WHAT IS HOLINESS?
Holiness is a theme that runs throughout the scriptures. God is seen as holy. Humans are seen as holy. Things, places, days and events are seen as holy. The words holy and holiness appear hundreds of times in scripture. The Scriptures teach God is holy and because He is holy he wants us to be holy.
Leviticus 20:26: You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy,
1 Peter 1:15-16: But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy."
What does it mean to be holy? How is God holy? What does it mean for us to be holy? Can we be holy like God is holy? Are there things that once were holy but no longer are holy? If you consult Hebrew and Greek lexicons and English dictionaries as to what holy means, the general concept that comes across is that to be holy is to be separate. When you see how the word holy appears in context in the numerous scriptures where it is found, it often gives the strong impression of something or someone that is separate from the ordinary or something dedicated to such separation. We know that God is separate from the ordinary. When we read of Gods holiness we are reading about Gods separation from the ordinary.
Exodus 15:11: Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?
We could read this as, “Who is like thee, glorious in separation from the ordinary.” God is not ordinary. He is so extraordinary that there is non like Him. God is holy in the complete sense of being separate from anything else. He is one of a kind. So when we see God referred to as holy in the scriptures we are looking at someone who is unlike anything or anyone else. God is completely holy.
Holiness is to be separate from the ordinary. Sin is an ordinary occurrence in our lives but with God sin never occurs. God is separate from the ordinary. God is completely righteous all of the time. God is all powerful and all knowing all of the time. That’s extraordinary. That makes God holy above all else. God is omnipresent. His Spirit is everywhere. It is called the Holy Spirit because that is what it is. It is the mind and power of God that is separate and above all mind and power in the universe. It is the mind and power by which the universe was made and is sustained.
God is uniquely holy. We will never be as holy as God. Yet God says we are to be holy in all we do. What we do involves behaving righteously which simply means doing what is right. While doing what is right is a dynamic of holiness, one can actually be holy without always being righteous. Remember to be holy is to be separate. We can be holy and still fall short of being righteous. We can be holy and still sin. At the human level, holiness is not a measurement of our righteousness but a reflection of our sanctification in Jesus Christ. Sanctification means to set apart for holiness. How is this accomplished and what are the dynamics involved in this process?
1 Corinthians 1:2: To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours (NIV).
Some translations render it as “called to be saints” rather than “called to be holy.” The Greek word translated “saints” in some translations is the same word translated throughout the NT as holy. The words “to be” are not in the Greek manuscripts and were inserted by the English translators. This passage can be translated, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called holy.”
But wait a minute. How could these Corinthians be called holy when there was all kinds of sin going on including illicit sex and getting drunk at their communion service? Paul spends much of his letter dealing with their many problems. Look what he says to them:
1 Corinthians 3:1-3: Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?
You can see that human holiness does not mean perfection. It does not mean never sinning. Only the holiness of God means that. Christians are holy because God has set them apart to be holy. This is accomplished in Jesus Christ as Paul told the Corinthian Christians. By accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God separates Christians to be a people separate from the ordinary. While such separation should produce righteous behavior, this doesn’t mean we always achieve righteousness. At times we may behave downright unrighteously. The Corinthian Christians were certainly behaving unrighteously. Yet Paul called them sanctified and holy.
They were holy because God had separated them form others by giving them of His Spirit. Ultimately it is the Holy Spirit of God that makes one holy. Having Gods spirit in us is having Gods presence in us. Having Gods presence is what makes us holy and what gives us the inclination to behave in a holy manner. That is why Paul instructed us not to quench the Spirit but to stir it up (1 Thessalonians 5:19). It is when we stir up the Spirit of God within us that we become more righteous in our behavior. Holiness is a reflection of God’s presence within us. Holiness is all about the presence of God separating us from the ordinary.
In the scriptures, we find separation from the ordinary manifested in multiple ways. Not only do we find people separated but we also find places and things separated. We see that God separated Israel form the nations around them and called them holy.
Deuteronomy 7:6: For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Where the Israelites perfect? By no means. They were very imperfect in their behavior. Yet God said they were holy to Him thus showing holiness is not about how righteous one is but about how God classifies something or someone.
While God designated the people of Israel as being holy, God also designated many things they were to do as holy. There were holy days and holy places. The Sabbath and yearly convocations were called holy. The tabernacle, and certain places within it, such as the alter, were called holy. There even was a place in the tabernacle called the holy of holies. Aaron wore holy garments. There was holy anointing oil. Certain grain offerings were called holy as were certain animal sacrifices. The tithe was holy to the Lord. Holy water was used to decipher if a women had been unfaithful to her husband. When going to war, they blew a holy trumpet. Various vessels used in ceremonial activities were called holy. When once settled in the Promised Land, that land was designed as holy and a city called Jerusalem became holy along with the temple it housed.
