Please read Leviticus 13:1-4, 45-46; 14:1-9 in your Bible.
Image by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020
I want to begin with an abridged version of an article appearing on the website “The Hill” last Sunday, written by Justine Coleman.
“Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville and its pastor Jack Roberts filed a lawsuit against Kentucky[‘s governor] for allegedly targeting churchgoers with the enforcement of a stay-at-home order on Easter Sunday.
“The lawsuit asserts that [the governor] violated the residents’ religious freedom by instructing Kentucky State Police to give criminal sanctions to all vehicles in the church’s parking lot on the Christian holiday, including vehicles participating in drive-in services.
“The police recorded congregants’ license plates and provided notices for 14-day mandatory quarantines. The notices informed churchgoers that they were required to report their temperatures daily and avoid public places and transportation.
“Liberty Counsel criticized the governor’s alleged selective enforcement in a release, saying nearby Kroger, Wal-Mart, liquor stores and other parking lots were ‘packed with cars’ and ‘jammed with people,’ but they didn’t receive quarantine notices.
“The governor’s office warned that attending church gatherings on the holiday weekend would classify as a misdemeanor violation, in a press release two days before Easter.
“Churches across the country are challenging stay-at-home orders that ban them from meeting in-person. Some states have designated worship services as essential, while others have not.”
This is an example of the tension in our nation - probably around the world - between social distancing and personal freedom/economic necessity. It is not my purpose to rehash those arguments. Instead, I felt lead to see what the Bible had to say about the issue. As usual, I asked God to reveal principles that are just as true in our situation even though our situation is different from the situation of the Bible writers. Whenever we seek wisdom from the Bible we must first understand its words in light of the world as it was when the words were first written or spoken. Then we express that truth in the form of eternal principles; revelation from God that is applicable in all times and places. The third step is to apply those principles to our situation. Today’s message is an exercise of that process.
CONTEXT: When reading through the Bible, the book of Leviticus can be tough sledding. I only have two sermons in the Leviticus file in my office. However, by faith we recognize that God’s law expressed God’s will. Whether we have wisdom to see it or not every law of God is given for the benefit of His people. Understanding is optional; obedience is mandatory.
God’s Law required separation from the community in the case of some illnesses.
1. The Law.
Notes on Leviticus 13:1-4, 45-46 taught separation was required while suffering an infectious disease and when suspected of suffering an infectious disease. While this chapter deals with skin diseases, the important point (v. 2) is that the disease in question is an INFECTIOUS one. (There is discussion among scholars whether or not the term "leprosy" is similar to our modern use of that term. The Hebrew word is more general; describing different skin diseases that may have included leprosy as we know it today.
In verses three and four we read A PRIEST was the one to examine the patient. This was their only medical function. The priest’s examination was to conclude whether or not the disease was serious enough to PRONOUNCE the patient CEREMONIALLY UNCLEAN. There were two possible outcomes: clean or unclean.
If the patient was declared CLEAN, then a week’s separation from the camp was required as a precaution (v. 4). After the week had passed, the patient’s condition was re-evaluated (v. 5-8). Now there were three possible outcomes: another week might be required, or the person declared cured and clean, or declared UNCLEAN. Might this be a biblical precedent for social distancing?
This was not a “shelter-in-place” order. The patient could not stay with family, for that might expose them too; the patient was required to live outside the camp. This was the policy for all the conditions that made a person CEREMONIALLY UNCLEAN.
In verse 45 we read the steps the person suffering from the disease was to practice as an ancient form of social distancing. They were commanded to wear torn clothing and keep an unkempt appearance. These two thing might also denote grief or fasting, so the third item of a partially covered face were all visual cues of an unclean status. This is like the masks we wear or see others wearing in public places. Additionally, the person was to cry out a warning of “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” UNCLEAN status could be transmitted by touch, so the sick person was supposed to protect the healthy in these ways. The practice of separation was to last as long as the disease continued.
In Leviticus 14:1-32 we read that restoration was required after getting over the disease. (We don’t have space to consider all 32 verses, so we’ll look at the first nine as an example.)
As verse two states, these instructions were for CEREMONIAL CLEANSING: "ceremonial" referring to the person’s status as part of the worshiping community.
The priest’s role was to verify that the person was actually healed of the infectious disease (v. 3). Notice the priest was to GO OUTSIDE THE CAMP to make this determination; the safety of the camp was not put at risk by an unverified claim to healing.
If the claim is verified, a sacrifice is made for the person’s CEREMONIAL CLEASING (vs. 3-7). For the sake of context, allow me to explain of the practice of sacrifices in the Old Testament Law. Animal sacrifices were made to atone for sin; the deadly consequence of sin was cancelled by the life of the animal; by its blood, in particular.
Now an explanation of this particular sacrifice. This offering closely resembles the sacrifice of a red heifer in Numbers 19:6 and the cleansing of a house here in Leviticus 14, verses 49-53.
TWO CLEAN BIRDS were needed. Deuteronomy 14:11-18 lists all the unclean birds (including bats). This is not a scientific list, so there’s no reason to expect all the birds to be of a single type.
