Katharos (adj.) and its related words, kathairo and katharizo (verbs), and katharismos (noun), are as varied in classical usage as their English counterparts. Although there are many words which, to be properly understood, could be more accurately rendered by the use of a single, consistent translation (for example, see the discussion of “righteousness/justice” in W.S.#3), this is one where such an exercise would be extremely difficult. Some version of the concept of “cleanliness”, to be sure, is present in all of its manifestations, but I have not succeeded in finding a term that would fit for every occurrence.
Kathairo or kathaireo, the older form of the verb, for example, was used of “ridding a land of monsters and robbers, cleansing a wound, sifting or winnowing grain, pruning a tree, or performing religious purification rites” (L/S). The later form, katharizo, added “to clear ground of weeds, to cleanse (heal) from leprosy, or medical purgation.” The noun, katharismos, simply described the performance of any of these activities, and the adjective, katharos, the result of the process.
Perhaps a list of the adjectival uses of katharos, with illustrative New Testament references, would be helpful:
1. simple, physical cleanliness – Mt.23:25, Lk.11:39 (parallel passages regarding the washing of dishes), Mt.27:59 (“a clean linen cloth”), and similar in Rv.19:8, 19:14, and 15:6; and Heb.10:22 (“bodies washed with clean water”).
2. “without admixture” – [“pure”] – Mt.5:8, Tim.1:5, 3:9, II Tim.1:3, 2:22, I Pet.1:22, “a pure heart”; Rv.21:18,21, “pure gold”; and Rv.22:1, “pure water.”
3. “without debt, guilt, or liability” – Ac.18:6, 20:26 – Paul’s statement that he is no longer responsible for their response to his message.
4. “ritual or ceremonial purity” – Jn.3:25, Lk.2:22, Jn.2:6, Mk.7:19, Lk.11:41, Mk.1:44, Lk.5:14
5. “honest, correct, without blemish, sound, morally pure” – Jas.4:8, Tit.1:15, as well as parallels to the “ceremonial” kind listed above
6. “the healing of lepers” – Mt.8:3, 10:8, 11:5; Mk.1:42, Lk.4:27,7:22, 17:14,17.
Other uses are a bit harder to classify. Jesus, on occasion, deliberately blurred the line between physical cleanliness, ceremonial purity, and dedicated lives (Jn.13:10 – 11 and 15:3), as did the Holy Spirit’s instructions to Peter (Ac.10:15, 11:19). Especially in the upper room scene, Jesus’ intended meaning shifts sharply. And although the discourse on the Vine / branches is clearly an agricultural reference (see previous post), the implication of removing any hindrance to fruitfulness is clear. Similar admonitions are also seen in Heb.9:14, Ac.15:9, Titus 2:14, I Jn.1:9.
James 1:7 re-defines religious “purity” in very practical terms, and in no uncertain language.
This approach is at once more and less stringent than the “purification” demands of the Law. The advocates of the Law had compiled a handy check-list for assaying the ceremonial “purity” that they deemed requisite for proper worship. Jesus provided no such cut and dried convenience, but instead required – and offered – the total transformation of the focus of one’s life. Once this transformation is in progress (Lk.11:41, Jn.13:10), the practiced eye of the vine-dresser can readily make continual corrections to the health, direction, and growth of a branch. Notice that (Jn.15:2) it is the fruitful branches that receive this attention. Unfruitful ones are simply cut off and discarded. And it is not a condition of their becoming a part of the Vine, but of continuing in that condition, and of increasing their fruitfulness.
We should also take note of who is responsible for the pruning / cleansing / purification. We have already seen that the Father is designated as the vintner (Jn.15:1); however, in Eph.5:26, Paul speaks of the Lord Jesus himself “cleansing the church to make it his own”. In Jn.15:3, “the Word that I have spoken” is credited with rendering Jesus’ followers “clean”; and in II Cor.7:1 and James 4:8, the responsibility is placed squarely upon the shoulders of aspiring disciples themselves. Looks pretty much like a mutual effort.
Peter (I Pet.1:22) uses a different, less common word, hagnizo, which more commonly applies to “religious purity”, when he declares that his readers have accomplished this, “by obeying the truth.” It is well to remember that both “the word” (Jn.1:14) and “the truth” (Jn.14:6) (see W.S.#66) are also references to Jesus himself.
It remains for us to consider the discussions in the letter to the Hebrews, the understanding of which has been severely inhibited by the common practice of “proof-texters” lifting a few phrases entirely out of their context. For example, the frequently quoted phrase, (Heb. 1:3), “when he (Jesus) had made a cleansing of “sins” – (the word is hamartia, failures or shortcomings, and not paraptoma, transgressions – see W.S.#7) – if taken in its context of the statement of God’s earlier attempts to make his ways known, which did not work (v.1), looks entirely different, declaring that Jesus’ successful mission (v.2 and 3) was to remedy the shortcomings / failures of the old system! This contrast is the announced purpose of the entire treatise, and occurs like a refrain throughout.
Likewise, Heb.9:14, in the context of its entire paragraph, also highlights Jesus’ superiority over the former priesthood, and those who quote the end of 9:22 “without the pouring-out of blood, deliverance doesn’t happen”, totally ignore the beginning of the sentence, “According to the law…..” V.23, immediately following, continues the emphasis that a better way was needed – and provided! Remember that “blood” and “life” are frequently used synonymously. (see Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 12.)
Finally, how can anyone be aware of the glorious expression of confidence in Heb.10:19-23, the assurance that “our hearts have been cleansed (perfect tense) (lit., “sprinkled”) from consciousness of evil, and our bodies have been washed (also perfect tense) with clean water” (perhaps a reference to baptism), and still submit meekly to a requirement that they “confess sinfulness” in every worship service, and in countless hymns? That simply doesn’t compute! The perfect tense expresses “a past action with present consequences”!
Paul had earlier written to Titus (1:!5), “Everything is clean, for clean people! But for the impure and unfaithful, nothing is clean: their mind and conscience has been polluted!”
For all who belong to Jesus, heart, mind, and conscience have been cleansed!
Accept the joyful admonition in Heb.10:23-24:
“Let’s hang on to our commitment to [acknowledgment of] our hope [expectation] without hesitation! For the One who made the promise is faithful! Let’s concentrate on prodding each other (with) love and good deeds!”
And whether in song or liturgy, give heed to the Spirit’s word to our brother Peter (Ac.10:15):
“What God has cleansed, don’t you call unclean!”