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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Holiness of the Everyday
Text:Leviticus 11:1-47 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Law is Good

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 97:4,5                                                                                   

Ps 19:3,4                                                                                                        

Reading – Leviticus 11:1-47; Acts 10:9-16

Ps 148:2,3,4

Sermon – Leviticus 11:1-47

Ps 51:1,3,4

Hy 26

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in the Lord, I read a good article recently. It was called “Eight Signs Your Christianity is Too Comfortable.” It made the point that it’s all too easy to live a comfortable life as a Christian. In a prosperous country like ours, comfort-seeking is our default mode. So this article suggested eight signs that your faith has become altogether too cozy. This was #3: “Your friends and co-workers are surprised to learn you’re a churchgoing Christian.” It was explained, “A sure sign your faith is too comfortable is if nothing in your life sets you apart as a follower of Christ. A comfortable Christian is one who easily blends in, looking and talking and acting just like his or her lost neighbours.”

The article made me think of Leviticus. From this chapter to the end of chapter 16, we find many regulations and guidelines for holy living. Leviticus 11-16 has been called the “Manual of Purity,” or the “Handbook of Holiness.” It’s all about how there are two basic realms in life, the common and the holy. The common realm is where you and I live and work each day, and the holy realm has to do with the LORD God.

And within the realm of common life, Leviticus teaches that a person or a thing can be clean or unclean. When we say unclean, we don’t mean that a person is dirty and needs a bath. Rather, something unclean cannot possibly be engaged in the worship of God. Something clean, on the other hand, can be used in worship.

Making these kinds of distinctions was a constant activity for the Israelites. Constant, and also serious. There’s the story of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10: they mixed the unholy with the holy, and they were killed. There was a pressing need to see the line between what pleases God, and what displeases Him. So the “Handbook of Holiness” relates to all sorts of daily things: food, childbirth, skin disease, bodily functions. The lesson for Israel was clear: holiness isn’t just about the Sabbath, or going up to the tabernacle on special occasions. Holiness is an entire style of life.

So it is for us. Our holiness is perceived in the countless choices that we make each day: What do we spend our money on? What websites do we visit? How do we speak to our spouse or to our parents? What songs are on our playlist? What goals have we set? These are the things that set us apart as God’s people. In this chapter the LORD says, “You shall therefore be holy, as I am holy” (v 45). Let’s work out what this means on this theme,

The holy God distinguishes between clean and unclean animals:

  1. the one reason
  2. the many animals
  3. a handful of lessons


1) the one reason: We just said that holiness is something for every day. And what is more “every day” and ordinary than the food we eat? This is where the Manual of Purity begins, with Israel’s diet. As verse 2 says, “These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth.” Now, reading this chapter, it’s good to keep in mind that when the LORD created animals, He pronounced all of them good. It’s not as if the animals that are pronounced unclean are somehow flawed or defective. The LORD in his power and wisdom had made them this way!

Yet God makes distinctions all the same, and He says things like verse 9, “These you may eat of all that are in the water: whatever in the water has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers—that you may eat.” So for the Israelite, ordinary-looking fish are fine—ones like salmon and trout. Then verse 10: “But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you.” So no oysters or squid or shark on the Israelite menu.

Throughout the chapter God does this, separating clean and unclean. And our difficulty is that we want to know the rationale. What’s the reason, for example, that you can eat beef, but not pork? Is there actually something about it physically, making it unclean? In the commentaries on Leviticus, different reasons have been suggested.

One suggestion is that these distinctions are arbitrary. That is to say, you won’t be able to find a good reason that some food was acceptable, and some was unacceptable. God just decided that it was, and that was it. Even if He didn’t explain, and it didn’t make sense to them, Israel had to obey. It was a simple but powerful test of their loyalty: would they bow to the LORD’s Word, no matter what?

There’s something to appreciate about this approach. For it’s true: we should obey God’s Word, simply because He is God. We know He is perfectly wise. We know God always wants what is good for his children. Even if we don’t see exactly how this will be for our benefit, even if our own ideas seem better at the time, we can—and we should—submit to God, gladly and sincerely. Ours is not to ask “Why, Lord?” but to say, “Yes, Lord!” Obedience to God is difficult, his will is sometimes perplexing, but we can trust that it’s always right. That’s one suggestion about how and why God made these distinctions in diet: it was simply a test of the people’s obedience.