These are all things God established in Israel to make them something more than ordinary. Remember, the basic meaning of holiness is to be separate from the ordinary. God placed his presence in Israel through holy places, holy animal sacrifices, holy days, holy oil, holy garments, holy water and even holy musical instruments. The presence of God dwelled in Israel through holy things and holy places. God would actually meet once a year in the holy of holies with the high priest.
Even when Israel committed moral sin or failed to facilitate the numerous ritualistic and ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic covenant, they did not stop being holy before God. God continued to regard them as holy through all theirs failures to keep the terms of the covenant He made with them at Sinai. God’s presence with them through the many designated holy things continued to sustain their holy status, their status of being separate and extraordinary.
After repeated failure on Israel’s part to keep the Covenant they had agreed to, God did bring judgement upon them and sent them into captivity. First the Northern kingdom went into captivity and then the Southern kingdom. But God didn’t write them off as His holy people. He allowed them to return to the land, rebuild the temple and restore facilitation of the Mosaic regulations of holy places, holy animal sacrifices, holy days, holy oil, holy garments, and so forth.
Israel continued to struggle to perform the regulations that defined their holy status. By and large, these regulations were designed to keep them focused on their separateness and help facilitate obedience to the moral law in operation since creation. Remember, Paul told the Galatians that the Mosaic code was added because of transgressions (Galatians 3:19). The transgression referred to was of the moral law extant since creation. In the over all purposes of God, these regulations were also added to point to a much greater holiness that would supersede what God had established with Israel. That holiness would involve the coming of a Savior who would give holiness a whole new meaning. Through the death and resurrection of this Savior, a new covenant would be established that would not be based on holy land, holy buildings, holy animal sacrifices, holy days, holy oil, holy garments, holy water or holy musical instruments. This covenant would be based on a fulfilled promise to Abraham that through him all the world would be blessed.
This covenant would be based on the perfect holiness of the Son of God. It would be through this covenant that Israel would be saved and through their salvation make it possible for the Gentiles to be saved as well. This covenant would not be based on a physical priesthood carrying our physical regulations that were designated as holy. This covenant would be based on an eternal high priest setting in a heavenly tabernacle administering a spiritual holiness that would be everlasting.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrew Christians of the first century shows in detail the covenantal transition that took place with the coming of Christ. In the first seven chapters he writes of the superiority of Christ over the Aaronic priesthood. Then in chapter eight, he sums it all up.
Hebrews 8:1-9: The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.
But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: "The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. VERSE 13: By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
The first covenant made with Israel was a covenant of holy places, holy days and holy things. The writer to the Hebrews clearly shows that the covenant Jesus Christ brought made the first covenant obsolete. The writer says what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. All indications are that this letter was written to the Hebrew Christians in the early sixties A.D. Jesus had fulfilled His ministry, been crucified, resurrected and had ascended back to heaven to be with the Father. Jesus had completed His mission which included establishment of the New Covenant. On the night before He died we see Jesus establishing covenantal transition.
Luke 22:19-20: And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
At the moment Jesus died the curtain in the temple that separated the holy place from the most holy place was torn from top to bottom. The writer to the Hebrews clearly shows that entrance into the most holy place was no longer a physical ritual performed by a physical priest. Hebrews 10:19-20 says “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body,
It is established fact that the death of Christ terminated the Old Covenant system. Why then does the writer to the Hebrews say “what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear? This was said some thirty years after the death of Jesus. Hadn’t the old covenant already disappeared? Yes it had. But Israel had not yet come to understand that their ancient covenant had become obsolete. Most of Israel didn’t recognize Christ as the promised Messiah and therefore didn’t recognize that the Mosaic Covenant had come to an end. Many Israelites who did acknowledge Jesus as the promised Messiah simply added Christ to their observance of the Old Covenant.
The letter to the Hebrews, who were Jewish Christians, was to show them that the pathway to God wasn’t Jesus Christ plus the Mosaic covenant. The pathway to God was Jesus Christ alone and no longer involved the observance of holy places, holy days or holy things. The pathway to God was through the blood of Jesus which would result in God’s moral law being written in the heart.
