Holiness is not Contagious, but Unholiness Is

After the Jews returned to the Promised Land following their exile in Babylon they had to be taught an important lesson: holiness is not contagious, but unholiness is. They believed two lies:

  1. Doing holy things like rebuilding the temple or offering sacrifices would make them holy.
  2. Being in the Holy Land made them holy.

They thought this would make them holy without actually having to be holy. God corrected them by asking two questions through Haggai the prophet.  The first question:

“If one carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and with the edge he touches bread or stew, wine or oil, or any food, will it become holy?” (Hag 2:12a).

Holiness is not contagious!

Haggai asked, what happens when something holy touches something unholy? Does the unholy object become holy? The priests correctly answered, “No” (Hag 2:12b). Holiness doesn’t rub off on unholy things. Just as…

  1. Healthy people can’t walk through a hospital and touch sick people and make them healthy.
  2. Non-spoiled food can’t come into contact with spoiled food and make it non-spoiled.

The second question:

“If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?” (Hag 2:13a).

This question presents the opposite situation of the first. What happens when something unholy touches something holy? Does the holy object become unholy? The priests correctly answered, “Yes” (Hag 2:13b).

Unholiness is contagious!

If something unholy comes into contact with something holy, can it make the holy object unholy? The priests correctly answered, “No” (Hag 2:12b). Unholiness does rub off on holy things.

  1. Sick people can spread sickness to healthy people.
  2. Spoiled food can spread mold or bacteria to non-spoiled food.

The first question reveals holiness can’t be transferred, but the second question reveals unholiness can be transferred.

Even though people understand this physically, there seems to be a tougher time understanding it spiritually. People will say they’re going to take something from the world and sanctify, redeem, or make it holy, but if it’s unholy in the world, it’s unholy in your life. We can’t bring unholy things from the world into our homes or churches and make them holy or sanctified, but they can make us unholy and affect our sanctification. Jerry Bridges said:

“Holiness begins in our minds and works out in our actions. That being true, what we allow to enter our minds is critically important. The television programs we watch, the movies we attend, the books and magazines we read, the music we listen to, and the conversations we have all affect our minds. We need to evaluate the effects of these using Philippians 4:8 as a standard. Are the thoughts stimulated by these true? Are they pure? Lovely? Admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy?”

The Principle Applies to Relationships

The Old and New Testaments discuss the negative affect people can have on others:

  • Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared. (Pro 22:24-25). The angry person learns to control himself by spending time with a patient person. Instead, the patient person learns to become angry.
  • The companion of fools will be destroyed (Pro 13:20b). The companion of fools doesn’t save fools through their relationship.
  • Go from the presence of a foolish man (Pro 14:7a). You don’t spend time with fools so you can teach them knowledge and wisdom.
  • Do not be deceived: “Evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Cor 15:33). Good company doesn’t fix bad habits. Instead, we can be deceived into believing associating with the wrong people won’t hurt us. We can believe their poor behavior isn’t “contagious.”
  • Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14).

What are Christians supposed to do?

Christians are supposed to be “holy people” (1 Pet 2:5, 9). How are they supposed to engage unholy (or unbelieving) people without “catching” unholiness? Preach the Gospel! Believers don’t have the power to change other believers, say nothing about unbelievers. But the Gospel can. When people embrace Christ, the Holy Spirit can accomplish the saving and sanctifying work that’s necessary.

Follow Jesus’ Example

Was Jesus close friends with sinners and tax collectors? We know He associated with them, but Scripture reveals He wanted to be their Physician. After Jesus called Levi (Matthew) to follow Him, Luke 5:29-32 records:

Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

Jesus knew people were desperately sick spiritually, and in need of spiritual healing. He is a Physician for sinners:

  • Earthly physicians heal physical sickness, but Jesus heals spiritual sickness.
  • Earthly physicians work on the body, but Jesus works on the soul.

Before Jesus physically healed the paralytic, He first healed him spiritually: “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” (see Luke 5:17-26). Despite how terrible the man looked physically, He looked even worse spiritually. Jesus dealt with the man’s greatest need.

A Physician Desires to See Healing Take Place

Thinking about the relationship between physicians and patients reveals why Jesus’ analogy is perfect. A physician doesn’t walk in to a patient’s room, give the patient a hug, or chitchat for a few hours. Instead:

  • A physician investigates. He comes in with a clipboard, asks questions, takes notes, finds out what’s wrong, and diagnoses the problem.
  • A physician will get close to his patients, but he makes every effort to ensure he isn’t infected by them. He puts on gloves and possibly a mask.
  • A physician has a very specific purpose and desire: to help. He wants to see healing take place.

Likewise, patients don’t say, “I’m going to call my physician and see if he wants to catch a football game.” Instead, the sick say, “I need to see a physician. I want him to tell me what’s wrong and provide me with a prescription.”

What is the prescription for sinners? Jesus mentioned that in His response to the religious leaders: “I have come to call sinners to repentance.” Repentance is becoming an ugly word in the church today, but in Scripture it’s the cure for sinners.

A Physician Who Seeks the Sick

1 Timothy 1:15 Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

This was Jesus’ purpose. The religious leaders criticized Him for being with tax collectors and sinners, but considering who He was and what He wanted to do, any other behavior wouldn’t have made sense:

  • Pediatricians help children.
  • Veterinarians help animals.
  • Physicians help sick people.

If Jesus would’ve stayed away from sinners like the religious leaders wanted, He would’ve looked like a pediatrician staying away from children or a veterinarian staying away from animals.

The religious leaders couldn’t be more different than Jesus. They tried to stay as far away from sinners as possible. The sad irony is if they were as righteous – or spiritually healthy – as they thought they were, they should’ve been the most concerned with the sick. They’re the ones who should’ve been with sinners and tax collectors, trying to help them. Imagine doctors that avoid sick people because they think they’re too healthy for them.

