The Intransitive Property of Holiness (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Mark 5:25-34
Hebrews 10:1-24
Haggai 2:10-19

We are continuing our study of the book of Haggai.  A little recap before we start.  Haggai was a prophet to a small, but dedicated group of Jews who had returned from Babylon to begin the task of rebuilding Israel.  On one hand the return from exile was a momentous occasion.  No longer were the people in bondage in a foreign land.  There was an opportunity to rebuild what the Babylonians had taken from them.  On the other hand, their situation was precarious.  The people were few, weak, the harvests were poor, and they were surrounded everywhere by the ruins of their once great civilization.  The prophets had promised a glorious future in which God would perform a new act greater even than the Exodus.  Yet as they looked around there was no evidence that this was beginning or even a possibility.  At the urgings of the prophet Haggai, the people had begun to rebuild the temple, but as we saw last week it was far from what they had hoped.  Old men who had seen the first temple cried at seeing this new one and even Haggai declared its appearance was as nothing.  

Not only is the temple nothing, we are told in verse 19 that the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree have yielded nothing.  If you will remember in chapter 1, Haggai had declared that the land’s lack of prosperity was a result of the temple not yet being rebuilt.  Now as the temple is being rebuilt, the people find that they still are lacking.  Prosperity has not returned and once again the people have found their high expectations met with the cold, harsh reality of their present situation.  This is not how the plan was supposed to work.  The people were no closer to their glorious future and yet unlike their ancestors, they had actually listened to a prophet for once.  

Haggai’s message last week was for Zerubbabel, the governor, Joshua, the high priest, and the remnant of the people who had returned to be strong and to get back to work because the Lord was with them.  The temple itself was symbolic of the presence of the Lord.  Haggai’s central message was that despite all appearances God was indeed present working and acting through them.  The Lord of Hosts is pictured as invading army and they the people who returned were the remnant taking up their role as the people who would play their part in the great cosmic drama leading to the day of the Lord when everything would be made right, Israel would fulfill its mission, and the Lord would return to rule at last with true justice instead of the present cruel powers of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. 

So why were the people in such a pathetic state with a pathetic temple and a promise land producing next to nothing?  Its a fair question, a great question, and our passage today is Haggai’s answer to this question.  

As is typically the case for Haggai, Haggai answers this question with a question.   The questions are directed toward the priests asking them to make rulings on issues of holiness and cleanness.  First, Haggai asks if a priest is carrying holy meat in his holy robes and then touches any other food item does it become holy?  Second, Haggai asks if someone is unclean because of contact with a dead body and touches something holy does it become unclean?  

In order to understand this passage, we have to understand a little about the holiness codes contained in the book of Leviticus.  If you have ever tried to read Leviticus, you know that it contains a very detailed description of the rules and regulation for how sacrifices were to be offered and also what foods, activities, and conditions were considered holy, clean, and unclean.  However, before we look at the rules of the holiness codes it is important to examine the context so we can understand the purpose of the holiness codes.  

The first point I want to stress is that the holiness codes are not meant to be universal, moral law.  These rules and procedures are introduced at a particular time in the story of Israel and fulfill a specific role in Biblical history and that is why the context is important.  In the book of Exodus, the Hebrews had been freed from enslavement by the Egyptians and led to Mount Sinai, where God makes a covenant with them and gives them the ten commandments.  God then instructs them to build the tabernacle where God will be present in a special way in their midst.  The book of Exodus ends with the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle.

It was this event, the filling of the tabernacle with the glory and presence of the Lord that necessitates the book of Leviticus.  The holiness codes contained in Leviticus are not needed if God is not present and dwelling in the midst of the people.  That is why the holiness codes are introduced at this particular point in the story of Israel.  

Israel must be instructed in how to live when the presence of the living God, the creator of the universe who had redeemed them from slavery and will now use them to redeem all of humanity from sin and death, is near.  God’s presence must be respected and feared lest it become familiar and treated lightly.  God may be near and in a special relationship, but He is still not of this world.  This special set apartness belonging to a higher and more perfect realm is what we call holiness.  Israel is told that because a holy God is dwelling in their midst then they must be holy.  The holiness code is a way to teach the people about holiness and help the people understand what it means to be in the presence of God.

We learn at the beginning of the book of Hebrews, that long ago at many times and many places God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son.  One of the many ways that God spoke with His people was through symbolism.  Today this is not the primary way God communicates with us, because we have the teachings of Christ and Christ is the most perfect representative of God the father.  So symbolism is not as prevalent for us, but for the Israelites it was a big deal.  Maybe this was because literacy was not as widespread.  Maybe the culture of the ancient peoples was more receptive to symbolism than our own culture.  In any event, a lot of symbolism was built into the ritual the Israelites used as they approached God in worship.  This symbolism was the way God communicated to the people what God was like.  As the philosopher Paul Ricouer said, “symbolism gives rise to thought.”

