‘IN THE BEGINNING GOD created the heavens and the earth.’ If you think you’ve heard that before, you almost certainly have: it’s the opening sentence of the Bible. The Scriptures insist that God is the Creator of all things.
A couple of sentences later, we are told what he created next:
And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.
God was, of course, creating night and day—the regular twenty-four-hour cycle that would define life on earth. But was that all he was doing? By bringing forth the light—a biblical metaphor for purity—he was, it seems, showing himself to be the original source of light (goodness, virtue, truth) in the cosmos. And by separating the light from the darkness, he was hinting that he always keeps himself separate from the darkness—from everything evil. The light finds its original and fullest expression in God alone. ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.’
God completed his work of creating in six days, and on the seventh day he rested. ‘Then,’ we are told, ‘God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’ In this beautiful act, he was demonstrating that he is holy; for how could he make the seventh day holy if he didn’t have holiness within himself? He later declared it openly: ‘I am holy’—or to put it another way, ‘I am set apart.’ God is spotlessly clean throughout his whole being and totally removed from all evil. He cannot accommodate wickedness or impurity in any form, not even for a moment. That would mean ceasing to be who he is. He is eternally, incorruptibly holy.
For reasons that we shall soon explore, God’s holiness is good news for ordinary human beings like us who don’t measure up to his standard of holiness. Yet in biblical times, when the Holy One appeared to such people, they tended to want to run in the other direction. Adam and Eve hid among some trees. The Israelites backed away nervously and asked Moses to speak to them on God’s behalf, lest they die. Gideon and Manoah both freaked out and expected to snuff it.1 When Isaiah saw a vision of the exalted LORD amid some seraphim whose praises shook the temple—‘Holy, holy, holy2 is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!’—he shook too. Feeling intensely unclean and flying into a panic, he cried, ‘Woe to me! I am ruined!’ And when a brawny fisherman named Peter saw the Son of God exercise divine power at close range, he felt similarly impure. ‘Go away from me, Lord,’ he begged; ‘I am a sinful man!’
Why were these people so distressed by God’s approach? Why did they cringe down into their sandals and expect to perish at any moment? Certainly, they were dazed by God’s awesome power and glory; they were, after all, in the manifested presence of the LORD Almighty. But they were also reacting because they felt exposed. The piercing radiance of God’s holiness had brought to light their hidden uncleanness, which might otherwise have remained out of sight. In the pure light of God’s holiness, the darkness within them couldn’t hide.
Encounters such as these highlight the stark difference between God and human beings. In our natural state, we are septic with sin and ineligible for God’s holy presence. How astonishing, then, that God wants to be in relationship with us, both in the present age and in ageless eternity. Against all fair-minded expectation, he has set in motion a plan to reach us, heal the disorder of our sinfulness, and unite us inseparably to himself.
The first phase of God’s plan focused on the Israelites, whom he had called into existence to be his holy people. After saving them from slavery in an idolatrous land, he brought them to his holy mountain and appeared to them amid fire and smoke—a sight that made them tremble with fear. Yet when they heard what he said to them, it became clear that his fervent desire was to come down from the mountain and live in their midst, right in the heart of their community. ‘I will walk among you and be your God,’ he told them, ‘and you will be my people.’
For that to happen, the Israelites would have to be set apart from the dark practices of the other (pagan) nations and established in the pure light of God’s truth and love. In other words, they would have to be holy—the very purpose for which they had been saved. ‘I am the LORD,’ he declared to them, ‘who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.’ By being holy, they would be eligible to live in God’s holy presence and equipped to fulfil their mission of leading all nations into holiness.
God put in place his law—a compendium of commands, statutes and decrees that defined in practical terms what holiness looked like. The law was pure instruction from the mouth of God to his chosen people in such areas as:
- how they were to worship him;
- how they were to live together in community;
- the festivals they were to hold in celebration of God’s saving action on their behalf;
- the penalties that applied for unlawful behaviour;
- how they were to stay clean in God’s sight, and why it was important for them to do so;
- how they were to obtain forgiveness for their sins, which usually meant sacrificing an unblemished animal such as a lamb or bull;
- the blessings that God would pour out on them for obedience, and the curses for disobedience.
But there was a problem. God’s people didn’t obey him; they spurned him as their God and refused to be holy. In his place, they worshipped the false gods of the nations around them and imitated their immoral practices. By doing these vile things, the Israelites made themselves unholy. When God sent prophets to warn them, they stubbornly declined to listen, and even mistreated and killed them. On occasions, they incurred God’s wrath and suffered chastisement for their rebellion. Ultimately, despite some sporadic times of renewal, the Israelites failed to live up to their mantle. They forfeited their privileged calling of being God’s holy ambassadors to the world.
Holiness on our behalf
Enter Jesus Christ, ‘the Holy One of God,’ who succeeded where his compatriots had failed. Unlike those who had gone before, Jesus set himself apart from sin, consecrated himself to God, and lived a holy life of obedience. His obedience reached its peak when he, the ‘Lamb of God,’ freely sacrificed his own body on the cross to make us holy. Through God’s Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, we who believe in God’s Son are joined inextricably to God and have come to share in his holiness. Amazingly, ‘both the One who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.’ Thank you Lord.
It is clear, then, why God’s holiness is such good news for sinners: God has chosen in love to share his holiness with us! Through his eternal Son, he has saved us from the darkness of our sins, brought us into the radiant light of his holy being, and set us apart for his own exclusive use. His grace to us in the shape of Jesus Christ means we no longer have reason to fear exposure. If we relinquish our sins to Jesus, he will minister to us the holiness that he has won for us. Then we will have the joy of coming under his guidance as he teaches us, step by step, to be holy.
Made holy to ‘Be holy’
In this way, God’s time-honoured decree—‘Be holy, because I am holy’—applies to us today as much as it ever did to the Israelites of old. The apostle Peter thought so, for he reiterated it to Christ’s followers far and wide. We are to consecrate ourselves to God—‘offer (our)selves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness’—and live continually in the reality of that choice. Our holiness has come not by the written code but by God himself. It is God who makes us holy and helps us to be holy in practice so that others might see his glory and yearn to be more like him.
- In these instances, ‘the angel of the LORD’ denotes the LORD himself.
- When the Jewish people want to emphasise something strongly, they tend to say it three times.