I graduated from a Christian High School. I remember a song that we would sing in chapels.
Is what I long for
Is what I need
Is what you want
I would hear the word “holiness” often. If you asked the high school version of me what it meant, I would probably tell you that it meant “perfect”. The word “holiness” conjured up the pressure to do or not do certain things when it came to lifestyle choices and behaviors.
If you ask someone today what “holiness” means, the majority of people would probably respond with “not drinking, cussing, or ______ (insert behavior here)”. As I talk and engage with people about the Christian life, I believe that there are many misconceptions about what holiness means.
If we look at scripture, we see that God commanded this of His people. Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 19:2, Leviticus 20:7, and 1 Peter 1:16 all quote God saying, “…be holy because I am holy.” Obviously being holy is a big deal to God!
Let’s look at the original words in these passages.
In the Old Testament passages (Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 19:2, and Leviticus 20:7) the root word for “Holy” is a Hebrew word “”קָדוֹשׁ“ (qadosh). Qadosh means “to be set apart for a special purpose”.
The New Testament passage (1 Peter 1:16) was originally written in Greek and it quotes the Greek Old Testament (Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 19:2, and Leviticus 20:7) of the time called the “The Septuagint” (LXX). The Greek word in this passage is “ἅγιος” (hagios). Hagios means, “different than anything else in the world and/or someone whose service God uses (example: apostles and prophets).”
Holiness isn’t about behavior modification. Holiness is about being set apart for a purpose.
God’s people are not set apart to be a little club with similar moral behaviors for themselves.
Two hang-ups to avoid:
- Reading these kinds of passages only wrapped in commandments. We begin to believe that being holy is wrapped in us primarily following commands legalistically. We have to understand that Levitical commands are not the ends in and of themselves, but they are a means to an end goal.
- A view that the Old Testament is the law and the New Testament is about grace. This further perpetuates the belief that following commands were what made the Israelites holy, and this leads us again to believe that behavior modification leads to us being holy.
We have to zoom out and see a bigger picture in scripture. God created humans for a purpose. Genesis 1:28 tells us that God created humans to join with His plan for the world. Adam and Eve disobeyed, but God didn’t stop calling humans to this kind of vocation.
God called Noah to be set apart and fulfill His plan in the world. This was holiness in the midst of a world that was going against God’s ways through rebellion.
God called Abraham, promised him descendants, and promised that they would bless all of the nations. This was God’s intention for His people. All the commands and law that come after this are for God to form His people for this purpose. The Old Testament is about God calling people, by His grace, to be set apart to bless all nations.
Just like we tend to view holiness as behaving better than others and then we become inwardly focused, the Israelites did the same, turned away from the call to be focused on blessing all people, and became legalistically focused. This is why Jesus was so focused on teaching people to love their neighbors, and He used examples of the outsiders and Samaritans. This is what being holy is about and what it is for!
When Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17)”, we tend to talk about Jesus fulfilling the law as if He had abolished the law in this fullfillment. I believe that the heart of the law is relevant for us today and is what Jesus taught about. The heart of the law is to help teach how to love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).
Jesus told His followers to, “go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).” Therefore, the call to bless the world can be seen in the Old Testament and is passed off to followers of Jesus. The law is not abolished, but the heart of it is passed off as we are formed to love God and love our neighbor. We are formed in our heart and mind for this, as we seek God and worship Him. We become holy not so that we can primarily behave better, but so that we can bless the world in the name of Jesus.
Holiness is not legalistic! It is focused on the gospel and blessing the world with this good news! We are the fulfillment and continuation of God’s plan for the world.
This is what holiness is all about!