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Just What Do You Mean … ‘Unclean’?
They are some of the most dismissed and overlooked details in God’s law. Nevertheless, His statutes concerning clean and unclean contain powerfully relevant lessons for today’s Christians. 

Did you know that the Bible calls certain foods, places, objects and even people “unclean”? Anciently, anything unclean was to be left alone, even excluded and shunned. Such a practice seems arcane, barbaric and cruel by today’s standards. In our world, everything is tolerated, and anything goes. Little is considered sinful, taboo or forbidden. At the same time, efforts to raise the standard are often ridiculed. “Nothing is sacred,” the saying goes.

Is the biblical concept of “unclean” really out of date? If you study the laws of the Old Testament, you see that this is a fundamental principle, recurring time and again. The words clean, unclean and related words appear in Scripture over 500 times! They are most thoroughly expounded on in Leviticus, Numbers, and the legal parts of Ezekiel. God says there is a big difference between clean and unclean, holy and unholy, sacred and profane—and His law enforces this dramatic distinction.

Studying these concepts with a humble mind, intent on understanding them, begins to reveal their depth, their relevance, and even their beauty. Even though the specific application of many of those laws has been elevated from the letter of the law to the spirit level, the concept of clean and unclean is, in fact, fundamental to God’s eternal, spiritual law and God’s perfect thinking. When we really understand it, we recognize that, like all of God’s law, it is saturated in His love, because He is love (1 John 4:8, 16).

Read Leviticus 10:8-11 to see how teaching this concept was an important job God gave to His priests in the nation of Israel. Something unclean is contaminated by a physical or moral impurity. Something clean is absent of such contamination and is thus acceptable for its intended use. God still intends His ministers in His Spirit-begotten Church today to teach and enforce this difference! Read the end-time prophecy in Ezekiel 22:26 to see how God condemns His lukewarm ministry for failing at this job. Contrast that with one of the qualities of the sons of Zadok priesthood in the Millennium, described in Ezekiel 44:23.

To begin to understand why this is such an important concept, we must view it in light of God’s master plan. God earnestly desires to bring all people to repentance, to teach them His truth and to save them (read 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9). In preparation for that time, at this phase in His plan God is allowing Satan to rule the world while He prepares a small group of firstfruits to assist Him.

Thus, the world is a very unclean, unholy, profane place, and God is calling a people out from this world and making us clean and holy.

Read Exodus 19:3-6 to see how, anciently, God called the physical nation of Israel to fulfill a holy purpose. Israel was a type of the firstfruits, spiritual Israel, intended to be priests for all the nations. This high calling requires holiness and cleanness! God gave several specific illustrations in His law in order to drive home this crucial truth.

Clean and Unclean Meats

You are probably aware that observant Jews don’t eat pork or shellfish; perhaps you also know that God’s law forbids eating those and other animals. But do you know why? Evidence shows there are health benefits to following these food laws. God created all those animals, and He could have made pigs, cockroaches, maggots, eels, sharks, vultures or anything else perfectly healthful as human food. But God took pains to set apart certain animals as food for humans. Animals not reserved for that purpose are unclean and not to be eaten.

Read the laws of clean and unclean meats in Leviticus 11. Here God describes what is clean among land animals, fish, birds and even insects, then reinforces the law with provisions for dealing with unclean animals.

In this context, think on verses 43-47. What the Israelites ate affected their holiness! God made a connection between these animals being sanctified and His people being sanctified! Read Leviticus 20:22-26 to see this parallel even clearer. God told Israel to eschew the pagan practices of surrounding nations because, He said, “I am the Lord your God, which have separated you from other people” (verse 24). Therefore, He continues in verse 25, stay away from unclean animals, “which I have separated from you.” God compared the difference between clean and unclean animals with the difference between the sanctified nation of Israel and the Gentile nations!

Consider: In these verses, unclean animals represent the whole of humanity; clean animals represent the people of God. Read Acts 10:9-16 to see this symbolism reinforced in the New Testament. Here God revealed to the Apostle Peter that He was opening up salvation to the Gentiles—by giving him a vision of unclean animals and telling him to eat. Those unclean animals represented the Gentiles (verse 28). (It is important to note that this vision did not nullify the letter of the law regarding unclean meats.)

Read in 1 Timothy 4:4-5 where the Apostle Paul referred to certain animals being “sanctified” by God’s word. “What does it mean to be sanctified by the Word of God and prayer?” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote of this passage. “‘Sanctify’ is a word meaning to make holy, or set apart for a right use or purpose—to set apart as fit for human food. Now which meats has God sanctified for human food? The only passages in all the Bible showing which meats God sanctified are found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14” (Plain Truth, February 1980). Thus, the parallel is clear between the sanctification of certain animals for food and the sanctification of God’s chosen people.

