You Shall Be Holy
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 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.
Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Suppose we took a large banner and draped it across the front of our church building; a banner easily visible for all driving by to notice and read. And on that banner we announced the subject of the coming Sunday sermon; “Everything you wanted to know about holiness but were afraid to ask”—come Sunday morning I doubt that people would be streaming into the church. Holiness isn’t a topic that people typically chat with their neighbour about at the hockey rink while waiting for their child’s team to take to the ice. If you bring the subject up with any regularity at dinner parties you are likely to experience a sharp drop in invitations. Let us be blunt—holiness is simply not high on humanity’s radar screen.
Biblically speaking, while the subject of holiness may not be high on humanity’s radar screen, holiness is front and centre on God’s. “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.” Jesus sums up the aim of his exploration of the application of God’s law to how we live our lives by saying: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Indeed, many theologians believe the command, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” to be the root command of scripture.
As believers some of our disquiet or angst over holiness is because we regard it as a classification for the spiritually super-elite; the prevue of the extreme-devout; the company of the very few like Mother Teresa. Besides, it is impossible to be completely holy or to be perfectly perfect, we say, so the command seems like we are being set up for failure. And in our more candid moments we don’t aspire to such heights because we rather like the odd vice or two that we assume we would need to jettison if we got serious about this holiness business. Further, we just don’t want to be perceived as “one of those”—you know—super-religious.
1. I invite you to reflect with me on this subject of holiness and as we probe its meaning see if some of our misgivings might disappear. The place we begin is with God’s holiness—we are to be holy (perfect) because “I the Lord your God am holy.”
To say that God is holy is to say that God is incomparably himself. God belongs to no class. God is predicated of nothing. God isn’t one among several deities; he isn’t even one among several deities albeit the best or the greatest or the most important. He, Yahweh, alone is God.
God’s holiness is his unique Godness. God’s holiness is that which renders God entirely distinct from his creation, entirely independent of his creation, entirely independent of us. God isn’t the noblest element in humankind. God isn’t another word for our profoundest aspirations. He is God, he alone is God, and he will remain God whether anyone knows him or not, acknowledges him or not, loves him or not. Kierkegaard gathered it up pithily when he spoke of “the infinite qualitative difference” between God and us.
I know that it is hard to wrap our brains around an idea like God’s unique Godness; human language is simply inadequate to what we apprehend as we speak of God’s holiness. It is more experienced than described. Apprehending God’s holiness is experienced in, for example, those moments when we get a glimpse of some marvel of God’s creative work and we respond with awe of the Creator. I heard Professor Alexander Tsiaris speak about the wonders of the human body that new technology has helped us see as never before. He talked about collagen a substance that is part of everything in your body which he describes as a rope like structure that swirls and twirls together; the only place in your body where collagen takes on a different structure is on the cornea (eye) where it forms a grid-like structure and is therefore transparent rather than opaque. Who set the switches in DNA of your body for such an exacting marvel as this? (http://www.ted.com/talks/alexander_tsiaras_conception_to_birth_visualized.html) Such marvels abound and as they cause us to appreciate the wonder of the Creator we in some measure glimpse God’s holiness.
It is the same as we stand at the foot of the cross and see God pouring himself out for our sakes; when we at the cross, by faith, apprehend something of the boundlessness of God’s love for us we are again catching a glimpse of what is meant but the holiness of God. God alone is who he is. People are awestruck when they come upon a beauty more beautiful than they can imagine; when they are visited with a love more tender, patient, persistent than they can dream of; when they are pardoned with a forgiveness so free and full as to overflow the word. The person who has been awestruck by any aspect of God has a clue to God’s holiness.
One Sunday, the Apostle John, exiled to the island of Patmos, sent there to rot by a hostile Roman government, began to worship when he—when he what? He couldn’t say at the time. A few hours later he was able to write something down. When I saw him”, John penned in the last book of the bible, “I fell at his feet as one dead.” Nine hundred years before John, Isaiah was at worship in the temple, the service no different from any other service, when he found himself God-engulfed. “The whole earth is full of God’s glory”, he cried out. It is the holiness of God that stamped itself so powerfully on both of these men.
I wince whenever I hear God’s name used thoughtlessly or carelessly. When I watch house renovation programmes and when the moment for the revealing the finished product to the owners comes it makes me winch to hear “O, my God” as a kind of exclamation (clearly no one is speaking to God). Some children were once asked what love is. One boy said, “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” For the believer, the experience of God’s holiness renders God’s name safe in our mouth. No one is like him!
2. What is also clear, biblically speaking, is that the God who is holy insists that his people be holy too. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Jesus means the same when he said: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. So if God’s holiness is that which renders God entirely distinct from us what does it mean for us to be holy? Clearly, we can’t be holy with God’s Godness, since God’s Godness he shares with no one. Nonetheless we are appointed to reflect God’s holiness, to reflect God’s character, in a way that is appropriate to us whom he has made in his likeness and image. To say we are made in God’s image is to say we are to mirror God in such a way that when people look at us they see God imaged in us.
It should surprise no one, then, that from cover to cover Scripture is preoccupied with holiness. The holy/holiness word-group occurs 835 times. Scripture is obsessed with holiness, both God’s and ours. Dr. Victor Shepherd writes “that the overarching, all-inclusive theme of Scripture is two intertwined matters: God’s re-assertion of his holiness in the face of our denying his, and God’s re-establishing our holiness in the wake of our contradicting ours. We deny God’s holiness and we contradict our own. According to Scripture God is ceaselessly at work to re-assert his holiness and re-establish ours. The holiness of God and the holiness of God’s people are Scripture’s preoccupation.
