Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 22:26; 1 Timothy 4:4-5
September 6, 2015 * Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear Congregation of Christ: What do Reformed Christians like us mention the most in theological conversations? By far, our favorite word is “covenant,” such as “covenant children,” “covenant people,” and “covenant promises.” Many of our churches have the words “Covenant Church.” Sometimes, other Christians get tired of our constant use of this most important motif in Scriptures.
In preparing for today’s sermon, I realized that another very common and important motif in the Bible is “separation.” From the creation account in Genesis all the way to the endtime events in Revelation, separation is mentioned often. In creation, God separated light from darkness, dry land from the waters. In the tabernacle and the temple, a veil separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Also, unclean people were separated from the holy place. Samson the Judge, was a Nazirite who was supposed to separate himself from wine and dead animals. Ezra commanded the people who returned from Babylon to separate themselves from foreign wives. In the New Testament, some examples are the separation of wheat and weeds, as well as sheep and goats, on the last day.
But not all instances of “separation” are positive. The Lord commanded Joshua that he must “devote” or “set apart” to destruction the cities in Canaan that they would conquer (Jos 6:17). God says that those in the covenant community who separate themselves from God are condemned (Ezk 14:7). And Jesus commands that those who are married must not be separated (Matt 19:6).
Our text today is part of a long indictment by God through the prophet Ezekiel of Israel’s southern kingdom because of her violence, sexual immorality, oppression of the poor, and many other immoral deeds. Because of these violations of God’s covenant laws, God will judge the nation by sending the Babylonians to destroy the land and the temple, and sending the people into a 70-year exile. In our text, the priests are also guilty of violating God’s law and profaning what God has made holy in three ways. First, they made no distinction between the holy and the common. Second they did not differentiate between the unclean and the clean. And third, they did not separate the holy Sabbath days and the common days. In violating God’s laws concerning these things, they have in fact also profaned God’s holy name.
By Not Distinguishing the Holy from the Common
The Law of Moses commanded Israel, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev 10:10). How did the priests and the people fail to distinguish between the holy and the common? The temple and its furnishings and vessels were set apart for holy use such as the ceremonial sacrifices, washings, and worship services. But many of the kings of Judah used the temple and its furnishings and utensils for unholy purposes. Manasseh set up idol worship in the temple (2 Kgs 21:7). Ahaz gathered the vessels in the temple, cut them into pieces, and made idols and altars out of them (2 Chr 28:24). Some people broke into the temple and stole all the holy things of God to worship idols (2 Chr 24:7).
What is the distinction between the holy and the common? Most people think of cathedrals and other church buildings as “holy.” If you stepped into these buildings, you are on “holy ground.” So when you enter this building on Sundays like this, are you on “holy ground?” The Apostle Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16) The church of Christ is holy, because it is the temple of God and the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, you will also hear about “holy water” that people dip their hands in and then make the sign of the cross. But there is only one “holy water,” and that is the water that is used in baptism. Water is just plain ordinary water from the rains, faucet, river or lake. But when this same common water is used for this holy sacrament, it becomes holy, set apart for God’s purpose. And this is the same with the common bread and common wine that we will partake in the Lord’s Supper today. They were bought from a grocery store. But when these elements are set apart for use in the sacrament of the Holy Communion, they are treated as holy elements.
Bones, skin, fingers and other “holy relics” of the apostles and other “saints” are preserved to be cherished and venerated by devotees. The most notable of these are the foreskin of baby Jesus, the head of John the Baptist, the “Holy Shroud,” and the legendary “Holy Grail.” All of these have been proven as fakes. Are all these holy before God? No, not at all. Only people who have been justified by God through faith alone in Christ alone are holy. This is why Christians are called “saints,” which means “set apart” or “separated” from the rest of mankind.
Many people, Christians and unbelievers alike, still refer to Israel as the “Holy Land.” But there is no Holy Land today on earth. The only Holy Land is heaven, where all believers will dwell in eternity. All earth is common land. The sunshine and rain that we enjoy and benefit from are also given by God to all others, Christian and unbelievers. This is called common grace. But God has a special grace given to his elect, grace that leads to salvation. He calls out by the Holy Spirit all those whom he saves. We Christians are “called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This is why Christians are called holy, saints, because we have been set apart from the rest of mankind to be God’s special treasured possession. As in “common grace,” unbelievers are “common” in that God does not bestow on them his special “saving grace.”
What is the distinction between “holy” and “common”? What God has set apart, separated from the rest of creation, for his holy purpose is holy. The rest are common.