CEDAR WOOD was regarded by the Jews as a symbol of pride. This may imply that the person's pride in themselves was restored with their health.
SCARLET YARN (“scarlet stuff of a worm”) was a Jewish symbol of humility. Scarlet thread and rope are mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament.
HYSSOP is connected with cleansing in Psalm 51:7. This may be in reference to the first Passover, when a hyssop branch was to be used to paint the doorposts with lamb's blood.
The former patient was to be sprinkled SEVEN times with the blood and water solution. In the Old Testament, blood was used to sanctify things and biblically the number seven is the symbol of completeness; divine perfection.
The surviving bird was released to symbolize the person’s new status as clean and a restored member of the community. It is the similar to sending the scapegoat into the wilderness as directed on the Day of Atonement (16:21). This is a symbol of the person being forgiven of their sin.
Verses 8-9 detail the person’s own steps in demonstrating their CLEANSING on to the community.
They were to wear clean clothes. Shaving all body hair emphasized their unblemished skin and being entirely shaved avoided concealing any other skin blemishes. The patient spent one week inside the camp but outside his home.
We must note that Jesus followed the Law of Moses in general and in this specific case. When He healed ten lepers, he instructed them to go and show themselves to the priest (Luke 5:12-15).
2. The principles behind the Law.
The practice of medicine and the practice of faith are inseparable. I am not saying that our society should require doctors to be pastors or pastors to be doctors. I am simply observing that for followers of Jesus, science and faith are not separate things: they are both perspectives on truth and as such, both must be founded upon God. We don’t turn over part of our lives to science and another part to theology. These are aspects of knowledge that should inform and shape one another as they did before natural science was separated from theology.
Personal separation serves the faith community in instances of disease and sin. In times of disease we separate ourselves from others to avoid spreading the disease and to facilitate our recovery. In times of rebellion against God, unrepentant sinners need to be separated from the community of faith to preserve the integrity and reputation of the community and to facilitate the repentance of the sinner.
Disease is a serious matter; sin is more serious. Think back to all the ceremony that people were supposed to undergo when they recovered from an infectious disease, the passages we looked at earlier. If nothing else, doesn’t that prove that God took all this seriously and that His people were to take it seriously too?
Look at the expense, effort, and good will that creative people have poured into coping with the coronavirus. It is a serious matter and needs the attention it has been getting. This kind of sacrifice is excellent and praiseworthy in the sight of all people when it is given voluntarily and not compelled by civil authorities.
But we are misusing this precious time if we fail to attend to our spiritual life and particularly the disease of sin. I do not believe COVID-19 is God’s punishment of sin any more than familiar illnesses are. But this situation has so disrupted the usual conduct of our lives, it is irresponsible for us to not spend more time in prayer, Scripture, and in service to God.
3. Applying the principles to our situation.
Prioritize faith in God over faith in science or politics or any other worldly thing. From my very amateur perspective, I believe the science of COVID-19 is still waiting to be discovered. Claims to have figured out the coronavirus need to be met with healthy skepticism and vigorous testing. Not every action that has been undertaken in the name of thwarting the virus has been scientifically necessary. Even when the science of the coronavirus becomes more certain, what needs to have priority is faith. Our trust is in God, not science.
We need to recognize the necessity of separation for our most vulnerable people and preserving the freedom of those not at risk. What’s new here is not so much the virus itself, but the way we are reacting to it. History holds examples of other infectious diseases that were not understood in their time. What is unique historically is our practice of quarantining undiagnosed persons.
God’s Law required separation from the community in the case of some illnesses.
As we conclude, I want to remind you we did not come to God’s word searching for sanctions of any particular public health policy. Instead, we came searching for some eternal principles that we might apply to our situation as followers of Jesus.
What we discovered along the way was God’s care for His people manifest in laws intended to promote both health and holiness. Our modern culture is too prone to separate health from holiness; that is not a biblical model.
We discovered separation is a measure God sanctioned in the case of physical illness and unrepentant sin. The individual must sometimes suffer separation for the good of the faith-community. This is yet another example of how individual rights do not trump the good of the community but instead are subordinate to it.
The coronavirus has been called an “unprecedented situation,” but of course that’s not true; history is darkened with accounts of plagues. For example, in the 14th century the bubonic plague killed about a quarter of Europe’s population. At that time it was known that whole villages moved away, leaving those stricken behind. What’s a little bit unique about this situation is the heavy hand government has taken to poor science turned into unlegislated laws. History also makes clear that a crisis is construed as an opportunity to enlarge government at the loss of freedom. Once governments gain power they never relinquish it willingly.
Each one of us needs to make careful decisions about our accommodations to the coronavirus, seeing the wisdom and truth in what we’re being told while avoiding overreactions and the overreaching some persons have perpetrated. This is not an easy time because it is an unfamiliar problem compounded by an unfamiliar solution. Trust in God first and foremost, seeking the spiritual cleansing He has provided us in Jesus Christ.
Zondervan Bible Commentary, “Leviticus,” Robert P. Gordon
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, “Leviticus,” R. Laird Harris