When Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock up in the mountains, he saw an angel in the middle of a bush on fire (Exodus 3:1-6). Well, that was certainly unusual.
Curious, he went a bit closer to check it out, and God called him by name! That was even more unusual. Then God said, Take off your shoes, the place you’re standing is holy ground.
Wow. The dirt was holy. I could understand the bush being holy, but even the dirt? God himself had picked that spot for an encounter with Moses. Because God was there, the place was separated for his use.
It’s as though God had drawn a line around that bush, claimed it for his own purpose, set it on fire and then settled first an angel, then his own presence into the middle of the bush.
That story is fascinating and so is the rest of Moses’ life, but this is about being holy. Holiness. What is it, exactly?
I Peter 1:15-16, “But, as he who hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of life, Because it is written, be ye holy; for I am holy.” Peter was quoting Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2 and 20:7, God’s instructions to the children of Israel. God’s people. Peter was making it clear to Christians that this same instruction applies to us. We are also God’s people. We must be holy.
“Holier than thou.” That’s about all I could remember from my childhood about holy, or holiness. That and the old hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy.
What did it mean? In my child’s thinking it meant Long-faced. Somber. Serious. Gloomy. No smile. No laughter. No joy. No happiness. No colorful clothes. No fun. Nothing attractive, that’s for sure. But an actual definition? I had no idea and really didn’t care. These days, I have a different idea.
The English word for holiness has an interesting origin. Wholeness. One hundred percent one thing. Not contaminated with anything else. Not mixed with anything else. Wholly one thing. Like an element, not a compound. Sodium. Gold. Hydrogen. Not Salt. Not Brass. Not Air. Those are compounds.
Also, whole means nothing is missing. There’s not a bite missing, not even a tiny chunk missing. One hundred percent complete.
In the Bible, the original words are interesting too. Most places in the Old and New Testaments it means set apart, separated and kept for one particular use. Sacred. It is used to describe God, people, places and things. Sometimes it is translated sanctified. The sabbath is to be kept holy. The priests were to keep themselves holy. All the articles used in the sacrifices and worship were to be holy.
In my kitchen I have a manual can opener. I use it for one particular thing, opening cans. Now, I suppose since it’s clunky and fairly substantial, I could use it as a blunt object. You know, hit a burglar over the head with it. That’s a remote possibility. Still, my can opener is holy, sanctified, going by the original Bible definition.
But there’s another word also translated holy. That word means pure. Clean. Free from defilement. Uncontaminated. Uncorrupted. Wholly one thing. This is the word used to describe the holy place. The Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. The Holy One of Israel – Jesus. Applied to people, it means morally upright. Having integrity. Honest.
This word corresponds more to the old English definition. One hundred percent one thing. What thing? I think it means the righteousness of God. Set apart from everything else and everyone else, separated for one particular use by God and for God. Pure, and purely his for whatever purpose he decides.
There’s one problem with that second definition. How can a person be holy? In the Old Testament, it took a lot of work. And a lot of blood. Blood of sacrificed animals, smeared on the priests’ clothing and on their bodies, blood dabbed on the altar, blood poured on the ground, blood everywhere. Blood mixed with anointing oil. All day, every day, day after day — blood everywhere, and never cleaned up.
Really, that blood was the only thing that kept the priests from being burned to a crisp when they approached the presence of God. It recalled the night of the dead first-born children of Egypt. It was a perpetual memorial to the deliverance and mercy of God.
There’s only one way a person today can be holy, and that’s to have the Holy One of Israel settled into your life. Jesus, the resurrected Lamb of God is one hundred percent pure God. Jesus, the one who made the ultimate sacrifice of his own blood. Jesus, who anoints us with the Holy Spirit, the fire of God in the midst of us. In us, and on us.
Since he has paid for us, he has a right to separate us from everything else to his own use, his purposes, his agenda, his itinerary. To make us wholly his.