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Holiness: The False and the True (Leviticus 21 and 22)


I have a confession to make. I almost skipped over Leviticus 21 and 22, thinking that there wasn’t much of importance to the 20th century Christian. Was I ever wrong!

It would be easy to come to the hasty conclusion that these two chapters are irrelevant and hardly worth our time. After all, this is the Old Testament, and we are New Testament saints. This is the Book of Leviticus, and these chapters pertain to the Aaronic priesthood. Furthermore, these chapters deal with ceremonial defilements, which do not carry over into the New Testament. Now if the defilements were sins such as murder, lying, idolatry, that might be another matter … And so our text may seem about as relevant as a speed limit for a horse and buggy on Central Expressway.

There are three compelling reasons for the relevance of these two chapters and for our study of them in this lesson. First, an understanding of Leviticus 21 and 22 will greatly enhance our understanding of the New Testament.

As a public school teacher, and now as one who teaches seminars in prisons, I have found that I can better understand the particular individual I am working with by learning something of his or her background. Attitudes and behavior which are beyond my comprehension often “fit” when I discover the kind of childhood the individual has had and some of the experiences and turning points which have shaped the person’s outlook.

The same can be said for the scribes and Pharisees in the New Testament. From the moment our Lord began His public ministry, He was adamantly opposed by a very powerful, hostile group of Jewish religious leaders—the scribes and Pharisees. Among their number were the priests. Indeed, the priests were instrumental in the crucifixion of our Lord: “Now when morning had come, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put Him to death; and they bound Him, and led Him away, and delivered Him up to Pilate the governor” (Matt. 27:1-2).

The fundamental difference which quickly arose between our Lord and the scribes and Pharisees was the definition of holiness. The scribes and Pharisees had a distorted perception of the Old Testament definition of holiness, which to them was attained by human effort, by avoiding external ceremonial defilement and by observing the prescribed rituals of the Law of Moses. Thus, they concluded that Jesus, who mingled with sinners, who touched lepers, and who challenged their interpretation of the Law, could only be a sinner, operating in the power of Beelzebub. Ultimately, playing their version of holiness and their interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures to their ultimate conclusion, they found Him worthy of death.

This opposition to our Lord did not end with His death, burial, and resurrection. It persisted on, attacking the church, both from without and from within. The Book of Acts records a number of these attacks. The epistles, such as the Book of Galatians, show that the problem was a persistent one, one which the apostles took most seriously.

We will not understand the scribes and Pharisees and their thinking and actions apart from getting a grasp of their background. Much of this background, in my opinion, is to be found in Leviticus 21 and 22. I have to admit I have never really had any empathy for the legalistic scribes and Pharisees until now. I could never really understand where their legalism originated. It was not until I had to personally struggle with the meaning and application of Leviticus 21 and 22 that I gained an appreciation for the trap into which the scribes and Pharisees had fallen, one which could easily happen in one’s study of this passage. I now believe that their error, as seen in the New Testament, originates in our very text, as much or more than any other Old Testament passage.

If we are to understand the opposition of Judaism to our Lord and to His church we must understand how and why the Jewish religious leaders failed to interpret and apply our text correctly. In our study of Leviticus 21 and 22 we shall seek to find the roots of the error of Jesus’ opponents, the scribes and Pharisees.

Second, our study will provide us with instruction concerning the proper interpretation and application of the Old Testament. The New Testament provides us with a clear picture of the erroneous interpretation and application of the Old Testament Law by the scribes and Pharisees.

This morning, when I first came to the church, I went into the men’s room to wash my hands. I discovered to my dismay (after my hands were dripping wet) that the hand towel dispenser was not working properly, so I opened it and placed a new roll of paper in it. On the inside of the cover were two pictures. One was a picture of the “right” way to load the dispenser. Along side was another picture, of the “wrong” way to load it. By viewing the right way alongside the wrong, one could learn how paper should be loaded.

So, too, the New Testament gives us two clear pictures of the interpretation and application of the Old Testament Law—the “wrong” way of the scribes and Pharisees, and the “right” way of our Lord and His apostles. Thus, by comparing and contrasting the false with the true interpretation of the Old Testament Law, we learn a valuable lesson in hermeneutics, the science of biblical interpretation. This is especially helpful when dealing with Old Testament passages, such as our text in Leviticus, which are some of the most difficult texts to interpret and apply for the New Testament Christian.

