PURITY (See Clean; Purification)

Means and meaning of purity.

Purification, purging, cleansing, and similar terms, whose objective is purity, occur hundreds of times in the Bible. Purity is a desirable quality or condition of a good person or thing, without alloy, mixture, or pollution. It may be “pure gold” (Exod 25:17), “pure oil” (Lev 24:2), “pure wool” (Dan 7:9), “pure nard” (John 12:3), “pure bride” (2 Cor 11:2), or “a pure heart” (1 Tim 1:5). The primary means of purification, both sanitary and symbolic, are fire and water.


Fire is the normal means for purifying gold, silver, and other metals, which are able to withstand heat while the dross is burnt out. The refining process is frequently used as a symbol of personal cleansing. “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (Zech 13:9; cf. Mal 3:2). John, in strong metaphor, wrote, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire” (Rev 3:18). Humanity is to be purified by the fire of Christ’s ministry and final judgment (Luke 3:16f.; 12:49). And, naturally, “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps 12:6).


Water is the universally prevalent means for material and personal cleansing, and consequently the chief symbol for moral cleansing. Like fire, it was used also in ceremonial cleansing (Num 19:17-21; 31:23). Ablutions were instituted quite early (Exod 19:10). Baptism, like that of John’s, was a symbol of purification (Matt 3:11). The washing of hands was symbolic of innocence (Deut 21:6; Ps 24:4; Matt 27:24).

Purity of the “whole” man.

Purity of body is essential for good health, and a requisite for acceptance in respectable social circles (see Matt 15:2). Purity of mind and speech are hallmarks of good taste, high ethical principles and Christian grace (1 Sam 16:18; Matt 5:34-37; Col 4:6; 1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:8). Purity of heart is prerequisite for membership in God’s kingdom (Matt 5:8; Rev 19:8). Purity is the heart of Christian culture and therefore an objective to be continually sought—physically, morally, and religiously. Various areas of purity are treated in the Bible.

Racial purity.

Hygienic purity.

One of the marks of Mosaic law was meticulous concern for physical cleanliness. It was essential in the camp life of the Israelites during the wilderness wanderings. In the absence of modern medical knowledge of drugs, germs, and anatomy, cleanliness played a dominant role in good health. By it, contamination and spread of disease was checked.

Laws and penalties.

Moses provided laws and penalties governing cleanliness (Lev 7:20f.). Some things were to be burnt, others purified, by fire, and some washed in water. Soldiers, after battle, were to purify themselves, their captives, garments, and articles, as an insurance against contamination with slain bodies (Num 19:11-16; 31:19-24). Persons and clothing were to be cleansed by water, silver, gold, tin, and all other metals by fire.

Feminine purity.

Instructions were given for feminine purity: after menstruation (Lev 15:19-33; 2 Sam 11:4); and after childbirth (Lev 12:1-8; Luke 2:22).


Leprosy was the most dreaded of all sources of uncleanness. Since there was no known cure for it, victims were expelled from society and required to cry “unclean” if anyone approached. Moses gave elaborate laws and instructions concerning it, including placing the responsibility of diagnosis on the priesthood (Lev 13; 14). Any healing was attributed to divine power, and therefore subject to ritual cleansing. In respect for this law, Jesus ordered a leper whom He healed to show himself to the priest (Luke 5:12-14), and again did the same when He healed the ten lepers (17:11-19). Jesus also acknowledged divine healing when He told the one grateful leper that his faith had healed him. Divine healing of leprosy was known in the OT times. The Syrian captain Naaman, when unable to find healing by Israel’s king, was directed to come to God’s prophet Elisha. The prophet ordered Naaman to “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean,” “and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:10, 14; cf. Lev 14:6f.).

Other regulations.

Numerous other things were listed as unclean, along with purification regulations prescribed. The carcasses of reptiles, unclean animals, and any animals that died of themselves, contaminated anyone who touched them. In this case, as in others, water and a ceremonial process were required for purification (11:1-47). Natural bodily discharges caused both bodily and ritual uncleanness that in turn defiled the holy Tabernacle in the midst of the people. And, everybody and every thing that the unclean person touched became defiled, and they along with the person had to be purified. This required washing in water and being “unclean until the evening” (Lev 15:16-30). Shed blood also polluted the land whereby purification was necessary (Num 35:33).

Ceremonial purity.

All uncleanness, physical and moral, had religious involvement, and therefore required ritual purification. The repetition of time idioms reflects this: “Sprinkle it [blood] seven times upon him who is to be cleansed of leprosy”...“dwell outside his tent seven days”...“and sprinkle some oil with his finger seven times before the Lord”...“and shut up the house seven days”...(Lev 14:7, 8, 16, 38). One order of monotonous repetition is, “and be unclean until the evening” (Lev 15:27). Finally, the role of doctor assumed by the priests confirmed the relationship between physical healing and ritual purification.

