Coming to certain portions of the Scriptures can be an adventure when it is your first time reading them. For instance, the first time I read through the book of Leviticus I found a bizarre world of food regulations and lots of talk about who was clean or unclean. As an American, I was familiar with the proverbial phrase Cleanliness is next to godliness1 and I knew about Mr. Clean from an unforgettable bald guy advertising campaign. However, I knew very little about the aspect of being “clean” or “unclean” that is all over the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. I thought it would be an interesting discussion for us to undertake in light of our study of lepers in Luke 17.11-19.
In our study of the 10 lepers we see the afflicted crowd is standing at a distance from the other people. Many times lepers, those affected with various forms of skin diseases or infections would be quarantined from the rest of the community. The reasons are obvious in that the disease (s) would be kept from spreading through the rest of the population. There is something about this separation that is a parable or type of our spiritual condition before God.
In this essay I want us to learn a few things. First, we will look at the symbolism God teaches us by separating his people from the other nations in the Old Testament by dietary laws and cleanliness codes. Second, we will look at the way in which God told the Israelites to live and worship after their exodus from Egyptian slavery. The role of the tabernacle (tent of meeting) and the structure of the Israelites camp will be discussed here as well. Finally, we will look at the issue of our spiritual condition before God and how it is illustrated by the brokenness and fragmentation of our physical bodies—even with various nasty skin infections. With that said, lets jump in and get our hands dirty…or, uh, unclean.
The Purpose of the Levitical Codes
The book of Leviticus is not as well known today and it is at times a chore for modern readers to grasp its meaning without a broad knowledge of the larger biblical narrative. Yet, did you know that America’s Liberty Bell takes its name from Leviticus 25:10? In fact, inscribed on the bell itself are the words “Proclaim Liberty Lev 25:10.”2 Seriously, read the verse, it is pretty sweet. The second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39), quite the favorite of Jesus himself, is found in the pages of Leviticus. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from in Leviticus 19:18. Yet also in the book we read stuff like this in Leviticus 13.
1The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests, 3and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean.
There are also verses about sexual immorality as well as very specific dietary regulations. The book also has detailed descriptions of various sorts of sacrifices God’s people were to offer with a mind towards atonement3 for sins. We do need to ask the question, what is up with all the clean and unclean talk? Scholar and Pastor Mark Dever gives a very succinct summary of the book of Leviticus and in it we find a bit of a clue for what is up with all the quirky, strangeness in this inspired book from God:
First, we see that God’s people are distinct; so they should live holy lives. Second, we see that God’s people are sinful; so they should offer sacrifices.
For our study, we have the first purpose of the book in view. God gave his people certain cleanliness codes to display to the people his holiness and how they are to be a people set apart (made holy) for him.
The cleanliness codes of the Old Testament have obvious and helpful public health purposes. They are for the common good of the community to limit the spread of disease and infection through unwise behavior. Yet to stop the discussion there would entirely miss the point God is making in this book and in the instruction of the ancient community. Leviticus 10:10 gives clarity to this issue: You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.
Some of you might remember the movie, Meet the Parents, where the lowly male nurse Gay Focker was meeting the somewhat psycho Dad of his fiancé. In the movie the father tells Gay about his “circle of trust” that he would either be in that circle or outside of it. Mark Dever uses a similar analogy of circles to describe the notion of clean or unclean things. In this case, a large circle would represent all that is clean and the normal state of things. Outside of this circle God placed certain foods, certain behaviors and certain temporary states like curable diseases. Outside the circle would be all that is “unclean.”Furthermore, unclean things were not always and necessarily the result of sinful activities but activities that made one ceremonially and temporarily unclean for worship. Dever calls all things clean and unclean things that are “common” to being human. One more category is brought to bear on life in Leviticus. There were things that could be set apart (or sanctified) as holy. To take a holy thing and connect it to anything unclean was forbidden and the gravest of offenses.4 The diagram below illustrates these ideas.
In giving these categories to Israel God is teaching them that all of life matters to God and that he is not to be worshipped by perverse sexual practices, religious prostitution, sacrificing children or the abuse of human beings. It is interesting that Leviticus speaks about how all these make one unclean for worshipping God. They are not to worship as the idolatrous nations which surround them.5 In summary, God is teaching his people in Leviticus that he is holy so he is setting them apart as holy. The law shows them that they are to worship the one true God differently that the way others will pursue idolatrous spiritualities. God has declared things clean and unclean, holy and profane. His people should see all of life this way and seek to live and worship in the way that he shows us.
One more aside is necessary before moving on. Do all these laws apply to us now? The simple answer is no. Many of the Old Testament teachings had a purpose to point forward to the coming Messiah and are literally fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself now “sets apart, sanctifies, and makes holy God’s people” (See 1 Corinthians 6:11; Hebrews 10; Hebrews 13:12). Another example relates to the Old Testament sacrifices. Jesus is the very lamb of God; he was God’s own sacrifice for sin so animal sacrifice is no longer necessary. The Old Covenant sacrifice was a shadow that pointed to the reality of the coming one who would give his life for the sins of the world (See Isaiah 53, Hebrews 8-10). It is not that these laws were bad in their time, their purpose in pointing us towards Jesus has been fulfilled. Further, we are free to eat all foods with thanksgiving as we come to God in Jesus (Mark 7:14-23). Jesus made it clear that the point of the Levitical law was to show us that clean/unclean are actually pointing to issues of the heart; in fact, this was the point of Leviticus all along.
