As we turn again to the book of Leviticus and read what might seem to us as strange rules and regulations about which animals the Israelites were permitted to touch and which animals they were not permitted to touch, it’s important that we remember at least three principles.
Firstly, all of Scripture points to Christ. Do you remember the story we find in Luke 24 of how two of the Lord’s disciples were walking to Emmaus after the Lord’s death and burial. And as they walked along, talking with one another about the things that had happened, the Lord himself came up to them and walked beside them. They didn’t realise he had risen from the dead and they were kept from recognising him. He asked them what they were discussing and they told him they were talking about how the Lord Jesus had been crucified; and now their hopes were dashed, because before he died, they had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel. Furthermore, they had heard that the woman were saying they saw an angel who told them that Jesus was alive. And the Lord replied to what they said by saying how foolish they were and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken. He said to them:
Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?
He was saying to them that none of what happened should have surprised them, because everything that had happened had been announced beforehand by the Prophets. And then we read — and this is the important point — beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. So, beginning with Moses — that is beginning with the books of Moses, including the book of Leviticus — he explained to them what was said in the Scriptures about himself. From beginning to end, the Bible testifies to the Lord Jesus. It tells us about him. The whole of the Bible — including the book of Leviticus — tells us about the Saviour in one way or another.
And we’ve seen this, haven’t we? Leviticus tells us how the priests were set apart and consecrated to serve the Lord in the tabernacle and to offer sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of the people. Well, the priests in Leviticus point beyond themselves to our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. And the sacrifices we read about in Leviticus point beyond themselves to the Lord Jesus who laid down his life as the perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins in full. The blood of bulls and goats which we read about in Leviticus cannot take away the guilt of our sins; but the blood of bulls and goats offered up to God by earthly priests point beyond themselves to the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ which he offered up to God on our behalf and for the remission of all our sins. Leviticus, like the rest of the Bible, testifies to the person and work of Christ.
A second principle we need to remember is that all of Scripture is useful for us. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he taught him that all Scripture — including the book of Leviticus — is God-breathed. That is, it was all written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that though the book of Leviticus contains the words of Moses, the things he wrote are also the words of God who breathed them out and enabled Moses to write these things. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful. All of Scripture is useful for us: it’s useful for teaching us and for rebuking us and for correcting us and for training us in righteousness.
And we’ve seen this as well, haven’t we? For instance, in chapter 10 there’s the story of Aaron’s sons who offered unauthorised fire before the Lord. Up until that time, we read how they did as the Lord had commanded, they did as the Lord commanded, they did as the Lord commanded. Now, for the first time, they did something the Lord had not commanded. And what was the result? Fire came out from the Lord and destroyed them. And so this Scripture is useful because it’s able to teach us that we need a Saviour, because without a Saviour, sinners cannot hope to come into the presence of the Lord and live. And it’s useful because it’s able to teach us that there’s a right way and a wrong way to worship the Lord; and the right way is to worship the Lord in the way that he has commanded. Leviticus, like the rest of the Bible, is useful for us.
And then the third principle which we need to bear in mind as we approach the book of Leviticus is that so much of this book of symbolic: the rituals we read about and the rules and regulations which are written here point beyond themselves to something else. I’ve already referred to this when I said that the priests and the sacrifices they offered pointed beyond themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ who is our Great High Priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. But think of the Tabernacle for a moment.
The Tabernacle was God’s dwelling-place among his people at that time; just as they lived in tents, so he too lived in a tent in their midst. But that earthly tabernacle was a symbol of heaven; it pointed beyond itself to the great hope which God gives to his believing people of how one day we will come into God’s presence in the life to come. And so the work of the priest and all the sacrifices which were offered and all the other rules and regulations for worshipping the Lord which we read about in this book point beyond themselves to the coming of the Saviour who will bring us into God’s presence to be with him forever.
And so, as we turn to today’s passage, which contains these strange laws about clean and unclean animals, we need to bear in mind that this teaches us about the Saviour; and it’s useful for us; and it speaks to us of the great hope God gives his people of everlasting life in his presence.
