Words of Life – “Holiness”

Holy, holy, holy!
Lord God Almighty
All Thy works shall praise Thy name
In earth and sky and sea
Holy, holy, holy!
Merciful and mighty
God in three persons
Blessed Trinity

We stand in awe of a mighty and holy God —a God whose very nature of holiness calls His people to reflect that holiness (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:15-16). Yet, in contemporary times, the essence of holiness, as portrayed in scripture, has become somewhat obscured. A 2006 Barna Research study revealed startling statistics: approximately 35% of Americans, and notably 46% of “born again” Christians, do not believe God expects them to be holy. When pressed to describe what it means to be “holy”, the most common response given was a disheartening “I don’t know,” with one in five Americans (21%) providing this answer. This lack of clarity transcended religious affiliations, showing near identical responses among Christians and non-Christians alike.

It’s perhaps understandable. If we lack understanding of what it truly means to be holy, it’s natural to question whether it’s something God really does expect from us. However, scripture offers a clear perspective:

“but, like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, “You shall be holy, because I am holy.”
—1 Peter 1:15-16


“Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord.”

—Hebrews 12:14


“For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.”

—1 Thessalonians 4:7

With a clear scriptural mandate for believers to “be holy”, it becomes imperative that we seek to understand what this means. When we say God is “holy”, what are we saying about Him? When Peter tells his readers to “become holy”, what is he telling them to do? When we read in the book of Hebrews that “without holiness, no one will see the Lord”, how should we respond? That’s the focus for this week’s Word of Life. Let’s dive in!

Holiness as “Temple Language”

The English word “holy” comes from a proto-Germanic word meaning “whole”, “uninjured”, or “Sound”; but this does not quite capture the primary significance of the Hebrew terms used in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word family that is usually translated as “holy” or “sacred” primarily denotes the idea of being “set apart” or “consecrated.” Like our English words “holy” and “sacred”, these words were often associated with the temple or the priesthood and turn up most frequently in the books of Exodus and Leviticus where God delivers instructions to Moses and Aaron regarding such things. However, the words were also often used in reference to God, Himself, as well as the Israelite community as a whole and as individuals.

DaFruits of The Tabernacle of Meeting.(The Freedom to Worship).❣️ – DaFruitsThe first 16 chapters of Leviticus depict God instructing His people on how they are to distinguish between “the holy and the common; the clean and the unclean” (Leviticus 10:10). The focus in these chapters is on identifying objects, duties, and events that are “holy to the Lord” and teaching the people how they are to treat them as such. In all of these cases, the word implies that these objects, duties, and events are dedicated to God. Such things should not be regarded as common or ordinary and should be viewed as God’s own possession! Moreover, once something was made holy (that is consecrated or dedicated to God), there was no taking it back (Leviticus 27:9-10, Leviticus 27:10 )!

These things were not to be taken lightly! In Leviticus 10 we see the tragic story of Aaron’s sons; Nadab and Abihu, who offered “unauthorized fire” before the Lord. While scripture does not explicitly detail the nature of their error, God’s response gives us some indication.

1 Then Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan and put fire in it, set incense on it, and presented strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them to do. 2So fire went out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them so that they died before the Lord. 3Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke: ‘Among the ones close to me I will show myself holy, and in the presence of all the people I will be honored.’”

Leviticus 10:1-3

After instructing the people on how to dispose of the bodies of the two priests, the Lord continued:

8Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, 9Do not drink wine or strong drink, you and your sons with you, when you enter into the Meeting Tent, so that you do not die. This is a perpetual statute throughout your generations,10 as well as to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean. 

Leviticus 10:8-10

Reverence Archives - DavidVogel.netThese verses seem to imply that Nadab and Abihu’s great sin (a sin worthy of instantaneous death) had to do with a lack of proper etiquette or attitude toward those things which were declared holy. Perhaps they were intoxicated as verse 9 seems to suggest or perhaps they were performing duties that they were not authorized to perform as verse one implies. We do not know the specifics, but it is apparent that Nadab and Abihu had dishonored God and had not regarded their task (and by extension, God himself) as “holy.” That is, they did not give proper respect to God or His instructions. They were, in some way, flippant or careless in their performance of these duties and it cost them their lives. 

In every case throughout scripture, the holiness ascribed to these people, objects, and duties was not an innate quality of the things themselves. Rather, these things were invested with a quality of holiness by virtue of either their dedication to God or by God’s own declaration. Thus, holiness in scripture springs from an object’s relationship to God and His own holiness.

