One of the major recurring themes of the Bible that the Hebrew prophets continually referred to was the holiness of God, and along with that was God’s demand that His people be holy: “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:6) and “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). A major reason for God’s displeasure with His people and for their demise was they were not holy. An important principle in God’s dealings with his people is to make them holy.
For modern minds, the notion of holiness can often be looked on with suspicion because of negative connotations, such as an emphasis on the inconsequential things one concentrate on doing and ignoring consequential things one refrains from doing, and foreboding because holy people often come across as judgemental “holier than thou” and are not particularly nice people. There is also the fear such folk are joyless and legalistic, too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. In God’s eyes holiness, at least in the biblically held sense, is a very good thing. To be holy is something that is vital to pursue. The same command given to the Israelites also applies to the Church: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
There is a wide discrepancy among churches when it comes to how holiness is taught. For some, it is a matter of lots of dos and don’ts, often ignoring what it means to truly love thy neighbor, and has negative implications or it is taught at the expense of other important Bible doctrines. For others, it is something that is ignored because it is seen to be divisive, intolerant and judgmental and not to put off the assorted group of sinners who might take umbrage. Then there are some whose focus is on getting people saved such that what comes after and the call to live a holy life and encouragement to do so is too easily overlooked. Some will take a view that holiness will follow automatically once saved and thus downplayed. Yet it is truth and balance that is needed.
While not perfect correlations or synonyms to the word holiness as used in the Bible, the following are near matches: set-apartness, separateness, devotedness, godliness, righteousness, piety, virtue, consecration, sacredness, sinlessness, sanctification. Yet none do full justice to this aspect of God’s character we are called to emulate, as part of our own act of devotion and worship. It does involve ritual cleanliness and manifests itself, especially in Jewish religion, in the way God was worshiped and the things people did or did not do, but more importantly it was a matter of the heart: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Psalm 24:3-5).
In preparing for this section on holiness, besides checking out OT prophets and NT writers e.g. Paul, Peter, John, I checked out what great men of God in the past, whose insights I particularly respect, said about holiness: Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, John Wesley, C.H.Spurgeon and J.C.Ryle (a personal favourite) as well as people who lived during my lifetime: A.W.Tozer, Derek Prince, David Wilkerson, David Pawson and J.I.Packer. In all cases, I was blown away, not so much because of the gravity of what they shared but because what they shared was so important and that I had a long way to go. As I look around me and ponder on Gods dealing with humankind, past and present, the more I see a significant factor when it came to outcomes was God’s holiness. True God deals with us in judgment and mercy, but also to vindicate His holy name and make us a holy people. As we look with consternation at recent world events and try to make sense out of it all, it is worth bringing in that mix the notion that God, as ever, is seeking a holy people.
Before rounding off by quoting a few of the many significant verses of the Bible that contain the word “holy” or “holiness”, bearing in mind there are many more texts where those verses are not mentioned that are equally relevant, I would like to offer the following thoughts:
Ten holiness thoughts:
- An important theme of the prophets is the Salvation of God. For those of us who believe, we have been saved (justification); we are being saved (sanctification) and we shall be saved (glorification). Intrinsic in all three is to depart from sin and to seek holiness.
- It is a grave truth: heaven is a holy place and if you are not interested in being holy on earth it is unlikely you will be able to experience the joys of heaven or the presence of a holy God.
- Anyone serious about God will want to be holy because they want to honour Him in all things. It is not just for those we call saints but it is something for all true children of God.
- Those who are truly saintly are invariably those most concerned about their sinfulness.
- Becoming holy is not something that occurs overnight. We come to God as sinners and while there should be a desire and expectation to overcome sin, it remains a lifelong exercise.
- A holy person is as much concerned with doing the right thing (e.g. in our dealings with others, such as the poor and suffering) as things that might cause us to drift away from God (and is why cultivating good habits and not doing things that might lead us into temptation is important).
- A holy person is more concerned about being holy rather than being happy, with the praise of God rather than the praise of men and doing the right thing rather than being successful.
- While a holy person may possess an aura of the presence of God and a sense of “the other”, often those who are truly holy are among the most empathetic, wholesome, joyful of humanity.
- A holy person grieves for the sin that is all too apparent in those around him / her and desires and wants to help such people to be saved and that means them becoming holy.
- A holy person above everything else seeks to please God. Holiness is his / her mantra, and reason for living. Often it is the most unlikely people who are the most holy.
Ten “holiness” texts:
- Exodus 15:11: Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?
- Exodus 28:36: And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it, like the engravings of a signet, Holiness to the Lord.
- Psalm 29:2: Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
- Isaiah 35:8: And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.
- Obadiah 1:17: But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions.
- 2 Corinthians 7:1: Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
- Ephesians 4:24: And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
- 1 Thessalonians 3:13: To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.
- Hebrews 12:10: For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
- Hebrews 12:14: Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:
Ten “holy” texts:
- Exodus 19:6: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
- 1 Samuel 2:2: There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.
- Psalm 15:1: Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?
- Psalm 103:1: Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
- Isaiah 6:3: And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
- Habakkuk 2:20: But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.
- Romans 12:1: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
- Ephesians 5:27: That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
- 1 Peter 2:5,9: Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ … But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light;
- Revelation 22:11: He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.