When the word holiness, or biblical holiness, is used, it unfortunately conjures up for many, images of black robed, stern preachers wagging their fingers and speaking condemningly. But, is that the concept intended to be conveyed when we hear the word holiness? We see it in the Bible, “Be holy because I am holy. ” (1 Peter 1:16) If we’re to be holy as God is holy, what is holiness?
Clearly, it’s something that defines God (I am holy) and is critically important to Him (Be holy).
To begin to explore what holiness is, let’s first look at an encounter one of the prophets, Isaiah, had with the holiness of God and its effect on him. Here it is:
Isaiah encounters God in the temple
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the LORD, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings. With two wings, they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
‘Woe is me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.'” (Isaiah 6:1-7 NIV)
Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness
In the temple, Isaiah had an encounter with God. He had a vision and saw God “high and exalted, seated on a throne. The train of His robe filled the temple.”
Isaiah senses how completely “other” and totally above and beyond human beings God is. He is perfect, pure, without any stain, therefore He is above us for we are all flawed.
Isaiah sensed that as he became aware of God’s holy presence. He cried out, “I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.” (v. 5) As Isaiah became aware of God and God’s utter purity and majesty, Isaiah couldn’t bear it. He was instantly aware of how impure and shabby his words and behavior were as well as how stained and imperfect all the people around him were too.
God’s purity and holiness, His sinlessness, have that effect on those who draw near to Him and who really sense who He is.
What holiness is not
Isaiah sensed that God was utterly perfect and holy. But what does that mean? What is holiness? In order to better understand what holiness is and why God desires it for us – let’s first think about what it is not.
Those who lie, cheat, steal, deceive, hold onto anger, abuse others – no one who does these things is holy. In fact, I have always found Romans 1:18-32 such a chilling passage about unholy behavior.
In these verses, the Apostle Paul listed quite a number of things that people have done to become unholy in their rebellion against God. Paul wrote about such people being given over to a “depraved mind.”
“They are full of envy,” he wrote, “murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; inventing ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” Earlier in this chapter, he wrote of idolatry and sexual immorality.
All of these actions and mindsets (and many more) are unholy. I think, truly, we don’t begin to grasp all that we do as human beings that is out of sync with God.
But what, exactly, is holiness?
As I said in the beginning, the mistake that is often made is to think that holiness is being stiff and proper and avoiding lots of things and people. But is that holiness? Yes, we want to avoid lying and sexual immorality and stealing, etc. But on the positive side, what does a holy person look like? What do they do?
Our best guide is Jesus. If we want to understand holiness we need to look at Jesus.
Some of you may have been watching the television series about Jesus called The Chosen*. The actor portraying Jesus, Jonathan Roumie, does such a beautiful job. In one scene, he and the other actors act out the encounter with the leprous man found in Mark 1:40-42 in the Bible (found also in other gospel accounts).
In the tv portrayal, while the disciples hang back, pull out their knives, and scream at Jesus not to go near the leper. Jesus goes up to him and in response to his statement, “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” Jesus says, “I am willing. Be clean.”
The holiness of Jesus drips with mercy
In this television portrayal, Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) puts his arms around the leper and holds him. Now, think about it. In that day, lepers were absolutely untouchable. It was considered unholy to touch them by Jewish law.
But, in this moment, Divine love pours into the man and his skin becomes clear. Jesus turns to the – only a moment ago – fear filled and hostile disciples. He says, “Boys, has any of you got a tunic you can spare?” Now, chagrined by the kindness of Jesus and the miraculous healing, they all rush to hand Jesus a tunic.
Jesus says with a wry smile, “We only need one.” And then, with the gentle and constant humor in this television series, Jesus comments to the healed leper as he puts the tunic on over his rags, “Green is a good color on you. Not too shabby.”
Of course, this is tender humor and modern sounding, but I find it perfectly believable that Jesus would be light-hearted, joy-filled, and fun to be with. Biblically, this is the heart of holiness – genuine love and compassion. Yet, with firm boundaries around moral behavior.
Here are some Bible verses on holiness
When we search through scripture for verses on holiness – what is holiness in the eyes of God – we can find many. And often God’s picture of holiness is hugely shaped by His desire for our compassion.
From the book of Micah come these words about God’s vision of holiness:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NIV)
God wants us to be just and fair
There it is. God wants us to be just and fair to each other. Pay our debts. Charge fair prices. Don’t bear false witness against others. Don’t lie. But he also wants us to LOVE mercy – helping the poor, the needy, the lonely, the forgotten, including with our money. And God sees holiness as keeping up a constant “walk” with Him in which we are humble.
Here is another verse along the same lines:
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:17 NIV)
“Widows and orphans” is a Bible catch phrase that points to all who suffer, are poor, have need, are lost, or feel hopeless.
In my own ministry, God led me to those who have fallen into addiction to drugs and alcohol. Many of them have been in jail or prison, have been prostitutes, and so on. They are the “unclean, untouchables” of our day – really of all generations. Churches have not always been welcoming to such people. But where there is welcome and healing offered, the holiness of God is present.
Jesus went directly to the unholy
You see, by the stiff and proper religious leaders of His day, Jesus was criticized. Why? Because He went directly to the people in most need, who were considered the most unholy in His day. “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11 NIV)
Jesus’ answer to this was, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matthew 9:12 NIV)
And, everyone of us is “sick.” The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 NIV) And, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10 NIV)
But, just as in the story of Isaiah above, God has a remedy for us. We CAN be holy, as He is holy. The way to being right with God and righteous is through Jesus. He is the “hot coal” of the story of Isaiah. Jesus applied to our lips and to our lives takes away our ungodliness. As we believe in Him, and trust His finished work on the cross, we are made clean and right with God.
To watch The Chosen series:
*If you would like to see The Chosen, you can find the first season on YouTube and probably some other sites. However, one of the best ways to watch it is to download The Chosen app. You can then stream it from your phone or tablet to a tv depending on what devices you may have.
God bless you as you seek to be holy as God is holy. Remember holiness has a great deal to do with mercy. We are to love and forgive others as we have been loved and forgiven.
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Thank you for your thoughts and lesson on holiness, Pam. I would like to see that series on Jesus. Blessings and prayers for you, David, and your family.
Susie, thank you so much for your comment. Yes, we love The Chosen at our house. In fact, I now own a sweatshirt with “The Chosen” on the back and a line from the show, “Get used to different,” on it. The way the disciples are presented is so moving too. You can really identify with them.