By Not Differentiating the Unclean from the Clean
What of the separation between the unclean and the clean? We find these laws mostly in Leviticus. First are the dietary laws. Select animals, birds, creeping and crawling insects, and fish are unclean and so were not to be eaten. Those that were associated with death, such as birds and animals of prey, were unclean. Creeping and crawling insects were unclean because they evoked images of the serpent in Eden. Animals that chewed the cud and had cloven hooves, were clean, as also scaly fish. Second, there were laws for separating from the unclean, and purification rites to remove the uncleanness. Touching the dead, leprosy, sexual activity, and delivery of a baby makes one unclean and requires purification by the priest to be declared clean again. All of those things remind us of the consequences of sin.
Therefore, in these laws, God taught Israel to separate themselves from sin, impurities in the world, and death. But Israel disregarded these laws. All those idols that are unclean and abominable to God (Isa 30:22; Jer 2:23; Ezk 7:20) were set in the temple and other places of worship. They violated women who were unclean (Ezk 22:10). God punished them because by their sins, they “have all become like one who is unclean, and all [their] righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa 64:6).
But the apostles and the Lord Jesus himself taught that this differentiation was only a temporary foreshadow of his work of separating his people from sin. Jesus told the unbelieving Pharisees that no food makes a person unclean, but out of his heart, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23).
Christ appeared to the Apostle Peter in a vision telling him to eat what a Jew considers as unclean. But Christ said, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Only then did he realize that God was calling him to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and his Gentile household. And Paul also told the Romans about eating meat offered to idols, “nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Rom 14:14). And also one of our readings, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:4-5).
Therefore, who or what is unclean before God? Only those who have not been cleansed by God. Isaiah realized this fact when the glory and holiness of the Lord appeared to him in the temple, saying that he is unclean, and the people around him are unclean, because they are all sinners (Isa 6:5).
By Hiding Their Eyes from His Sabbaths
Even in the wilderness, Israel violated God’s holy Sabbath laws. They gathered manna and sticks on the seventh day (Exo 16:27; Num 15:32). After they came back from the exile, some of them gathered their farm produce, loaded their donkeys, and went to the city to sell them. Others were there to buy their supplies. All on the Sabbath day (Neh 13:15). Others attended to their own pleasure on the Sabbath, instead of “[calling] the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable” (Isa 58:13-14). They all knew God’s 4th commandment, “You shall keep the Sabbath day holy. On it, you shall not do any work.”
But they ignored it. So Ezekiel warned them, “Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them” (Ezk 20:13), and “I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you through the countries, and I will consume your uncleanness out of you” (Ezk 22:15). They are judged because they dishonored the Sabbath, so that they are unclean. Honoring the Sabbath is a sign of being a member of God’s people. When Israel was exile in foreign lands, they continued in their violations of God’s law, so they dishonored God’s name among the Gentiles (Ezk 36:20). God’s punishment upon them will be such that they themselves will be “profaned by your own doing in the sight of the nations” (Ezk 22:16).
Today, many people, even those who call themselves Christians, do exactly the same things on the Sabbath: work, business, and pleasure. We have learned that Sunday is called the Lord’s Day because on this day, we rest our body from all our labors and our souls are nourished as we worship together as God’s people. And the Lord’s Day is only a foretaste of that eternal Sabbath rest that awaits all believers. Are you honoring and taking pleasure in the Sabbath? Do you long for that day when all work of body and soul will be finished once for all, because all the Sabbath law has been fulfilled by our Lord Jesus Christ?
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, you are a holy people, God’s own treasured possession. You have been separated, set apart, called out of this world by God for his own purpose: to be holy and blameless before him. You are not “common,” unlike those who have no faith in Christ.
In Christ, you are not unclean people. How great is his work of cleansing and purification from sin, Satan, and all the impurities of this world! He has given you, who have unclean hearts and lips, white robes of righteousness. In giving you new hearts, you have been washed by the Holy Spirit. In your baptism, you have been given a sign and seal of the washing of regeneration from all filth coming from sin.
Though you are still in this world, you have been separated by God from the rebellion of this world. Live as those who have been set apart, who have been called out of darkness into his marvelous light. Isaiah’s plea to us to be distinct from the world still rings loudly, “Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord” (Isa 52:11).
Live as a sign to unbelievers of what God has done for you, so that the name of God is not dishonored. And when the new heaven and new earth comes, you will witness the final separation. In the heavenly city, only those who have been cleansed by Christ’s forgiveness of sin, “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27).
As we partake of the Lord’s Supper, let us not profane the table of the Lord like the Corinthians. They celebrated it without remembering that it was, spiritually by faith, the broken body and shed blood of the Lord. They treated it like a common thing, eating until they were engorged and drinking until they were drunk. They partook unworthily because of their immoral deeds. There were disagreements and quarrels among them. Let us then honor the holy table of the Lord. For it is only for those who have been set apart by God, washed clean by the Holy Spirit for the sake of the broken body and shed blood of Christ.