The passage can be divided into four parts. Firstly, in verses 24 to 28 there are rules about touching the carcasses of unclean animals. Then in verses 29 to 38 there are rules about touching the carcasses of swarming creatures. In verses 39 and 40 there are rules about touching the carcasses of clean animals. And finally, in verses 41 to 47 we have the conclusion.
Let’s consider verses 24 to 28 first. Moses warned the people about which animals will make them unclean. Now, it was important for them to know what makes a person unclean because the people could only approach the Lord if they were clean. That is, they could only come to worship him in the tabernacle if they were ceremonially or ritually clean. As the Lord said to Moses later in chapter 15 and verse 31:
You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling-place which is among them.
So, if someone unclean came into the tabernacle, that person would defile God’s holy dwelling place; and as a result, the unclean person would die. So, knowing what makes you unclean was vitally important.
What, according to verses 24 to 28, will make you unclean? Well, touching the carcass of an animal that has a split hoof not completely divided and that does not chew the cud will make you unclean. We’ve come across this description before in the first half of this chapter where there were instructions on what meat the people could and couldn’t eat. So, in the earlier passage, we learned that eating the meat of such animals was forbidden to them; here in this passage we learn that not only must they not eat this meat, they must not even touch the carcass of such an animal. So, pigs and camels — to give just two examples — were deemed to be unclean.
One Wednesday before Christmas we spent some time thinking about why such animals were deemed unclean by the Lord. It has nothing to do with hygiene; but it might be because such animals deviate in some way from what was considered normal or standard. So, it’s normal for animals to have split hooves and to chew the cud, and those which don’t — like pigs and camels — deviate from the norm. That might be the reason. However, it’s possible that the real reason is known only to the Lord and the people were simply to obey the Lord without questioning why.
A further criterion for what made an animal unclean is given in verse 27 where it refers to animals which walk on all fours and which also have paws. This would include lions and bears as well as cats and dogs. Touching their carcasses made you unclean.
However notice verse 28: there is a remedy for this uncleanness: anyone who touches their carcasses must wash his clothes; and he will be unclean until evening. After that they are clean again and may come before the Lord in worship. So, if they washed, they were only unclean for the remainder of the day.
Let’s look at verses 29 to 38 now which refer to animals which move or swarm along the ground; the NIV doesn’t mention swarming, but it’s in the Hebrew text. The text then lists the animals which are included in this category. And by swarming, we’re probably to think about the way lizards and similar creatures dart to and fro over the ground in unpredictable ways. Touching the dead body of such a creature made the Israelites unclean until the evening.
Furthermore, when one of these swarming creatures dies and falls on something you own, that thing becomes unclean. Most things can be washed and will become clean again. However, if one of these creatures falls into a clay pot, the pot must be destroyed and whatever was inside the pot will become unclean. If one of these creatures falls into an oven or into a cooking pot, it must be destroyed. However, if you find one of these creatures in a spring of water, the spring of water will not be deemed unclean, perhaps because it was running water and therefore fresh and naturally clean.
Finally, if the dead body of one of these creatures falls on some seed, the seed was fine unless it had been soaked in water; then it was unclean.
In verses 39 and 40 we learn that the people also became unclean if they touched the carcass of a clean animal; that is, an animal which they would normally be allowed to eat. So, if they found a dead goat in the field, and touched it, then they became unclean. They then had to wash their clothes in order to become clean again.
And finally in verses 41 to 47 we have the conclusion to this passage. First the prohibitions are summarised. Then the people were commanded to be holy because the Lord their God is holy and he had set them apart from the nations by rescuing them from their captivity in Egypt. And since their God was holy, and since they were called to be holy, they had to be careful to distinguish between the clean and the unclean.
That’s the passage. What does it mean? How does it apply to us today? Well, first of all, we must remember what we read recently in Mark 7 where the Lord declares all foods to be clean. All of these Old Testament regulations about clean and unclean animals and clean and unclean meat have expired. They were in force in the days of the Old Testament, but they are no longer in force for God’s new covenant people; and we no longer need to abide by them.
But the rules and regulations point beyond themselves to Christ and to his salvation. You see, the people were taught that they could not come into the presence of a holy God unless they were ceremonially clean; and there were plenty of things in the world which made them unclean. And if they were not clean, they could not come before the Lord and live, but would be destroyed, because the Lord is holy and nothing unclean belongs in his presence.