The holy places, days and things were all shadows of the real thing. As the writer to the Hebrews points out, the tabernacle was a shadow of the real thing in heaven. We learn from other scriptures the Passover and Days of unleavened bread prefigured the sacrifice of Christ and his saving us from death by taking our sins upon Himself. Pentecost foreshadowed the giving of God’s Spirit so God’s laws could be written in our hearts. Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles foreshadowed Christs continuing presence within us as redeemer and as our advocate with the father. The Sabbath foreshadowed our rest in Christ as the writer to the Hebrews points out in the fourth chapter.
Paul made it very clear in letters to the Colossians, Galatians and Ephesians that the old system of days, convocations, new moons, Sabbaths etc. had been made obsolete and these observances were no longer necessary (See Colossians 2). What mattered was being transformed by having Gods law written in the heart. The laws written in our hearts are not the separatist regulations of the Old Covenant. The laws written in our hearts are the laws characterized by Apostle Paul’s instruction to never do anything that will harm your neighbor.
Romans 13:10: Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
It took a number of years for the Jewish converts to Christianity to understand the transition that took place with the coming of Christ. The Mosaic Covenant, or the Law as it came to be called, was still being observed by Jewish Christians thirty some years after the death of Christ. It took the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 to end the facilitation of the Old Covenant system. With the temple and priesthood gone, holy places, holy days and holy things disappeared as the writer to the Hebrews said would happen.
But, as is often the case with human behavior, we sometimes like to cling to obsolete things even when something better comes along. This seems to be especially true in the realm of religion. In the years since A.D. 70, various obsolete observances of the Old Covenant system have been reinstated in various areas of Christianity. Others in the Christian community believe God will be more pleased with them if they judiciously adhere to certain regulations which they have come to believe are signs of holiness. In some fellowships you don’t dance, drink alcohol, play cards or go to movies as signs of holiness. Other fellowships demand a certain style of dress or music as defining what is holy. While such observances do not make one less of a Christian, it can become a spiritual problem if it is concluded that the keeping of such observances facilitates a greater holiness with God and leads to judgement of other Christians who don’t adhere to such practices.
Our relationship with God and the blessings we receive from Him are not dependent on observing the holy places, holy days and holy things of the Old Covenant system. Neither does our relationship with God require the observance of man made regulations that are thought to produce holiness. Our holy relationship with God depends on our acceptance of Jesus as Savior and Lord of our lives. Covenantal transition has led to new dynamics of what is holy. Yes, God wants us to be holy. God wants us to be above the ordinary and a separate people from the ordinary. What does it meant to be holy under the New Covenant?
We are holy because God makes us holy through what Christ did. Colossians 1:22: But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—
God has reconciled us to Himself through the Christ event and that is what separates us and makes us extraordinary before God. It is because of what Christ did that we are holy in Gods sight. Having granted us holy status, God wants us to behave in a manner congruent with that status. The New Covenant provides for God’s law to be written in our hearts. The law of the New Covenant is the law of love. The law of love is the law that governs how you treat your neighbor. When you treat your neighbor with honor, respect and concern, you also honor God who created your neighbor.
God has changed the dynamics of how he relates to the human race. God is no longer interested in holy places, holy days or holy things. He is only interested in us being holy by accepting the sacrifice of His son and honoring the law of love that has been implanted in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. This has been God’s focus from the beginning. Even though God gave Israel a complicated system of holy places, holy days and holy things, He was much more interested in their heart being holy. He was more interested in how they treated their neighbor. After years of observing their behavior God became very frustrated with them and through Isaiah said the following:
Isaiah 1:11-17: "The multitude of your sacrifices-- what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations-- I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
What God is really interested in is how we treat each other. Apostle James said this: James 1:27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
The KJV translates it this way: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
The Greek for “unspotted” is aspilos. It was use in Greek literature to signify staying away from immorality. What James is saying is that what pleases God is to serve those in need and live a moral life.
God gave Israel a complicated system of observances and regulations to keep them in constant awareness of their need to live the law of love which is to live a moral life. Instead of these observances and regulations keeping them in tune with the law of love, these observances and regulations became their focus. They were doing the physical things and neglecting to do the spiritual things that the physical things pointed to.
With the advent of the New Covenant, God did away with some of what He had previously defined as holy. Holiness would no longer be a matter of places, days and things. Holiness would be centered in the Christ event. It would totally be a matter of the heart. Holiness would be all about our expression of the law of love.
Hebrews 12:14: Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
You see how living in peace with all men is tied to being holy. Holiness under the New Covenant is a matter of living in peace with all men. Living in peace is facilitated by the law of love. God wants us to be holy. Such holiness is no longer centered in holy places, holy days or holy things. Holiness is centered in Christ and how we treat our fellow man.
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