When was the last time holiness came up in your conversation? It’s not a popular topic these days where truth is an abstract thought and purity is a stigma we assign to our grandmothers. It’s an old-fashioned concept that doesn’t inspire today’s culture.
Maybe we’ve forgotten about holiness. Or we’ve kept it safely tucked away where it belongs—in Leviticus, where no one will ever find it. It’s actually a crowning attribute of God. Holiness is the essence of who God is and is key for anyone seeking his presence.
What does holiness look like? The Hebrew word for “holy” is kodesh. William Holladay defines it as “set apart for God.” He contrasts it with hol which means “common or ordinary.” It carries the idea of something that is whole or complete, an inner spiritual health and wholeness. The opposite of holy is defilement through impurity. It also has an outward significance related to God’s holy sanctuary, priests, and offerings. These were all set aside for God, for his purpose, because he is holy. Today we ordain ministers to set them apart for the distinct purpose of serving the Lord.
That which is holy is pure, good, whole, complete, perfect, and glorious. God’s nature is revealed through these attributes. When God gave the law to Moses, causing Moses’ face to shine, God was holy and wholly glorious. When Jesus healed the diseased and broken, he poured out his holy purity and completeness. When God sent Jonah to Nineveh, his holy goodness was revealed to the Ninevites and the sailors on the boat. When God sent the plagues on Egypt, and when Jesus cleansed the temple, God’s holy nature was fully manifested revealing his holy glory and purity. God did all these things to reveal his holiness and bring his people closer to himself and into his presence.
The seraphim in Isaiah’s vision called out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6:3).” In the Hebrew language words were often repeated to make them stronger. God is so incredibly holy. It is intrinsic to his character. Whatever comes into contact with God must be holy: his sanctuary, its vessels, offerings, and anyone who approaches him. Because of God’s holiness, Moses had to take off his sandals (Exodus 3:5). Because of God’s holiness, his priests had to be sanctified prior to serving before him. Because of his holiness, the Pharisees heard words of judgement.
God addressed holiness head on when he brought Israel out of Egypt. He had positioned Israel to be his chosen people, to come into his presence and commune with him. What a privilege! To be in such a divine place, one must be holy. God said to Israel, “Be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Israel needed to be holy because God cannot look on evil. “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” (Habakkuk 1:13). This was a problem. Israel did not fit the profile of holiness. (They were more like grumblers who didn’t know God.) But God provided a solution, spelled out in the book of Leviticus. He designated a system of sacrifices, rituals, and behaviors (holy action) for Israel. Sacrifices covered their sin with blood, rituals reminded them that God was there, and the law brought it home to their daily walk. This was how one was to be holy.
Fast forward to the New Testament. Peter wrote, “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’” (1 Peter 1:15, 16). Jesus wants us close. Therefore, we must be holy.
The Impact of Holiness
The Levitical formula for holiness hasn’t changed. While the three key elements may look different today, they’re still essential.
Sacrificial Blood. The blood of Jesus covers our sin. We no longer need the sacrifice of animals. Jesus is the perfect and holy substitute. “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14). We can come into God’s presence because Jesus has made us holy and perfect through his blood.
Rituals. God knows we need help to remember what’s important. This is not a new development. Jesus took the Passover meal, established to help Israel remember God’s great deliverance from Egypt (Obviously they had problems with memory too!), and redesignated it to help us remember his sacrifice. It’s kind of sad to think that we need a ritual to remember something so significant. We ritualistically attend church to remember our Lord and our purpose. Rituals are an intricate part of who we are.
Holy Action. Leviticus 19 is referred to as the Code of Holiness. As noted above, Peter quoted this chapter when he wrote, “Be holy, because I [God] am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Every aspect of one’s life must be set apart for God. What’s in the heart and how one lives are indicative of one’s holiness. Peter defined holy behavior in this passage as: a mind prepared for action, self-control, hope centered on grace, obedience that does not conform to evil desires, and a life of reverent fear. God’s covenant was put into place to restore his people to a state of holiness. Gordon Wenham wrote, “Holiness is a state of grace to which men are called by God, and it is attained through obeying the law.”
Because God is holy, we must be holy if we want to be in his presence. He desires to make us holy and has done so through his perfect and holy Son. By this we can come into the presence of God. We can live as holy priests pleasing to God. A holy life is a reflection of God, a witness and light to the world. We impact the world through holy living. Satan would like for us to believe that a holy life is culturally stuffy and even a detriment to our witness. But we must not believe his lie. There is a danger in conforming to a culture that does not embrace holiness. We risk losing sight of God and wandering from his presence. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Christ’s mission is to bring his people into his presence, to save them from sin and separation from God. He came to sanctify us and make us holy and acceptable, so we can see God. It’s his holiness, his absolute perfection that brought him to the cross for us. The author of Hebrews wrote, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy: without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)
Sara Fudge (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is Professor of Hebrew and Bible Backgrounds at Cincinnati Christian University and Associate Dean of the Seminary. Her published works include 1 & 2 Samuel in The Transforming Word Commentary and a contributor to Devotions on the Hebrew Bible: 54 Reflections to Inspire & Instruct.