One reason Jesus might have chosen Matthew (Levi) is he was a tax collector. This made Jesus look sensitive to sinners. When people saw Jesus with him, they knew He wouldn’t turn them away.

Jesus was going to die for sinners, and He manifested His love for them by seeking them out. But He sought them out not to be close friends with them. Instead, He desired to be their Physician and see them spiritually healed.

Discussion Questions to Answer in the Comments Section

  1. Do you see other fitting examples from Jesus or the disciples? What application does this have for us?
  2. Have you ever found yourself learning “bad habits” when you became too close to someone?
  3. Have you shared the Gospel with someone and seen the Holy Spirit introduce holiness into that person’s life?

13 thoughts on “Holiness is not Contagious, but Unholiness Is

  1. My first thought was what about Jesus? Didn’t he hang out with the un-holy? But then as I really analyzed what I was thinking I realized that Jesus did not spend his time with people who had no desire to be transformed and made holy. These people wanted what Jesus was offering. He didn’t spend his time in unholy ways with people doing unholy things. He spent his time in holy ways with people who understood their own unholiness and wanted to follow Him. The self-righteous religious leaders of the day who did not recognize their own unholiness/Un-cleaness considered the people Jesus spent time with as “unclean” or “not holy” but they were basing those judgements on the wrong things. Jesus knew each man’s heart. He did not spend time with the unholy religious leaders, and instead spent time with people who wanted to become holy. In my modern day application I would apply it to my life by thinking about the difference of going out and joining a gay pride parade to show my love for gay people (unholy), vs. reaching out in love to a gay person and telling them the truth in love, giving them the hope of the gospel, and sharing about God’s forgiveness and showing them they have the option go and sin no more (holy). The gay pride parade example would start to rub off on me, change my thinking, pervert my views on Christianity and make me less like Jesus (un-holy) whereas the sharing the truth with a person is confirming my faith, and making me closer to Jesus as I emulate Him (Holy). Correct me in any area where I am off base please.

    1. Hi Amanda,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      It is an interesting situation that clearly requires some balance: the bible warns against the danger of associating with people who can negatively influence, but we know we should have relationships with unbelievers or else how would we share the Gospel? I wrote a post discussing this exact topic. I hope you’ll check it out: https://scottlapierre.org/physician-not-close-friend/

      I’d like to respond more fully, but I feel like I’ll be simply repeating the info I put in that post.

      No, I don’t think you’re off base at all. I think your conclusion is perfect!

  2. I should clarify: Jesus’ ministry suggests that holiness is contagious and he demonstrated this by being with the unholy in unholy places. However, it does not suggest that we should participate in the patterns of life of the unholy.

    1. Hello Keith,
      I understand what you’re saying.

      There’s a balance that needs to be struck regarding how far we go when it comes to being like Jesus. For example:

      1 Peter 2:19 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps:

      22 “Who committed no sin,
      Nor was deceit found in His mouth”;
      23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously;

      Peter gives a few ways we should be like Jesus: experience suffering like He did, don’t sin with our mouths when suffering, don’t take vengeance, etc.

      So yes, we should be like Jesus. But do we think we can (or should try) to feed thousands with a few loaves? Heal everyone that comes near us? Walk on water? Raise people from the dead? Die on a cross?

      There’s only one Son of God. Yes, He could “spread holiness” you might say, but we’re not Him. He could reach out and touch the leper (sinner), and not only not get leprosy in the process, but heal the leprosy (sin). We can’t do that. Trying would be foolish.

      Instead, we spread the Gospel. We let the Lord do His work. But we don’t think we can do that work ourselves.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

      In Christ,

  3. Hi Pastor Scott, came across this post while working on a presentation. Jesus’ ministry seems to demonstrate a contrary understanding to the one you have portrayed here: Jesus specifically acted in contrast to the holiness movements of 2nd Temple Judaism and intentionally put himself among the unclean of society. You should check out Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament by Brower & Johnson or Holiness in the Gospels by Kent Brower http://www.amazon.com/Holiness-Ecclesiology-Testament-Kent-Brower/dp/0802845606

    1. You’re absolutely right, Keith! That’s exactly what Jesus did.

      The question is, should we do that? Many verses in Scripture encourage us to limit our exposure and closeness to sinful people. I didn’t say we don’t share the Gospel, but we consider how close we are. Please see my previous post regarding how much of Jesus’ life is descriptive versus prescriptive for us.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. I am little confused on this:
    Haggai 2:13 Haggai said, “If one who is unclean because of a dead body touches any of these, will it be unclean?”

    Kandie 🙂

    1. Hi Kandie,
      Good question. Let me know if this is what you’re asking…

      Haggai basically asked, “If someone becomes unclean by touching a dead body and then touches food, does it make the food unclean as well?” and the answer is, “Yes.”

      “Clean” and “unclean” in the Old Testament related to ceremony or being able to take part in the religious life of the nation. There were various ways to become unclean, and therefore unable to participate until you were clean; one of those ways was through touching a dead body.

      Please let me know if this answers your question and/or if you’re wondering anything else Kandie!

    2. I didn’t know that one became unclean by touching a dead body. Seems like somewhere I was reading about that, that a person had to wait until sundown or the next day to be clean again. Might of read it wrong.

    3. Right, I should’ve put the locations in Scripture where that’s discussed. Here you go Kandie:
      Leviticus 5:2 ‘Or if a person touches any unclean thing, whether it is the carcass of an unclean beast, or the carcass of unclean livestock, or the carcass of unclean creeping things, and he is unaware of it, he also shall be unclean and guilty.
      Numbers 19:11 ‘He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days. 12 He shall purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean.

Do you have a question or thought? If so, please share!