Holiness (part 1)

Be holy. Be holy as I am holy.

God commands this in Leviticus, and Peter later repeats the command in 1 Peter 1:16.

God is holy. We are to be holy.

But what exactly does this mean? The names “holy man” or “holy woman” are often applied to a vaguely removed sort, “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” It is a word used to suggest religious separation and imply an obsessive morality. To “be holy” is often simply reduced to not watching immoral television shows, not cussing, and not hanging out in bars. Is this what we mean when we speak of God? A separated and moralistic God who only distantly interacts with a despised humanity? I would suggest that our typical use of the term holy does not in fact relate well to God’s actual revelation. Instead of beginning with God’s self-revelation, we have instead emphasized our own categories and in doing that have missed a great deal of God’s priorities.
Psalm 119:45 says, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.”

Holiness is freedom. But how does this work?

The word translated as “holy” is first used in Exodus three. “Come no closer,” God says to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It’s often said that the basic definition of holiness is “set apart.” This usage, no doubt, comes from passages like this in Exodus three, and the rest of the early books of the Old Testament in which there is a clearly defined boundary between God and this world requiring specific steps to be taken in order to interact with God. To be in the presence of God seemed to require a clear distinction between the common and the sacred. To set something apart for God. To be in the presence of God, as Moses was before the burning bush and as the priests were in the Tabernacle seemed to require a separation.
And so the Law as it is given concerns itself very specifically with the separation between what is holy and what is unholy, so much so that the idea of separation itself becomes a derived meaning of the word.

But something changes in the New Testament. The Spirit becomes emphasized in a very interesting way. The term used is not the Loving Spirit, or the Merciful Spirit, or the Enlivening Spirit. Even though these are elements of the Spirit’s work. It is the Holy Spirit. The definition as set apart, or separated, does not seem as accurate when we see that the Spirit, the holy Spirit, is the one who sends Christ into the world and sends the Apostles into the streets.

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