And so it is that our study will greatly enhance our understanding of the New Testament, as well as to provide us with a model for Old Testament study. But there is yet another benefit of our study in this lesson.

Third, our study of Leviticus 21 and 22 exposes an error which is just as prevalent in the church today as it was in our Lord’s day. The error of the scribes and Pharisees has been perpetuated and even refined over the period of the church’s history from our Lord’s day until the present. Essentially this error has to do with a false perception of holiness. Countless Christians have been led astray into various cults, all of which promise a higher level of holiness than the saint had previously experienced.

The titles of some of the best works on perversions of the spiritual life are evidence of this fact. Dr. Ironside’s excellent little book, Holiness, the False and the True,119 is one example. I am greatly indebted to Dr. Ironside, not only for the title of this lesson, but also for his insight into the perverted versions of holiness offered by the cults. Bussell’s excellent recent book, Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians,120 is another example. Both these books warn the reader that the cults offer the unsuspecting saint a counterfeit holiness, a “holiness” which can often greatly resemble that of the scribes and Pharisees.

And so our study of these two chapters in Leviticus can be of great value to us, in enriching our understanding the New Testament, in providing a model for Old Testament interpretation, and in exposing error which is prevalent in our day. Let us listen well to God’s words in these two chapters.

Our Approach

Our approach in this lesson will be somewhat different from the norm. We will begin by viewing the text in Leviticus through the blinded eyes of the “priests” of Jesus’ day, and then by discerning from our Lord’s teaching what the error of His opponents was. Next, we shall seek to determine how they arrived at their erroneous view from Leviticus 21 and 22. We shall then attempt to see how they went wrong in their interpretation and application of the Law, and finally what Leviticus actually was intended to teach. In conclusion, we shall seek to apply what we have learned to our own lives.

The Structure of Leviticus 21 and 22

Chapters 21 and 22 divide into six sections, with each chapter having three sections. Each section is marked off by the statement, in slightly modified forms, “I am the LORD, who sanctifies you” (21:8, 15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32). This expression occurs elsewhere only in Leviticus 20:8. The sections and their major topics are as follows:

  • How the priests are to avoid being profaned (21:1-9)
  • How the high priest avoids being profaned (21:10-15)
  • Physical imperfections that profane priests (21:16-24)
  • Defilement and the eating of priest’s food (22:1-9)
  • Those who are entitled to eat the priest’s food (22:10-16)
  • Acceptable offerings (22:17-33)

Observation of Leviticus 21 and 22

While we cannot and will not be able to delve into these two chapters in detail, we must make several overall observations, which are essential to understanding both the correct and the incorrect interpretations of these chapters.

(1) These chapters are addressed to the Aaronic priests (cf. 21:1; 22:1-2) and to the high priest (21:10-15). Chapters 17-20 were addressed to the Israelites in general (including the priests as well, cf. 17:2), defining how holiness was to be practiced in the everyday activities of life. Chapters 21 and 22 return to the priests in particular. Chapters 23 and following will once again be more general.

Since this text was addressed to the priests of Israel, the priests of Jesus’ day would have understood its teaching to apply directly to them. It was their misunderstanding of this text, and their misapplication of it which resulted in their immediate and intense opposition to our Lord, His teaching, and His practice. If the scribes and Pharisees viewed any Old Testament text as “theirs” it was the passage we are studying, for God clearly indicates that it is written to and for the sons of Aaron, the priests of Israel.

(2) These chapters require a higher standard of separation from defilement for the priests. If there is a high standard for the priests (21:1-9), there is an even higher standard for the high priest (21:10-15). The higher the office, the higher the standard. This can be seen in several areas, but let us focus on two examples.

God established a higher standard of separation from defilement for the priests pertaining to death. All Israelites were forbidden to make any baldness on their heads or to shave off the edges of their beards, or to cut their flesh as a sign of mourning (cp. Lev. 19:27; 21:1-5, 10-12; Deut. 14:1). Normally, it would be a near relative who would bury one who died. Naturally, in making physical contact with the dead body, the Israelite would be ceremonially defiled and would have to go through a cleansing process. The priests, however, could only bury their near blood relatives (21:1-4). The high priest could not even leave the tabernacle to participate in mourning, nor was he allowed to have a part in burying even his near relatives (21:10-12).

