If you have read the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, also called Torah), then you know that, short of death, the most severe consequence for uncleanness or sin was banishment from the community. For example, the book of Leviticus mandated that a person with leprosy had to live outside the camp:
The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, "Unclean, unclean." He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp (Lev. 13:45-46).
Temporary removal from the camp was also commanded for people who had touched a corpse and people with bodily discharges (such as a woman during menstruation):
"Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell." And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord said to Moses, so the people of Israel did (Num. 5:2-4).
Everything that an unclean person touched would also be considered unclean (cf. Lev. 15). Our first reaction to this might be revulsion at the thought of so little privacy and so much "intolerance." But God was sending a message to Israel and the world: Sin disrupts community.
The Touch That Heals
Understanding this makes the Gospels even more poignant when you revisit the stories of Jesus healing lepers (Mark 1:40-42), raising the dead (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43), and being touched by the woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years (Mark 5:25-34).
Each of these tactile encounters (note that in each case, Mark goes out of his way to say that Jesus touched them) should have made Jesus ceremonially unclean. But when Jesus touches the unclean, He is not contaminated; rather, He heals.
This meant that those who were healed could be welcomed back into the community. The banishment was ended!
Removing the Barriers
It is much the same with us. Sin destroys relationships--marriages, families, friendships, churches. The reason there are so many divorces and church splits and children who won't speak to parents is because sin has disrupted community.
Evil burns the bridges of love and communication, building walls of resentment and isolation in their place. Sin builds barriers between man and God, and between man and man.
But Christ removes the barriers. This is the great message of Ephesians 2:11-22. Christ is the great reconciler, the bringer of peace. He breaks down the walls between us and God, and between us and others.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands-remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (Eph. 2:11-16).
Where once there was alienation (v. 12) and hostility (v. 16), now there is nearness and peace (vv. 13-15). Through the cross, the barriers of sin are broken down, and reconciliation is made possible.
Christ takes two people groups (Jews and Gentiles), and from them produces a new, reconciled humanity (vv. 14-15). This "new man," reconciled to God, is what we call the "household of God" or the "church" (cf. Eph. 2:18-22).
A Community, Not a Club
Most of us need a new paradigm for understanding church. We treat the church as if it were a club--something you join, come to weekly (or at least monthly!), and pay your dues to, and where you socially interact with casual friends.
But that is not the biblical idea at all. When Jesus said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18), He was not talking about a club or an organization, still less a building. He was talking about a living organism, a dynamic community of healed and reconciled people who would be members of His body and members of one another.
This is true of the "universal church," the worldwide body of Christ which embraces all who have followed Jesus throughout time. But this reality is meant to find expression in the local church as well, as members of the same fellowship engage one another with the love of Christ, in recognition of the profound unity they share in Him.
Unfortunately, many believers miss out on the blessings of community, never experiencing the joy of belonging to and serving the body in this way.
One reason for this is shallow, short-term participation. Many times people shop churches the way they shop malls. They come as consumers to test the goods (preaching, music, programs, etc.), and when the church doesn't deliver, the consumer moves on to the next place.
I believe that God desires something more for believers, something better: a long-term devotion to one people in one place.
Of course, jobs change and people move. Sometimes people need to leave a church. But what if that were the exception, not the rule?
What if the pervasive attitude among Christians were a wholehearted embracing of one another as the people with whom we will worship the Lord, study the Scriptures, grow in grace, and extend the kingdom of Christ in the world?
Making It Personal
Spend time praying about this today.
Read through Romans 12, asking the Lord to teach you how to minister to the body this year.
Christ has touched and healed us by His grace and His cross. Let's not live "outside the camp" any longer!
Excellent post, Brian. This is knowledge that is sure missing from the church. We are born and bred into this consumerist culture, and I think it infects the way we approach church, and we may not even realize it. This is something that definitely needs to be taught in our churches.
I can also see how difficult this can be. It's easy for me, with no kids in the house, to not have to worry about what a church may have in place for student ministry, but this must be a major concern for parents. Still, this consumerist mindset must be put to death in the life of the believer.
I wonder how crippled the church is by the failure to give a full-bodied embrace to community. I see within myself a tendency to withdraw from the church. When I see others with a half-hearted attitude toward the church, it makes me want to 'forget it' too. It doesn't justify it; but it's an accurate description of my emotional make-up. Community is self-propagating--in either direction.
Well said, Brian! I wonder if Christians of other cultures that are less individualistic have this tendency to withdraw from the community of the church too.
I especially appreciate your connections between the laws of the book of Leviticus and the healing touch of Jesus.
Well said, Brian. I wonder if Christians of other, less individualistic cultures than we Americans have such problems committing to the community of their churches.
I also really appreciated the connections you made to the laws of Leviticus regarding uncleanness and the healing touch of Jesus.
Thanks for the comments.
Dorothy, you are correct. Christians in less individualistic cultures don't struggle with community the way we do. That's something I have noticed in doing mission trips in Africa - the sense of community in more tribal-oriented cultures is very strong.
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