January 8, 2023

Unclean, But Cleansed (Leviticus 16:15-16)

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023) Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Scripture: Leviticus 16:15–16

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Children's Lesson (click here)

I. Spel-unclean

I was in High School when I first explored the Peppersauce cave system of the Coronado National Forest, south of Oracle, Arizona. The cave includes about a mile of mapped passageways winding through the Santa Catalina mountains. On that first trip as a teenager, I was curious about why our group leader brought so many large containers of water. After several hours hiking through, and pressing through, and squeezing through, and crawling through, and wriggling through the often wet, clay-like, Peppersauce mud, the reason for all the water containers became abundantly clear. Emerging from the cave, we were 'caked on, baked on' filthy, head to toe. I can assure you, none of the adults who drove that day wanted us climbing back into their vehicles in that soiled condition.

Speaking of soiled conditions... look with me at Leviticus 16. How's that for a transition? As most of you know, Leviticus 16 was one of the chapters we looked at last week in Our Bible Reading Plan.


II. The Passage: “In the Midst of Their Uncleanness” (16:15-16)

I'd like to focus on verses 15 and 16 this morning. But those verses won't make much sense unless we understand that chapter 16 contains God's instructions for Yom Kippur, which in Hebrew means “day of atonement”. This once-a-year ritual (which took place in the portable Israelite temple called the “Tent of Meeting” or “Tabernacle”) is summarized in verse 34...

And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.”

Yom Kippur was the only time during the year in which a person could enter beyond the veil into the back room of the Tent of Meeting, a space or compartment called “the Most Holy Place” or the “Holy of holies”. This is where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, and only the High Priest of Israel could enter on that day. But he mustn't come empty-handed. Five animals were prepared for this ritual: one bull, two rams, and two goats. This is what we read after the bull had been killed and its blood sprinkled inside the Holy Place. Verse 15...

Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. [this “mercy seat” was on top of the Ark's lid and represented the throne of God] [16] Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the unclean-nesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.”

To appreciate this strange scene, we need to understand both the ugliness and the beauty here.

The ugliness is clear from the double emphasis in the last verse on “uncleanness”. We read about “their uncleannesses” in that final phrase of verse 16. Whose? Earlier in the same verse we find an answer: “the uncleannesses of the people of Israel”.

The book of Leviticus is like God's classroom for teaching the people about sin, sacrifice, and sanctification. While the verb “to make unclean” or “to defile” appears a few times in Genesis 34, this concept of uncleanness does not show up in the Old Testament until the book of Leviticus (in fact, all of the forms of this word appear more in this book than they do in the rest of the Old Testament combined). What does it mean to be “unclean”? It's a way of talking about our spiritual corruption or impurity in light of a perfectly pure God. The main focus of this concept is moral and spiritual uncleanness, that is, we are stained, we are polluted, we are soiled and sullied by our corrupted moral and ethical choices, AND, more fundamentally, by our corrupted choices in terms of worship. This is powerfully pictured in 2 Chronicles 29:16 where the same word is used to refer to the false idols removed from Yahweh's Temple under the reforms of King Hezekiah. Every “uncleanness” was removed. Similarly, the same word is used by the prophet Ezekiel to describe Israel's idolatry; that is, the people's spiritual unfaithfulness.

But the word “unclean” is also used, like so much of what we find in Leviticus, as a symbol-functioning teaching tool. Just like shed animal blood was used with the people as a symbolic representation of the death of the guilty worshiper, things like sickness and semen and menstruation and leprosy and a corpse or a carcass, or even eating certain animals, these were used to visualize our moral & spiritual taint; a corrupting (and in some sense, contagious) taint.

Stop and think for a moment. Think of the image I presented at the outset: teenage me covered from head to toe in dirt and grime; covered by the mud from that cave, where I, hidden from the light, deliberately crawled through the muck and mire; unconcerned about my filth, about the stain it left. Brothers and sisters, friends, that's all of us, morally, spiritually. Ugliness, right?

But here's something beautiful; really, really beautiful: not only do our verses speak about “atonement”, but they do so in terms of a “mercy seat” and “the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses”. Mercy. Meeting. Dwells. This entire levitical arrangement, this whole, complex system of priests and sacrifices and seasonal celebrations and ritual purity, all of it was meant to do one thing. What was being cleansed by the blood here, purified of our taint, or our corruption, were the very objects, the very means by which God could... dwell with them... because He wants to dwell with us! Even “...in the midst of [our] uncleannesses”! Because of this “mercy”, God not only wanted to have a “meeting” with his people, he wanted to “dwell” among them. As God would tell them ten chapters later, “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (26:12)

As bizarre as Leviticus is at times, its ultimate aim is absolutely beautiful: to enable unclean men and women like us to dwell with our perfectly pure Creator. This was accomplished through sin offerings meant to purify the Tent and the holy objects themselves. Then the sins of all the people were symbolically placed on a goat who was sent far away from the camp, into the desert; sin sent far away from God's dwelling place among them. This goat bore the blame, but escaped death; thus our English word, “scapegoat”. Finally, burnt offerings were sacrificed on Yom Kippur for both the guilt of the people and the priest. These were fully consumed offerings (i.e., in the fire) that, in light of what sinners deserve from a just God, represented a life for a life.

