What is holiness, and why is it such a big deal? God’s holiness means that he is entirely unique, pure, and powerful, and to enter into his presence in a state less than holiness would result in death. God gave Israel the law so that we would know his holiness and our unholiness, but the law could not save us. What we need is to be re-created. Through his life-giving Spirit, God does exactly this, and declares us holy.
The 20s/30s ministry at my church is going through Mark Moore’s Core52 for the next year, in an effort to increase biblical literacy. To assist in my weekly preparation, I’ll be writing articles based on the topic. Here are the links to Weeks 1, 2, 3, and 4. This is Week 5 of 52: Holiness.
For one of my birthdays growing up, I chose to spend an afternoon at the climbing gym and end the day with dinner at an Italian restaurant where I could make my own pizza.
After an hour or two at the gym putting my hands on hundreds of climbing holds, I arrived at the restaurant and washed my hands to what I thought was an acceptable degree. I then ordered my pizza, sank my fingers into the dough, touched each piece of cheese and pepperoni as I applied it to the pizza, and sent it off to be baked.
After that, things got grizzly, and I spent the rest of the night clutching the toilet bowl.
Where had I gone wrong? My belief is that I gave myself food poisoning—that I had introduced infectious organisms from the climbing wall into my digestive system via the pizza that I crafted.
“I had introduced impurity into a system that required purity, which resulted in some pretty steep consequences.”
Or looking at it another way, I had introduced impurity into a system that required purity, which resulted in some pretty steep consequences.
And yes, that is the opening image I’m using for this article on holiness.
Why Are We Talking About Holiness, Anyway?
In the Creation post, we discussed how God was the prime mover, creating out of nothing, and declaring everything he had made, good. In the Image post, we discussed how God created humankind to be representatives of his character, and partner with him in ruling and reigning over creation. In the Rebellion post, we discussed how humans rebelled against God by defining good and bad for themselves, and in doing so, went from being in union with God to being in union with death.
That’s a rough story arc. But in the Covenant post, we explored how God started redeeming it all by making a series of expanding promises over the course of the Old Testament, and providing a way back to him by extending himself in relationship to us.
In pursuing a relationship with humanity, God first singled out Abraham and promised to give him land, to give him offspring, and to bless all nations through him. In doing this, God established a path to restore his blessing to a broken world.
“God established a path to restore his blessing to a broken world.”
But even though God pursues a relationship with us, the problem separating humans from God—humanity’s sin condition—still needs to be dealt with. The root of that problem lies in the basic natures of God and humanity: God is holy, and humans are not.
What Is The Problem Here?
Throughout the Bible, the authors want us to understand that God’s presence is an intense thing. Several times, we get accounts of humans coming into the presence of God in an unworthy manner—and dying because of it. And in the book of Exodus, we’re primed specifically to understand the severity of God’s holiness.
In Exodus 3, Moses encounters a burning bush which does not burn up—a place ablaze with the presence of God. God tells Moses to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. Moses obeys, but hides his face because he’s afraid to look at God.
Then, in Exodus 19 and 20, God meets with Moses on Mount Sinai, establishing the ground rules for making Israel his kingdom of priests and his holy nation. The Israelites witness thunder and lightning and smoke surrounding the mountain, and tremble in fear at God’s presence. They ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, convinced that if God speaks to them directly, they will die.
“They ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, convinced that if God speaks to them directly, they will die.”
And they might have had a point, because in Exodus 33, God tells Moses that no man can see the face of God and live.
These events should transform our idea of God’s holiness beyond moral purity and into something unique, severe, and intense—capable of creating life, and obliterating it.
Herein lies the problem: separation from God is death. But entering into God’s life-giving, utterly holy presence requires purity, which our sin condition precludes.
Thankfully, God’s redemptive power isn’t limited by our sin condition.