With clean and unclean meats, certainly God reinforces important principles of obedience. These passages in Leviticus show that God used this physical means to illustrate and accentuate the separation of His chosen nation from the surrounding peoples. God further used this symbolism in the New Testament to picture the fact that ultimately, His plan does expand to include even those peoples once cut off from Him.

Uncleanness Is Contagious

Why is God so concerned about keeping the clean separate from the unclean? Study the important principle explained in Haggai 2:11-14. Uncleanness is contagious. When something unclean touches something clean, it doesn’t purify the unclean thing—it contaminates the clean thing!

In our world, people actively try to destroy the line between sacred and profane. Many churches seek to be as appealing to people as possible even if it means sacrificing godly standards. Thus they seek converts by filling radio stations with “Christian” rap or heavy metal music; their preachers act like comedians, or they reduce God’s truth to a sappy, feel-good, self-help message. The truth is, they are not converting the world: They are letting the world pervert them.

God’s approach is to keep the clean and the unclean separate. Within His holy people, when something is unclean, He isolates it to prevent it from spreading. Similarly, when God sanctifies something as holy, He puts a hedge about it in order to keep it holy.

God created the symbolic concept of ceremonial uncleanness to teach us that some spiritual things defile us and pollute our spirit. Someone could become ritually unclean by eating unclean food or touching a dead body or something diseased, for example. Examples of spiritual uncleanness include idolatry and pagan religious practices. For a Christian, any sin, whether action or thought, is unclean.

God has no contact with uncleanness. He is light, and there is no darkness in Him at all. He has called His people to come out of darkness and walk in His light! Read 1 John 1:5-7 and 1 Peter 2:9. Also read Paul’s command to Spirit-begotten Christians in Ephesians 5:11. When God makes something holy, it is our job to keep it that way. Our natural tendency is always to want to mix with the world, but God expects us to be separate!

Read how Paul reinforces this crucial spiritual principle in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. A Christian is a temple of the living God. For God to dwell in us via His Holy Spirit, we must be clean. This is how we remain sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. Read God’s statement in Deuteronomy 23:14 about how uncleanness affects whether or not He will dwell in the midst of His people.

Do you know what is unclean? Can you recognize things you ought not touch? We need to think in terms of clean and unclean not only in what we eat, but also in what we think. Some things are always unclean, such as coveting, lying or using cocaine. Some are unclean only if used in a wrong way, such as alcohol, television and anger. In this world, people saturate their minds with the base and vulgar. We want to become more and more refined in our discernment of and avoidance of those things that defile our spirit and that draw our minds and hearts away from God.

Lessons From Leprosy

Another passage commonly dismissed is Leviticus 13-14, which speaks about quarantine of and purification from leprosy. That specific ailment is rare today. However, this is the Bible’s most comprehensive explanation on how to handle a contagious disease, and thus it contains important and deeply relevant principles.

First, notice, beginning in Leviticus 13:1,how involved the priests are in this process. The priests were the ones to examine the problem, to quarantine the individual, to decide whether it was, in fact, a communicable disease, and to determine just when the individual was healed of the disease. Consider the parallel within the New Testament Church, written of in James 5:14. When someone in the Church today becomes sick, God instructs him to go to the elders. Through anointing, the ministry is involved with claiming God’s promise of forgiveness of physical sin in a way that they are not involved in the case of spiritual sin. (When someone sins spiritually, the ministry is certainly there to draw upon for counsel and in severe cases may have to intervene more forcefully; e.g. Matthew 18:17. However, such ministerial intervention is not prerequisite to forgiveness; the individual confesses directly to God; e.g. 1 John 1:9. The Bible nowhere commands “confession” with a priest.) The anointing for healing brings people in contact with the ministry in a special way. It also, besides reinforcing the seriousness of physical sins (and, hence, sins in general), opens the door for discussion about the weighty spiritual subjects of faith and obedience. Similar types of communication likely occurred in ancient Israel between the priests and those who contracted leprosy.

See God’s command regarding quarantine in Leviticus 13:4-5, 45-46. While trying to diagnose the problem, the priest quarantined, or separated, the individual. God’s Church follows this principle today: Someone who is physically sick is not to meet together with other people, out of concern for their well-being. But physical quarantine is also a type of suspension or disfellowshipment—a measure that keeps spiritual sickness “out of the camp.”

