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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 Unclean are Made Clean through God’s Mercy
Text:Leviticus 14:1-20 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 147:1,2                                                                                   

Ps 51:3,6

Reading – Leviticus 13:45-46; Matthew 8:1-4

Ps 103:1,2

Sermon – Leviticus 14:1-20

Hy 25:1,3

Hy 74:1,2,3,4

* 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 Christ, when there’s a nasty illness going around, sometimes you just want to stay home. You might be feeling fine, but you don’t watch to catch anything. Or you might be sick, and you don’t want to pass it on to anyone. This is the basic idea behind quarantine; it’s the enforced isolation of those who are unwell, until the disease goes away.

In Leviticus 13 and 14, we read about something like quarantine, for it describes how certain sick people needed to live alone, and make their dwelling outside the camp. For both chapters are addressing the problems around skin diseases like leprosy. What do you do when there’s a rotting disease affecting people, or their clothes, or their houses? How do you decide what is a serious case, or what is less serious? And how can a person who is healed be allowed back into the community?

These two chapters are part of the Manual of Purity, the section within Leviticus that starts in chapter 11. The priests are being taught how to make those daily distinctions between clean and unclean. For holiness is a lifestyle, an attitude and an approach to every square inch of life. Holiness is as ordinary as the food on our table; in our chapter we’ll see that it also relates to the health of our body.

And the Holy Spirit teaches some unchanging truths in this ancient chapter. In this sermon we’ll see that our brokenness separates us from God, we’ll see the LORD’s mercy in cleansing the impure, and also how Christ fulfilled this chapter in his ministry of healing, and through his death on the cross. I preach God’s Word from Leviticus 14:1-20 on this theme,

Those afflicted with skin disease receive cleansing through God’s mercy:

  1. the terrible shame of this impurity
  2. the slow procedure of cleansing
  3. the beautiful result of this process


1) the terrible shame of this impurity: We didn’t read much from chapter 13, but it’s linked closely together with our text. That chapter is about the diagnosis of skin diseases, when they affect not only a person’s skin, but also what to do when it’s into their clothing and other objects. There’s almost two dozen scenarios of disease in chapter 13, but the descriptions in each case are pretty similar. A priest was looking for open sores, swelling, scaly skin, spots, and changing hair colour. These clues would help determine if a person was clean or unclean.

That chapter, and also our text, keep referring to leprosy. But there really isn’t one English word that covers all these conditions. Leprosy is a very specific ailment, known today as Hansen’s disease. And in the time of Israel, it was a disease regarded with great fear. Leprosy was considered basically incurable. It’s an illness in which the nerves in the infected areas lose their ability to sense pain. As a result, a person with leprosy doesn’t realize when he’s been injured, like when he’s been burned or when he’s cut himself on something sharp. Because he doesn’t feel it, the wound never gets a chance to heal, and the skin gets infected. Over time, infected body parts (especially feet and fingers) start to die, and they fall off.

A kind of leprosy might be one of the diseases in chapter 13, but it’s not the only one. In the New Testament too, the term “leprosy” is used to describe a whole range of skin diseases, including ones that were less severe. People might have suffered from things like psoriasis, or severe forms of eczema. Another common disorder was a fungus that invaded a person’s scalp and grew in thick layers on the skin.

A priest had to examine the people who came to him with these various diseases, and he had to make a judgement about whether the person should be isolated or not. He was something like a public health inspector. One key part of the priest’s evaluation was whether the disease seemed to be stable, or it was actively spreading. If the condition was stable, then a person could still be considered clean.

A second part of the assessment was whether a person’s skin seemed to be rotting away and falling apart. If this was happening, then a person was considered unclean and they had to put outside the camp. Anything rotting or decomposing was associated with death, and anything to do with death cannot come close to the God of life. This is the same principle that is so important throughout Leviticus, where the holy God insists that his people also be holy.