God also established a higher standard for the priests in the matter of marriage. An ordinary Israelite had greater freedom in his choice of a wife than the priests, who could marry a widow, but not a divorcee (21:7). The high priest could marry only a virgin of his own people (21:13-15).

(3) The nature of the defilement is not that of immoral behavior or of specific sin, but of external ceremonial defilement. The defilement which must be avoided by the priests is not what we would have expected: lying, stealing, idolatry, or murder. Rather, the defilement involves such things as contact with the dead, other forms of ceremonial uncleanness, contamination by marriage, and having some physical defect—all matters which are not what we would call sin. Ceremonial defilement is allowed for the priests, under certain circumstances (cf. 21:2-3), but in every case of forbidden defilement, it is not a matter of sin, but of ceremonial contamination. This fact is a significant element in the error of the scribes and Pharisees.

The Error of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ Day

I am going to isolate three forms of error of which the scribes and Pharisees are guilty, as exposed by our Lord in the gospel accounts of the New Testament. Let us briefly consider each of these.

Error 1: Elitism

The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day had a distinctly “holier than thou” attitude. The viewed themselves as a spiritual elite, and they looked down upon the masses as inferior. This is particularly evident in two passages:

And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get’” (Luke 18:9-11).

And some of them wanted to seize Him, but no one laid hands on Him. The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?” The officers answered, “Never did a man speak the way this man speaks.” The Pharisees therefore answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you? No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed” (John 7:44-49).

While our Lord was amazingly gentle to those who knew and admitted that they were sinners (such as the “woman at the well” in John 4 and the “woman taken in adultery” in John 8), He was vehement in His attack upon the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees. The attack began openly with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). At the outset of the sermon, Jesus pronounced those to be blessed were the opposite of the scribes and Pharisees—the poor, the meek, those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-9). He also warned the people that their righteousness would have to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if they would enter into the kingdom of heaven (5:20). And then He set out to show that the interpretation of the Old Testament Law of the scribes and Pharisees was wrong (“You have heard … but I say,” 5:21ff.). When Jesus finished this sermon, the people got the idea. They recognized that “… He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:29).

Thus, the Sermon on the Mount stripped the scribes and Pharisees of their authority in the eyes of the people. It is no wonder that they persistently challenged our Lord’s authority to do and teach as He did (cf. Matt. 21:23).

When Jesus differed in His interpretation from the traditional view held by the scribes and Pharisees, He would respond in a way that highlighted their ignorance. “Have you not read …?” He would ask (cf. Matt. 19:4), suggesting that a simple reading of the Old Testament (on which they thought themselves to be experts) would have shown them to be wrong. And then, He added that the kingdom of God belonged to little children, rather than to the wise (Matt. 19:4, cf. 11:25). His final confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees was so scathing that it precipitated (not by accident) His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion (Matt. 23).

Where did the scribes and Pharisees go wrong in their interpretation of the Old Testament, which led them to look upon themselves as a spiritual elite? I believe that their error stems from a wrong interpretation of Leviticus 21 and 22. They correctly saw these two chapters were addressed to the priests, not the people. They were also correct in concluding that there was a higher standard of separation required of them. And from this they concluded that they were therefore holier than the laity, the spiritual elite of Israel.

The premises were correct, but the conclusion was wrong. Paul would have characteristically have responded, “God forbid” (cf. Rom. 6:2, 15). Higher standards do not necessarily assure “holier” people. To assume, as these religious leaders did, that one’s position proves his piety is false. Satan delights to place his servants in places of religious position and prominence (cf. Matt. 7:15; 2 Cor. 11:13-14). Look at Judas, or the high priests of the day, who rejected God’s Messiah and had Him put to death as a criminal.

What, then, was Leviticus 21 and 22 intended to teach, if it did not teach that the priests were to be holier than the laymen? I believe that it taught that greater position and privilege brings higher responsibility. In the teaching of our Lord, “To whom much is given, much is required” (cf. Luke 12:48). A greater degree of separation from ceremonial defilement does not make the person holier, however. Note the words of the apostle Paul in reference to this same issue:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 2:20-23).

There was no basis for a descendant of Aaron to assume that his position as a priest proved him to be holier than others, although it did require him to be more careful not to become ceremonially defiled. God has sovereignly chosen Aaron to be Israel’s high priest, and his descendants to be priests. A look at Aaron’s life and ministry quickly shows that neither he (remember he led in the worship of the golden calf, Exod. 32), nor his sons (remember the death of Nadab and Abihu, Lev. 10), were more holy.

