Holiness - What Does It Mean to be Holy?
In various places in the Christian Bible such as the Old Testament Book of Leviticus and the New Testament epistle 1 Peter, the inspired writers of the Bible called believers to be holy. But, what does it mean to be holy? Often when people think of being holy or being characterized by holiness, it seems they think of "being holier than thou." In other words, we think of someone who acts pious, pompous, and unapproachable. Moreover, we think of someone who is a stuffed shirt, always serious, legalistic, judgmental, always looking down at others around them, and utterly no fun to be around. But is that a true caricature of a person who is truly holy? If not, then I ask again, what does it mean to be holy and what does true holiness look like?
Perhaps the best example of what it means to be holy is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was God incarnate, but from the accounts of him in the gospels he was far from a stuffed shirt. He loved to be out among the people, attend weddings, and dine with others in their homes. So again, what does it mean to be holy? What should holiness truly look like? The following acrostic outlines at least eight characteristics which seem to be indicative of holiness as found in the Bible:
Sanctified i.e. set apart
The first trait of holiness is humility. Humility as depicted in the Bible means to have an accurate view of yourself. It does not mean grovelling in the dirt, hanging your head, and telling yourself and everyone else how pathetic and lowly you are. It is understanding your worth in the sight of God as one who was divinely crafted but at the same time tainted by sin. Jesus offered the ultimate expression of humility when he chose to step out of his heavenly thrown, take on human nature, and offer himself as a servant to the point of death (Philippians 2:5-11). He could empty and offer himself because he was fully secure in who he was and never feared that he could be reduced to anything less than who he was and continues to be. Holiness begins with humility.
The second characteristic of biblical holiness is obedience. Philippians 2:5-11 tells us that Jesus not only humbled himself but he humbled himself and became obedient. To be obedient means to suppress your own will to do the will of another such as God. In his second epistle, the Apostle Peter urged his fellow believers to add moral excellence to their faith (2 Peter 1:5) and the Apostle Paul told the Romans that faith and obedience work hand in hand in the lives of believers. Jesus told his disciples that to love him is to obey God's commands and that God's commands are not burdensome. Holiness is characterized by obedience.
Love and Loving
A third characteristic of biblical holiness is love. This is the characteristic which completely defies the pious, pompous, holier than thou caricature that most people have concerning one who is holy. The person who is the most holy should also be the most loving and caring and compassionate. This is the true image of God and Jesus Christ in the Bible. "God so loved the world that he gave his Son that whoever would believe in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Jesus reached out in compassion and touched a leper to heal him and give a sense of dignity and worth in the sight of others and God (Matthew 8). Holiness is characterized by love and to be holy means to be loving towards all others in all circumstances no matter their station or status in life.
A fourth characteristic of biblical holiness is to be invested. To be invested does not mean to grow your own financial self-worth, but rather to pour out your life into others. Jesus implores his disciples to store up treasure not on earth but in heaven (Matthew 6). The only treasure which we can take with us to heaven is other people. Accordingly, to be invested is to be involved in promoting the temporal and eternal welfare of others around us to the best of our ability by the power of God's Holy Spirit. To be invested is a fourth characteristic of biblical holiness.
To be holy in a biblcal sense also means to be not prejudicial. This means that those who exemplify holiness see the eternal value in every man, woman, and child. Furthermore, this means they do not pre-judge others on the basis of their skin color, ethnicity, choice of wardrobe or hairstyle, music styles, choice of speech, or even first impressions. No, rather to be holy means to look passed the outside cover or superficial to understand the true worth as defined by God. Jesus' brother James intimated that to show partiality is likened to murder because we devalue a person whom God created (James 2).
The sixth characteristic of biblical holiness is to be equipped. This means that those who are truly holy spend their time on worthwhile pursuits and are teachable in order to grow in wisdom and knowledge and practical skills for life and work. Apparently when Jesus was young he loved to go to the temple to ask questions and gain understanding about God and his Word (Luke 2). The Apostle Paul urged Timothy to study the Word of God in such a way as to teach them accurately and be approved by God (2 Timothy 2:15) and went on to say that the Bible is profitable for being equipped for God's work (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). The Apsotle Peter wrote that followers of Jesus should study to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in them. Holiness means to be equipped, especially in the Word and ways of God.
Set Apart or Sanctified
The seventh characteristic of holiness is to be set apart or sanctified. In fact, to be set apart or sanctified is the literal translation of the original Greek term for holiness. In ordinary terms, to be set apart means to be different; not to be weird but different. Different as in more loving, more compassionate, and more secure in who you are than others around you. To be set apart does not mean to withdraw or disengage the world, but to approach the world and the things of this world in a fundamentally different way as defined by God's Word.
An eighth characteristic of biblical holiness is servanthood. Those who are holy actively think about the needs and wants of others and serve others in a genuine way without any need of reciprocation. Jesus exemplified this characteristic to the point of voluntarily offering himself unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11). To be holy means to be a servant of others.
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