And for the LORD, a person’s holiness is often symbolized by their wholeness, by being complete and full. This is why animals that were used in sacrifice had to be free of any physical defects. It’s also why unusual animals (like fish without fins and scales) were considered unclean—they were “missing” something (ch 11). Later in Leviticus we can read that the priests who served at the tabernacle needed to be without deformities, whether being blind or lame or having a disfigured face (ch 21). These rules seem strange to us, even discriminatory. But these rules were symbols of God’s moral order. They were reminders that God wants his people to be perfect, just as He is perfect: pure and unblemished in all we do, in all we are.

So the same thing that applied to ordinary Israelites. If a person was disfigured by disease, if their flesh was rotting and dying, they were not whole and complete. And they could not remain in God’s presence.

Now, let’s be clear: to be sick and unclean wasn’t a sin in itself. These people weren’t excluded because they’d committed some offense. God has immense compassion for the sick, which is why He also commands us to relieve and help those who suffer. But in Leviticus, sickness is a symbol of sin, a physical representation. When a person had a disfiguring disease, he visibly fell short of the glory of God, the glory that we were given in creation. To be afflicted in the flesh reminds us that since the fall into sin, we’re all moving towards decay and death. We’re all crumbling, whether we realise it or not.

To be sick isn’t a sin, and it’s also not true that these sicknesses are caused by sin. To be sure, sometimes a person was punished with leprosy because of rebellion against God. We can think of Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, or of Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, or King Uzziah. But these are rare occurrences.

Today too, there’s not usually a direct link between what you’re suffering now, and how you’ve broken God’s law in some specific way. But it is because of this world’s brokenness. Sin has damaged things—it has damaged us, in body and mind and spirit. Serious or mild, every sickness does this—it reveals that things are not as they should be. God’s good design for us and creation has been compromised. Instead of peace, there is disorder. Instead of life, there is death.

And this gets powerfully portrayed in what happens to the unclean persons: they are excluded. When the priest confirms that a skin disease was defiling, then “the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his moustache, and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (13:45-46).

There’s a few different parts to that. First, the unclean person needs to do the same thing as if he was mourning for the dead: tearing his clothes and having untidy hair. Second, he has to cry “Unclean,” like a piercing alarm, to keep people from defiling themselves by getting close.

Third, and most seriously, he has to go and live outside the camp: “He shall dwell alone.” Now, some us like the idea of being on our own, getting away from people and finding seclusion. But in Scripture, to live in solitude is a great tragedy. A child of God wants to live with others, and wants to be near God’s dwelling-place!

The diseased person has to leave because he threatens the well-being of the community. Something we learn in Leviticus is that uncleanness is contagious—you can “catch” unholiness from other people (there’s probably a good lesson in there about the kinds of friends we spend time with). So the sick person needs to be isolated.

Yet this “quarantine” is less about protecting the health of Israel, and more about upholding God’s holiness. For the LORD Himself dwelled in the camp, and the Most Holy Place was the epicenter of His glory. The tabernacle represented the utmost source of life, and God wanted his people to approach Him there.

But if someone is permanently unclean, far from the state of holiness that God demands, he can’t stay near. And when you withdrew, and you went all the way outside the camp, you entered a place of filth and pollution. To live outside the camp then, is to be cut off from the blessings of the covenant. No wonder the person tears his clothing: his life as a member of God’s people is coming to an end!

It reminds us about what happens in Genesis 3. After Adam and Eve sinned against God, they were removed from his presence. They’re shut out from the Garden, the “home” that they used to share with the holy God. Now they must dwell outside. And that’s still the world we live in today. We’re in a world that has been estranged from God the Creator, a world that’s groaning and under his curse.

So if you think about it, each of us is a kind of spiritual leper. We might be totally healthy, in the prime of life, but when we’re living in sin apart from Christ, we’re dying—we’re dead already. Any sin that we haven’t repented from is killing us, it’ll be the death of us.

And truly, our sinning makes us unclean. I don’t just mean those occasional times when we feel dirty after sinning, when we’re repulsed by what we’ve done or looked at. Sinning always makes us dirty and impure. And like those who were unclean in Leviticus, sin prohibits us from coming near to God. If you don’t have a Mediator, someone to cleanse you, how do you dare to approach God?