Yahweh; the Holy One of Israel

If all earthly holiness springs from a thing’s relationship or proximity to God, what then does it mean for God to be holy?  We first see this word in reference to God, himself, in Exodus 15:11.

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders?

Exodus 15:11

This praise of God’s “otherness”; His uniqueness is a common theme among the psalms as well.

“Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
no deeds can compare with yours.”

Psalm 86:8

“For who in the skies above can compare with the Lord?
Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings?”

Psalm 89:6

It is interesting that God is praised for His superiority in comparison with other gods. We usually think of the “gods” of the nations as non-existent myths and so we read these verses as saying “The Lord is greater than those gods, because He is real and they are imaginary.” However, as Dr. Michael Heiser writes:

“…these statements reflect a sincere belief and are neither dishonest nor hollow. Comparing Yahweh to the ancient equivalent of an imaginary or fictional character cheapens the praise.” 
Introduction to the Divine Council, Michael S. Heiser

Elohim: God the Father and God the Mother - WMSCOG New York

Part of our difficulty with these passages stems from a misunderstanding of the Hebrew word usually translated as “god” in English. Scripture uses this word (“elohim”) in a variety of ways. It can be used as the name of the one true God (Exodus 20:1-2, Psalm 68:8), but is also used in reference to other spiritual beings such as angels (Psalm 8:5, Psalm 138:1, Job 1:6 ), demons (Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 82:1*), and even disembodied human spirits (1 Samuel 28:13-14, Exodus 21:6*). Thus, the English word “god” might be somewhat misleading, and “spirit” could potentially serve as a more apt connotative equivalent to “elohim.”**

Reclaiming Supernatural Christianity: The Biblical Divine Council – YHWH's Janitor(*Some commentators interpret the use of elohim in these instances to refer to human judges rather than spiritual entities. However, if this is true it would be a linguistic anomaly since the word is not used in reference to living humans in other Hebrew texts except to occasionally refer to deified kings. Dr. Michael S. Heiser discusses this at length in his 2015 book; The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible
**Unfortunately, “spirit” is not a perfect solution. Translating references to the triune God as “The Spirit” may suggest a focus solely on one person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit—rather than the unified Godhead. For the purposes of this study, my use of “The Spirit” should be understood as the united triune God, not the Holy Spirit in isolation.)

With that in mind, we could say that The Spirit (elohim) is holy; utterly set apart and in a category altogether different from any other spirit (elohim) in all the cosmos.  Moreover, scripture teaches that the pagan gods were far worse than imaginary. They were, in fact, demonic entities (Deuteronomy 32:17, 1 Corinthians 10:20-21). The gods or ancestral spirits that the pagans worshiped may have indeed been “real,” but they were not really “God.” They were totally incomparable to God. 

How then do we reconcile that with verses like these:

“There is no one holy like the Lord;

there is no one besides you;

there is no Rock like our God.”

1 Samuel 2:2 (NIV)

“Remember the former things, those of long ago;

I am God, and there is no other;

I am God, and there is none like me.”

Isaiah 46:9 (NIV)

Dr. Heiser explains:

Analysis of the Hebrew text demonstrates that several of the most common phrases in the Hebrew Bible allegedly used for denying the existence of other gods (e.g., Deut 4:35,39; 32:12,39) appear in passages that affirm the existence of other gods (Deut 4, 32). The result is that these phrases express the incomparability of Yahweh among the other elohim, not that the biblical writer contradicts himself, or that he is in the process of discovering monotheism. The situation is the same in Isaiah 40-66. Isaiah 40:1-8 is familiar to scholars (via the plural imperatives in 40:1-2) as a divine council text (Cross, Seitz). Isaiah 40:22-26 affirms the ancient Israelite worldview that described heavenly beings with heavenly host terminology (Heiser, “Divine Council,” 114-118). That Isaiah’s “denial statements” should be understood as statements of incomparability, not as rejections of the existence of other gods, is made clear in Isaiah 47:8, 10, where Babylon boldly claims, “I am, and there is none else beside me.” The claim is not that Babylon is the only city in the world, but that she has no rival.

Introduction to the Divine Council, Michael S. Heiser

So, while not all of these verses explicitly use the word “holy” to describe God, they are all, nevertheless, statements of His holiness; His uniqueness among alternative objects of devotion. God’s holiness means that He is the only one worthy of such devotion and worship and all others are “false gods”; mere parodies and poor imitations of His own unique glory.

