What Does The Bible Say About Cleanliness

What Does the Bible Say About Cleanliness

Cleanliness has long been seen as essential to a healthy and fulfilled life. In the Bible, it has both a practical and a spiritual element. Hand washing, bath-taking and purification play a prominent role throughout the scriptures – and are as relevant today as ever.

In the Hebrew Bible, physical cleanliness is regularly prescribed for circumcision, preparation for worship, contact with the dead, and meals at holy feasts. The most central instance of this practice is seen in the cleansing theme which is woven throughout the Mosaic Law.

Leviticus 15 contains instructions to the Israelites on how to keep their body, clothes, and furniture clean. Ritual washing is thus prescribed after a number of events – including childbirth, genital discharges, nocturnal emissions, and contact with skin . Furthermore, the same chapter assigns rites to be observed after coming into contact with a dead body, in order to restore the individual to cleanliness.

Importantly, the scriptures also emphasize that physical cleanliness is a prerequisite for spiritual cleanliness. Under the Mosaic Law, impurities affecting the physical body were thought to prevent a person from coming into the presence of God. One example comes in Leviticus 15, which directly links physical and spiritual cleanliness; those with genital discharges are said to be ‘unclean before the Lord’.

This cleanliness theme is carried over into the New Testament, where it takes on a new form. Jesus placed a higher emphasis not on physical cleanliness, but on inner cleanliness. In Matthew 15:18-20 he speaks of inward ‘uncleanness’, which is caused by evil thoughts arising from the human heart. Jesus appears to be saying that greater attention should be paid to inner than outer cleanliness.

Nevertheless, the spiritual power of physical cleanliness is stressed throughout the New Testament; following his baptism by John, Jesus ‘came up immediately from the water’. The washing of feet also plays a prominent role, with Jesus himself preforming this act at the Last Supper as a symbol of humility and service. Bath-taking and washing with special oils were also used to express joy and gladness. All this suggests that – whilst inner cleanliness is of greatest importance – physical cleanliness is still valued in the scriptures.

Keeping Clean During Periods of Illness

The bible also contains guidance on cleanliness during sickness. In 2 Kings 5, Naaman’s leprosy is cured through a series of washings in the Jordan. This passage points to the importance of frequent washing during periods of illness, in order to prevent the spread of contagion. In Luke 8, Jesus is seen restoring a woman’s health – not through miraculous healing, but through the touch of simply touching his garment.

Another supportive example is seen in John 5. This occasion presents the healing of a man by the Pool of Bethesda and shows the value of cleanliness in restoring the sick to health. After washing in the water and obeying Jesus, the man is miraculously made whole.

From these passages it is evident that both physical and spiritual cleanliness were highly valued within the Bible – and continue to be so today. Jesus’ focus on inner rather than outer cleanliness should therefore be taken as a challenge to avoid cleanliness becoming an end in itself.

The Significance of Water

The importance of water in the Bible cannot be overstated. As a symbol of purification, it was used to cleanse both the sons and daughters of Israel of their physical and spiritual impurities. In Deuteronomy chapter 5, ritual bathing is prescribed – instructing individuals to ‘go down into the water’ – and in Exodus, the priest is commanded to wash his body in water before offering sacrifice.

In Christian communities, water became associated with baptism and, with the laying on of hands, was used to initiate new members. Jesus himself, who traveled around Galilee, telling people to ‘believe in the Gospel’ also baptizes his disciples in the Jordan. This strongly evokes the earlier practice of water purification, but also suggests a unique Christian message – that of new-birth through water and the spirit.

Perhaps the most definitive passage on the importance of water is found in Ephesians 5:26, which speaks of the ‘washing of water in the name of the Lord’. Taken as a whole, this passage urges individuals to cleanse themselves of not only their physical impurities, but also their spiritual impurities. This should be achieved through the use of God’s name, and by ‘washing’ themselves of all sin.

The Significance of Clothing

Clothes play an important role in the scriptures, particularly in relation to cleanliness. The various ‘laws of cleanliness’ written in the Bible could only be truly obeyed if clothing abided by a set of strict guidelines given by God. Leviticus prescribes rules on the wearing of garments such as ‘pure’ tunics, and expensive clothing is discouraged in Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.

In Deuteronomy 22:11, a specific instruction is given that a woman’s ‘garments’ should not merge with ‘that which pertaineth unto a man’. According to this passage, any type of clothing which confuses gender expectations is to be avoided. Overall, throughout the Old Testament, clothing becomes a means of distinguishing between individuals who are pure, and those who are not.