Like for the Israelites, our sin separates us from other people too. Maybe we’ve done wrong things to damage our relationships with our family, or with people in the church. Maybe we’ve put up walls and tried to keep people away, because we don’t want to talk about our sin. All sin is fundamentally self-centred, so when we live in sin and we don’t repent, it becomes very hard to see past ourselves. Sin isolates us, from God, and from others.

Beloved, all this reveals our deep need, the brokenness that reaches past the surface of our life and all the way into our heart. We need someone to restore us and make us whole. And praise God, for in Christ this is the cleansing that He has given!


2)  the slow procedure of cleansing: Being unclean because of a skin disease was a terrible fate. It was like being dead, while still alive. But it wasn’t a death sentence as such, because you could be made well again. That’s the possibility with which chapter 14 begins, “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest. And the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall examine him” (vv 2-3). If a person thought that he had recovered from a skin disease, then the priest must go to him and evaluate his condition.

Notice that the procedures have a focus on ritual, not cure. The priest’s duty was not to heal, but to determine when a person was unclean or clean again. And what we see is a long and complicated ritual of cleansing: a severe problem requires a complex solution. Over eight days, and in two major stages, a person could be moved back towards purity.

So when the priest is satisfied that the illness has been healed or that it’s at least stable, the ritual for cleansing begins: “The priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two living and clean birds” (14:5). This is the first stage, involving the two birds. One of the birds is killed, its blood is caught in a bowl, and then it’s mixed with fresh water. Then the other bird, still living, is dipped into that mixture of blood and water, together with cedar, scarlet yarn, and hyssop. At the same time, that mixture is applied to the person who is to be cleansed, and it’s sprinkled on him seven times.

What does all of this mean? Like most offerings in Leviticus, the animals represent the person who’s being interceded for. That link is made visible when the blood of the one bird is sprinkled onto the worshiper. The same link is made with the living bird, but this one, verse 7 says, is let “loose in the open field.” As that blood-soaked bird flies away, it shows that the person’s impurity is being removed far away, and he’s being set free.

Now, the meaning of the cedar, scarlet yarn and hyssop isn’t entirely clear. Cedar is a sweet-smelling wood, and a valuable material for building. The scarlet yarn was a material used in building the tabernacle, and that it was coloured with red dye might symbolize the power of blood. As for hyssop, it’s an herb in the mint family that was used for cleansing and medication. Think of how David prays for cleansing in Psalm 51, after he’d been polluted by his sin of adultery and murder: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (v 7). The blood and water, together with the cedar, scarlet yarn and hyssop, are a powerful recipe for cleansing. It’s a deep-clean of the man’s impurity.

So far the healed person has been passive, but now he has work to do: “He who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water, that he may be clean” (14:8). A physical wash, and then a complete haircut. Removing his hair gets rid of any remnants of contamination, and it’s probably also meant to signify rebirth and beginning of new life. When a baby is first born, it generally has very little hair. So this person is going back to the beginning: clean skin, no hair—a fresh start.

At this stage, he’s clean enough to enter the camp, but not to live at home. Then on the seventh day, he shaves again, and undergoes a ritual bath for cleansing. He’s been made fit to enter the tabernacle courts. But still the procedure is not done. For then begins the second stage. On the eighth day, there will be four different sacrifices presented, and then a ritual anointing of oil. Notice the importance of this occasion in that all the mandatory sacrifices have to be presented on his behalf: the burnt offering, the trespass offering, the purification offering, as well as the grain offering.

If we focus on the trespass offering, we see that the blood of this sacrifice is smeared on the person’s right ear, thumb and big toe. The blood is put onto the right-hand extremities to signify that the complete person was covered. He is cleansed “from head to toe,” and he is purified completely.

This is also shown by the use of a “log of oil.” A log was a unit of liquid measurement, about half a litre. First the oil is sprinkled seven times before God as a sign of dedication, then the oil is put onto the person’s right hand extremities, and over his head. Oil in Scripture is a symbol of gladness, and here it’s so appropriate. What could be more joyful than to receive this cleansing? It’s like the person has come back from the dead. He’s been given a kind of rebirth, atonement through blood, and new entry into God’s presence. He has passed from death to life!

