By Dr. Doug Redford
The word holy is a fundamental biblical word that has been victimized by two extremes. On the one hand, it is associated with a very rigid, austere, Pharisaical approach to religion, which makes it an uncomfortable subject to discuss, even to some Christians. On the other hand, holy has been so cheapened by its frequent usage in certain expressions (you can think of some) that it has become a “four-letter word” in the sense of being profaned.
It is important to return to the premise of the opening statement: holy is a fundamental biblical word in spite of the “baggage” it has come to carry. To aid us in seeking clarity, we must return to the words of the Holy Bible. There, in Leviticus 16, we read about a day known by Jews as Yom Kippur, literally (in Hebrew) the “day of covering.” It is also known as the Day of Atonement, a day on which God provided a means by which sins could be covered and an unholy people could be “at one” with a holy God.
Today Yom Kippur is probably the most significant holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish customs or traditions will take part in a full observance of Yom Kippur, including fasting (not only from food but from drinking water), refraining from any kind of work, and attending synagogue services. This year Yom Kippur will be observed from sunset on September 29 until sunset on September 30.
The observance of Yom Kippur focuses on three main disciplines: repentance, fasting, and prayer. The atonement associated with the day applies only to sins between people and God, not to sins against another individual. Such issues as those must be settled by seeking reconciliation with the offended party. It is also customary on Yom Kippur to wear white, which symbolizes purity and acknowledges God’s promise that our sins will be made as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).
Old Testament Origins
As noted earlier, the origin of the Day of Atonement is found in the book of Leviticus, a book whose primary theme is holiness. In fact, the key verse of the book in which God says, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44) is quoted in the New Testament as a challenge to followers of Jesus (1 Peter 1:16). In Leviticus this command is repeated (with minor alterations) in the following verses: 11:45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8, 15; 22:9, 16, 32. The references in chapters 21 and 22 describe the Lord as the one who “makes [someone] holy.” God’s desire to make his covenant people holy is at the heart of the Day of Atonement.
In considering what Leviticus 16 says about the Day of Atonement, it is noteworthy that the chapter begins with a reference to what happened to Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who were struck dead because they came into the Lord’s presence in an unauthorized manner (Leviticus 10:1-3). The Lord told Moses, “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die” (16:2). This verse provides an important lesson about holiness: it means coming to God on his terms, not ours.
On the Day of Atonement, those terms were very carefully, specifically set forth for the covenant people. Many of the Day’s proceedings were private, participated in by only the high priest within the Holy of Holies (16:11-19). One in particular was to be visible to the people, to impress upon them God’s desire to purify them and remove their sins far away. That occurred when the high priest placed his hands upon the head of the “scapegoat,” confessing the people’s sins and symbolically placing those sins upon the goat. The goat was then released to carry the sins to a “remote place” (16:22).
Holiness, however, is more than just the theme of a single day. Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus, sometimes referred to as the “Holiness Code,” encourage the people to demonstrate holiness in their daily conduct. Eight of the nine references to holiness cited earlier are found within this portion of Leviticus. Thus, while some Bible readers have found Leviticus the most challenging book of the Bible to read through, perhaps no book is more qualified to be part of the Holy Bible.
New Testament Links
The Book of Hebrews establishes several important connections between the Old Testament Day of Atonement and Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus fulfilled the role of Aaron as high priest, making the superior sacrifice that does not need to be repeated. Perhaps this point is most compellingly made by the writer’s contrast between the old covenant priest who “day after day . . . stands” to carry out his duties and offer sacrifices that can never truly remove sins, and Jesus, who after his one sacrifice at the cross, “sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:11, 12; cf. 1:3). No old covenant priest could ever truly “sit down” and call his work “finished,” unlike Jesus who did so from the cross (John 19:30).
Just as Leviticus is concerned with the state of holiness before God and then with the practice of holiness, so is the Book of Hebrews. While Jesus has made us holy through his atoning death (Hebrews 10:10), a life of holiness is meant to become the passion and pursuit of every Christian (12:14). Consider the three disciplines mentioned earlier as part of observing Yom Kippur. They can help us persevere while traveling the “Way of Holiness” (Isaiah 35:8).
Repentance is another term that, like holiness, comes across as a foreign word to today’s world. Most see repentance as a turning away from sin, and that is certainly included. But true repentance involves something more comprehensive. It is a rejection of the world—not the world as described in John 3:16 (which designates the people God loves), but the world that John commands us not to love in 1 John 2:15. That world includes the values, the priorities, the goals, the standards, and the culture that surround an individual. Needless to say, the bulk of that today does not encourage a lifestyle of holiness.
The phrase “drawing a line in the sand” is used when someone wants to set a boundary for the purposes of restricting conduct by another party that poses a threat of some kind. Crossing that line will yield grave consequences. “Don’t you know,” warns James, “that friendship with the world means enmity against God?” (James 4:4). Most of us need to take a good look at our schedules and, to put it in contemporary terms, “unfriend” the world and draw a more definitive “line in the sand.”
Fasting appears to be the meaning of the term “deny yourselves” in Leviticus 16:29 and 31. This is the only required fast within the Old Testament. Generally fasting is thought to include a denial of food and water. But like the idea of repentance, fasting can have a much broader application. In the process of repentance, one may be convicted of the need to “fast” from television, movies, sports, social media, the evening news, or certain kinds of music. The abstinence must then be filled with spiritual pursuits such as intense prayer, Scripture study, or genuine self-examination. That self-examination does not have to be private; it can include another (or others) to whom one is accountable (James 5:16).
While many outstanding books on prayer have been written, the best “prayer book” remains the Bible. Reading the Psalms in particular can serve to gather our thoughts and help us express whatever emotions we feel—joy, heartache, disappointment, anger, frustration. Repentance will often be spurred on by such prayer, as seen from David’s words in Psalm 51. Here is where true self-examination can occur as in the prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23).
From First Century to Twenty-First
Many people, even some Christians, define holiness in terms of being “anti-” certain practices of the world. In truth, real holiness is “pro-God” and is meant to demonstrate to a hellish world what a heavenly perspective looks like. William Barclay describes the first century as characterized by “a tide of decadence that nothing could stop.” Yet the “radiant power of Christianity” transformed lives throughout the Roman Empire. As we who are followers of Jesus seek to defend and promote a correct understanding of holiness amidst the misrepresentations that surround it (dare we call this a holy war?), let us remember that above all, eternity is at stake: “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
Dr. Doug Redford serves as minister with Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.