A Holy People
Holiness and covenant are closely linked within the biblical story of redemption. In Genesis 12, God chooses Abraham and Sarah as the parents he will make a nation from. His intention is to restore all nations back to himself, but he sets Abraham and Sarah apart to be the vessels through which he would bless all nations.
From Abraham and Sarah comes the people of Israel, whom God chooses to be the next bearer of the promise. So, first, God promises to make a people out of Abraham and Sarah. Next, God intends to make this a holy people unto himself.
“For I am the LORD, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God, so you must be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45, CSB)
What is holiness? “You must be holy, because I am holy.”
Here is God telling Israel that he requires holiness from them, because he is holy. But there has been nothing in the story of the Bible that would indicate that the people of Israel—or any humans for that matter—have the capacity within themselves for the kind of holiness God requires. So what changed?
God declared them holy.
In this sense of the word, God set Israel apart to be a people specially for him. In a time and place surrounded by polytheists, Israel would serve and follow Yahweh and Yahweh alone, no matter the cost. When Israel followed God well, God would bless them. When Israel followed God poorly, God would give them over to the consequences of their infidelity.
Either way, through Israel’s prospering or through Israel’s demise, everyone would know that Yahweh was God. This set-apart people would be his way of eventually making it possible for all people to know him.
What is holiness? “This set-apart people would be his way of eventually making it possible for all people to know him.”
What Did It Look Like For Israel To Follow God?
Making Israel his chosen people and the vessel through which he would bless all nations, God’s next point of business was to convey what it looked like to follow him. That’s what the book of Leviticus is all about: God laying ground rules for what it meant for Israel to be Yahweh’s holy people.
And there were a lot of ground rules. 613, give or take.
Some of these rules were akin to a national constitution, detailing how Israel should govern itself in the land. Other rules pointed more broadly to God’s ethical requirements, which detailed what God found good, and what God found detestable. Still other rules explained how the Israelites should approach God in worship, for example, through ceremonies in the tabernacle.
Again, these ceremonial laws largely had to do with the state in which Israelites approached the presence of God. Israel, being a people set apart for God, had the privilege of traveling around with the presence of God, which dwelled in a tent called the Tabernacle. But to convey a picture of God’s holiness, entrance into the Tabernacle required a state of cleanness.
What is holiness? “To convey a picture of God’s holiness, entrance into the Tabernacle required a state of cleanness.”
This was the main concern of these ceremonial laws: when were you clean, when were you unclean, and what did it take to become clean again? Cleanness and uncleanness did not automatically equate to righteousness and sinfulness, but entering into God’s presence in an unclean state certainly did. And this was a way that God communicated to Israel that his nature was holy, and because of that, he required holiness of his people.
How Did That Go?
So, can we achieve a state of holiness by following God’s laws?
Throughout his letters in the New Testament, the apostle Paul unpacks the nature of the Old Testament law, and he roundly affirms that the law was a reflection of God’s holy nature, and that it was therefore good.
“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (Romans 7:12, CSB)
In spite of the law’s inherent goodness though, it could not save the Israelites from their sin condition. Rather, as Paul writes in Romans 3:20, “No one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law” (CSB). Rather than making us holy, the law reveals to us how deep our sin is, and conversely, how holy God is. Later, in Romans 8, Paul writes that God had to accomplish what the law could not: set his people free from sin and death.
“God had to accomplish what the law could not: set his people free from sin and death.”
God gave his people the law, knowing that it would not be kept by them, and knowing that it could not ultimately save them. After all, “whoever keeps the entire law, and yet stumbles at one point, is guilty of breaking it all” (James 2:10). Breaking one of the 613 laws made someone guilty of breaking the entire law.
You can imagine what it was like to bear the burden of the law of a holy God. Some, angry at the God who gave them all these rigid rules, might rebel and reject this God altogether. Some, discouraged by their uncleanness in light of God’s cleanness, might get discouraged and despair. Some, good at following many of the most visible rules, might become self-righteous and think they have earned God’s favor.
