Many people think the popular phrase, “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is in the Bible and most Christians are usually quick to let them know it isn’t. However, in a way it kind of is in the Bible. I’m not talking about hygiene or housework, but something deeper; something required by God in order to be in His presence.
I recently finished reading the first five books of the Old Testament straight through. Although this is a dry read, it can be very enlightening especially when viewed through the lens of the New Testament readings of Romans and Galatians.
The first five books of the Bible are called Torah by the Jews. Torah means Law. Although Genesis and Exodus are full of historic narrative, the bulk of the Torah is focused on the details of God’s Law given to the Israelites in the wilderness. The Law is detailed and specific. Some things in it seem weird to us at first, but one thing I noticed by reading it straight through is a consistent focus. Cleanliness.
This begins with the fall. Man was created good (Genesis 1:31) or clean and he enjoyed being in God’s presence. However, man defiled himself once he learned of evil and became unclean; thus unable to be in God’s holy presence. Consistently the Bible presents the fact that holiness is incompatible with uncleanliness and the two cannot occupy the same space. I believe this is one reason man was removed from the Garden of Eden.
The point of the whole Bible and the plan of salvation is to reconcile man back to God. But how do you reconcile uncleanness to holiness? Well, the uncleanness must become clean. This can be accomplished by one of two ways.
1) The unclean person must become clean by ritual and maintain that state perpetually without flaw. Or
2) the unclean person must somehow be declared as clean even while in an unclean state.
This leads us to this Law which defined how one could become clean and occupy God’s presence. The problem was maintaining this state. Man was incapable of remaining clean. Because of this, atonement had to be made:
“Or if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether a carcass of an unclean wild animal or a carcass of unclean livestock or a carcass of unclean swarming things, and it is hidden from him and he has become unclean, and he realizes his guilt; or if he touches human uncleanness, of whatever sort the uncleanness may be with which one becomes unclean, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and realizes his guilt; or if anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good, any sort of rash oath that people swear, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and he realizes his guilt in any of these; when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed, he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.” – Leviticus 5:2-6
Clean had to be then well defined, so man would know what was clean or unclean:
“You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11
Chapter 11 of Leviticus is devoted to clean and unclean animals. Chapter 12 deals with the impurity of childbirth and how to become clean afterward. Chapter 13 deals with the uncleanness of leprosy and how to deal with it to keep the camp clean. Chapter 14 is dedicated to cleansing lepers and their houses. Chapter 15 is about the uncleanness of bodily discharges and how to purify from them.
All of these laws pertained to the whole of the people and it was hard enough for them to remain clean. However, the priests had it even harder for they had to physically enter into God’s presence in the tabernacle/temple. And the high priests had to enter the holiest place with the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat which were the holiest artifacts on the earth. To be in the presence of such holiness required absolute purity. Any uncleanness in these places meant death (Leviticus 15:31). Leviticus Chapter 8 gives you an idea of what was required to purify a priest as Aaron and his sons go through a rigorous ritual of consecration.
Nadab and Abihu
In Leviticus Chapter 10 there is an event where Aaron’s newly consecrated sons, Nadab and Abihu are struck dead by God. It is important for us to understand why. It is too simplistic to say, because they broke God’s Law. Because this implies that God will destroy all without mercy who break the Law. If this were true, no one would’ve survived the wilderness. They did not die because they added to what was given to them. They did not die because they disobeyed a rule. They died because they were unclean in the presence of holiness. The holy place contained an altar of incense which had been consecrated and made pure. The coals of this altar were then used to fire the incense used to purify their presence there. They brought in coals from another source. Coals which had not been sanctified. Therefore their incense was not purifying. Therefore, they were unclean and approached God. Hence they died.
“And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord has said: Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.” – Leviticus 10:2-3
If we continue in Leviticus 10 we find that their successors (Aaron’s other sons) as well as Aaron also messed up. This time they leave something out of the process. They were supposed to consume the sin offering in the sanctuary but they didn’t. God doesn’t strike them dead. Why? Because the disobedience / adding to / taking from wasn’t the condemning factor. It was the fact that uncleanness cannot occupy the presence of holiness and live. And their mistake did not put them in that situation.
God said those who are near him must be purified so that He is sanctified (treated Holy). We see this same situation arise in one of Isaiah’s visions in Isaiah 6. In this vision, Isaiah is in the Temple and he sees a vision of the throne of God presumably at the Holiest Place. Immediately he is terrified because he knows he is not purified:
“And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” – Isaiah 6:5-7
Notice what the seraph does. He fetches a coal from the altar of incense and cleanses Isaiah with it. Now Isaiah was fit to be in God’s presence.
Uzzah and the Ark
We also see the same type of thing occur when the ark of the covenant is returned to the Temple by David. The ark is being transported on a cart (which was incorrect anyway) and as the ox stumbled, Uzzah (who was a Levite but not a sanctified priest) reached up and touched the ark to steady it. He was struck dead (2 Samuel 6:6-7), but not because of disobedience. They were already disobedient for transporting the ark on a cart. No, he was struck dead because he was not clean and the ark was holy.
Cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb
Fast forward now to the time of Jesus.
The Book of Romans teaches us that no one can accomplish and maintain the purity required to be in God’s presence. Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah all died to teach us this. The purpose of the Law was to prove to us that an unclean person cannot become clean by ritual obedience and maintain that state perpetually without flaw. The purpose was to teach us faith (Galatians 3:21-26) to come into the gift of Jesus Christ. Jesus was pure. From birth to death, he lived a clean and flawless life. Why? So that we can benefit from it. The purity of the sacrificial lamb of God was transferred to us just like it was in Leviticus (2 Corinthians 5:21), but this time with a perfect lamb (Hebrews 10:10-14), a human with the knowledge of good and evil and the ability to be tempted.
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” – Matthew 27:50-51
The beauty of this statement in Matthew 27 is what we have been discussing. Because the blood of Christ now purifies us, there is no longer a need for the consecration practices of Leviticus 8 for us. The barrier between man and God has been removed. If we are washed in the blood of Christ, we are purified. We are clean. Therefore we can enter into the holiest place without fear of being struck dead in our uncleanness like Nadab and Abihu. We are clean and cleanliness is literally next to Godliness.
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of 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 6:9-11
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” – Revelation 1:5-6