Both these concerns are gathered up in what I call the ‘root’ commandment of Scripture. The ‘root commandment’ is found in Lev. 19:2 and repeated elsewhere: “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” This commandment is heard over and over throughout the bible. It’s the bass note; it’s the downbeat; it’s the refrain; it’s the pulse: “You shall be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy”.” I think Dr. Shepherd correct on this point.
Observe with me the grammatical form: “You shall be….” “You shall be” can be read as command or as promise. Read as command it means “You ought to be holy, you had better be holy.” Read as promise it means “One day you will be rendered holy; I guarantee it: you will be found holy.” It is our friends, the seventeenth-century Puritans, who insist that all God’s commands are “covered promises.” The Puritans always knew that what God requires of his people God gives to his people.
I raised with you the question earlier of how impossible the call to “be holy” or “be perfect” sounds to us. The bible also informs me of my sinfulness—am I being set up for failure in this call to be holy? Reflecting on our Saviour’s love for us we are assured he wants blessing for our lives. Surely such a call to be perfect implies that Jesus thinks we are able, undergirded by the power of his Spirit to be sure, to do what he asks. The word translated “perfect” in Jesus’ utterance is a word that means “fully developed” or “brought to completion” or end/goal that I think is better translated as “mature.” For instance, the “eye of an eye” was not given to prescribe that a punishment equal to the crime must be exacted; it was a principle of justice that rejects retaliation. Reconciliation is never won through retaliation. “Turning the other cheek” is to renounce retaliation. Jesus’s point about retaliation is an instance of what he means by “be perfect as your heavenly Father. The objective (goal, fully developed understanding) of the law “an eye for an eye” is the rejection of retaliation.
3. Holiness, then, is both God’s gift and humankind’s task. What God gives us, we are to exemplify. Holiness is both by grace and by grit. How gritty is the grit? Very gritty, according to the single most protracted discussion of holiness in all of Scripture. The single most protracted discussion of holiness is found in Leviticus, chapters 18-27. Leviticus 18 begins, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” Plainly holiness has everything to do with our doing. It doesn’t matter how we feel or what we intend or what ecstatic religious experiences we have undergone if we fail to do.
Do what? Holiness, so far from being so heavenly as to be of no earthly good, is startlingly mundane, according to Lev. 18-27. Consider the following. We are never to disrespect the elderly but rather to stand up when we meet them in order to honour them. We are to treat the stranger (the stranger is always vulnerable, lonely and anxious) as one of us. If we are merchants we are to use just balances and weights and measures. If we have to go to court we mustn’t attempt to bribe the judge. And if we happen to be the judge then we must judge justly, favouring neither the rich nor the poor.
Consider Jesus’s teaching about the law in his sermon on the mount concerning anger, adultery and lust, keeping your word, retaliation and love for the enemy. Again, holiness—being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect—has to do with the everyday activity of life.
We mustn’t offer up our children to pagan deities, so says the holiness code of Leviticus. Do people offer up their own children today? Surely we have progressed beyond such things! How many parents are there in Thailand who have consigned their children, more or less twelve years old, to a horrific sex-trade catering to wealthy Europeans and North Americans while the Thai government looks the other way, so incomparably lucrative is the tourist sex-trade for the Thai economy? Surely a child is sacrificed to a pagan deity when the little boy is told from infancy that he must become an NHL player, and everything in the family is given over to this all-consuming preoccupation. Why is it a handicapped child has the right to special education and the right to social assistance and the right to special access in public buildings and, not least, the right to her own toilet—but she doesn’t have the right to be born? The government of Canada (the people of Canada) will ensure that she has her own washroom but won’t ensure that she gets to use it.
We must be careful to note that holiness is not to render a person super-religious; we have no doubt seen those with an uninformed zeal for holiness (so-called) at the price of being human. We must never disdain God’s gift of humanness. It’s as though a zeal for holiness were inherently dehumanizing. It is the purpose of God’s grace to render us authentically human.
What does this mean? A few minutes ago I spoke of the ‘root’ commandment of Scripture: “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” Now recall the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God without qualification or reservation or hesitation, and you shall love your neighbour with total self-forgetfulness.” How is the root commandment related to the great commandment? The connection is plain: holiness is freedom to love. To be holy is to be human (authentically human); to be authentically human is to be free to love.
We must be sure to grasp that the great commandment mandates we love God and neighbour, not that we understand God or neighbour. To be sure, we must understand something of God or else it’s nonsensical to say we love him. It’s ludicrous to say “I love x, and I don’t have a clue as to who or what x might be.” At the same time, we can understand relatively little of God yet love him profoundly. And, regrettably, we can understand a great deal about God yet not love him at all, thanks to our sin-shrivelled heart.
It is love that governs both our willing and our understanding. In the short run we can always will what we don’t love. If we don’t love studying Greek but we do love basketball, in the short run, tonight, we can always study Greek anyway instead of watching the Raptors’ basketball game because there’s a Greek test tomorrow and if we don’t study we won’t pass. But what happens in the short run never happens in the long run. In the long run we always end up willing, doing, what we love; and in the long run we always come to understand most profoundly what we love. In other words, what we love integrates our understanding and our willing; which is to say, what we love integrates us. For this reason the great commandment isn’t that we understand God; the great commandment isn’t even that we obey him. The great commandment is that we love him, for if we genuinely love him we shan’t fail to understand him and obey him.
Holiness is freedom to love. The holiness of life outlined in the scripture is the path of such freedom to love. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.