The Holiness code then was ritualized symbolism.  The symbol itself was chosen to symbolize a truth, but there was nothing right or wrong or good or bad about the symbol itself. Uncleanness was unavoidable in many cases and was not sinful. Uncleanness happens. 

Let me give you some examples of how the holiness codes worked.  You would not approach the tabernacle after touching a dead body.  God’s holiness means life and not death because He is a creator who provides life.  Death is associated with sin therefore contact with a dead body made someone unclean.  God’s holiness means purity and so Israelites were not to wear clothes made from a mixture of materials.  It gets more complicated than that, but that should give you at least some idea of the logic.  The important concept to note is that something unclean is not sinful in itself, however it is symbolic of sin.  

This leads to the next part of the holiness code.  There are three categories under the holiness code: holy, clean, and unclean.  Something holy was appropriate for worship, something clean was a neutral state, and something unclean was a negative state.   If something holy comes in contact with something unclean it is defiled and no longer appropriate for worship.  If something clean comes in contact with something unclean, it then become unclean.  The progression goes one way.  Certain rites have to be performed to restore a worshipper or an object from a state of uncleanness to one of cleanness.  A rite has to be performed to change something from clean to holy.   What is unclean must be cleansed to be made clean.  What is clean must be sanctified in order to be holy.   Again the important thing to note is these categories move in one direction.  The categories are not transitive.  

The reason this concept is important is that it demonstrates the corrupting influence of sin.  Sin is not simply a moral failing or something to be avoided.  The Holiness code illustrates the defilement of sin.   Sin is like pollution, effecting everything it comes in contact with.  A Holy God is the opposite of sin and the pollution of sin creates a barrier between humanity and God.  That is why people who are unclean cannot approach the temple to worship.  What is communicated is the gravity of sin - it is associated with death, with disorder, with impurity, with chaos and it separates us from God.  Its purpose is not to impose a morality but as a teaching tool.  The book of Hebrews likens the regulations to a parable and calls them bodily regulations imposed until the time comes to set things right.  

With that in mind let us return to our passage and the questions Haggai asks.  Haggai directs these two questions to the priests.  In Leviticus the priest were charged with protecting and guarding the holiness of God and maintaining the sanctity of the temple.  The priests are tasked with “distinguishing between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”  So it is natural for Haggai to ask the priest for a ruling.  Of course they know the answer - they are pretty basic questions, what the Levites would have learned in Priesthood 101.  Holy meat does not transfer its holiness.  Furthermore, If the holy meat comes in contact with someone unclean, such as someone who comes in contact with a dead body, the holy meat becomes defiled.  Uncleanness pollutes because uncleanness is a picture of sin and sin pollutes.

Remember though the question, that Haggai is trying to answer by asking these questions.  The people want to know why after following Haggai’s message and rebuilding the temple are they still suffering from poor harvests?  Why is Jerusalem still in ruins?  Why are they still under the rule of Persia?  Why has the restoration still not come?  Haggai’s answer that he is leading the people to by asking the questions to the priests is that they are unclean.  

The people are unclean and the sacrifices they bring to the temple they have just built are also unclean.  Unclean people transmit their uncleanness to holy sacrifices, unclean people are not made holy by the holy sacrifice.  As unclean people they cannot approach the temple and offer acceptable worship and since that is the function of the temple, their mission of rebuilding the temple remains unfulfilled at least in practice.  This then leads to question - why are the people unclean?

To answer this question, we need to remember that uncleanness is a picture of sin but not sinful of itself.  So we can reject the explanation that the people have done something morally wrong.  The people’s offense is not an issue of morality but a ritual failure.  The example of the dead body provides the clue.  Jerusalem had been totally and completely leveled by the Babylonians.  The temple had been destroyed and burned down.  According to Lamentations, priest and prophet were killed in the sanctuary of the Lord.  The people were enslaved and taken to a foreign land by a foreign people who did not know or care for God.  They were defiled by defeat, exile, slavey, and death.  None of these represent a God who is characterized by victory, freedom, and life.  The result of uncleanness, just like the result of sin is that it prevents prosperity.  It is true that these people were, for the most part, not responsible for this state, but this was often true of uncleanness.  Uncleanness was something that was unavoidable in many cases.  This too is true of sin whose effects often spread to those who did not commit the particular sin.  

I think this is a point our American individualism has often neglected in our theology.  Too often we look at sin as an individual moral failing.  Its not that this is wrong, individuals do commit individual sins.  However, we often neglect the effects sin has on the community beyond the individual.  Sin is bad not just because of what it does to the person but what it does to the community.  It corrupts and defiles and even those who are innocent suffer.  This is part of what it means to be in a fallen world.  The problem of restricting sin to the individual is this causes us to be blind to the people who suffer as a result of sin.  We see suffering and there is almost a tacit assumption that the the person is responsible for their own suffering.  I see this for example in our thinking about the poor - they obviously did something to end up in this situation.  The problem is the entire witness of the Bible seems to argue against this.  Often the Bible makes the point that it is the greed or oppressiveness of the wealthy and powerful that places people in situations of suffering and it is their sin of the wealthy and powerful that Bible condemns.  