The Camp and the Unclean
After God delivered his people from slavery in the Exodus (see Story in the biblical book of the same name) he led them in the dessert to teach them how to worship and about his character and nature. Part of this education was in the very way they lived, traveled and set up for worship. God gave very clear instructions of how to design a tabernacle/tent for worship. This tent was a series of courts/chambers that were progressively more set apart from the people. The further you went in, the holier the place was in which the person traveled. The outer courts contained the holy place, then further inside was the most holy place where the very presence of God was said to dwell. Outside of this tabernacle was the camp, the place where the people lived in smaller tent dwellings. The whole structure looked as follows, of course much less SIM6 like.
The Israelite would be very aware of proximity to God as being holy. To be outside of the camp would be a separation from the community of God and far away from the presence and worship of God. To be outside the camp was to be an “outcast” - a place where the unworthy and the unclean would be found.
Now, lets go back to the story of the 10 lepers. In the Old Testament and the New the leper, whatever form of skin disease one had, would be separated from the people and thereby be seen as stricken by God. Let me be clear. The Scriptures do not teach that the leper was afflicted and cursed by God but it was a common idea in the mind of the Jew and the non Jew. In light of the social and religious stigma, in light of having to dwell outside of the camp until deemed “clean” again by the priests, ten lepers cried out to Jesus in Luke 17.
Jesus, Going Outside of the Camp
What does Jesus do when he hears the cry for mercy coming from outside the camp? The incarnate son of God, who has left the holy of holies at the right hand of the Father goes outside of the camp to show mercy to the outcast. He tells them to go show themselves to the priest, the very action they would do if they were already healed. He calls them to trust him and act by faith on his words. As they were going, Luke’s gospel tells us, they were healed of their affliction. At this point the most scandalous thing occurs in our story. Almost all of the lepers who were healed did not come back to thank the one who had healed them. Only one of nine returns in order to express praise and gratitude. He is the outcast of outcasts for he was not simply a leper, he was a Samaritan. He was doubly “unclean.”
Spiritual Lepers—He Suffers and Calls us Outside of the Camp
The tabernacle was not a bad set up, but it was a teaching aid for God for all time. It was to show us the amazing grace and radical nature of the love of God in the gospel. God is holy, he is separated from us and we dare not enter the holy place in our sins and spiritual leprosy. Yet what does God do for humanity? First, he goes outside of the camp and dies as a cursed man (Deuteronomy 21:22,23) for the sake of those under the curse of sin and death. Galatians 3:10-14 says it clearly:
10For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Furthermore, Jesus went outside of the camp to show mercy on the leper, the one separated from God due to sin and rebellion. He shows mercy upon human beings who trust him by faith and as he told the Samaritan leper, he saves them. Hebrews 13 wraps all of these ideas together for us in a sweeping panorama of the grace of God shown to unclean sinners in Jesus Christ.
7Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. 10We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Hebrews 13:7-16 (ESV)
In this passage we see cleanliness by eating foods superseded. We see that a final sacrifice has superseded the sacrifice of animals to cover and cleanse sins. We see that Jesus sets us apart and then calls us outside of the camp to live on his mission to save sinful people through the gospel. All of this is in light of the eternal camp, the eternal coming city of God in the Kingdom known to many simply as “heaven.” In this age now we have been forgiven of sin through Jesus and now offer this same grace to others in the proclaiming of good news to those who need the love and mercy of God. Finally, we see the purpose of our lives in Jesus. We are to offer up a sacrifice of praise to God through our lips, through our service to others, through joyful generosity. Why? For such sacrifices are pleasing to God who through Jesus was pleased to seat us with him in the most holy place. None of this is of our doing, it is all the manifest, glorious, revealed plan of God in Jesus. As such we must echo with the apostle Paul, that early leader of the church: For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Worship God you lepers! And say thanks, you have been healed and saved to the uttermost.
1. The phrase, much like God helps those who help themselves, is found nowhere in the Bible. It is not even in the book of 2nd Opinions. Apparently it dates back to 17th century England and the words of Francis Bacon. We do know that the exact wording appeared in one of John Wesley’s sermons in 1791. See William and Mary Morris, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (HarperCollins, NY, 1977, 1988).
2. Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2006) 110.
3. The word atonement means to satisfy or repair an injury to a relationship or an offense given. It means the reconciliation of two estranged parties through sacrifice.
4. See the excellent discussion in Dever, 115-116.
5. Ibid 116.
6. SIM refers to a whole genre of computer simulation games made popular in the last few decades, particularly the series of games by designer Will Wright.