Moral purification.

Moral purification played an important role in Heb. life. The communal life necessary under the administration of Moses and Joshua involved the individual in the social unit. Consequently, the sins of the individual were in essence imputed to his family and even to all Israel, as in the case of Aaron (Exod 32:21-35) and of Achan (Josh 7:11, 18, 20). Due to this racial-wide interaction, an elaborate ritual was prescribed for a special Day of Atonement (Lev 16). First, Aaron and his family (and succeeding priests) were to cleanse themselves (v. 6), and then proceed with the ceremonial cleansing for all Israel. Goats, bulls, sweet incense, blood, fire, water, and the altar, were all employed in the purification. This custom of atonement continued into NT times; it is recorded concerning Zechariah that “according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9).

Jesus’ criticism of ceremonial purity.

Traditional cleansing by the Jews, however, in Jesus’ time had largely lost its spiritual value in empty ritual. Much of the Mosaic law had been replaced by ceremonial trivia. On this matter, “A discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew over purifyting” (John 3:25). Subsequently, Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their perverted tradition. Occasioned by the criticism of scribes when they observed Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands, Mark explained:

For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze (Mark 7:3f.).

On another occasion, the Pharisee host was astonished that Jesus did not wash before dinner.

And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:39-41).

Spiritual purity.

Traditionally characteristic of the Judeo-Christian religion is inner purity.




F. F. Bruce, Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls (1956), 106; B. W. Anderson, Oxford Annotated Bible, notes (1962), 134-143; E. E. Tilden (ibid.), 1175, 1191, 1248, 1270; W. L. Moore, The Adult Teacher, Southern Baptist Sunday School Series, 68-73.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

See Clean; Purity.

pu’-ri-ti: The Bible bears witness to the long struggle over and in man to secure physical, mental, and moral cleanliness. The various forms of purity have relation to each other.

We have a common proverb that "cleanliness is akin to godliness." Cleanliness and aesthetics are certainly nigh neighbors. But cleanliness and ethics do not dwell farther apart. When one realizes that by uncleanness of person or property he may endanger the health or life of family, or even of society about him--as in keeping conditions that develop typhoid fever--he begins to realize that there is, a close tie between cleanliness and morals. "Ought" comes in on the sphere of cleanliness, and then the whole realm of ethics is open. So near are the departments of physical and ethical cleanliness that now if one hears the word "slum" without explanation, he cannot tell whether it relates to filth or sin.

The perception of this relationship is of very ancient date. Though it is Isaiah who says (52:11) "Cleanse yourselves, ye that bear the vessels of Yahweh," and Mr 7:3,4, "All the Jews, except they wash their hands diligently, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the marketplace, except they bathemselves, they eat not; and many other things there are, which they have received to hold, washings of cups, and pots, and brasen vessels," yet such statements are but summaries of directions distributed here and there throughout the whole Levitical Law. We can read therein what sounds like the hygienic orders of a general to his soldiers on the march, or like the rules of the board of health to preserve a city from pestilence. And these Levitical directions for cleanliness are connected inseparably with the worship of Yahweh, as though physical purity were to that an essential. The Psalmist blends these two elements, the physical and the ethical, in the familiar question and answer (Ps 24:3-5), "Who shall ascend into the hill of Yahweh? And who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto falsehood, and hath not sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from Yahweh, and righteousness from the God of his salvation."

The ceremonial cleansings called for by the Law had meaning and influence. They were interpretative of something spiritual--were a parable way of illustrating the necessity of purity of heart in order to gain acceptance with God. If in after-days the thing symbolized was forgotten in the symbol, that was owing to "blindness of mind." The darkness was not necessary.

1. The Sex Relation:

But the main subject in respect to which we shall in this article seek light on purity from the Bible will not be hygiene or aesthetics, but morals. When we turn to that department we shall at once realize the fact that the sex relation is the most primitive and comprehensive of all the human relations.

The Family.

The attitude of the Bible in respect to that relation is unmistakable. From the vision of the Garden of Eden to that of the New Jerusalem, the Bible rings true to the ideal of purity in family life and in the relations of the sexes to each other. This is remarkable, for it is a vast history over which its narrative sweeps, and in it every species of literature is represented. It sets forth the acts and views of a people in all the stages of civilization, from wandering nomads to dwellers in cities embellished by architecture and every device of man to set forth riches and splendor. It sets forth their crime, shame and sin, as well as their virtues, but its tone is approbative of the virtues and reprobative of the crime, shame and sin. In the Magna Charta of the Hebrew people--the Ten Commandments--there stands in equal rank with any other principle, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." The sanction of religion and law was thus given to the integrity and purity of family life. The minute regulations against marriage with relatives, and the severe punishments inflicted for disregard of the restrictions (Le 18 and 20), were a powerful force in the same direction. The adultery of married persons was to be punished by the death of both the parties (Le 20:10; De 22:22).