The second suggestion relates to idolatry. It is said that many of the unclean animals were also used by the Canaanites in pagan rituals; for example, the flesh of snakes and pigs was sometimes eaten during idol worship. Israel was a holy nation, so not eating this kind of food set them apart. That sounds good, until you consider that usually the Canaanites sacrificed exactly the same kind of animals that the Israelites did. In particular, bulls and goats were offered up in a lot in pagan rituals, just like in the ceremonies at the tabernacle. You couldn’t really say that one animal was more related to idolatry than another.

A third possible reason why God made these divisions in diet is based on hygiene. The LORD had health concerns in mind, and He wanted to protect his people from foods that were harmful. For instance, some of the prohibited animals are known to transmit disease, like pigs, and scavenger birds. Other prohibited animals contain a poison in their flesh; for example, many fish that don’t have fins and scales are poisonous so that they can defend themselves. Now, certainly God wouldn’t want his people to get sick. Yet that explanation accounts for only a few of the animals on the unclean list.

So what is the reason? There’s not one explanation that satisfies every question. It’s best to return what God Himself says about the line between clean and unclean, holy and unholy. It’s deep within the chapter in verse 45, the teaching we’ve already mentioned, “I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” This is one of the slogans of Leviticus, and it reveals that a person’s highest duty is to imitate his Saviour. If God is holy—if God is set apart—then we his people must be set apart.

We can think about that holiness in a negative and also a positive way. Compare holiness to a fence. It’s a fence that protects but also enables. For example, say you have a field with a few sheep. You build a fence all the way around it, in order to protect your sheep from predators. It protects. But that same fence has a positive purpose, for it enables your sheep to graze and sleep and breed in peace. Holiness is like that: it means we’re set apart from something, and we’re set apart for something.

So what are we set apart from? The coming chapters of Leviticus will show that much of what is unclean is associated with death. For example, touching a dead body led to uncleanness—not because such contact is sinful, but because death is the result of sin. God is perfect life, while the essence of uncleanness is death. Life and death do not mix, so something unclean must never enter God’s presence.

Set apart from sin and death—and what are we set apart for? What does holiness enable us to do? Simply put, when we are holy, we can draw near to God and we can worship Him. If something unclean was totally unsuitable for God’s presence, then something clean was permitted to approach Him and be offered to Him.

Think for a moment about the Most Holy Place as the epicenter of God’s glory. His presence at the tabernacle represented the utmost source of life. And so the closer you came, the more abundant were his blessings and peace. That’s what God made us for: to draw near. On the other hand, to withdraw from God, to go away from his glory, is to encounter death. If you kept withdrawing, and you went outside the camp, you were in a place of filth and pollution.

And the truth was that Israel constantly stepped over that line. The clean was always being made unclean, the pure made impure—and it wasn’t even always intentional. Some of it was just the result of living in a broken world. This is why God makes possible the cleansing of sinners. He tells them about periods of washing and waiting, and gives sacrifices for purifying.

Just consider how the Handbook of Holiness ends. It concludes with chapter 16, about the Day of Atonement. On that holiest day of the year, blood was carried right into the epicenter of God’s glory. Atoning blood was sprinkled right onto the ark of God’s covenant. All the pollution that had accumulated throughout the year, all the build-up of contamination, could be eliminated, and sin could be sent outside the camp. Life in God’s presence can continue!

As New Testament believers, we know how that the day is fulfilled in the one sacrifice of Christ. On the cross, Jesus went into God’s presence and poured out his blood to cleanse us from sin—and here’s the key: Jesus poured out his blood to make us holy. He has changed our very status from unclean and impure, to holy and righteous. Beloved, that means we can approach God with confidence. He wants us to draw near!

It also means that God’s will for us is to remain holy. He doesn’t want us to wallow in the muck of sin and let ourselves be polluted by filth. There’s so much around us that contaminates. But we are called to live for the glory of his Name. We are set apart for worship and obedience!


