Clean Living vs. Vain Religion
“Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the LORD” (Isaiah 52:11).
By Brent Hislop
The setting for our theme text in Isaiah 52:11 is fascinating on several levels. Isaiah lived at the time of the Assyrian captivity of Israel. However, he prophesied of the Babylonian captivity to follow (Isaiah 39:5-7), the Babylonian overthrow by Cyrus (Isaiah 46:11), and the restoration of Israel from captivity (Isaiah 52:9). Originally the treasures of the Temple were carried away to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Chronicles 36:18). However, with the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, not only were the children of Israel freed, but Cyrus gave back the treasures of the temple — the vessels of Jehovah — to be returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 1).
The detail in the prophecy is remarkable. The Lord, through the prophet, says, “Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her (Babylon); cleanse (or purify) yourselves, ye that bear the vessels of Jehovah” (Isaiah 52:11 RVIC). It was the special charge of the Priests and Levites to carry the vessels of the house of the Lord (2 Chronicles 5:4,5).
The Priests and Levites had been in captivity, some perhaps their entire lives, and were in danger of assimilation, or being compromised by the comforts, prosperity and false worship of Babylon. Interestingly, in Ezra 2 and the Book of Nehemiah, fewer than 50,000 Jews returned to their homeland; the majority initially stayed in Babylon.
Unlike the Egyptian Exodus, the Israelites were to take nothing from the Babylonians, including its idolatrous ways. Those who were to carry the vessels of the Lord were to cleanse themselves. They may not have participated in idolatrous practices, but they could have become compromised by proximity. Perhaps the cleansing was something along the lines of ritual cleansing described in Numbers 8, washing themselves and their clothes and offering sacrifices.
Using this as a backdrop, the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6 and 7 that he wants the troubled church in Corinth to listen to his counsel and not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. He counsels, what fellowship does righteousness have with unrighteousness, what harmony does Christ have with Belial, or the temple of God have with idolatry?
The church is the temple of God, and he adds, “I will dwell in them, and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore he says, ‘Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you favorably. And I will be a father to you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty. Therefore, having these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh, behavior, and spirit, thought, perfecting holiness in the fear (or reverence) of God” (2 Corinthians 6:13-7:1 KJV paraphrased).
Perhaps in part Paul is reiterating what he said in 1 Corinthians 10, warning the brethren not to partake in feasts of idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:20, 21). Some may have thought that in their liberality they could best influence their neighbors for good, failing to appreciate the folly. Hence, Paul warned them personally and exposed the bad influence this would be as a witness. The warning of any appearance of connection to idolatry for Christian’s today is less a literal concern and more a matter of the principle of not having anything that takes priority in one’s heart and mind over the love of God. Whether it be work, family, friends, hobbies, music, sports, television, internet, games, or money. It is anything that we idolize, which Webster’s defines as “to love or admire to excess.”
Allurements of the Flesh and the World
Paul includes idolatry as one of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21. The propensity of the fallen human nature is largely drawn away from God towards self-interest. This can lead to some very abased behaviors.
In Paul’s list of the works or behaviors of the flesh, with idolatry, he includes sorcery (Greek, pharmakeia, primarily meaning drug use), immoralities, jealousies, all manner of conflicts with others, drunkenness and reveling in pagan festivals.
This was a grave warning not to be compromised by the society and behavior in which the early Christians found themselves. Today, the Christian may live in a different environment but is still equally challenged not to be compromised by the culture of the day — a culture of ease and indifference, materialism, and hedonism. This is antithetical to Christlike dedication and sacrifice.
Contrary to the works of the flesh, Paul encouraged the Galatians (Galatians 5:22-26), to seek after the fruit of the spirit, including love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control.
