I was a counselor at a Christian one summer camp during college. When my cabin of high school girls gathered after the evening rally and I asked them what “holy”meant. We had just finished singing about how holy God was and it occurred to me they might not understand what they had so passionately been declaring.
My question was met with blank stares.
I was right, they didn’t know, and I realized it was my job to explain to them something I barely understood myself. 15 years later I think I’ve got it narrowed down a little bit…
The essence of holiness is being separate from something else.
Separated by category. God is holy. Though he is intimately involved in creation he exists independently of it and is distinct from it. He is holy, separated, because he is of a different category than we are.
Separated from sin (moral purity). God is also holy in the sense that he is completely separate from sin. He has not sinned, he will not sin, he does what is right and is what is right.
Separated to be chosen/unchosen for a purpose. Israel was a holy nation because they were chosen, set apart, separated from other nations. Items used in temple worship were holy because they were set apart for only sacred (religious) use. With this usage, the intent of the separation (for religious purposes) carries the implication of sacredness (sacred is another word for holy).
Semantics (word meaning)
The English word holy most commonly come from the the Hebrew root קֹ֫דֶשׁ (qodesh) and the Greek root ἅγιος (hagios). There are other Greek and Hebrew words that are translated as holy, but these are the most common. At the core of both of these words is the idea of separateness or apart-ness. Alternate translations into English include words like hallowed, sanctified, and dedicated.
When the holy is repeated it is for emphasis; instead of saying, “very holy” the author might say “holy holy” or “holy of holies.” When holy is repeated three times (as in Isaiah 6:3) it is means, basically, “the holiest thing ever.” Only God is holy, holy, holy.
Christians are Holy
As Christians we are 1) called holy and 2) told to grow in holiness.
We are holy because we have been chosen to be God’s people, his children. 2 Peter 1:9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are set apart with a purpose of declaring his praises.
We are also holy because Jesus has washed away our sins making us legally sinless or pure (more on that when we get to salvation and atonement).
We are called holy, but we are also told to act holy or become holy. “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” (1 Peter 1: 15-16). We are holy (holy/legally innocent) people and we should act holy (do things without sin).
We are separated from the world to God. We are separated from sin to right-living.
Holiness and Love
God is love. God is holy. These things, love and holiness, are not really that different from each other when you understand that sin is primarily failing to love God or love others well. Love isn’t about following rules, it’s about priorities.
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus famously replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” He says that every law and every rule points us to loving God and loving others.
His admonishments weren’t about avoiding sin, they were about loving without reserve.
Sin, most often, isn’t about breaking rules but about failing to love.
Gossip is sin because it’s disrespectful and unloving; it does not take into consideration the feelings of the person being talked about. Watching porn is sinful because it’s failing to treat others as children of God, made in his image, with dignity, potential brothers and sisters in Christ. When you use others for your sexual arousal, you are not loving them. When you are loving them, when you see them as human beings, want the best for them, and to pray for them, you’re less likely to find the satisfaction that you’re looking for when you view porn.
Holiness is less about avoiding sin or becoming moral and more about letting the Holy Spirit so fill you with love that it oozes out of your pores and into every interaction you have with every single person in every moment of every day.
When you’re focusing on sinning less, you’re focusing on sin more often.
When you’re focusing on loving more, you’ll sin less.
Our God is both holy and loving. Let him love you. Be rooted and grounded in his love. Let his love be your firm foundation. (This is an excellent devotional to help you go deeper in delighting yourself in his love). With intimate knowledge of and experience of his love you’ll long to love him and others the same way. When you are rooted in love you will long for holiness because you will want to love others with the love you’ve experienced.
Our God is both holy and loving and we are called to be increasingly more holy and loving. The two are so intertwined that you cannot be one without the other.
Take some time this week exploring God’s holiness and his love; allow yourself to experience this love. Then explore what it means to love and be holy. An easy place to start is simply be looking up these words and reading the verses that contain these words (and surrounding context). So, for example, go to www.biblegateway.com and search holy. After you’ve read all those verses, search for holiness, then holy ones. Share what you learn about God and about yourself with someone else this week.
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