The concept of cleanliness and uncleanness is found throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament laws to the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. But what exactly does it mean for something or someone to be “unclean” in a biblical sense?
In this comprehensive blog post, we will examine the various meanings and implications of uncleanness in Scripture. We will look at the Old Testament background regarding ritual purity laws. We will see how Jesus confronted notions of uncleanness head-on. And we will discuss the symbolic significance that uncleanness took on regarding sin and holiness.
By the end, you will have a thorough understanding of this important biblical theme – what it entailed under the Old Covenant and how its meaning developed under the New Covenant. Let’s dive in!
- In the Old Testament, uncleanness referred to ritual impurity from things like disease, childbirth, and contact with dead bodies.
- God instituted ritual purity laws to teach Israel the need to be set apart from worldly corruption.
- Jesus challenged external notions of uncleanness, teaching that sin begins in the heart.
- Uncleanness ultimately points to the corruption of sin and the need for inward holiness.
- Through faith in Christ, believers are cleansed from sin and made holy before God.
Old Testament Background
In the Old Testament, God gave Israel extensive laws regarding cleanliness and uncleanness. These laws dealt with a variety of everyday aspects of life: diet, skin diseases, mold, bodily discharges, contact with dead bodies, and more.
Uncleanness was not the same thing as sinfulness. Rather, it was a ritual status of impurity that prevented participation in Israel’s communal worship. Things pronounced “unclean” (Hebrew tame) were incompatible with God’s holy presence.
Let’s look briefly at some key sources of uncleanness:
Leviticus 13-14 deals extensively with diagnosing infectious skin diseases (a loose term for conditions like leprosy). Those diagnosed with serious skin diseases were pronounced unclean:
“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.” (Leviticus 13:45-46)
Skin diseases resulted in isolation from the community until the priest declared the person healed. This guarded against the spread of contagion and symbolized the debilitating effects of sin.
Leviticus 15 details various kinds of bodily discharges that rendered a person unclean for a period of time, including:
- Menstrual flow in women
- Abnormal discharge from the reproductive organs
- Flow of blood
Anyone who touched these persons also became unclean. Once again, upon purification, these individuals could rejoin the religious community.
Contact with Dead Bodies
Touching a human corpse brought a lengthy period of uncleanness:
“Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean seven days. He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean.” (Numbers 19:11-12)
This reinforced the solemnity of death and guarded against the ritual impurity involved with corpses.
After giving birth, a woman was unclean for a period of time and had to undergo purification (Leviticus 12:1-8). This mainly pointed to the pain, blood, and mortality associated with the fallen world.
As you can see, Old Testament uncleanness fundamentally concerned impurity tied to the corruption and disease in the world. God graciously gave Israel laws to set them apart from the surrounding nations as a holy people.
But why did He institute such detailed purity laws in the first place?
Purposes of Ritual Purity Laws
God had some key purposes behind the Old Testament purity laws:
Above all, these laws were meant to ingrain in Israel the importance of being holy as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45). As people prone to sin and corruption, the Israelites needed constant reminders to separate themselves from worldly influence. Purity laws served as a vivid object lesson.
Order and Boundaries
The laws provided order in the community and clear boundaries. Uncleanness led to temporary exclusion, while purification allowed re-entry. This taught respect for God’s holy space.
Hygiene and Health
Many of the laws had positive hygienic effects. Separating contagiously diseased individuals, prompt burial of dead bodies, quarantine periods after childbirth – all helped protect community health and safety.
On a deeper level, uncleanness pointed to the inward corruption and sinfulness of mankind. As Hebrews explains regarding the sacrificial system:
“In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)
The laws served as a constant reminder: sin inevitably brings impurity, separation from God, and the need for atonement.
So in the Old Testament, uncleanness was a ritual status reflecting human frailty and the corruption in the world. But it took on deeper symbolic significance regarding sin and redemption.
Jesus and Uncleanness
When Jesus came on the scene, He confronted external Jewish notions of uncleanness head-on. Jesus boldly disregarded ceremonial washings and touched lepers, corpse, and other “unclean” things. Why? Because He came to deal with the root source of uncleanness – the sinful human heart.
Jesus’ teachings and actions revealed that true uncleanness comes from within:
“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)
Though sometimes perplexing to His disciples, Jesus consistently refocused attention away from outward ceremonies to inward transformation. For instance, regarding hand-washing:
“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23)
Jesus was not negating biblical purity laws which had a place under the Old Covenant. But He was pointing people to the universal problem of sin that needed addressing within.
Uncleanness and Sin
Building on Christ’s teaching, the New Testament uses uncleanness as a metaphor for the inward corruption caused by sin. Sin is a spiritual disease infecting all people, something only the Gospel can cleanse and cure.
“Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.” (Ephesians 4:19)
He instructs believers to repudiate impurity and pursue holiness:
“For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 4:7-8)
And the author of Hebrews reminds us:
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)
In the New Testament, uncleanness is a metaphor for the deep stain of sin on the human heart. Cleansing only comes through faith in Jesus and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
Cleansing Through Christ
The entire Old Testament purity system pointed ahead to mankind’s need for cleansing from sin. Animal sacrifices could never fully atone for human impurity. We needed a perfect, eternal sacrifice – the Messiah.
The New Testament teaches that faith in Christ’s atoning death provides forgiveness and cleansing from the uncleanness of sin.
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)
Those who put their trust in Christ are positionally cleansed and declared righteous before God:
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit works progressive holiness in the believer’s life:
“We all…are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Someday, upon Christ’s return, our cleansing will be complete:
“We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
So in summary, uncleanness moves from an external issue under the Old Covenant to an inward metaphor for sin under the New. And Jesus Christ provides the solution to uncleanness through His atoning sacrifice, transforming power, and promise of glorification.
Key Lessons on Uncleanness
Let’s conclude this comprehensive study by highlighting some key lessons on biblical uncleanness:
- Old Testament purity laws vividly taught Israel the need for holiness and separation from worldly influence.
- Jesus confronted merely outward notions of uncleanness, teaching that sin springs from the human heart.
- Uncleanness serves as a metaphor for the inward corruption caused by sin.
- Sacrificial atonement was necessary to deal with impurity before a holy God.
- Faith in Christ’s sacrifice cleanses believers from the uncleanness of sin.
- The Holy Spirit works progressive inner holiness in the life of a Christian.
- Complete cleansing will occur when believers receive their perfect resurrection bodies.
Understanding the biblical teaching on uncleanness gives us a renewed appreciation for God’s holiness, the problem of sin, and Christ’s power to cleanse and redeem! It moves us to repentance, faith, and sincere pursuit of inward holiness.
I hope this comprehensive overview has equipped you with a solid understanding of uncleanness throughout Scripture. Please let me know if you have any other questions!