But that's an important word, isn't it? “Represent”. Though God had designed this system to deal with human uncleanness, we know that it was ultimately a symbolic system; a teaching tool.

As the author of Hebrews would later declare, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4) So how would our sin actually be atoned for? How could those unclean actually be cleansed? What lessons were these teaching tools conveying, and for what were they preparing us? Or to put it another way, to what was all this symbolism pointing?

The author of Hebrews gives us this remarkable explanation in chapter 9 of his message:

[Speaking about ministry in the Most Holy Place in the Tent of Meeting (or in the later permanent Temple in Jerusalem), the writer reminds us that] ...priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, [7] but into the second [the Holy of holies] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people... [11] But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) [12] he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. [13] For if the blood of goats and bulls... sanctify for the purification of the flesh, [14] how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, [how much more will that sacrifice] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.... [24] For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. [25] Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, [26] for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:6–7, 11–14, 24–26)

So in the person and work of Jesus Christ, specifically though his death on the cross, the lessons of Leviticus, lessons about sin, sacrifice, and sanctification, were finally fulfilled. Does that means our uncleanness was also taken away? I mean really taken away? The answer is a glorious and resounding “yes”. Listen to how the New Testament writers speak about our uncleanness, and what Jesus did for unclean people like you and me:

Jesus himself reminded his Jewish listeners about the symbolic purpose of Leviticus's lessons when he clarified in Mark 7 that, “there is nothing outside a person [like touching a dead body or leprosy, or in this case, food... nothing] that by going into him can defile him [i.e., make him unclean], but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.... For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, [22] coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. [23] All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (7:15, 21-23) But amazingly, the Apostle Peter would later remind the leaders of the church in Jerusalem that God had done a radical work, not only among Jewish believers, but also among non-Jews. He reminded them in Acts 15:9 that God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” According to Jesus, that's the very thing we needed cleansed, since it's the true source of our uncleanness.

How was the cleansing accomplished? Like the author of Hebrews, the Apostle Paul points us to the universe-altering work of Jesus. Listen to what Paul writes as he encourages husbands:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her [on the cross!], [26] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, [27] so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25–27)


III. How the Unclean are Tempted

And so, brothers and sisters, what is available us today? God dwelling with us in a way the Israelites never could have imagined. Now, through Jesus, we are the dwelling place of God, both individually and together. God dwells within us! And he does this because those who were unclean have been made clean in Jesus. And his cleansing work will ultimately result in God's presence with us in an even fuller way, and forever, in a new heavens and a new earth. Listen to how the book the Revelation echoes the promise of Leviticus. Revelation 21:3...

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

But as we think about this reality of being unclean, and how it should alter both our thinking and our living, we need to touch on two ways in which the unclean can be tempted:

First, some are tempted to minimize their uncleanness. What do I mean by that? I mean some of us want to believe that our moral and spiritual condition is more like a few stains on a shirt, rather than our earlier image of being covered in mud from head to toe. Stains on your shirt are 'mistakes'. They might indicate clumsiness or thoughtlessness. And they're visible enough that we admit to them and want to find a way to clean them, mainly to avoid the judgment of others. For some, this is what they hear when God's word speaks about being unclean. Unfortunately, this is what they have in mind when they respond to the gospel. Of course, genuine believers can also struggle with this kind of minimizing. Over time we can forget how dark and deep the pit was from which God pulled us and begin to think too highly of ourselves. Like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, we act like we no longer need the Great Physician.

The second temptation swings us to the opposite extreme: some are tempted to maximize their uncleanness. Allow me to explain. Some feel so dirty, so stained, so corrupted, so soiled and sullied, that upon hearing the Good News about Jesus, even when it is explained clearly, they still believe that the sacrifice of Christ, the spotless Lamb of God, cannot truly make them eternally clean. For some, this keeps them from true faith. But for others, who become and who truly are genuine believers, this idea seems to be an ever-present temptation. At times, they rest in the fact that Jesus has washed them clean; that they are truly forgiven and free. But at other times, as feelings of filthiness creep in, as the volume of accusation increases inside them, they second-guess His cleansing work. They think, “Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe I ruined my chance. Maybe I'm just too stained.” What's important to note is that, quite often, these feelings are not based on what God has said, but on the hurtful words of others. Therefore, when your hard and hurtful times are not directly examined and addressed with gospel comfort, the lingering wounds can actually fight against the truth about what Jesus accomplished.

It's so important to note that both of these temptations (to minimize or maximize our unclean-ness) result in maximizing our feelings while minimizing Christ's incomparable work. That's why it is so important to address these struggles quickly and vigorously. And we do that through prayer, good conversations and godly counsel, and most importantly, with the word of the God who said in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” So let us continue to embrace the reality of both our uncleanness as sinners, but also, the reality of change in Jesus. Titus 3:5, 6 tells us that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior”. Let's thank Him now for a cleansing flood that truly does make us clean.


other sermons in this series