases

The regulations concerning infectious skin diseases are found in Lev 13 & 14. If anyone was found to have an infectious skin disease they were declared unclean and ordered to remain outside the camp, ie they couldn't mix with God's people.

Many have interpreted this purely from the hygiene point of view. Infectious skin diseases are transmitted from one to another, so it was sensible to stop an infected person from mixing with others. But that was not the reason for it.

If a person was diagnosed with an infectious skin disease, he was declared unclean. But if the disease had spread to cover the whole of his body, from head to foot, he was declared clean and could remain in the camp (Lev 13:12–13). Hygiene, therefore, had nothing to do with it.

So what was God saying through this? He was using it as a visual aid to teach us about the seriousness of sin, as well as its contagious nature.

If only a small amount of disease was found on a person, it made them unclean. That shows that only a small amount of sin defiles us before God. Just one sin caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from the garden—out of the place where God dwelt. Sin is a blemish on us; it defiles us; and infectious skin diseases illustrated that.

Just one spot of the disease was a blemish on the person that could be seen, whereas if their whole body was covered with the disease, no contrasting mark was visible, therefore they were clean. It wasn't the disease that made them unclean before God, but what the visible mark symbolized, ie sin.

Fifteen hundred years after the Law was given, a Jew walked to a place outside the walls of Jerusalem (outside the camp) to be crucified.

He was a lamb without spot or blemish; he had never sinned from the moment he was conceived. And yet on that day he took all our infectious skin diseases (our sins) upon himself; he became a spiritual leper, an outcast for our sakes, so that we could be made clean and have fellowship with God.

Those with infectious skin diseases were excluded from the camp; they couldn't mix with God's people because of the contagious nature of their disease. The same is true in the Church. Paul instructed the church at Corinth to expel the immoral brother from among them. 'Don't you know,' he wrote, 'that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?'

Yeast, in the Bible, symbolizes sin because of the way it spreads. Paul knew that if the immoral brother was allowed to remain with them others would be tempted to follow his ways; so he was removed from the church (1Co 5:1–13).

Sin is contagious. The Bible says that bad company corrupts good character (1Co 15:33). Isaiah said: 'We all, like sheep, have gone astray (Isa 53:6).' Sheep tend to follow each other: even godly people can be led astray by the people they mix with. For that reason the church has to be kept pure, even as God's camp had to be kept pure (Num 5:1–4).

4. Mildew

The regulations concerning mildew in clothing are found in Lev 13:47–59. Mildew is a spreading organism and, like infectious skin disease, it symbolized sin. As we've already seen, righteousness in the Bible is symbolized by clothing (Rev 19:8). We must not allow our clothing (our righteousness) to be contaminated by sin.

If mildew spread in a garment it was said to be a destructive mildew—a mildew that led to destruction—and the article had to be destroyed by fire. Similarly, sin is destructive.

Paul warned the believers in Galatia that God cannot be mocked (he cannot be treated with contempt). If they sowed to please their sinful nature (if, as Christians, they continued to live sinful lives), from that nature they would reap destruction (Gal 6:7–8)—ie they, too, would be destroyed by fire (the flames of hell).

However, if mildew was found in an article of clothing and it hadn't spread, the article had to be washed and then left for seven days. If, after seven days, the mildew had gone from the article, it was washed again to make sure, and then declared clean.

What was God saying through this? Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus tells us how Jesus washes us with his Word. He does that to cleanse us and make us a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or blemish (Eph 5:25–27).

As we read the Word of God it makes us clean (Joh 15:3)—if we allow it to. The Word shows us where there is sin in our lives and where we need to change. God then gives us the power to change.

After being washed, the contaminated article was left for seven days. The number seven in Scripture indicates perfection and completion. In other words God will give us adequate time to change and, if we yield to his correction, we will be made clean. We must then continue to read the Word to remain clean.

The same principle was taught in respect to mildew found in a house (Lev 14:33–53). The infected stones were removed and replaced, and then it was replastered. But if the mildew reappeared and continued to spread, the whole house had to be destroyed.

Have you removed sin from your life, or is it still there and you've plastered over it? You know the truth. You can hide the truth from others, perhaps, but you cannot hide it from yourself, and you cannot hide it from God (Heb 4:13).

Scripture uses houses to symbolize lives. Jesus said that the one who hears his words and obeys them, is like a wise man who built his house (his life) on the rock. No matter what came against that house—no matter what the world, or the devil, could throw against it—it stood.

However, the man who hears his words and does not put them into practice—does not allow them to change him, refine him, and purify him—is like a man who built his house on the sand. It stood for a while, but when the storm came it collapsed and its destruction was complete (Mat 7:24–27; Luk 6:46–49).

Only a life built on Jesus Christ and his Word will stand on the Day of Judgement (Psa 1:1–6).

5. Bodily discharges

The regulations governing bodily discharges are found in Lev 15. Anyone who had a bodily discharge was unclean, and any person, or any thing, their discharge touched became unclean. Bodily discharges included a woman's monthly period and a man's emission of semen.

But a woman's monthly period has never been unclean in God's sight, nor has a man's emission of semen. That is how God created our bodies to function, and everything he created was good (Gen 1:31). God only regarded them as unclean under the Law for the purposes of ceremony (illustration).

So what did they illustrate? They showed, as in the case of infectious skin diseases, how sin can spread from one person to another. But more importantly they showed that sin comes from within us, which Jesus explained in our opening text.

6. Childbirth

The law concerning a woman's uncleanness after childbirth is detailed in Lev 12. Because of the discharge of blood that followed the birth, a woman who had given birth to a boy was unclean for seven days. But if she'd given birth to a girl she was unclean for fourteen days.

Why should there be a difference? The discharge would last for the same length of time, so why should she be unclean for twice as long if she gave birth to a girl, as if it was a greater sin to bring a girl into the world than a boy?

1Ti 2:13–14 says:

For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

Women are not greater sinners than men, but it was a woman who sinned first; then, having sinned, she led her husband into sin (Gen 3:6). That was the reason for the difference in the Law.

Ecc 7:28 says:

'…I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all.'

The Hebrew word translated 'a thousand' can also mean an unlimited number, which I believe it does in this case. So what is God saying? He's saying there's never been a perfectly upright woman, but there's been one perfectly upright man.

In this age of sexual equality, some women want to do everything men can do. But it wasn't a woman who bled and died for the sins of the world, it was a man. That was God's will, and nothing can change it.

The blood that came from a woman made her, and everyone it touched, unclean; by contrast, the blood that came from a man has made us, and everyone it's touched, clean.

Thank you Lord Jesus!

Michael Graham
February 2011
Revised January 2012

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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