2) the many animals: There’s enough animals in our chapter to fill a zoo. Now, we have to acknowledge that it’s not always known for sure which animals are meant. The translators are making their best guess about how to translate the different Hebrew words. The animals are of three kinds, creatures of land, sea and sky.

The guideline for clean animals of the land is in verse 3, “Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat.” There are two requirements for cleanness: first, that an animal was cloven-hoofed, where the hoof is split (for example, a cow has a split hoof, but a horse does not). The second requirement was that an animal chews the cud. If you haven’t learned about that in school yet, this is when an animal can swallow its food without chewing it much; it stores the food temporarily in a stomach compartment, then brings it back up, and continues to chew. The hoof and cud requirements are met by animals like cattle and sheep. As we said before, it’s not exactly clear why God set these particular requirements. But these were clean animals that could be eaten, and also sacrificed.

Examples of animals that don’t fit the qualifications are listed in verses 4-7. For example, a pig meets the hoof requirement but not the cud-chewing one. As God says of pigs and camels and the rock hyrax, “Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. They are unclean to you” (v 8). If an Israelite ate this kind of animal, or touched one when it was dead, he was made unclean. Now, becoming unclean from these animals wasn’t as serious as other kinds of uncleanness, as we’ll see in coming chapters. Only a short time was required for cleansing. But it was still a reminder that God’s will had to be followed in their daily diet.

The next category is water creatures. As we said before, God decided that ordinary fish with fins and scales were clean, while sea creatures that lacked them were unclean. God had made them all, but the distinction seems to be between “normal” and “abnormal” fishes. This could’ve been a reminder to the Israelites that God demands wholeness and integrity of character. These rules were symbols of his moral order, pointers of how God wants all of his people to be perfect. Wholeness is next to holiness!

Then follows a section of flying creatures and birds. There’s a long list of birds that should be considered unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the buzzard, the kite, the falcon, the raven, the ostrich, various owls and hawks, the sea gull, the stork and heron and bat. Many of these are birds of prey. This means that they typically come into contact with corpses, and then also eat meat with blood in it, two things that were forbidden to the Israelites. This was another reminder to Israel about the importance of respecting blood, and keeping life and death separate.

The Israelites were allowed to eat bugs, but not all bugs. Verse 20 says that “all flying insects that creep on all fours shall be an abomination to you.” So if there was an insect that had wings, it normally needed to get around by flying—otherwise it was unclean. Or if there was insect with jointed legs, it need to ordinarily move by walking or jumping. Once again, it seems that an animal had to be “normal.” It had to move in a way that matched its design. This is like we too, must lead the kind of life God designed us for: devoted to Him!

God also declared many small animals to be unclean. There’s a list in verses 29-30: “the mole, the mouse, and the large lizard after its kind; the gecko, the monitor lizard, the sand reptile, the sand lizard, and the chameleon.” The uncleanness could be because these animals usually move about on the ground and get into human supplies of food and water, and contaminate them. Little creatures like moles and mice and lizards often die in human environments too, and God wanted to separate life from death—so these animals were unclean.

This chapter showed the Israelites clearly: there were clean animals, and unclean. In food, and in so many areas, there were boundaries. And this taught them an essential lesson—the same one we need to learn—that there are two basic realms of life. There is the holy, and the common. And if you’re not holy, if you’re unclean, to cross the boundary into God’s presence is to risk immediate death.

Compare it to the border between North and South Korea. There is no question about where the dividing line is, for it’s clearly marked by barbed wire and electric fences and barricades. If you cross from one side to the other, you’re taking your life into your hands. So it is with the holiness of God. His Word teaches that to come near God, you have to be right with him. You can’t disregard his Word and continue in your sin, and then pray. You can’t downplay the message of Christ and the need for his Spirit, and then pretend that everything is fine. You can’t fill your mind with impure things, and still expect God to bless you. It’s impossible—even to try it can be deadly.

Think of what the Spirit says in Hebrews 12:14, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” To come near to the God of life we must be made holy through faith in Christ. And to come near, we must continue in holiness through listening to and obeying his Word.