Ceremonial uncleanness symbolised sinfulness. It symbolised how our hearts are unclean and full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations. And because of our sinful hearts, we cannot come into the presence of the Lord and live, because he is holy and he cannot look upon sin. The Israelites were taught that they could not come into the tabernacle if they were unclean; and if only they looked into their hearts and thought about their lives, they would see that their hearts are unclean, because their hearts are full of sin. And indeed, if you read the Psalms and the Prophets, you’ll see how the Israelites made the connection between ceremonial uncleanness and their own sinfulness, because again and again you find the psalmist and the prophets longing for and praying for God to made their hearts clean.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
There was a remedy for ceremonial uncleanness, wasn’t there? If anyone touched the carcass of an animal and became unclean, he could wash his clothes and then, after evening, he would be clean again and would be free to come into the presence of the Lord. There was a remedy for ceremonial uncleanness; and there’s a remedy for our sinful hearts, because whoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ is washed and cleansed by his blood which was shed for the complete forgiveness of all our sins. And so, if Jesus Christ is your Saviour, if you trust in him as the only Saviour, then you’re able to come before the Lord with confidence to worship him and to pray to him because you’ve been washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
These rules and regulations speak to us of Christ, because through faith in him, we’re cleansed from the guilt of our sin. But this passage is useful for us, because it teaches us that we must be holy and we must keep ourselves clean and pure. Of course, we’re not concerned about ceremonial cleanness anymore; instead we’re concerned about ethical purity. The Apostle Peter, in his first letter, teaches us to be holy, because the Lord our God is holy. He wrote:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’
We’re to be holy in our conduct, striving to walk in the ways of the Lord and shunning all that is evil, because we want to be holy like our Father in heaven.
Or Paul, in 2 Corinthians 6, teaches believers to separate themselves from whatever people and relationships would make us unclean. He wrote:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? … God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you.’
Just as the Israelites were warned not to touch anything unclean, so believers today are warned to remain separate from anyone who might make us sin against the Lord.
God gave the Israelites these laws because he had delivered them from Egypt and had set them apart to be a holy nation. By the food they ate, and by the rules they followed regarding cleanness and uncleanness, they were to remain separate and distinct from the world around it. And God has delivered us from our sin and misery through faith in his Son; he’s called us into his kingdom; and he’s set us apart from the rest of the world so that we might be holy in our conduct and obedient in our lives.
These rules and regulations point us to Christ and his salvation; and they’re useful in teaching us about being holy and living pure lives; but they’re also designed to point us to heaven. The reason the Israelites were to avoid contact with unclean animals and the reason they were to remain clean was so that they might come into the courtyard of the tabernacle and meet the Lord in his dwelling place and worship him. They needed to remain clean so that they could enjoy fellowship with the Lord.
And since we’ve been cleansed from the guilt of our sin by Christ, we’re able to come before God in worship and in prayer. And we’re looking forward to the time when we will come into his presence in the life to come and live with him and be with him and worship him for ever. We know we’re sinners who do not deserve to be in his presence; we know we’re sinners who deserve to be shut out of his presence for ever. But we’re able to rejoice, because we’ve been washed and cleansed by Christ; and we know that, for his sake, we will one day come before the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth. At the end of the book of Revelation, we read that nothing impure will ever enter the heavenly city and no one who does what is shameful or deceitful will enter there; they’re shut out of his presence. But blessed are those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, because they will have the right to the tree of life, the right to live for ever in the presence of the Lord.
As the Israelites — washed and cleansed from all their uncleanness– gathered in the tabernacle, they were given a foretaste of that glorious day. And as we — washed and cleansed from all our uncleanness by the blood of the Saviour — gather around the Lord’s table on Sunday, we too are given a foretaste of that glorious day. We’re sinners who deserve to be shut out of God’s presence. But for the sake of Christ whose body was broken for us and whose blood was shed for us, we’re invited to come on Sunday into the presence of the Lord and to sit around his table and to enjoy fellowship with him; and to look forward to the time when we come into his presence to be with him for ever in glory.