Leviticus 15:31People didn't just keel over and die for becoming unclean - people became unclean all the time! Women became unclean when they gave birth, and anyone who contracted a skin disease or touched a dead body was unclean. Furthermore, if a person's close relative had died, then the law specifically permitted people to become physically unclean by touching their loved one's dead body during their mourning. There was an established cleansing process for each type of uncleanness mentioned in the law. Becoming unclean didn't necessarily imply that someone had sinned!
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.
Therefore, in light of these observations, how does Leviticus 15:31 fit into understanding the purpose of cleanliness laws? According to this verse, the Israelites had to avoid becoming unclean because they would die for defiling God's dwelling place, which was among them. Notice that they did not die merely for becoming unclean, but rather for being unclean in the dwelling place of God. Therefore, I conclude that the cleanliness laws were a set of physical standards and requirements for being in the PHYSICAL presence of God. The way that God dwelt among the Israelites was not some touchy-feely "God is everywhere" kind of presence - God physically manifested Himself among them as their King, and anyone who did not meet His requirements in His presence would die.
For example, why did Moses have to take off his shoes when He saw the burning bush?
Exodus 3:4-5God called out to Moses to stop him from coming any closer, lest he die for defiling God's presence, just as Leviticus 15:31 states. Furthermore, there is more than just cleanliness to be concerned with for entering God's presence. Notice the following process during the ordination of Aaron and his sons at the founding of the Levitical priesthood:
When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Leviticus 8:34-35Not only did they have to be clean, but atonement had to be made for them, or else they, being priests who would be in the Temple where God's physical presence would be, would die. Cleanliness is a precursor to holiness, and holiness is what God requires in His presence. The law is filled with statements confirming that people would die if they did not uphold the physical sanctity of God's dwelling place by various means. The entire "ceremonial law" - that is, the system of sacrifices, physical cleanliness laws, and purifications - was a means of allowing God to physically manifest Himself as Israel's King without the people dying for defiling the holiness of His presence.
What has been done today was commanded by the LORD to make atonement for you. You must stay at the entrance to the tent of meeting day and night for seven days and do what the LORD requires, so you will not die; for that is what I have been commanded.”
God's presence is no longer on earth in the same way that it was in Israel. God has chosen His Church to be His Temple, and He dwells in us through the Holy Spirit. Today, God does not require us to be physically, ceremonially clean, even though He lives in us. For example, He does not take His Spirit away from women when they are menstruating or from a man if he contracts leprosy. I will devote a future article to exploring the application of cleanliness under the New Covenant and why we aren't required to be ceremonially clean to have God's Spirit in us, but for now I would like to focus on the future re-implementation of the ceremonial law. The scriptures clearly indicate that God will once again put His physical presence in a new Temple in Jerusalem. The last 8 chapters of Ezekiel are devoted to describing the future physical Temple of God that will be built in Jerusalem. In particular, the following verse shows unequivocally that God's presence will be there:
Ezekiel 43:4-8Notice the emphasis in these verses on the fact that God's people will no longer "defile" His presence. Ezekiel goes on to state the purpose of this Temple:
The glory of the LORD entered the temple through the gate facing east... and the glory of the LORD filled the temple... I heard someone speaking to me from inside the temple. He said: “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites forever. The people of Israel will never again defile my holy name... When they placed their threshold next to my threshold and their doorposts beside my doorposts, with only a wall between me and them, they defiled my holy name by their detestable practices. So I destroyed them in my anger.
Ezekiel 43: 10-12One purpose of the future Temple is to give the people the opportunity to be faithful in everything that God commands. Notice that the "law of the temple" is that the "surrounding area on top of the mountain will be most holy." Consider this in light of my assessment of cleanliness thus far: the area closest to God's physical presence requires a higher physical standard in order that a person who approaches not die. The following scripture in Isaiah describes a highway to be built in the future that leads into Jerusalem, and it states that an unclean person will not be able to take the road to the city:
Describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins. Let them consider its perfection, and if they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the design of the temple... and all its regulations and laws. Write these down before them so that they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations. This is the law of the temple: All the surrounding area on top of the mountain will be most holy. Such is the law of the temple.
Isaiah 35:8Again, in Isaiah 52, we find that no one who is uncircumcised or unclean will be allowed in Jerusalem:
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.
Isaiah 52:1Clearly, God will bring His presence to earth again in the end-times and will once again require the exact same standards of cleanliness as found in the law. Moreover, many scriptures in the prophets, especially Ezekiel, indicate that the entire system of animal sacrifices will be in practice during Christ's reign. These laws are a blessing: they provide men with a way of physically approaching the very presence of God! Ancient Israel defiled God's presence through their uncleanness and sin, thus rejecting Him. Next time that God sends His presence to the earth, the people will be under the New Covenant. In particular, God will give them His Spirit and a new heart, just as He gives us today. At that time, the Holy Spirit will help the people to be diligent to observe all of the regulations of the Temple and and not turn away from God's law:
Awake, awake! Put on your strength, O Zion; Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean shall no longer come to you.
Jeremiah 31:32-33In conclusion, the ceremonial law is not "done away" or "nailed to the cross" as some would assume. Rather, it is simply not applicable at the current time because God does not dwell on earth in the same way that He did at that time. In the future, when God makes His home on earth again, all of these laws will be just as much in effect as they were before!
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors... because they broke my covenant... This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people."
One curious point about the above scripture in Isaiah 52 is that not only the unclean but also the uncircumcised will not be allowed in Jerusalem, where God will dwell. This begs the question: is there some connection between circumcision and cleanliness? Furthermore, is there any parallel or significance to the concept of cleanliness that is in effect for Christians living today? If ceremonial cleanliness is not required at this time, then why do I believe that we should not eat unclean meats, such as pork, as outlined in Leviticus 11? Stay tuned!