3) a handful of lessons: After visiting the zoo of Leviticus 11, what can we take home? One reaction is to say that it’s irrelevant, that it’s just Old Testament regulation with little to do with our lives. But let’s not jump there too quickly. We need to pause and think about the underlying principles, the unchanging truths that God is revealing to us.

The first observation is about the unchanging nature of God. He is holy, He says in verse 45: completely unlike us, separate from all sin, exceptional in ability, overwhelmingly majestic. God is the only being in the universe who is holy by his very nature—everyone else is ordinary and common, and not only common, but unclean. But God graciously makes our status change, to share in who He is. He makes us holy through Jesus his Son and by his Holy Spirit.

A second thing about this chapter is that it’s been fulfilled. Jesus drew a line under Leviticus, and He said, “It is finished.” That already happened at the cross, but it took a while for the church to connect the dots and know that something fundamental had changed. This was something that caused controversy in the first years. For centuries, keeping these laws was the mark of faithfulness. The food laws distinguished a Jew from a Gentile, distinguished someone who loved the LORD from someone who didn’t know Him. So it was hard to drop this way of life. This was why some of the early Christians insisted on it, that if you were a true believer, you still wouldn’t eat this or that kind of food.

It took a special revelation from God to show that Leviticus 11 has been put aside. Think of Peter’s vision of that sheet in Acts 10, populated with all kinds of animals, including the unclean. Peter couldn’t bring himself to eat, but God intervened, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” And that vision, of course, wasn’t just about food. It was about who receives the gospel of salvation. It’s for all people, Jew and Gentile alike, of every people and place. As Peter says, “God shows no partiality. But in every nation, whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (vv 34-35).

We too, have been accepted by God in grace. We’re Gentiles by birth, adopted into God’s family for Jesus’ sake. Christ has pulled us out of our filth and brought us into a state of holiness. He’s lifted us over the electric fence—brought us through the curtain—and into the glorious presence of the living God.

But—and here’s a third truth from Leviticus 11—God is still a holy God, and He wants a holy people. In Christ we have been set apart: set apart from, and set apart for. Think of 1 Thessalonians 4:7, “God did not call us to uncleanness, but to holiness.” Today we’re not so concerned about the uncleanness of eating pig, or avoiding lizards, or deciding what insects are edible. We have greater things to be concerned about. Our challenge to be holy today is even more demanding.

This is what Jesus said too. Consider his words in Matthew 15:17-20, “Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man.” He was speaking to the Jewish leaders, and rebuking them for being so concerned about the external, things like taking in proper foods and performing right ceremonies.

We probably do the same thing, and we focus on the external. We get hung up on why this technology is bad, and why that practice is harmful, and we make extra rules and regulations to protect ourselves. That can miss the point of sin, Jesus says, because the real danger comes from inside us. Our evil thoughts, our wicked desires, our lust and envy and pride—this is what defiles us. And so we must be praying every day for a clean heart, for transformation, for new life and understanding. We pray to God: “Cleanse me from within!”

As a fourth and final truth from our chapter, Leviticus shows that holiness is a daily enterprise. For an Israelite, being set apart for God wasn’t just about keeping holy one day out of seven, or making sure you went to the annual feasts. Holiness was as ordinary as the food on your table, as regular as the water in your well. It was in these small things that they showed devotion to God.

Today we can eat whatever we want, but being set apart for God is still a daily activity. Being the Lord’s possession is shown in the daily business of working, and loving, and earning, and studying and growing. Sure, the Christian life has a few big events: baptism, profession of faith, Holy Supper, perhaps a wedding. Those are the days you remember. But so much of the Christian life is really ordinary.

It’s on all those ordinary days that we need to show that we’re dedicated to God. The many small choices that we make demonstrate what we’re here for. Yes, what do you spend your money on? What videos do you watch? How do you speak to your spouse or to your parents? What songs are on your playlist? What goals have you set? What do you pray for? These things reveal whether we’re here for the LORD, and we’re devoted to his glory. By his blood Christ has made us holy, so let us be holy in all that we do!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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