What's the Big Deal about Holiness?

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler
2019 28 Feb

  An image of a branch of a gingko tree, shot with golden light, with only a handful of yellow fan-shaped leaves visible.

Holiness is a word that can make us feel uneasy.  It seems lofty, threatening, alien.  We instinctively sense that God’s holiness has dangerous overtones. His purity calls our sinful attachments into question, demanding that we forsake them in order to enjoy the greatest of all goods—belonging to a God of infinite love and power. To come casually with our hearts grasping tightly to the sins we cherish or to come lightly as though they are no big deal, might be like throwing ourselves onto a roaring fire with the expectation we will not perish. How, then, can we—sinful and broken human beings—hope to come into the presence of a holy God and survive the experience?

When God was forging a relationship with the Israelites, he told Moses to "Give the following instructions to the entire community of Israel. You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). God was calling his people into relationship with himself and he wanted his people not only to survive the experience but to be nourished by it. But for that to happen, they needed to know the ground rules, needed to come to him on his terms not theirs.

The Hebrew word for “holiness” is qōdes, a word that highlights the realm of the sacred in contrast to everything common and profane. The adjective qādôš, “holy,” refers to God and what belongs to him. In various places in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is called by the title the “Holy One of Israel.”

Time, space, objects, and people—all can become holy if they belong to God. The temple in Jerusalem was considered holy space, and the objects used in worship holy objects. The Sabbaths and feasts of Israel were considered holy days or seasons. And the Israelites were called God’s holy people by virtue of belonging to him.

The New Testament uses the words hagiazo, to “make holy” and hagio “holy” or “sacred.” Jesus is called “the Holy One of God.” And those who acclaim Jesus as Lord are called hagioi, or “saints.” As believers, we are literally set apart, made holy, because of our relationship with the one who bridges the gap between a holy God and sinful human beings. But how does Jesus do this?

Remember the story of King Midas? Everything he touched turned to gold. Something like that happens when we come into relationship with Christ, the one who entered the holy of holies in heaven to heal the rift that sin had created in our relationship with God. Jesus is the one who makes us holy, enabling us to stand in God’s presence and join the angels as they sing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord.”