To measure personal holiness in terms of ceremonial and ritual purity is a mistake. The holiness of God is to be manifested through obedience to God’s commands and by loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Remember, too, that even though a priest was ceremonially pure, he still could only approach God by means of the shed blood of an innocent and perfect sacrificial animal.

The priests were those who offered the sacrifices of the people, and thus a higher standard of conduct was essential to assure that the offerings which they sacrificed were acceptable to God (Lev. 21:6). In addition, the priests were also leaders in Israel. It is my observation that leaders, in the Old Testament and the New (cf. 1 Tim. 3), are required to live according to a higher standard, and for good reason. Leaders are to exemplify God’s ideals for character and conduct, not the minimum standard. To allow leaders to live according to the lowest standard, rather than according to the ideal, would be to encourage the people to live the same way, rather than to challenge them to the highest level of conduct.

The scribes and Pharisees were wrong to view themselves as the spiritual elite. If anything, the higher standards God requires for leaders should cause one to be even more sensitive to impurity and contamination in his or her life, and thus to be humbled by a position of leadership. Humility, not pride, is the mark of God’s leaders. Leviticus was written to assure a greater sensitivity toward corruption on the part of the priests, not to create a sense of pride, as though they were better because God required more of them.

Error 2: Externalism (Ceremonialism)

We noted previously that the things which contaminated the priests and thus which were to be avoided, were not flaws of character, or even of conduct (sins, such as lying, idolatry, murder, stealing), but were ceremonial defilements, such as contact with the dead, marriage to one who was not a virgin, or having some physical defect. In other words, it would be easy to falsely equate piety (holiness) with ritual cleanness.

This connection should not have been made so simplistically by the scribes and Pharisees, but the gospel accounts inform us that this is what happened. The scribes and Pharisees thought that holiness was primarily a matter of external, ceremonial cleanness. Thus, for the scribes and Pharisees holiness was largely a matter of keeping one’s distance from defilement, and especially from “sinners.” These sinners just happened to be those whom they loathed anyway, so it was an easy thing to be “pure.”

Ceremonial washings were a fetish to the scribes and Pharisees, and they could not fathom how Jesus and His disciples could eat with “unwashed hands” (cf. Mark 7:1ff.). Worse yet, they were repulsed by the fact that Jesus ate with sinners (Mark 2:15-16). When Jesus healed those who were “defiled” by leprosy, He touched them (cf. Matt. 8:1-3), an incomprehensible act to the meticulous scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus finally had to confront the issue directly. He did so by teaching that defilement does not come from without (the external), but from within (the heart):

“Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man … That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, sensuality, envy, slander, price and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:14b-15, 20-23).

Jesus persistently held to this view of defilement. He taught this, not as a new revelation, something distinct and different from the Law of Moses, but as being taught by the Law. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pressed beyond the external evil condemned by the Law to the inner evil, the evil attitudes which led to the evil actions. Murder, He taught, was caused by hate, and thus the Law required that men deal with hatred (Matt. 5:21ff.). Adultery was caused by lust, and thus the Law taught that men must deal (drastically, cf. Mark 9:43ff.) with the sin at its roots, at its source. Again and again the inner is emphasized as primary and the outer as secondary (cf. Matt. 15:16-20; 23:25-28). Both must be attended to (Matt. 23:23), but inner impurity is always presented as the cause of outer defilement (the effect).

But does our Lord’s teaching square with the instructions given to the priests in Leviticus 21 and 22? Our Lord taught that the emphasis should be inward and not outward, and that this was the teaching of the Law as well, but does our text in Leviticus teach this truth? I believe that it does, although this is not immediately apparent. Let me explain how and why this is so.

We must begin by recognizing that we are able to grasp abstract truths only in terms of the concrete. Thus, we make models of the atom, so that people can grasp what an atom is like. We describe the moon as being round, and rough on the outside, like an orange. Paul referred to the Old Testament Law as a schoolmaster, which prepared us for the New Covenant and the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:24). Elsewhere the Law is described in terms of “elementary principles,” to which Christ died (cf. Col. 2:20). There is no question that Leviticus focuses on the external, ceremonial defilements. This was done so that the people of God could first understand defilement concretely, and then begin to grasp the more abstract concept of sin.