Nevertheless, the people now have a problem.  The holiness codes provided a solution for uncleanness.  Uncleanness could be cleansed through an appropriate sacrifice.  The problem was that as verse 14 states, what they offer is unclean.  In other words, the people have reached a point where the holiness code can no longer alleviate their uncleanness.  The system has broken down and the people are stuck in their uncleanness.  

However, it is hear at this impasse where hope is seemingly nowhere to be found that we encounter the gospel in Haggai.   As with Abraham and Sarah who see no chance of have a child and are without hope.  As with the Hebrews enslaved by the most powerful empire of the world at that time.  As with Jesus who is taken prisoner and crucified by the cruel might of Rome.  At all points where the people of God have reached a point where there is no hope, where the powers of violence and oppression and evil have gathered to do their worst and the only certainty is death, God is merely setting the stage from His greatest acts of deliverance.   

God had promised Abraham and Sarah a child.  God had promised the Hebrews a land of their own where they could live in freedom.  God had promised that He would free Israel from the power of Rome and the world from the tyranny even of death.  In Haggai, God had promised the Jerusalem community that He would restore Israel to even greater prosperity and God will be faithful despite uncleanness and despite their unfaithfulness.  The answer for these people is to turn to Him.  Only God can provide a solution and see what God does - its amazing.  Look with me at the end of verse 19, God looks at His people and says, “But from this day on I will bless you.”  

It is God who says I will veto your unfaithfulness, because God is faithful to His promises despite the fact that His people abandoned Him and despite the power of Babylon and despite exile God looks at His people and says, but from this day on I will bless you.

When we come to the New Testament we have Jesus doing the exact thing.  Jesus the pure image of the Father, who tells His followers He who has seen me has seen the Father.  I want us now to look at our passage from Mark.  This passage is set in a series where Jesus has just healed a man possessed by an unclean spirit who was living in a grave yard next to a herd of pigs.  It is the most unclean situation imaginable.  Jesus is then asked by a man named Jarius to lay hands on his dead daughter to make her alive.  On His way, He is stopped by the woman who is subject of our text.  A woman who for 12 years had been afflicted with a discharge of blood.  This condition would have made the woman unable to worship in the temple and would have alienated her from the community because contact with her would have made them unable to worship in the temple.  She touches Jesus, knowing that her contact would have made Jesus unclean but convinced by her faith that Jesus was something outside the system, of a greater and higher order than the holiness code.  In all these instances, Jesus does what God does and what God is always doing, Jesus touches them and result is that from that day on they are blessed.  

This is what God does, He is at work taking the ravages that sin and death have wrought on this world, taking a situation that is hopeless and declaring, but from this day on I will bless you.  It is what Christ in His death on the cross was sent to this world to do.  To undo all the bad things.  To wipe aways every tear from their eyes, declaring that death shall be no more, and neither mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

I want to tie all of these thoughts together by looking at our passage from Hebrews.  Turn with me now to Hebrews 10.  The passage starts by explaining that the holiness codes and the sacrificial system were a shadow, the word in Greek is where we derive our term scheme and it means something like a blueprint or model that was teaching the people what was to be fulfilled ultimately in Christ.  A blueprint is a plan that is necessary to build something but it is a means and not at end.  A blueprint is lacking in size and dimension and so the holiness codes were lacking.  Hebrews explains that the sacrifices were inadequate, they had to repeated.  They illustrated the plan, but ultimately it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to solve the problem.  Christ though is what the blueprint was pointing to and when He comes, He does away with the first order to establish the second.  Christ is the ultimate means by which God will bless His people.  

We are all effected by our own sin and by the pollution of the sin of others.  The world is broken and tainted by death.  Its a bigger problem than something we did wrong.  The Greek word for sin is hamartia, and its picture is that of an archer who cannot hit the target.  The word literally means “missing the mark.”  Like the Jerusalem community in Haggai we have reached a point where we cannot make ourselves clean - we have reached an impasse.  God though declares that despite this real, existential fact, from this day on, God will bless us.  He sins His son to as the perfect sacrifice that is able to sanctify our uncleanness.  As a result of the resurrection, Christ brings life and those of us who are raised up with Him no longer stink of death.  

The result of this is in verse 19 of Hebrews 10.  Now we can have confidence to enter the holy places.  Do you see that, we have been made by the blood of Christ.  The impasse has been broken because the God who promised us this is faithful and He has said from this day on I will bless you..  So now like the unclean women we can touch Jesus knowing that we will be made whole.  `Nor as this an end of itself because now we are a people with a mission, just as the remnant is one with a mission.  We can at last take our part in our true vocation that God has given us as humans, freed from the oppression of sin, freed from the tyranny of death, now we can stir one another up to love and good works knowing that from this day on God will bless us.