Question: "What does it mean to be ceremonially unclean?"

Answer: The concepts of “clean” and “unclean” are prevalent in the Bible, most often in ceremonial or ritualistic contexts. Ceremonial cleansing was a removal of defilement that resulted in someone or something being declared “pure” in a formal, religious sense. To be ceremonially unclean was to be defiled in some way or causing defilement in something else.

Under the Old Testament Law, animals were either “clean” or “unclean” based on their suitability for sacrifice and for eating (Leviticus 11). Places could be ceremonially “clean” or “unclean” (Numbers 19:9; Leviticus 14:44; Nehemiah 13:9), and the same was true for things (Leviticus 11:32–35) and people (Leviticus 17:15; 22:6; Ezra 6:20). In the gospels, Jesus linked ceremonial cleansing to actual, physical cleansing from disease, telling a leper, “Be clean!” (Luke 5:13) and then, “Go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing” (verse 14). In this way, Jesus proved Himself to be the source of true cleansing.

According to the Mosaic Law, a person could become ceremonially unclean for numerous reasons. Those who were ceremonially unclean were separated from worship in God’s temple, and any person or thing they touched was made unclean as well. The time a person remained unclean—one day, one week, or forty or fifty days—depended on the cause of the uncleanness, and God provided purification rituals to restore cleanness.

God set His chosen people, Israel, apart from all other nations. Because they were His own people, the Lord commanded, “You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Leviticus 20:26). Distinguishing between animals, practices, and conditions that were clean and unclean was an essential part of maintaining Israel’s relationship with a holy God.

Some practices that caused a person to become ceremonially unclean included the following:

1. Childbirth (Leviticus 12:1–2, 5)
2. Infectious diseases, like leprosy (Leviticus 13:9–11)
3. Unusual bodily discharges (Leviticus 15:2–15)
4. Bodily discharges related to reproduction—e.g., a man’s emission of semen (Leviticus 15:16–18) and a woman’s menstrual cycle (Leviticus 15:19–30)
5. Touching a corpse (Numbers 19:11)
6. Handling the ashes of a red heifer used in the water of cleansing (Numbers 19:1–10)
7. Contact with anyone or anything that was unclean (Leviticus 5:3)

Some of the laws related to ceremonial uncleanness seem related to public health and hygiene, such as the laws addressing skin diseases, mold growth, and bodily discharges. Understanding there was a distinction between “the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10) not only set the Israelites apart from other nations, but it served as a visceral reminder of God’s holiness and mankind’s sin. Ceremonial uncleanness made a person realize he needed cleansing and purification to approach the Lord. Unclean Israelites were separated from the temple worship for a time, a symbol of their spiritual uncleanness before God. To be clean, they had to wait a period of time, wash, and, most of the time, offer sacrifices (Numbers 19:11–12; Leviticus 14:19).

In the New Testament, the Pharisees were scrupulous in making distinctions between unclean and clean, but they missed the heart of God’s commands. For instance, the Pharisees placed a major emphasis on ceremonial washing before meals, and they openly rebuked Jesus’ disciples for not cleansing themselves in this way (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:2–4). Jesus responded to the rebuke by announcing to the crowd that “a man is not defiled by what enters his mouth, but by what comes out of it” (Matthew 15:11, BSB).

Over time, Jewish religious leaders had added their own traditions and regulations to the Mosaic Law. When the Pharisees scolded Jesus’ disciples for breaking the traditions of the elders, Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? . . . You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules’” (Matthew 15:3, 7–9). In seeking to keep themselves from ceremonial uncleanness, the Pharisees overlooked the greater need of spiritual cleansing from sin. They saw themselves as “clean” in their keeping of the law, and they rejected the only One who could truly make them clean before God.

Scripture uses the concept of clean vs unclean throughout as an illustration of one’s spiritual standing. God is holy, and He requires cleanness in those who approach Him:

“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” (Psalm 51:2, 7, NKJV).

“Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9, NKJV).

“We are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, NKJV).

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols” (Ezekiel 36:25, NKJV).

“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

“He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22, NKJV).

Note that in all the passages quoted above, the cleansing comes from God. What we need is not a ritualistic, external cleansing; we need a heart that has been spiritually cleansed from sin.

When Jesus walked the earth, He showed us the holiness of God that is able to overcome our innate uncleanness. Jesus touched an unclean leper; rather than becoming unclean Himself with that touch, Jesus made the leper clean (Mark 1:40–42). A woman, ceremonially unclean due to an issue of blood, touched the edge of Jesus’ cloak; rather than making Jesus unclean, the woman was instantly healed (Luke 8:43–48). In these miracles, Jesus proved His power over all that makes us unclean. His purity is greater than our impurity.

Jesus Christ “loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Revelation 1:5, NKJV). This is the washing that makes one truly clean: “If the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13–14, NKJV).

Having now been cleansed by faith (Acts 15:9), “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). We no longer need worry about ceremonial cleanness or ceremonial uncleanness. To the New Testament believer, “all food is clean” (Romans 14:20), and we should be “persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14, ESV). Christ has moved us beyond the regulations that said, “Touch not; taste not; handle not” (Colossians 2:21, KJV).

Through the act of turning water used for ceremonial washing into wine, Jesus showed how a new covenant was being initiated, which was better than the old (John 2:6–11). Christ’s sacrifice is the basis for our cleansing from sin and from all uncleanness (see Revelation 7:13–14).