Ask Your Preacher
“A Dirty Word”Categories: DOCTRINE, NEW TESTAMENT, OLD TESTAMENT
Is there a difference in the meaning of ‘unclean’ in the Old Testament and the New Testament? It is my understanding that many things in the Old Testament that were considered unclean weren't necessarily wrong or sinful, but in the New Testament, my understanding is that the word ‘unclean’ is for things that are wrong or should be avoided. Thanks!
Dear Scrubbed Up,
The word ‘unclean’ refers to anything that is ‘contaminated or unholy’. Many times that is in reference to something contaminated by sin – in which case, ‘unclean’ is referring to something sinful (some good examples of this are Rom 1:24, Eph 4:19, and Lam 1:8). However, some things that were unclean were simply things that a Jew needed to purify themselves from if they came in contact with it (i.e. leprosy, dead bodies, pus, or other body ailments – Num 5:2-3). It wasn’t a sin to be a leper, but it was a contaminated condition, and there was a need for quarantine.
In both the Old and New Testaments, we must always use context to decide whether the word ‘unclean’ is in reference to sin or merely referring to something that is contaminated in some way. For example, 1 Cor 7:14 refers to the children of unbelievers as being ‘unclean’… but that isn’t referring to sin. All children are born without sin, but the children that are born into a christian home are purified from many of the struggles that an unbeliever’s child must face. We give this example simply to show that not all New Testament uses of the word ‘unclean’ refer to sin. The deciding factor is always context. The word means ‘contaminated or unholy’… context will tell you whether the contamination is sin.