Such laws may sometimes seem severe. Doubtless they are primitive and date from the time of nomadism. In primitive conditions, penalties for infraction of law are to be severe and swift. Pioneers the world over and through time, for very self-preservation’s sake, could show little favor or tolerance to lawlessness. Be these laws severe, they show the intense earnestness of a people to have a pure family life in which children born should be genuine to it. These Levitical restrictions upon intermarriage with relatives fit the sense of propriety and right of civilized people, even to this day.

2. The Prophets:

There is no question about the attitude of the prophets on purity. They were in harmony with the Law. They had no tolerance for corrupt morals or manners leading to impurity or suggesting it. An illustration sometimes has the light of the sun in it. What it is that is illustrated is frequently best seen by looking at the illustration itself. The prophets were passionate monotheists. They wanted above all things that Israel should be true to Yahweh and to Him alone. To the prophets, worship of other gods was treason to Yahweh. One prophet after another, and over and over again, illustrates this highest of crimes by infidelity in the marriage relation. That shows in what estimate the family was held. To put any other in the place of Yahweh was "to go a-whoring after other gods," or "to play the harlot." That shows as nothing else could how deep in the heart was sunk regard for pure family life. Infidelity was high treason there, or it never would have furnished language to describe high treason to God.

3. The Proverbs:

Pr 5 and 7 indicate the attitude of the book on purity. We may let the book make its own case. The wiles of "the strange woman" and the stupid folly and destruction of her victim are specially set forth in the chapters mentioned. In the last chapter of the book we have a portraiture of a "virtuous woman" in whom domesticity in purity has reached a high stage. "Let her own works praise her in the gates."

4. The So of Songs:

It is pleasant to turn from the tense severity of law, since it must deal largely with crime and sin, to the idealism of poetry. In the Psalms and the Prophets the relation of husband and wife, of bridegroom and bride, of lover and loved are always treated with tenderness and reverence. Here is familiar Scripture (Ps 19): "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. .... In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course." That does not betray any lack of sympathy with the exuberant spirit of a lover. So Isa 62:4,5: "For Yahweh delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee; and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee." Language cannot more clearly disclose delight in the joy of those who are adjusting themselves under the "primal eldest" rule over sex: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh" (Ge 2:24).

It is sometimes thought strange that the So of Songs should be in the Scripture Canon. But why should there be such doubt? It is but a more particular elaboration of what is boldly brought to notice in the quotations above. There is no more necessity of reading impurity into it than there is of reading it into the quotations above. The poem is illustrative of an experience as widely known as any in the life of the human race--an experience in which sin is no necessity. One must go out of his way who imputes sin to a single act or thought that comes to expression in the poem. The maiden is guileless and the lover is manly. The poem is said to be erotic. But the eros is idealized. It may be sensuous, but it is not sensual. It is not selfish. The passion of each finds expression in careful thoughtfulness for the other. It does not turn back to itself in coarse brute craving of lust for its own self-indulgence. The refrain of the poem is--

"I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem

That ye stir not up, nor awake my love."--So 2:7; 3:5; 8:4.

The watchfulness is as tender as that for an infant. Where will the law lay its indictment of sin against such thoughts and feelings? The lovers are under the charm that has been and is to be from everlasting to everlasting with the human race upon the earth.

Christ at His strictest did not set Himself against the charm of love. He said it should be eternally single and true in spirit. The maiden in the song goes forth in the night, in the simplicity of her heart, to find her beloved (So 3:2 ). In the same simplicity, Evangeline wandered all the night of her life to find the object of her affection. From the same charm in the beginning came the faithfulness of Enoch Arden. Out of the love that springs from purity has come the integrity that has endured to the end. The exuberance of the charm, like every other spring of life and action, needs regulation, but the charm itself is not to be treated as sin.

