God’s holiness, our example.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 July

As I wrote yesterday, when Christians talk about holiness we usually mean goodness. We figure what makes God holy is his perfection: He’s good, he’s pure, he’s worthy of honor, he’s so… well, clean. Whereas we humans get awfully dirty.

And yeah, God is all these things. But these are symptoms of his holiness. They’re the fruit. Let’s not confuse ’em with holiness itself.

The Old Testament Hebrew word קֹדֶשׁ/qodéš, “holy,” means separate—set apart from everything else. The New Testament Greek word ἅγιος/ágios means the same thing. God’s separate and set apart from everything else. Not because he’s removed himself; he deliberately got himself right in the middle of our situation. ’Cause he’s here to help if we’d just let him. But God still stands apart from everything else, because he’s unlike everything else. He’s unique. He’s diffrent. He’s holy.

No surprise, people tend to confuse the symptoms with the underlying condition. We think how we get holy like God is we gotta be perfect. Gotta be good, pure, worthy of honor, and clean. That’s how holiness is achieved. God’s holiness, and the serious emphasis the scriptures put on his holiness, must be all about his moral perfection; when the angels call him “holy holy holy” Is 6.3, Rv 4.8 (’cause repeating a word in ancient Hebrew, like “holy holy place,” means it’s a most holy place, He 9.3 and three holies means God’s even holier) they’re really making a big to-do about his perfection.

Here’s the catch: If God’s all about holiness, and holiness means pefection, he must really hate it when we sin. It either drives him away or drives him to get all wrathful.

Really, this interpretation comes from people who really hate it when we sin. And really hate sinners. And project their attitude upon God, and claim he hates sin and sinners just as much, and push us to “be holy” and sin not. Be perfect like God is perfect. Don’t trigger him.

Okay yes: God hates sin. He’s mighty clear about that. He’s good; he created the universe and called it good (and we fouled that up); and the entirety of salvation history, the whole point of God’s kingdom, has to do with God cleaning up our mess.

But to listen to certain dark Christians, God isn’t cleaning up our mess with kindness and grace. He’s pissed. He’s quite happy to fling millions into hell, and if we get on his bad side by not meeting his standard of perfection, we’ll head for hell along with them.

To such Christians, any statements about God’s grace and mercy and kindness and goodness has to be followed up with “But God is just, and God is holy.” To them, God’s holiness is all about his impatience, rage, and destructiveness. Not his actual character; not the fruit he wants to bring out of us. To them, his perfection requires him to purge us with fire, and the way they describe him, he’s eager to rage on the wicked. It’s gonna be an orgy of death and destruction. Then afterward, for eternity, he’s gonna be friendly and benign, and that oughta neatly make up for seven years of widespread slaughter.

See what happens when we get our definitions wrong? Bad theology.

Holiness and separation.

Holy, sacred, and sanctified, all have to do with being unique. As we can see by how the scriptures contrast it with being common (Hebrew חֹל/khol, Greek κοινός/kinós). Ordinary, everyday, common stuff isn’t holy. Isn’t bad, but isn’t different; ergo isn’t holy.

Unfortunately humans are creatures of extremes, and can’t always wrap our heads around the idea that the opposite of holy, i.e. unholy, is neutral, is benign. We keep insisting it’s gotta be evil. The opposite of love can’t be apathy; it’s gotta be hate. So “common” has gotta somehow really mean bad. And y’might notice the people of Jesus’s day did use “common” as a synonym for “ritually unclean.” Ac 10.14, 28, Ro 14.14 To the Pharisees, non-Pharisees, or commoners, weren’t just other people who didn’t follow God as tightly as they did, but cursed sinners. Jn 7.47-49 They were holy, which means others were damned.

But holiness only, and simply, signifies something set apart for God’s purposes. As we can see in God’s instructions to the ancient Hebrews for ritual worship. He told ’em to make certain things which would be holy. Like holy oil.

Exodus 30.22ff NET
22 The LORD spoke to Moses, 23 “Take choice spices: 12½ pounds of free-flowing myrrh, half that—about 6¼ pounds—of sweet-smelling cinnamon, 6¼ pounds of sweet-smelling cane, 24 and 12½ pounds of cassia, all weighed according to the sanctuary shekel, and four quarts of olive oil. 25 You are to make this into a sacred anointing oil, a perfumed compound, the work of a perfumer. It will be sacred anointing oil.
26 “With it you are to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the testimony, 27 the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, the altar of incense, 28 the altar for the burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its base. 29 So you are to sanctify them, and they will be most holy; anything that touches them will be holy.
30 “You are to anoint Aaron and his sons and sanctify them so that they may minister as my priests. 31 And you are to tell the Israelites: ‘This is to be my sacred anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It must not be applied to people’s bodies, and you must not make any like it with the same recipe. It is holy, and it must be holy to you. 33 Whoever makes perfume like it and whoever puts any of it on someone not a priest will be cut off from his people.’”

