What does it mean to be holy?
This question is central to an accurate reading of the book of Leviticus, as holiness is the key theme of this book. Not only does God tell the people of Israel what places and things are holy, he charges them repeatedly to be holy themselves.
For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. –Leviticus 11:45
The Lord wants his people to emulate him in his holiness, a call which he puts forth relentlessly.
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:2
Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 20:7
You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. – Leviticus 20:26
This focus on holiness reminds me of a thought I had while reading Exodus. In the passages explicating the consecration of the priesthood, a particular phrase stood out to me.
Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the LORD by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come. – Exodus 30:20-21
“So that they will not die…”
The priesthood’s role was to intercede with God for the people, to offer sacrifices, and enter into his presence. The ordination and cleansing rituals were to prepare them to enter God’s presence by making them holy, only then could they be in the holiness of the Lord’s presence and not perish.
The majestic power of God’s presence is enough to obliterate any unholiness.
After God calls out to Moses in the burning bush, what is the first thing the Lord says to Moses?
Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:5
They took the holiness of the Lord’s presence seriously.
Do we take our sandals off for holy ground? Do we give enough reverence to God?
Sometimes I think it is an attribute of God we don’t focus on very often, his holiness.
We talk a lot about God’s love and compassion. We may even spend some time on God’s wrath. But I wonder if the truth of God’s holiness gets passed over.
A.W. Tozer address this problem in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy:
[The message of this book] is called forth by a condition which has existed in the Church for some years and is steadily growing worse. I refer to the loss of the concept of majesty from the popular religious mind. The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawares only makes the situation all the more tragic (Tozer, vii).
The holiness of God is something you and I cannot fully understand on our own.
We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it (Tozer, 104).
So what does that mean for us being holy?
Holiness in the Old Testament was important for the entire nation of Israel, but for the priesthood, it was paramount. The priesthood was called to a higher standard of holiness. So how does this relate to us?
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9
According to Peter, we are now all priests.
Does that mean we are held to the same standard of holiness that the Israelite priests were held to? If we want to “be in God’s presence,” or to “invite his presence among us,” should we cleanse ourselves of all unholiness first?
Thankfully, as a people surrendered to God, we do not have to worry about our own holiness, for our holiness comes from another:
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption – 1 Corinthians 1:30
So, in the face of God’s majestic holiness, what can we do?
We must like Moses cover ourselves with faith and humility while we steal a quick look at the God whom no man can see and live. The broken and contrite heart He will not despise. We must hide our unholiness in the wounds of Christ as Moses hid himself in the cleft of the rock while the glory of God passed by. We must take refuge from God in God. Above all we must believe that God sees us perfect in His Son while He disciplines us and chastens and purges us that we may be partakers in His holiness (Tozer, 107).
So, let us take some time out of our day to meditate on the One-Beyond-Comprehension, He-Who-Is-Set-Apart, the Lord-Most-Holy, and give thanks that our righteousness is in Christ.