The problem with the interpretation and application of Leviticus (and the whole Law) by the scribes and Pharisees was that they did not go far enough with what was taught. They wrongly concluded that the essence of holiness was the avoidance of ceremonial defilement, rather than to see that it began with it.

We must be reminded again of the concept of progressive revelation, and how it relates to the interpretation of Leviticus. Leviticus begins by defining defilement in very concrete terms, but as the Old Testament revelation unfolds, the prophets emphatically teach that God is not nearly as interested in the external ceremonial acts of men as He is in the attitudes of their hearts and the resulting righteousness that should produce love for one’s neighbor, especially the oppressed and the weak:

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hos. 6:6).

“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

The psalmists understood the need to see beyond the ceremonial and the external in the Law. Thus we read, “Oh how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Seeing beyond the ceremonial and the external required the Spirit’s illumination, and thus the psalmist prayed, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Thy law” (Ps. 119:18).

Thus, finding God’s wisdom in the Law required much more than a casual or cursory reading, it required diligent study: “If you seek her as silver, And search for her as hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD, And discover the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:4-5).

Paul’s use of the Old Testament Law further illustrates how one should go from the concrete, literal, words of the text to the spiritual principles which are taught. In seeking to demonstrate that those who labor in the gospel should be financially supported, Paul turned to this text from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deut. 25:4, as cited in 1 Cor. 9:9). Taken literally this command pertains only to farmers and their oxen. But Paul correctly understood this command to teach a principle, which extended beyond the Old Testament dispensation into the New, and beyond farmers and oxen to people and preachers (actually apostles). Thus, Paul wrote, “God is not concerned about oxen, is He?” (1 Cor. 9:9) God does care about oxen, but Paul’s question (which presupposes a negative response) indicates that the primary reason for this command is not for the benefit of oxen, but for the benefit of people.

And so we see that we must search for meaning in the Old Testament Law which goes beyond the ceremonial, beyond the external and the literal to the heart of the matter. This is precisely where the scribes and Pharisees went wrong. They did not take the Law far enough. They stopped at the level of what was concrete, and did not press on to the abstract. They stopped at the external, without exploring the internal—the issues of the heart. God wrote the Law to deal with men on both levels, but primarily on the internal, rather than on the external. The scribes and Pharisees strained the “gnats” (the external outworkings of the Law), but they swallowed the “camels” (the internal implications of the Law), for which our Lord rebuked them. Neither “gnats” nor “camels” should be neglected (Matt. 23:23-24).

Error 3: Legalism (Works Righteousness)

One might conclude, as the scribes and Pharisees did, that if one was able to avoid the defilements defined in chapters 21 and 22 that he would be holy. Having come to this false conclusion, one would then be able to reason, as the scribes and Pharisees, that it was his works that made him righteous. It is this attitude which our Lord said characterized His opponents, the scribes and Pharisees. Consider these words once again:

And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get’” (Luke 18:9-11, emphasis mine).

This parable was spoken by our Lord to condemn those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. The scribes and Pharisees were wrong on two counts. First, they were wrong in thinking that they were righteous (cp. Matt. 5:20; 7:15). Secondly, they were wrong in attributing righteousness to their own efforts. It is self-righteousness that leads to pride, and the scribes and Pharisees had a double portion of both.

Where did they justify their conclusion on the basis of Leviticus 21 and 22? By thinking that since avoiding defilement (their own works) they made themselves holy. Thus, their righteousness was the results of their obedience to these commands in Leviticus.

How did they go wrong here? What did God intend to teach the priests by giving them the commandments pertaining to outward corruption and defilement in chapters 21 and 22? Now is the time to note the phrase which is the key to the entire passage, both structurally and interpretively: “I am the LORD, who sanctifies you.”

Who is it that sanctifies the priests, who makes them holy? God said six times that He did. He set Israel apart from the nations, and He set the priests apart from the people. The Israelites did not sanctify themselves by leaving Egypt, God released them while they, at best, stood by passively, and, at worst, drug their feet, rebelling and complaining.

God commanded the priests to avoid outward defilement because they were already holy, by God’s sanctification. They were to avoid the things prohibited because these things would make them unclean, not because avoiding them would make them clean. There is a world of difference between avoiding something to keep yourself from defilement and avoiding something to make yourself holy.

