Leviticus – part nine

On Monday we started to read through the purity regulations in Leviticus 11-15. For the rest of this week we’re looking at the various theories scholars have come up with to provide a rationale for the laws. Because I think each suggested explanation gives us a different insight on the laws. And from each we can learn something about God and something about being his holy people.

We look at the final two reasons today.

Separation from the Gentiles

Another explanation for the food laws in particular is that they were all about separation from the Gentiles, from the nations around.

In the Old Testament, there were three basic groupings of people:

  • the priests who were holy (that is, set apart for God’s service);
  • the people of Israel, who were clean;
  • and everyone else, who were considered unclean. (They were unclean, because they worshipped idols, rather than the one true God.)

And again, there were three types of space:

  • the altar and tabernacle, which was holy, set apart for God;
  • the land of Israel, which was associated with the Israelites and considered clean;
  • and the rest of the world, which was associated with the Gentiles and considered unclean.

And the food laws fitted into this three-tiered system, outlining three classes of animals:

  • clean animals you could sacrifice, animals that could be holy, set apart for God;
  • clean animals you could eat but not sacrifice;
  • unclean animals you couldn’t eat.

This wasn’t merely symbolic:

  • The purity laws kept the Gentiles – unclean people – from entering the tabernacle, where God was. This was important, as God (the holy) can’t come into contact with that which is unclean. It’s why, when the unclean Babylonians were on their way to destroy Jerusalem in 587BC, God’s presence was evaced from the temple like the last helicopter of marines at the fall of Saigon.
  • The laws about the sorts of food you could eat ensured God’s people couldn’t sit down to a meal with non-Israelites. The food laws kept them socially separate from the nations around. They were to maintain purity of God’s people against all the idolatrous and immoral practices of the surrounding nations.

God makes this explicit a little later in Leviticus:

Lev 20:22-23 Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. 23 You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. 
20:25-26 You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. 26 You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. 

So again we come back to Jesus’ abolition of the food laws. There is a deep theological significance here, as it removed the division between Jew and Gentile, between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ people. It removed it just as powerfully as the tearing of the temple curtain removed the division between the priests and the rest of the people, between the ‘holy’ and the ‘common’.

This food symbolism is picked up in the book of Acts, where God appears to the apostle Peter in a dream. He tells him to eat unclean food, and Peter protests:

Acts 10:14-15 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Peter explains the significance of this a few verses later:

Acts 10:34b-35  “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.

We no longer observe the food laws – this distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals – because there is no longer a distinction between Jew and Gentile. There is no longer a division. It was done away with by the cross. As Peter says in Acts 15, debating this very issue at the Council of Jerusalem:

15:9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says of the Gentiles:

Eph 2:13-16 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

The gospel is available to people of all nations, not just one. That’s what the abolition of the food laws tell us.

The holiness of God

But there is one more explanation to look at – one that steps back from the detail and looks at the big picture. Because when we look at the purity laws in their totality, we get a very clear message: God is holy, we’re not.

As we’ve already seen, everyone became unclean from time to time. It was unavoidable. So through these laws, God is reminding us that all human beings – by the simple fact that we’re a part of a sin-cursed, fallen world – all of us are ‘unclean’. None of us is eligible to approach God. We’re all contaminated by our fallen humanity, and can’t come into God’s presence on our own.

And here comes the predictable link to Jesus… how his sacrifice on the cross made it possible for us to…

But there’s a twist in the tale before we get to that. You see, when Jesus abolished the food laws in Mark 7, he said a little more. Although you might initially be relieved when Jesus declares all foods clean, have a listen to what he says next:

Mark 7:18-23 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 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.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Jesus is saying that Leviticus was never about food in itself. It wasn’t about obeying any external regulations. The Pharisees were experts in rules and ceremonial washings, but a few verses earlier Jesus had slammed them as hypocrites.

Jesus is calling us to a higher standard of purity than that of Leviticus! (So much for the good news, eh?) He’s reminding us that even if we get all the externals right, we are still unclean before God because of what goes on inside us. We can never hope to live up to God’s standard.

And it’s at that point that Jesus’ sacrifice comes in to save the day. He is the sacrifice of atonement that makes us clean; his death in our place. But more than that – Jesus’ death and resurrection brings us the power to be changed from within. A cleansing from the inside, not just on the outside. A new heart, not a new set of rules.

That’s why baptism involves water. Baptism is the symbol of being purified from our uncleanness. But where the Israelites took ritual baths repeatedly, in order to become clean for a time – we have been cleansed once-and-for-all through faith in Jesus.

The holiness code of Leviticus has been fulfilled for us by Jesus. It no longer applies. But it doesn’t just remind of what we once couldn’t live up to. It also reminds us what we are now called to live up to – now that we have God’s power to help us, to change us from within.

One commentator sums up the lesson we can learn from the purity laws in this way:

‘The evangelical Church would benefit if it devoted more attention to themes underscored in the laws of clean and unclean. Christians should still disassociate themselves from that which is disgusting, deadly, or dehumanizing. Instead they should affirm self-control, especially sexual self-control, and that which is wholesome and life-promoting. Though separation from Gentiles is obsolete for Christians, separation from the world is not.’ (Joe Sprinkle)

Is your life characterised by separation from the world? That is, are you different from those who don’t follow Jesus – in the ways that count? Are you self-controlled? Are you sexually self-controlled? Do you seek out that which is wholesome and life-promoting? Do you avoid that which is deadly and dehumanising?

One verse from Leviticus that still applies is this one:

Lev 11:44 I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.

To think about

Spend some time in reflection, thinking about where you might be ‘unclean’ on the inside. Confess and repent, telling God how it is that you’ve failed to live up to his standard. And receiving his forgiveness that is freely available through Jesus.

Read Leviticus 14:33-15:33 today, if you’re planning to finish all of Lev 11-15 this week in conjunction with these notes. 

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