If You Think . . . (13)

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

What is Cleanliness?

          If you think “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” you just might be right! Christian faith has a vital interest in cleanliness. And it’s right up there with godliness. Don’t believe me? Please keep reading.

            Besides teaching the people all the Mosaic commandments priests are charged with helping the people “distinguish . . . between the clean and the unclean” (Leviticus 10:10). This same task is prophesied for priests in God’s eschatological temple (Ezekiel 44:23). Jesus is that eschatological temple (John 2:22) and his followers become part of that temple in him (Ephesians 2:22; 1 Peter 2:1-10). And Jesus, as our high priest, spends a good deal of his ministry help his disciples discern between the clean and unclean.

            Really, you ask? How so?

            The book of Leviticus is about godness and goodness (in that order). The first 16 chapters are pretty much about the godness of the people while chs.17-27 are about goodness. Godness is about the people’s being separated, distinctive, and belonging to God. The “cleanliness” material in in chs.11-15. Cleanliness, therefore, has to do with the distinctiveness of the people as God’s people. It marks them off from all other peoples as God’s.

            We know from Genesis 12:1-3 that God has chosen Abraham’s people as the family through whom he will bless the rest of the disobedient and rebellious world. The shape of that people in their distinctive way of life is the way this blessing happens (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Cleanliness is one chief way that distinctiveness is preserved.

What Does Cleanliness Mean Today?

            We don’t know as much as we would like about the criteria used for classifying something clean or unclean in Israel. Much of it makes no sense to us. Just a bunch of outdated fussiness. The upside to or ignorance here is that we are forced to think through what these categories might mean for us (if anything).

            On the one hand, Jesus abrogates the food laws and declares all foods clean (Mark 7).  Peter had a vision to the same effect in Acts 10. None of the other cleanliness laws are passed on as binding on the church.

            These laws which served to distinguish Israel as God’s belonging were no longer needed since the church is not an ethnic or national entity that needs such marks of food, clothing, or particular practices to signify they belong to God (Hebrews 8). Nor is the language of cleanliness much used in the New Testament (except to adjudicate disputes within churches as to how Jews and Gentiles were to live together). But the purpose of distinguishing between clean and unclean remains as crucial in the New Testament as in the Old.

            Can you think of a place in the New Testament where such discernment is taught? A place where Jesus clarifies Old Testament regulations to bring out their deeper significance in the time of the Law’s fulfilment? Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), of course. And no one can or will deny that a people living the way of life Jesus predicates of the Kingdom of God will be clearly distinguishable as people belonging to Jesus and God!

            On the other hand, when the church becomes too assimilated to it surrounding culture and fails to exhibit the distinguishing marks of a Kingdom way of life, it falls prey to the blandishments of such a culture and guilty of its pretentions, excesses, and abominations (Revelation 18:4).

            The parade example of such a church in the last century was the German church during the Nazi years. It capitulated almost totally to the Nazi ideology and its takeover of the church as a propaganda arm of the state. Many scholars claim that if the church has mounted a stout resistance to these alien incursions, kept herself “clean” to use the language of this post, things might have turned out very different for the Nazis and the world. We’ll never know, of course, but that is not an implausible conjecture.

            Nor is too big a leap, if any at all, to suggest that the church in America has capitulated in similar ways to our government and culture. And I don’t just mean evangelicals who support Donald Trump. All of us have, by and large, failed to exhibit a Kingdom distinctiveness throughout all of lives that marks us as Jesus’ people. The evidence gathered by those who research such things is unanimous that our lives are virtually indistinguishable from friends and neighbors who are unchurched. The need for leaders who can teach us how to help each other make such discernments is surely as critical today as it was in ancient Israel.

            It turns out, I think, that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” perhaps right by its side!   


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