Here is a key to the error of the scribes and Pharisees. They confused the cause with the effect. The cause is the holiness, the sanctification, which God has already accomplished (which is primarily inner—a matter of the heart). The effect is separation of the priests from that which defiles, so as not to contaminate and defile that which God has sanctified. This explains why our Lord persisted, in His earthly teaching, to carefully distinguish between cause and effect. Salvation—making men clean—is our Lord’s work alone. Keeping ourselves pure is our duty (enabled by the Holy Spirit), so that we do not defile what God has cleansed. We ought to keep ourselves clean, but we can never make ourselves clean. We seek to stay clean (effect) because God has made us clean (cause). The priests should avoid defilement (effect) because God had already set them apart (cause).

This is no new revelation, something never made known in the Old Testament. It is precisely that which was taught by the prophet Haggai:

On the twenty-fourth of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to Haggai the prophet saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Ask now the priests for a ruling: If a man carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and touches bread with this fold, or cooked food, wine, oil, or any other food, will it become holy?’” And the priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean from a corpse touches any of these, will the latter become unclean?” And the priests answered and said, “It will become unclean” (Haggai 2:10-13).

The point which is made here is that holiness is not contagious, it cannot be transmitted by contact with holy things. Defilement, however, is contagious, it can be transmitted by contact with what is unholy.

The scribes and Pharisees seemed to think that they “caught” holiness by their official duties, which put them in contact with “holy” things. Defilement can be caught, and thus God warned the priests about coming into contact with the unholy. Holiness, however, only comes from God.


What is it, then, that God wanted to teach the priests in these two chapters? First, He wanted them to know that He is the One who makes men holy, who sets them apart. It was not that the sons of Aaron were better or more worthy than the other Israelites, or that they “tried harder.” It was simply that God sovereignly chose to set them apart from others, to perform a special task. Second, He wanted them to know that in order to perform their task they had to remain undefiled, and thus they had to avoid those defilements which others might have been free to contact. God did have a higher standard for His priests, because they had a sacred task—that of making offerings for the people, because they had a higher privilege, and with it came a higher responsibility.

Where did the scribes and Pharisees go wrong? I think they erred in several critical areas. First and foremost, the scribes and Pharisees did not handle (interpret and apply) the Scriptures properly. They did not carry them far enough. They stopped at the apparent, but did not press on to the intended meaning and practice. They interpreted the Scriptures in terms of what they wanted to believe and in terms of the way they wished to live. They did not conform their lives to the Word of God, but conformed the Word of God to their lives. They turned the sacred text into a pretext. They interpreted the Scriptures in such a way as to always “fulfill” them, to live by their demands, rather than to be persistently reminded of their own sinfulness, and their need for a sacrifice. Rather than seeing holiness as God’s work, they saw it as man’s work, and thus they became proud and independent, rather than humble and dependent upon God. They did not feel that they needed, nor did they seek, mercy, but they felt they deserved God’s blessings. Rather than viewing their position as a privilege, they saw it as a right. Rather than seeing their ministry as a service, they saw it as a right to have status.

These errors are not confined to ancient Israel, or to the first century, they are just as prevalent and popular today. We, like the scribes and Pharisees, are not inclined to take the Scriptures as far as God intended us to. We wish to stop at the point of studying them for information, for the formulation or proof-texting of theological systems. We want to feel holy, without acknowledging that holiness comes only from God. We want to avoid those defilements which we find distasteful anyway. We want to keep the Scriptures carefully compartmentalized, rather than to allow them to convict us in every corner of our lives. We want to use the Scriptures to elevate ourselves above our peers. May God grant us to understand and to apply the principles of Leviticus and the Law as our Lord taught us to do, for His sake.

And for those who may never have been “made holy” by a personal experience of salvation, let me remind you of several important truths from our text. First, just as our text has required both the priests and the sacrifices to be perfect (and the high priest especially so), our Lord Jesus Christ was both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. His priestly offering of Himself has, once for all, made holy all those who trust in His work on their behalf. The Book of Hebrews strongly emphasizes this truth.

Second, just as only those who are members of the priest’s family can partake of the benefits of his priestly ministry (22:10-16), so only those who are members of the family of God can partake of the blessings of Christ’s priestly ministry. If you have not become a member of His family, do so today. Acknowledge your sin, and your unrighteousness. Trust in His shed blood for the payment for your sins. And then you may enjoy the fruits of His ministry—forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and fellowship with Him for all eternity.

119 H. A. Ironside, Holiness: The False and the True (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1912). This book is in its 24th printing.

120 Harold Bussell, Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983).