On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests about the law: ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ ” The priests answered and said, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered and said, “It does become unclean.” (Haggai 2:10–13)
In this somewhat obscure passage of the Old Testament (how many of us even know about Haggai?), we find the weaknesses of the Old Covenant. Things were purified under the law by cleansing rituals, involving fire and/or blood. In this conversation between the Haggai and the priests, we learn one simple thing about those things made holy under the law: Not only did the holy things not have the power to make other things holy, but they could become unclean themselves through contact with an unclean thing or person.
We live in a world of separation–division, really. Sadly, even much of the church lives in this same world. We are afraid to touch the dead things of this world lest we too become unclean. This was why the priest and the Levite passed on the other side of the road in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). They were on their way to Jerusalem, perhaps to undertake religious duties, and feared becoming unclean. This is why The Pharisees would not enter Pilate’s headquarters during Jesus’ trial: “They wanted to be able to eat the Passover” (John 18:28).
Much of the church continues to live this way. What’s the problem with this? Aren’t we supposed to be separate from the evil around us? Yes and no. We are to remain in the world while not being of the world. What happens, though, is we still fear being made unclean–unacceptable to God. But that was the Old Covenant. The New Covenant reverses that.
When we were saved, God (the Holy One) reached down and touched us. Did he become unclean? Of course not. Rather, we became clean (Ezek. 36:25-26). The woman with an issue of blood reached and touched the hem of Jesus’ robe (Luke 8:43-48). Did Jesus become unclean? No. Rather, “. . . I perceive that power has gone out from me” (Luke 8:46). The woman was made clean and healed.
The rituals of the Old Covenant could declare people and things clean–for a time. But those cleansed had no power to similarly cleanse anyone or anything else. Not so in the New Covenant. What’s the difference? The cleansing under the Old Covenant was declaratory only and outward; it did not actually change the person or thing. The change under the New Covenant is inner and consists of an actual transformation. Something new exists now that did not exist before.
Consider this advice that Paul gave to Christian spouses married to an unbeliever:
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:12–14)
Now, while we should not press the truths of this passage too far, there is clearly a principle here that a follower of Jesus has an inherent cleansing and sanctifying influence on those around him or her (especially his or her household). This has to be at least part of what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Salt has a preserving quality, but it also makes one thirsty. But in order to preserve something, salt is mixed into it. It will not do to just put a container of salt next to something.
While we who follow Jesus may consciously believe and speak as though we are “new creations in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), many of us live as though we are under the law of the Old Covenant. We fear being contaminated by the world, so we refuse to engage. Instead, we hunker down in our churches and hope that change comes to society by means of the laws we support, the money we give, and the politicians we elect.
We need to remember the words of Jesus:
The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. (John 13:10).
We have been cleansed–really and fully cleansed. We are clean, and no contact with the world will change that. Yes, we will need to wash our feet, but do you see that Jesus said even those who need to wash their feet are still completely clean? We need not fear the contamination of the world. We need to get out and be the salt and light that Jesus told us we are. Because of Jesus and the New Covenant, we have the means to see the common made holy–not just outwardly, but inwardly.