The Bible makes some strong associations between leprosy, sin and death. Interesting parallels between this physical condition and spiritual sin abound. Leprosy began small—a spot, a hidden infection—like sin starts small and is often hidden. It spread over the body—like sin multiplies in our lives. It rendered the victim repulsive and a danger to others—as sin tends to do, if we view it spiritually; seeing that reality clearly should motivate our repentance. It was infectious; likewise, sin can spread to others. This is why God was so concerned with getting that uncleanness out. The leper had to avoid contact with others. In like manner, God commands that the Church suspend or disfellowship for certain spiritual sins today until those individuals become spiritually healthy. Finally, there was no cure for leprosy: The leper was at God’s mercy to heal him. Likewise, we must receive God’s forgiveness to be rid of spiritual sin. This law describes how to identify leprosy, it pronounces the leper unclean, it commands quarantine—but only God can heal. (Order a free copy of Herbert W. Armstrong’s booklet The Plain Truth About Healing for an in-depth scriptural study of this subject.)

Read Leviticus 14:2-3 to see what the leper had to do to be readmitted into the camp, even once he was forgiven and healed. God’s Church does the same today. A suspended person doesn’t just resume attending after being out for a while; the minister goes and speaks to him and makes sure that the spiritual sickness is gone.

How Uncleanness Hurts Us

Read Leviticus 15 regarding some similar situations. The first 15 verses refer to some kind of infection—possibly a sexually transmitted disease—that generates an odious issue. The afflicted man is unclean, as is anyone who comes into contact with him. He must offer a sin offering and a burnt offering, again suggesting a physical sin had been committed. Verses 25-30 likewise describe a diseased state (not a normal monthly cycle) that must be atoned for with sacrifices.

These visible breakings out of the flesh provide a vivid picture of what occurs with spiritual sickness. Some sins are simply too flagrant to be hid from others. As Christ said, “[O]ut of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matthew 12:34-35; see also Proverbs 4:23). In these cases, the afflicted individuals were excluded from the camp for as long as the disease was manifest. Notice how the Apostle Paul dealt with an obvious spiritual sin in a Church member in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.

Other things made an Israelite unclean that others couldn’t see: touching something dead, or touching an unclean person, for example. Read in Leviticus 22:4-6 how the priests involved in sacrifices in the tabernacle could preclude themselves from service. Consider how our contact with worldly uncleanness can defile our thinking in ways that, even though others cannot see it, seriously hinder our relationship with God. God commands us to touch not the unclean thing—even if “nobody else is going to know.” He wants us to remain clean and holy, so He can use us in His service! We must avoid anything that would jeopardize that.

One final point to be drawn from the laws of clean and unclean is somewhat different from the others. It was possible for someone to become ceremonially unclean through acts or processes where there was no sin involved. Read some of these instances in Leviticus 15:16-24. It is worth noting that in none of these instances did God demand any sacrifice—only washing with water. Read Leviticus 12 to see another sinless act that made a woman ritualistically unclean. None of these are sins: In fact, they are the way God created us to perpetuate the human race according to His command to “be fruitful and multiply”! The idea that sex and reproduction are inherently sinful is a false concept promoted by the devil, who doesn’t have that marvelous capability which God gave to human beings.

Why, then, would God associate these non-sins with ceremonial uncleanness? It may help to understand why when we consider that this symbolic concept revolves around keeping the tabernacle—the center of spiritual worship—pure (re-read Leviticus 15:31). God created the natural processes necessary to sustain and propagate human life. By His design, living as a human being in a physical world necessitates regular acts of hygiene and cleaning ourselves up, which pictures our need for regular spiritual cleansing (e.g. Ephesians 5:25-27). And when we come into God’s presence in worship, He wants us to take extra care to be clean and presentable. Physical cleanliness typifies spiritual cleanness. Read in Psalm 24:3-5 a description of the person God will accept in His presence. Think also on Isaiah 52:11 and Hebrews 10:22. Someday “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2)—incorruptible, eternal, glorious spirit! Until then, we must take the best possible care of what God has given us.

God needs the individuals who serve in His spiritual temple, the Church, to be pure and holy. In a world that is dirty and impure, maintaining physical cleanliness and spiritual cleanness requires real effort and discipline. We must learn to detest unclean things, and strive always to be meticulous about spiritual cleanness. The real cleansing is in the mind. We must be washed every day by God’s Word and through Christ in us (read Ephesians 5:25-27). Jesus Christ wants His Bride to be spiritually clean, as white as snow!