Defilement is the state of being impure, dishonored, or desecrated. To defile something is an act of great disrespect toward God or others. Sin can defile a person, a community, or a nation.
The Bible usually uses the word defilement in reference to ceremonial or sexual impurity. Idolatry is sure to defile those who fall into that sin. In Jeremiah 32:34, the Lord is angry with Israel because “they set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it.” Bringing idols into the Lord’s temple was an act of defilement. Any type of sexual sin defiles a person as well (1 Corinthians 5:11; Matthew 15:18–20).
Many of the ceremonial laws God gave to Israel were to show them how to cleanse themselves from defilement so that they could commune with a holy God (Leviticus 7:21; 22:3). The existence of so many detailed laws demonstrated the stark difference between the holy and the profane (Leviticus 10:10–11). Defilement of any sort, even when caused unintentionally, separated a person from the community and from God’s dwelling place among them (Leviticus 5:2). No defiled person could enter the sanctuary of the Lord (Numbers 19:13, 20).
Anytime enemies or backslidden Israel desecrated God’s temple with neglect or abuse, God considered it defiled (Ezekiel 23:39; 44:7; Malachi 2:11). No one could offer acceptable sacrifices or prayers until the temple had been cleansed from its defilement (2 Chronicles 29:16; Leviticus 16:20). Priests had to go through a ritualistic cleansing process before ministering to the Lord, indicating that association with the world in any way brought defilement (Nehemiah 12:30; 13:30; Exodus 29:4).
Under the New Covenant, born-again children of God are indwelt by His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; John 3:3). Our bodies become His temple (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). When we defile ourselves through sin or neglect of the Lord Himself, we must seek cleansing by confessing our sins to God (1 John 1:9). Only the blood of Jesus Christ is powerful enough to cleanse our hearts and make us fit to commune with God (1 John 1:7).
We defile ourselves in many ways, but there are two primary sins about which Scripture regularly uses the word defilement: sexual impurity and idolatry. These two sins defile any temple, both stone and flesh (see 1 Corinthians 6:18). Sexual sin in all its forms is a metaphor used regularly throughout Scripture to symbolize God’s broken relationship with His people. For example, wayward Israel was often compared to an adulterous wife or promiscuous daughter (Ezekiel 16:32; 23:30; James 4:4). Sexual sin is so defiling that God used it to describe the worst kind of spiritual betrayal.
Idolatry of any kind also defiles us (Revelation 21:8; 1 John 5:21). We commit idolatry when we treasure anything more than we esteem Christ (Mark 12:30). When we recognize that we have defiled ourselves, we can confess it as sin, ask God’s forgiveness, and purpose to turn from it (Luke 3:8). The successful Christian is one who walks in the Spirit so that defilement no longer defines him (1 John 3:6–10; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Galatians 5:16, 19–21).