The Holy Ones of the Most High

What Does it Mean to Be Holy?Now we arrive at the question that began our study. What about us? What does it mean for God’s people to be holy? Throughout the Bible, those in faithful covenant with God are called His “Holy People***.” In the Old Testament, this was usually a reference to Israel; the descendants of Abraham (Exodus 19:6, Leviticus 20:26, Deuteronomy 7:6). In the New Testament, God’s Holy People*** refers to the believers (1 Peter 2:9, Romans 1:7, Colossians 1:12). 

(***It is worth noting that “qadoshim” (“hagion” in Greek) is more accurately rendered “holy ones” or “saints” rather than “holy people” because the term is also often applied to God’s loyal heavenly host as well (Daniel 8:13, Psalm 89:5-7, Matthew 25:31, Mark 8:38).)

Returning to Leviticus; interspersed among God’s instructions about eating habits and sacrificial procedures, He periodically reminds the Israelites that this holiness applies to them as well because they are His people! Just as the holy objects and duties described in earlier were holy because they were dedicated to God; so too, the people of God are Holy because they are to be dedicated to Him.  Interestingly, some passages have God telling the Israelites to be holy because He is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 19:2, Leviticus 20:7) while others depict God telling the people that they are already holy because He has made them holy (Leviticus 20:8, Leviticus 21:8, Leviticus 22:32). Moreover, some passages make both statements in quick succession! (Leviticus 20:7-8, Leviticus 20:26)  Is this a contradiction? Are God’s people to be holy because He is holy? Or are they already holy because He has made them holy? 

Embracing Confusion - KIDS DISCOVERThe answer, I think, lies in our attitude. This becomes more clear when we remember that while  “holy” can mean “set apart” or “elected” by God, it can also mean “consecrated” or “dedicated” to God. God had chosen Abraham and his descendants to be His people, he “set them apart from the other nations”; thus declaring them holy to Himself with no regard to their behavior or qualifications. In light of this declaration, He likewise required them to regard themselves as holy; refraining from anything that would defile or desecrate His holy possession. This election would be of no value to them if they refused to accept God’s declaration and consecrate themselves in their own minds and actions. 

Before we assume that this implies any kind of “earned” holiness, we must remember that even this personal consecration was dependent upon God’s action. Without His election and subsequent instruction of the people, they would not have known Him and would not have known how to be holy. Thus, even though this consecration involved human decision, effort and action; it could not be seen as putting God in their debt in any way. Holiness was not earned. It was not a reward for good behavior. Their holiness began with God’s declaration and was actualized by their continual self-consecration. 

The same is true of Christians under the new covenant. We usually use the word “sanctification” rather than “consecration”, but both words have nearly identical meanings. So, when Paul says:

“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.”
1 Corinthians 6:11

He is saying that believers have been set apart by God and have been declared holy; but when  he says:

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God.”
1 Thessalonians 4:3-5:

He is warning believers not to defile what God has declared holy by their sinful actions. Thus, holiness (like Justification and so many other things in the scripture) can be seen to have an “already/not yet” quality to it. That is, it is already inaugurated; but is not yet fully actualized. Holiness is initiated with the declaration of God’s will and intent that we be holy; set apart as His people. This declaration is then slowly actualized and made manifest over time in the lives of His people as they realign their thinking (and consequently, their actions) in faithful obedience to His will.  


So, how shall we answer the Barna questions? Does God expect us to be holy? Yes, absolutely!  What does it mean to be holy?  It means that God has claimed us as His own possession and that He calls us to embrace that identity; thinking, speaking and acting in ways that will honor and not defile that which belongs to Him. 

He calls us to consecrate our lives in devotion to Him. When we do this, we demonstrate that we accept His declaration of holiness. We accept our calling to be set apart for His purposes. Holiness, however, is not perfection. He demands a transformed life that comes from a renewed mind (Romans 12:2), but that transformation is a gradual and ongoing thing that will never be complete this side of the Glory. It takes work and struggle and learning from our failures. It takes reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and submission to His regenerative touch. Our offenses do not negate our devotion., but they only show that we are still under the influence of the sin that lives within us (Romans 7:19-20). They do remind us that we are still growing; still striving to reach maturity; the measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).  

Thank you for reading! This week, let’s take some time to be holy! 

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