People still make this sacred anointing oil, following the LORD’s recipe, and use it for worship. (Like anointing the sick, anointing for ministry, and stuff like that.) And of course you realize overeager Christians also totally violate verse 32: They do make a perfume of it, and apply it to their bodies, so they can smell like anointing oil. They take a sacred thing and use it like any other thing, and take all the uniqueness out of it—and that’s the part God objects to.

God also mandated the use of certain meat and bread from the ritual sacrifices, which were for the priests alone to eat. Lv 8.31-32 Particularly the showbread. Lv 24.9 Yet you might recall David ben Jesse got to eat some, 1Sa 21.6 and technically that was sin—even though David claimed it was an emergency.

Yeah, I’ll bring up ritual cleanliness. Most Christians don’t bother with this one anymore, figuring the Holy Spirit within us makes us clean all the time (and yeah, he does), but they miss the point. Before worship, the Hebrews were expected to first be ritually clean before they could participate. Lv 22.3 It meant no touching certain things: Mildew, certain animals, anything dead, bodily fluids, or anyone who hadn’t ritually cleansed themself. The only way to get clean again was to bathe and wait till sundown. Lv 22.6 Under these conditions, even Jesus would be ritually unclean from time to time. Because uncleanliness is not sin. But it does make one, for the time, holy—because now they’re set apart for worship!

All these rules about holiness, about keeping one thing holy and not using it as one ordinarily would, should help cement the idea in our heads that God’s not talking about goodness or perfection. It’s about uniqueness. Holiness is related to goodness and sinlessness, and is often used as a metaphor for them, but it’s not the same thing.

When Christians don’t understand this, we don’t try to be uniquely and distinctively God’s people; we only try to be good and avoid sin. Which we should do anyway—but let’s not get the false idea this makes us holy!

Proper sanctification is about avoiding a lifestyle which conforms to popular culture. (And not getting suckered into conforming to popular Christian culture instead.) We conform to what we think God personally expects of us. We stand out, ’cause we’re not following the crowd; we’re following Jesus.

Frequently Christians misunderstand this idea too, and are simply weird for weirdness’s sake. I’m Pentecostal, and we’ve got weirdos aplenty, who exhibit all sorts of bizarre behavior, then blame it on the Holy Spirit. Rarely is it sincere: They’re just using their freedom in Christ to let their freak flags fly.

Personally, I don’t mind this sort of behavior all that much. I mean, if they’re not hurting anyone, and not sinning, what’s the problem? You be you. In the long run, it’s actually beneficial: Their individuality encourages others to likewise be themselves. When people aren’t busily pretending to be normal, and we can see ’em for who they really are, it makes it way easier to diagnose real problems—and way easier to encourage creativity for God’s kingdom.

But to use King James Version language, God’s people are gonna be “a peculiar people.” Dt 14.2, 26.18 KJV We’re gonna be different from everyone else. In all the best ways: We’re gonna be more loving, more forgiving, more kind, more free, more hopeful, more joyful, more generous, more creative. You know, fruity. Like God. We’re gonna be an odd bunch, but exactly the sort of people who draws people our direction—and thereby to Jesus.

Holy like God is holy.

As for God’s holiness: It means God is likewise different. He doesn’t act like the other gods people worship. They’re all about karma and reciprocity and vengeance and self-exaltation. They’re as bad as any self-centered toddler. But the LORD is gracious, loving, forgiving, and offers to save us from death, make us his children, give us the world, and bless us far more than we can ever give back.

Unlike those gods, who just want to boss everyone around, or grant wishes like a genie, our LORD promises to right wrongs: To take from the unworthy rich and give to the needy. To topple the powerful and make slaves into leaders. To raise the dead and ban illness. To run his kingdom personally. Other religions offer no such thing, or offer it as rewards rather than as an inheritance children would naturally receive. God isn’t like them. He’s holy.

“Be holy because God’s holy” Lv 11.44-45, 19.2, 1Pe 1.16 is incorrectly mixed up with “be perfect like God’s perfect,” Mt 5.48 and incorrectly interpreted to mean be as good as God. That’s not what Jesus means: He wants us to love everyone like God loves everyone. Yeah, the scriptures instruct us to not sin, 1Jn 2.1 but being holy like God’s holy isn’t about perfection. His holiness isn’t defined by his goodness or perfection. His holiness is about how he’s unique.

There’s no one like God. No human other than Jesus; no god in all of human mythology. 1Sa 7.22 Those other gods were only the god of one trait or another—a god of weather, a god of love, a god of wisdom—but the LORD has all these traits in one being. The Holy Spirit is so called because he’s uniquely God; other spirits are deficient, and some are downright evil.

And God’s people are holy. Not because we share his abilities—for we don’t. But because we’re growing in his character. Because we follow him: Our god is the LORD, our master is Jesus, and we follow him. We’re holy because our living, active, obedient relationship with God rubs off on us. It makes us distinctive—and therefore holy.