5. Christ and Purity:

Paul has said, "Ye are not under law, but under grace" (Ro 6:14). But that depends upon the conditions to which it is applied. We may not be under the Levitical, ceremonial Law, but we are under the wide realm of ethical law always, even when we are under grace. What grace does is to idealize and spiritualize and make attractive and beautiful what before was perhaps hard, repellent statute and rule. Christ is sometimes thought to have relaxed the severity of "the reign of law." But six times even in the Sermon on the Mount He added to its strictness. Take the idea of the purity of the family as secured by its unity. Under the Mosaic legislation, certain not onerous forms of legal proceeding intervening, the termination of marriage might be said to be optional with the parties. All this liberty is swept away in one sentence: "I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery" (Mt 19:9). That is a law sentence. It was uttered in the realm of law. It was intended to have effect in law. No wonder, considering the liberty that had been allowed in the Law up to that time, that the disciples as soon as they got breath said, "If the case of a man is so with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." They knew that a new law for Christ’s disciples was put over marriage. Even the exception confirmed His rule. If the exception is not allowed, polyandry or polygamy is established. No other sentence of human speech has done more for the purity of family life (see Divorce). But Christ did not stop with the utterance of law protective of purity physically; He went behind all acts and laid down law for the thoughts and intents of the heart: "But I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mt 5:28).

Sometimes it may be thought that there is a look of moral indifference about the way in which Jesus disposed of the woman’s case who was taken in adultery (Joh 8:1-11): "Did no man condemn thee? And she said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn thee; go thy way; from henceforth sin no more." But it must first be remembered that it was not her case but that of her accusers that was immediately before the mind of Jesus. They brought her before Him to trap Him, but He turned and put them on trial. He made their moral condition the main issue. Hers was but an incident. But then, Jesus did not leave her without impressing on her mind that she was a sinner. The last words left ringing in her ears were, "Sin no more." And she was left, as all in sin are left, to wrestle out adjustment with the Holy Spirit who leaves no soul without conviction of "sin, righteousness and judgment." The words of Jesus no more than the words of anyone else can explain all things at once. They can cover a point in view, but much must always be left to the understanding that comes from known experience under the moral government of God.

The subsequent psychology of a sinner after the words of Scripture leave him is of deepest interest. Psychological action he must have had; what is it? The question arises, Had the prodigal son completed his repentance till he had asked the forgiveness of his mother and his elder brother? What is the subsequent psychology of a sinner as he disappears from our view? We can interpret here by what we know to be the operations of the Holy Spirit in the soul; just as we know a material object that diappears from view is still under the law of gravitation. Few who have thought on this subject have expressed the truth so well as Whittier in "Our Master," or in "John Underhill" in these words:

"And men took note of his gloomy air

The shame in his eye, the halt in his prayer,

The signs of a battle lost within,

The pain of a soul in the coils of sin.

Into the desert alone rode he,

Alone with the Infinite Purity;

And bowing his soul to its tender rebuke,

As Peter did to the Master’s look,

He measured his path with prayer of pain

For peace with God and nature again."

There is a recognition of the burning with fire that is infolded in the word "purity."

6. Paul:

Paul is like his Master. He seeks for purity in this relation after marriage as well as before--purity of mind. In 1Co 7 we see how carefully and kindly Paul discoursed about all the complications in matters pertaining to sex. Then again, if Paul has exhorted wives to obedience to husbands, he has also called for equal self-surrender on the part of husbands (Eph 5:22-32): "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it." Can there be any self-surrender greater than that which Christ made? Here let attention rest on the fact that in his catalogue of the fruits of the Spirit (Ga 5:22), if he has put "love" in the first place of emphasis among the nine, he has put "self-control" in the last.

We have only space for a glance at a few departments of action and thought to see what the world has gained in purity from the religion of the Bible. The age of chivalry ought to have a word put to its credit. The knights took the vow of chastity before the tribunals of the church. Take art--compare a Venus and a Madonna. Not only spirituality, but even intellectuality is wanting in a Venus. There is not a suggestion in a Venus that does not inhere in flesh and sense. Of what would she or could she speak if she were to open her mouth? To judge from her. appearance, the utterance would be so "flat, stale and unprofitable" that even the charm of her physical beauty would disappear. In the Madonna you scarce see the physical. If she were to speak, her words would picture the peace and calm joy of a heavenly realm. If her countenance is suggestive of something far away, it is of something far above.

But art is not dead, and spiritual art did not die with the creation of the Madonna. Take Gaudens’ "Puritan." Compare that with an Apollo. Again we have the contrast there is between a Madonna and a Venus. We have the physical and the aesthetic in an Apollo, but there is not a gleam of the intellectual. That Apollo thinks is not indicated, much less what he might be thinking about. There is not the faintest suggestion of the ethical. There is no intent and purpose in him. But in the Puritan there is intent and purpose. He means much. He is ethical. That determined bearing can only come from a spirit alive with the sense of right. When it comes to that, you will warrant that the Puritan carries more physical guns than the Apollo, and that if they were to clinch in a tug of wrestling Apollo would fall underneath. That ethical intent and purpose is masterly. You may look through a whole pantheon of Greek gods and meet not a trace of the force concentrated in the Puritan. He is forceful because right makes might. He is in the majority because he knows Who is with him. He is conscious of power because he has subdued the kingdom within. He has won the greatest of all victories--self-control.