As we said, it’s a long process. In a way, our cleansing from pollution through Christ is far simpler. One sacrifice of His blood, once for all, and He attains the complete forgiveness of sins and brings us back into the presence of God. Forgiveness through faith in Christ seems simple—far simpler than that complicated process that’s described in chapter 14.

But don’t forget how long God has been working on our salvation. He made preparations for Christ’s coming over thousands of years. He orchestrated a million details to make everything ready “in the fullness of time.” Our Saviour had to be man, He had to be God, He had to be a Son of David and righteous in all things. God moved heaven and earth to make it happen, even paid the highest price, the blood of his only Son!

Think of the beautiful picture of that cleansing in holy baptism. Each of us is impure, born in a state of profound contamination. We deserve to be put far away, condemned to misery “outside the camp,” yet what does God do? Even before we’re aware of it, He enters into fellowship with us. He brings us near, and He promises a cleansing. Like water washes dirt from the body, so Christ’s blood cleanses us from all the impurity of sin. Our children have been washed, we’ve been washed—we have been made holy in Christ. We’ve got every reason for joy, having passed from death to life.

Yet we’re not done. For us too, it’s a long way back to purity. We’ve been rebelling so long that it takes a lifetime to learn obedience. God wants total healing, not a quick fix. Sure, He could heal us at once and make us perfect. But God does it slowly, in stages, over the whole course of our life. He changes us gradually by his Spirit. This means if you’ve been baptised, you should be changing, you should be growing. It should be evident in our life that God is still working on us. As Paul said to Timothy, “Let everyone see your progress.” So let us be taught by God. Let us be shaped by his Word.


3) the beautiful result of this process: Once the long process of chapter 14 is completed, not much more is said, only verse 20: “So the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.” Leviticus doesn’t dwell on it, but simply moves to the next matter.

But ponder it for a moment. When that suffering person has been cleansed and the ceremony is completed, think of what he has received back. He gets back his place in the community. He gets back his place before God. He is restored to the safety of the camp, rather than consigned to death and disorder outside. Again he can visit the tabernacle and offer sacrifices. He is included, received into fellowship, and blessed. The whole cleansing is a beautiful picture of what God gives to sinners in the gift of salvation.

You can start to understand then, why during his ministry Jesus healed people, including lepers and those with other skin diseases. The law had provided no way of healing, but Christ seeks out the suffering and makes them better. So in Matthew 8 when that leper asked Jesus, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean,” we know that Jesus is willing. He “put out his hand and touched him… and immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (v 3).

Keep in mind that according to the law, touching leper made a person unclean. Yet Jesus’ holiness is greater than the man’s impurity—just as Jesus’ righteousness is greater than our unrighteousness. And for now Jesus will also uphold the laws of Leviticus, for He instructs the man, “Go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded” (v 4). This is what Jesus came to do: to restore what’s broken, to fix what has been wrecked. As Isaiah said, “He himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” (53:4; Matt 8:17). And delivering people at the physical level is just the beginning. Jesus will do better than take away scaly skin.

Today many people do everything to stop the physical rot of their bodies. They spend much time and money to enhance outward beauty and to ward off death by medical means. People look in the mirror, and they see that their figure, their skin, eyes, nose, lips, are all in need of help. And if this life is all we have, it makes sense to be consumed with how we look and how long we live. But we don’t need to share that obsession with the tangible things of life. Avoid it, because we have something more. In Christ Jesus we possess abundant life, even resurrected life.

For Christ restores us. By his death He takes away the curse, and He puts everything right. He knows the root cause of all our sadness and pain, and the cause isn’t an infection, or a virus, or anything else physical or mental. It’s the disastrous effect of sin in this world, sin’s power to ruin everything. And Jesus deals with all of this!

So don’t cover up your sins and hide them, but take them to Christ in humble confession, and receive his forgiveness. Don’t drag your burdens around in your own strength, but bring them to Christ, and receive his help. Bring your brokenness to Christ, for He will make you whole, and He will make you holy.  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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