Holiness = separate, set apart, cut off from the world
Luke 5:17 introduces us to a group of people who end up being one of Jesus’s main antagonists in the Gospels, they are known as “the Pharisees.” “Pharisee” means “to be separate” or “set apart.” Interestingly, we use that same definition for the word “holy.” I don’t think this is by accident.
The Pharisees were the holy ones of Israel. They were fastidious about obeying the minutest command of the Law and extremely zealous for their own personal holiness. They were the strictest sect one could belong to in Judaism. The Pharisees’s zeal stemmed from a noble belief, the belief that if everyone in Israel would obey the Law for just a single day, that would be enough to usher in the reign of God on the earth. Therefore, they were outspoken advocates for obeying the Law and outrightly shunned those who were lax in their devotion.
The Pharisees correctly understood the Old Covenant concept of holiness. In the Old Covenant, holiness was a commodity, a resource one could gain or lose depending on certain actions. This is where many of the Ceremonial (clean/unclean) Laws came from. Interestingly, the only way to gain holiness in the Old Covenant was by abstention. Every vow available to the Israelites to increase holiness required them to abstain from certain things: like drinking alcohol, cutting their hair, being in the presence of a dead body, etc. This led to the idea that holiness was all about seperating oneself from the world, abstaining, staying pure.
Holiness was a fragile reality on the Old Covenant. Eating something on accident, someone having a heart attack in your presence or countless other things would negate any holiness you had aquired, for you had become ceremonially unclean. Thus, you would have to do whatever was necessary to become ceremonially clean again and start all over. So you can understand why the Pharisees were so freaked out by Jesus and so offended at the things he did. Jesus broke all of their rules. He lived by a different understanding of holiness.
Holiness = attached to God
When Jesus came and inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven on the Earth, he brought with him a different understanding of holiness. By default, everything in Heaven is holy. Why? Because everyone there lives in ever present awareness and worship of God. The one time someone (satan) consciously chose to cut themselves off from that awareness they were booted out of Heaven.
Jesus brought the holiness of Heaven to earth. He lived with an ever present awareness of Immanuel, the God who is with us, and made his home in our Father’s love. Jesus taught us that the holiness of the New Covenant is radically different than the holiness of the Old Covenant. Holiness in the New Covenant starts with being attached to God in loving relationship and results in loving attachment (relationship) to others. Furthermore, the holiness of the New Covenant is never lost because it never gets dirty. Holiness in the New Covenant is simply undefilable. In the New Covenant, when the holy and unholy meet, the dirty get clean and the sick get healed, not the other way around.
The Jesus brand of holiness breaks all the rules. No longer is holiness defined by what you don’t do – instead, holiness is all about manifesting the love of God by loving others. Holiness is where the awareness of a loving God touches human need.
Every time Jesus broke the rules it was to show love to someone in need. Hungry disciples and hurting people trumped Sabbath restriction. The desire to restore someone to wholeness overrode the social taboos concerning sickness, disease or the proper interactions between a man and a woman. Love for sinners led Jesus into situations that pricked the religious sensitivities of those in power. In all of these situations, Jesus demonstrated that holiness doesn’t get dirty, doesn’t seperate us from those in need and doesn’t bow to social pressure.
Holiness is fun
At one point in time, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). Evidently, Jesus partied so much with the wrong crowd that he gained a reputation for corrupt character. Of course, Jesus was neither of those things (drunkeness is condemned all throughout Scripture), but it is interesting that he had gained that reputation in religious circles.
Imagine if you read in the paper that a pastor in your city routinely hung out with prostitutes and drug addicts and was also seen carrying a keg into a frat house known for its wild parties. What do you think the tone of that article would be? What do you think the response of the Christian community in that city would be? What would YOU personally think? Talk about scandal, right? Yet this is who Jesus was.
I think we have an outdated view of holiness in the America. We’ve held on to the Old Covenant style of holiness and failed to embrace the New. As Paul says, “Such things have an appearance of godliness, but deny its power.” Abstaining from certain things (like drinking alcohol) sure seems holy, but it really does nothing to change your interior life. Only a vibrant relationship with God can do that.
Holiness based on seperation from the world will never bring about the righteousness God desires because we are called to love the world. It is only by bringing the limitless resources of God’s affection into the depths of human need that we begin to see what holiness is all about. Holiness sets people free through love, kindness and compassion. Holiness eradicates sin through Spirit empowered self-sacrifice. Holiness touches the untouchable and breaks all the rules. Holiness elevates human need above religious observance.
Holiness is the polar opposite of Pharisee. Where Pharisees push away, Jesus embraces. Where Pharisees shun, Jesus loves. Where Pharisees are concerned about what God thinks about them, Jesus is concerned with what God thinks about others. Jesus lived with an intense awareness of God’s Presence and character. This allowed him to interact with others in a way that revealed God as Love, this is the essense of holiness. No matter how strict our outward observance, if we don’t represent God as Love then we have missed the boat.
Holiness is not conformity to the world
Some take the message of holiness, love and grace too far and advocate for outright immorality – such was the case with the Corinthians. They were so amazed at the message of grace and tolerance that they celebrated the fact that someone in their congregation was having sex with his father’s wife. They wrote to Paul thinking that he would be overjoyed with how loving, accepting, and tolerant they were. Here is Paul’s response:
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: a man is sleeping with his father’s wife! And you are proud? Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, that you may be a new unleavened batch — as you really are.”
1 Corinthians 5:1-2,6 emphasis mine
There is such a thing as sin and it can ruin your life and the lives of others if left unchecked. Holiness does not celebrate or condone sin in ourselves or others, but neither does it fear sin. Holiness enters into a dark situation and sheds light. Holiness tenderly touches disease and dysfunction in order to bring healing. In order to bring light, there must be darkness. In order to bring healing, there must be disease. It isn’t wrong to admit that.
Jesus never embraced the sinful lifestyles of the people he befriended, yet they never felt judged, condemned or looked down upon. In fact, it seems like they had so much respect for this miracle working Rabbi that they ended up changing their own behaviors as they followed him. Jesus didn’t condemn sinners, but he did encourage them to leave their livestyles of sin.
Our chief concern as Christians is to represent God well. In order to do that, we must know who He is! We must know his character, his likes and dislikes and what he says is or is not appropriate in the lives of people, ourselves included. Many of the things we think God is concerned about, he really isn’t. And other things we think are insignificant are actually huge issues in his sight. I can’t tell you what those things are in your life, but he can.
I believe holiness needs to be radically redefined in most people’s minds. Holiness is primarily about representing and manifesting the character of God. Holiness is fun, God conscious and enjoys meeting human need in extravagant displays of love. New Covenant holiness goes far beyond seperation and detachment from the world – it goes on to attachment with God for the sake of the world.
Thanks for reading friends.