Additionally, the New Testament speaks of clothing in terms of spiritual rather than physical cleanliness. In 1 Corinthians 11:9–10, Paul states that women should ‘have on’ clothing which respects God’s standards, and Galatians 3 speaks of the ‘garments’ of justification in which every believer must ‘put on’. Ultimately, cleanliness through clothing comes to symbolize a righteousness before God.

Cleanliness as a Sign of Holiness

Beyond the practical importance of cleanliness, the Bible also presents it as a sign of holiness – both in the personal life and in the life of the wider community. In 1 Corinthians 7:14, believers are told to ‘cleanse themselves…of all defilement of the flesh and of the spirit’. Thus, all forms of cleanliness—material, physical and spiritual—are equated with holiness.

Moreover, in Ezekiel 36:25, the Prophet makes a distinction between those who are ‘unclean’ and those who are ‘holy’, and between those who are living their lives with God and those who are living without Him. This further speaks of the importance of cleanliness in the lives of believers.

The Bible also regularly praises cleanliness in group worship, describing scenes of religious gatherings in which believers share meals and draw near to God in fellowship, free from spiritual and physical impurity. In Luke 5, Jesus commands a leper to ‘go, show thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing’ – a symbolic reference to the congregation’s need to be clean before God.

In practical terms, the Bible encourages a life of cleanliness in order to please God. This can be seen in the Mosaic Law, which links physical and spiritual cleanliness, as well as in Jesus’ speeches, in which he links inner cleanliness with holiness.

The Natural Connection Between Cleanliness and Purity

The links between cleanliness and purity are deeply entrenched in the Bible. Much of the Old Testament speaks of the need for physical cleanliness as an outward sign of spiritual purity. From this perspective, cleanliness is presented as a condition for entering the presence of God and for making sacrifices before Him.

In the New Testament, physical cleanliness is equated with ritual purity, and made a prerequisite of religious observance. Here, the language of water is used – referring to bath-taking and ritual washing as a sign of purity. Crucially, moral cleanliness is placed before physical cleanliness as the aim of these rituals; cleanliness is said to enhance holiness, not make it.

Though often presented as a necessity, cleanliness ultimately serves as a spiritual act. In the Israelite context, it could make the people of God distinct from their pagan neighbors, and in the Christian context, it points to a life lived in the service of God. As such, cleanliness is ever presented as a valuable spiritual act.

Cleanliness During Times of Conflict

The scriptures also address cleanliness during times of conflict. The Passover, which saw the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s rule, prescribed the ‘observance of the rites of cleanliness’. Furthermore, in the New Testament period, Jesus prescribes that people ‘wash their hands’ as a sign of purity before eating the meal at the Last Supper.

In the events following Jesus’ death, ritual cleanliness continues to convey comfort and solace. After Jesus is laid in the tomb, the Bible states that his disciples ‘bathed’ and ‘anointed’ his body. Whether symbolic or literal, the reference to bathing conveys profound spiritual comfort in a time of sorrow and peril.

Throughout Sacred Scripture, cleanliness is used to convey spiritual purity during times of conflict and trial. Though the physical act may have remained the same, the spiritual meanings associated with it are seen to shift and develop as the narrative widens.

Knowledge and Action in the Bible’s Message of Cleanliness

The Bible is clear in its teaching on cleanliness. It earnestly exhorts individuals to cultivate cleanliness both within and outside of their body, for it is our purity which makes us holy. As well as knowledge, however, the scriptures call for obedience, and it is clear that adherence to the spiritual and physical laws of cleanliness ultimately brings us closer to God.

The key message of the Bible is thus one of holy living, which involves not only an understanding of what cleanliness is, but also a commitment to its practice. In all circumstances, the physical and spiritual elements of cleanliness are neither opposed nor ignored, but are entwined in a deeper pursuit of holiness.

The Significance of Cleanliness in Everyday Life

On a practical level, the Bible’s teachings on cleanliness can be seen in everyday life. Cleanliness brings us freedom from the physical and spiritual impurities which are present in our lives. This can be seen in the practice of good hygiene, in religious observance, and in the general maintenance of cleanliness and tidiness around the home.

By setting a practical example, the Bible calls us to look to God not only for spiritual purification, but also for physical purity. Cleanliness is thus seen both as way to keep away from sin

Marcos Reyna is a Christian author and speaker. He is dedicated to helping create disciples of Christ through spreading the power of the gospel to others. He has written several books and articles on a variety of theological topics, including matters of faith, worship, biblical studies, practical ethics, and social justice. A trained theologian and devotee of spiritual writing, Marcos has a mission to spread Christian love everywhere. He lives with his family in Nashville, TN where he spends his days encouraging others to seek Christ's grace in all things.

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