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The next lesson I learned from my recent reading in Leviticus has to do with blood and water, purification, and ceremonial cleansing. As a Reformed Baptist, baptism is of great interest to me. There are many views on the ordinance of baptism. Some sprinkle, some dunk, some do it at birth, others after a profession of faith. Some believe baptism is necessary for salvation, others view it as a symbol of our union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection; an ordinance to be obeyed and important for demonstrating what Christ has done on behalf of the believer, but not salvific in and of itself. It’s this later doctrinal debate that I think Leviticus may shed some light on.
Beginning in about chapter 11 of Leviticus, there is much talk of what is unclean and the procedure that must be undergone in order to be made clean again. It didn’t take me long to notice the repetition of the words wash, bathe, and purify, but then I began to notice that washing and bathing (with water) was always related to being made ceremonially clean, whereas purification was made by sprinkling the blood of a sacrifice offered as a purification offering. Sometimes the blood is sprinkled on the altar for purification such as for purification after childbirth or purification of the altar, itself, or purification of the high priest on the Day of Atonement, and sometimes the blood is sprinkled on the unclean person such as when a person is seeking to be purified of a skin disease, or in the case of the ordination of priests. Both washing to become ceremonially clean and the sprinkling of blood for purification is made in each case, but the order in which they are performed varies.
During my reading the first question I asked myself was this: What is the difference between being made ceremonially clean and being purified? There must be a difference since a different protocol is followed for each, yet they sound almost indistinguishable to me. If someone had asked me to define purify, I probably would have answered along the lines of to make clean. I also noticed that the purification ceremony involved only the person, the priest (representative of God), and the blood of the animal used in the purification ceremony. The washing, however, seemed to be more public. It involved washing the clothes worn at the time of contamination (I’m assuming the wash was done in a somewhat public location), as well as bathing the body and sometimes shaving the head. The final and most important observation was that the washing did not actually make the person clean. In the case of skin diseases, the purification ceremony was performed first followed by instructions in washing of the clothes and bathing. In the case of coming into contact with bodily discharge, washing and bathing is performed first (logical), but it is specifically stated that said person is to remain unclean even after the washing. So the washing and bathing with water didn’t actually make the person clean. Then after seven days (the period of purification), he washes his clothes and bathes himself again in fresh water and is made ceremonially clean, but on the eighth day, “the priest will offer one bird for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. Through this process, the priest will purify the man before the Lord...” (Lev 15:15)
“I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.” (Lev 17:11)
I think that verse is significant. Now we know from Hebrews 10 that the blood of animals was never sufficient to take away sins, but was a shadow of the blood that would be shed by the Lamb of God, which would be sufficient to take away sins. So please don’t think I’m saying that the purification ceremony described in Leviticus actually made a sinful person clean. What I’m saying, is that this whole obsession with not touching anything unclean in Leviticus was to show the Israelites that they couldn’t stay clean. This constant purification process served as a reminder that they were unclean before God. It symbolized and reminded them of the pervasiveness of their own sin. Furthermore, the shedding of blood was required for purification (again this is a shadow of the ultimate purification to come).
So, getting back to the issue of the ordinance of baptism… I see water baptism as a continuation of ceremonial cleansing (John 3:25 shows John’s disciples connected the two). Water as a means of ceremonial washing is not something that just pops up in the NT, but is present in the OT too as we’ve just seen. Baptism symbolizes how a person has actually been made clean by Christ’s work on the cross, just like ceremonial washing and bathing in the OT showed that a person was undergoing or had undergone purification. The actual purification process requires the shedding of blood on behalf of the person being made pure (remember Leviticus 17:11 quoted above). It is actually Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and the application of His shed blood on our behalf by the Father, that saves us. He paid the debt that we could not. We cannot purify ourselves from sin any more than the Israelites could. Salvation comes only by the blood of the Lamb of God. Water cannot wash away our sins and it cannot make us pure. Baptism instead is a beautiful picture of the purifying work of Christ.