Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Clean and Unclean

When Isaiah saw the Lord (Isaiah 6), he cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Most sermons on this text highlight the sinfulness of Isaiah and the people of Judah. They miss the point by equating “unclean” with “sinful.”

The concept of “unclean” is a basic element of the old covenant. Leviticus 11-15 gives great detail about what made an Israelite unclean: touching dead bodies, eating specified unclean animals, contact with various bodily discharges, contamination with skin disease or mildew.

The consequence of being unclean in these ways was exclusion from God’s presence. No unclean person could enter the tabernacle or approach God in any way. Unclean people were not welcome at religious festivals.

Uncleanness was not a permanent state or position, but a temporary condition. Leviticus spells out the procedures for becoming clean again: washing with water, changing clothes, waiting until morning or for a specific number of days, offering sacrifices of cleansing. Once the condition of cleanness was restored, the person could enter into worship again.

Obviously, it was good and convenient to avoid becoming unclean, and the concept of cleanness was an important lesson in God’s plan. But it was not a sin to become unclean. In fact, Jesus became unclean during his life on earth. When he touched lepers to heal them (Mark 1:40-44), when he took the hand of Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:23-26), and when he touched the coffin of the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-15), he was incurring uncleanness according to the Law he was under. He committed no sin.

Back to Isaiah. We know he was a sinner and that his people were sinners also. But the distress of Isaiah was not over this. He feared for his life in that he was (unexpectedly) in the direct presence of God in a condition of uncleanness. He had no time or opportunity to go through the purification ceremonies. The penalty could be instant death, as it was for Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, which introduces the chapters about uncleanness.

The fiery coal from the Seraph takes away the guilt and atones for the sin of Isaiah’s uncleanness. This is a reference to the Day of Atonement from Leviticus 16, which comes immediately after the chapters of clean and unclean laws.

For believers today, not under the Mosaic Law, the condition of uncleanness is not a concern. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (Mark 7:19). “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). “Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival . . .” (Colossians 2:16). We are considered clean and welcome in God’s presence without purifying ceremonies.

It is good for us to be in awe of the Lord, as Isaiah was. It is good for us to respond, “Here am I, send me,” as Isaiah did. But we no longer need to be “undone” as he was over his uncleanness.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

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