Such is the nature of sin’s corruption: that a good law intended to help a chosen people walk intimately with God could be used as a wedge to drive his people further away from him.
“You can imagine what it was like to bear the burden of the law of a holy God.”
Now, there were clear provisions of atonement in God’s law for when people sinned. Their underlying problem wasn’t periodic sin; rather, it was that they began to desire relationship with other gods and began to feel contempt toward the God who had created and redeemed them. Thus, as narrated later in the Old Testament, they broke the covenant they had made with God. The underlying problem, which we all share, was an unfaithful heart that tends toward rebellion against God.
The only solution to this dilemma is for humans to somehow be re-created in our innermost being.
What’s the Hope Here?
Holiness—and thus, communion with God—is still possible. However, we are granted holiness not because we are able to keep the law, but rather in spite of our inability to keep the law.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah is given a vision of himself standing in the throne room of God. He sees the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, and spiritual beings called seraphim proclaiming God’s holiness and glory. This is what Israel has always wanted—to get back into God’s presence. Yet, Isaiah immediately realizes that he doesn’t belong there.
“Then I said: Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Armies” (Isaiah 6:5, CSB).
What is holiness? “We are granted holiness not because we are able to keep the law, but rather in spite of our inability to keep the law.”
Pronouncing his lips to be unclean, Isaiah is pronouncing his entire being unclean, and expects the presence of God to annihilate him. He is terrified, and rightly aware of his unholiness in light of God’s holiness.
But then one of the seraphim takes a coal from the altar, touches it to Isaiah’s lips, and declares Isaiah holy.
“Now that this has touched your lips, your iniquity is removed and your sin is atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7, CSB).
In Isaiah’s vision, God’s holiness should have destroyed Isaiah. But instead, with a coal from the altar of God, God atones for Isaiah’s sin and declares Isaiah holy.
God also gave the prophet Ezekiel a vision of hope for holiness. In Ezekiel 47, God brings Ezekiel to the entrance of the temple, and Ezekiel sees water flowing out from the temple, which becomes a river. And this river transforms the land around it, making foul water fresh and becoming a land where trees and fish and people all thrive.
What is holiness? “With a coal from the altar of God, God atones for Isaiah’s sin and declares Isaiah holy.”
What’s being conveyed in the visions given to Isaiah and Ezekiel is that we are people of unclean lips; we are a wasteland. But God’s life-giving presence can cleanse our lips and remove our sin. God’s life-giving presence can transform our wasteland into a garden.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus demonstrate this in the way he healed people—people that were ceremonially unclean and should have theoretically made him unclean by virtue of his touching of them. But instead of their uncleanness transferring to Jesus, Jesus’s cleanness transforms them, and they are healed in multiple senses.
Jesus is the coal that cleanses Isaiah’s lips; Jesus is the coal that transforms Ezekiel’s wasteland into a garden.
Jesus is the coal that cleanses Isaiah’s lips; Jesus is the coal that transforms Ezekiel’s wasteland into a garden.
And according to Paul’s words in Galatians 3:11, even though we aren’t justified by the law, we can be declared holy by God if we receive his grace and place our faith in him. Instead of being annihilated by God’s holiness, we can be re-created by it. We can be given new, clean hearts that have new, clean desires. We can stand blameless before God.
We Are Declared Holy
The deepest problem of sin is our separation from God. “In him, we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, CSB). Every breath is dependent on him, which means separation from God is death.
Thus, God forged a path of redemption for us, extending himself in covenant relationship with Abraham, promising to bless all nations through him. But the root of the problem—our state of sin and shame—still needed to be dealt with.
So God chose a covenant people, the sons of Abraham, to be his holy people, a people specially for himself. He gave them a set of laws to show them what being his people looked like—a set of laws that his people were unable to keep.
But as God is wont to do, he extends himself to solve our problems, and in the person of Jesus, imputes his holiness to us. He re-creates us in his image in our innermost being. And he declares us holy.