One of the clear messages of scripture is that you never approach divinity on your terms. God is to be approached on the terms he sets. You see this very clearly as the Hebrews are leaving Egypt. God takes them out from a pagan culture into a place where there are no pagan influences – the wilderness. There he teaches them how to be his holy people. In Exodus 19 we have the story about God on Mt. Sinai just before God gives them the 10 commandments. When you read that chapter a few things jump out concerning holiness. In several places they are told to be consecrated (19:10, 14). That is the same word that is often translated “holy.” God clearly communicates how they are to approach him, when they are allowed to approach him, how close they may come to the mountain and what punishments are in store for those who do not listen (death). Notice that God’s consecrated people are not to even touch the one who goes up on the mountain before God allows it. God doesn’t want his consecrated, holy people even touching the one who violates and disrespects God’s holiness. Holiness creates boundaries. God is holy and therefore we approach him on his terms.
Leviticus often focuses on holiness, consecration, washing, and being clean or unclean. Why? Because the people had come out of a pagan Egypt and God was establishing new rules for how they were to approach and worship him. We find in Leviticus that many different things can be considered holy. Objects can be holy (articles of worship, the altar for sacrifice, etc), people can be holy (Aaron and priests), certain places can be holy (the tabernacle) and even certain days are holy (Sabbath). Holiness is about being set apart to be used by God. You don’t take tabernacle utensils from the altar, take them home and use them on the BBQ grill to flip your meat because they are holy and to be used only for the Lord. The same is true with God’s people. As God’s holy people we have been washed and consecrated…no longer to be used for worldly purposes. We are set apart for service to God.
We see this also in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:9-10 Peter writes to New Testament Christians, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” When you turn your life over to God and he washes and sanctifies you, you no longer belong to the world. You belong to God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 talks about the difference between God’s people and the world – “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Why don’t thieves and slanderers have a place in the kingdom of God? Because they have not been sanctified to be used for God’s purposes and to be God’s holy people. They are still living in the realm of the secular and profane. Notice also in this passage that we as Christians used to live in that sphere…but not any more because God has washed, sanctified, and justified us. That is the language of holiness. So we see two spheres present in the world the sacred/holy and the secular/profane:
I am sure many of you have heard that the etymology of the Greek word for church (Ekklesia) is from Ek (“out of” or “away from”) and klesia which comes from Klesis (“call”). You end up with the church being those who have been called out of the world or called away from the world. Called to God to be separate from the world – holy. So the very nature of the church recognizes that we used to live in an ungodly way…but no more because God has made us holy. Even the word “Saint” in the New Testament (2 Cor 1:1, Phil 1:1, etc) is just the word “holy.” Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:1 – “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia.” That literally reads “together with all the holy” which would imply “holy ones.” He is talking to everyday Christians in the church at Corinth…not some select, voted on group of uber-Christians that have performed miracles in the outer reaches of the globe. We are holy.
Again, holiness creates barriers as we separate ourselves from worldly ways of living and thinking and most importantly…being. We no longer are who we used to be. We are calling people out from the secular realm into the sacred realm recognizing that we used to live there to. That is called evangelism. Evangelism needs to be informed by the spiritual reality of what is happening in the lives of those who are seeking, what God is doing and how holiness functions in the lives of the saints.
Holiness helps us recognize how bad sin really is. I wonder if many times we take sin pretty lightly. When you start examining what it means to be holy and how important it is to be holy, sin starts looking as ugly as it really is. We often have a cheap view of atonement, practically speaking. Now theoretically we view atonement as costly (the blood of Jesus Christ) but on a practical level we view it as a simple prayer asking for forgiveness.
One of the things I worry about in the church is how often I see people trying to make the church too much like the world in order for people to be more accepting of Christianity. It is important that we evaluate our ministries, sermons, and Bible classes with this question – “What are we actually drawing people to by doing or teaching these things?” We should never make the good news look so similar to the bad news that the good news no longer appears to be so good. The Gospel is unique and we don’t have to try to camoflague it to trick people into accepting it. We also don’t need to let the holiness God has given us (that we have not earned) become something we hold arrogantly over the heads of the lost.