The process of putting off the old man, the ways of the fallen human nature, and putting on the new man, the spirit begotten new creature (Ephesians 4:22,23), is through the cleansing, washing, and purging work of being transformed, changed, by the renewing of the new mind, the mind of Christ (Romans 12:2). “Though the outward man perishes, but the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16 KJV paraphrased). In Ephesians 4:23 Paul reaffirms the renewal process of the mind, saying, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” To do this, in Philippians 4:8 (KJV paraphrased) he encourages us to understand the importance of sanctified thinking, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just (and right), whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report (or repute); if there is any virtue (or excellence), or anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Continuing in verse 9, “The things you have learned, received, heard and seen, if you practice these things the God of peace will be with you.” He is saying the Lord will be with us, if we are with the Lord. If we practice sanctified thinking on all the good things enumerated, we will become more and more transformed into the image of the Lord.
In 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 Paul says, though we walk in the flesh, we do not fight according to the ways of the flesh. The weapons of the Christian warfare are not of the old nature, but mighty through God for the demolition of the old nature that he likens to a fortified stronghold. Moreover, he adds, we are to pull down or destroy imaginations (the Greek word means rationalizations), every high thing or barrier that the old nature can raise up against the knowledge of God. Then, he most pointedly tells us that Christian must strive to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Expanding on Paul’s thoughts, if Christians ever find themselves rationalizing their thoughts, words, or actions, it should give them pause to reflect whether this is of the old nature or in harmony with the knowledge of God.
Difficult it is to bring every thought into the obedience of Christ, as all who seek to do so can attest. The continual effort to do so brings the Christian to a better understanding of and likeness to the character of God. Like all good exercises, it should become easier with practice. To think upon whatsoever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good report, and that which is virtuous and commendable, is ennobling. It counters the baser instincts of the self-seeking ways of the fallen human nature. In our Philippians text the words “whatsoever” and “anything” are used. It encourages us to look for these beautiful virtues and, wherever we find them, to appreciate “the spark of the divine,” of virtue and goodness in all people wherever we see them.
Clean Thinking Precedes Clean Living
Think upon whatsoever is true, is to avoid biases and distortions; beware of half-truths and exaggerations. Think upon whatsoever is honorable, means to look for the best in others; do not judge others harshly for what they are lacking. Think upon whatsoever is right or just, is to be fair; attribute integrity to others; if all else fails remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 that we will be judged with the judgment with which we judge. Think upon whatsoever is pure means to not be contaminated with the influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Practicing purity of thought will greatly assist in the development of a pure character. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). What would you not do to bow in the presence of God?
Think upon whatsoever is lovely, not unkindness, anger, strife, or any ugliness of sin. It has been said that grace should make us gracious. Think upon whatsoever is of good report, believe the best of others, rejoice in the promotion of others. It is also worthy of note that some suggest the proper meaning of the Greek is speaking well of others, building one another up in our most holy faith, encouraging others by letting them know we believe in them, in the Lord. Finally, if there is anything of virtue and worthy of praise, think on these things. Dwell on these things, make these occasions for meditation, practice continually thinking on these, and they will become the habit of thought.
Such thinking is transformative, from an old nature to a new one. Such cleansing and transformation are only possible by the grace of God in Christ. Through God’s spirit and his word, 1 Peter 1:2 and John 17:17, state that we are sanctified by the Spirit and in the truth. The Greek word for sanctification carries the idea of cleansed or purified for consecrated service to God. Ephesians 5:25, 26, says that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, so that he may sanctify or cleanse her, for God’s service, having cleansed, purged, or purified her by the washing of the water of the word. The scriptures, the word of God, will effect the cleansing if we immerse ourselves in them. They will assist in transforming us as we think upon the example of our Master, as he has shown us the Father. In scripture we will find everything needful for our development, inspiration, instruction, correction, and all things to assist us to know and to do the will of God. Peter tells us that God’s divine power has given us everything needful pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of him who has called us by his own glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:3,4). By these God has given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, that by these we may become partakers of the divine nature.
Like the ancient Priests and Levites to whom was committed the privilege of bearing the vessels of the Lord, we are privileged to bear the Lord’s truth from the holy scriptures. May we be clean who are given such a sacred charge.
Search the scriptures, for in them we will find the promises of God’s love and grace to help in every time of need, to accomplish the cleansing and transforming work to the glory of God.