Christians have different views of holiness. To some holiness and fear go together. In the Old covenant they certainly did. People knew the Lord as a holy God, and unholy people feared His presence. To the Jewish people the Holiest of Holies in the temple was the most sacred space on earth. In Herod’s temple a 75-foot veil shrouded the most hallowed place. If you could peer beyond the veil, you could behold the glory of God. They called it the Shekinah.
Only the High Priest of Israel could venture into such holiness, but only one day a year. You might think on that day he was filled with joy, but fear would be a better description of his state of mind. If anything went wrong in the presence of a holy God, it could be the priest’s last day on earth. Not only that, any mistakes could bring God’s curses upon the entire nation!
Some Christians still perceive the Lord as the God behind the veil, unapproachable and unknowable. They seek His blessings much like the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, but mistakes with God can still be costly!
Other Christians regard holy ground as a place they visit occasionally, but those are special places and times. Perhaps we view our church as a sacred space and our time in prayer or Bible study as holy. These times and places are God’s, but most of our lives aren’t sacred or special. In fact, some parts of our lives are unholy. If we believe this, we will view certain people as unholy, and if we are in their presence, we are in an unholy place.
In this article I will challenge these views. Through Christ all your life is holy. Everyplace you are is a holy place, and every moment is a holy time even if bad things are happening. Holiness is something we see not something we achieve. If we can accept this, we can view our lives as holy ground, and if you are so led, you can take off your shoes!
What is Holiness?
The ancient Hebrews often repeated words for emphasis. For example, if someone saw a beautiful sunset, she might say, “That sunset is beautiful!” Yet, if it was the most beautiful sunset she had ever seen, she might say it was “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” The beings in Revelation circle the throne calling God, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” A Jewish person reading Revelation in that day would interpret this as meaning God is the utmost in holiness.
When we define holiness, we tend to think of behavior. A holy person has excellent behavior and does godly things. Calling ourselves holy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t consider ourselves worthy. Supreme religious leaders such as the pope and he Dalai Lama carry the title “His Holiness.” Maybe some people are worthy of the title, but we must do some very saintly things to deserve it.
Yet, when the living creatures circling the throne cried “Holy, Holy, Holy,” do you think they were talking about behavior? Were they praising God for being really, really well-behaved? The word holy means to be set apart. This gives us a clue to its deepest meaning. The worshipers in Revelation were saying the Lord is set apart from all else. He is divine, all else is not. He is infinite, all else is finite. In a way, they were saying that God is God. If this is the definition of holiness, how can anyone hope to take the title?
Moses’ encounter at the burning bush reveals what makes that which is finite holy. The Lord told Moses to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy. What was God saying? Was he saying this was very well-behaved dirt? Certainly not, what made the ground holy was God’s presence.
To the Jewish people the most holy land on earth was the Promised Land, and the most holy land had a most holy city, Jerusalem. In the most holy city was the most holy place, the temple. In the most holy place, there was a most holy court, the Holiest of Holies. Its name was descriptive. It was the most holy of God’s sacred places. Why? Again, it had to do with God‘s presence. Beyond the veil at the entrance to the holiest of all places was the place heaven and earth met and became one.
Paul said Christ came to build a new temple, and you are part of it. In other words, you are God’s chosen habitation. Your life is the place you and God live together, the place where the finite and the infinite are one. How can you not be holy?
When Solomon finished building God’s house, he consecrated it to the Lord (II Chronicles 7 and I Kings 8). This building was no better than many buildings in that day. What made it special was it belonged to God, and He inhabited it. When they dedicated the temple to God, the glory of the Lord filled God’s house so powerfully that the priests couldn’t stand to minister. Likewise, when the Lord sets us apart for Himself, we become the habitation of His glory. What follows is His work to unveil the glory within. The Christian life is an unveiling, and if we can grasp this, we can understand holiness and how it is worked out in our lives.
I have heard people pray for God’s holy fire to consume them. Perhaps they are referring to the Lord’s promise to baptize them in fire and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). Most likely they are asking for increased zeal for the Lord. They want to be “on fire for God.” Yet, fire imagery in the scriptures has a different connotation. It symbolizes purification. It is the removal of what veils the Lord’s glory.
When we give our lives to the Lord, we encounter the God who consumes us. This aspect of God might sound a bit frightening. Contrary to much preaching today, the scriptures teach us to expect fiery trials in our lives. Popular teachers tell us the Lord will take away our troubles. “The Lord wants us to be prosperous and successful,” they say. “He loves us!” Yet, is precisely because He loves us that He sends the fire from heaven.
The fire precedes the glory. The story of Elijah at Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18) paints a beautiful picture of this principle. God first sent the fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering. After that came the rain. We see the same imagery at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. Frist the fire came from heaven and consumed the people’s sacrifices and then God’s glory filled His house. Likewise, in our lives first God comes as fire then as the heavenly rain as His glory is revealed.
Love compels us to embrace the fire of God rather than try to escape it. We are the living sacrifice made acceptable through Christ (Romans 12:1). We present ourselves to God knowing what we give Him is consumed. This is the most precious love offering and the heart of true worship.
God wants us to be pure, but it is vital we know what the Lord considers impure or unholy. We probably think of good and evil. God is out to remove all our bad deeds so only the good remains. Yet, this is a very dangerous definition of holiness. It was the same one the Pharisees had, and Jesus called them whitewashed tombs. Such a view can lead us to presume purity is our accomplishment. We suppose holiness comes from external deeds rather than a revelation of what is within. We try to remove the bad and become good believing that is what it means to be set apart.
Yet, purification is God’s work. The fire comes from heaven not from ourselves. We can only present ourselves. God does the rest. Left to ourselves we will only end up calling the unclean clean and the clean unclean! God’s work of holiness is a revelation which confounds the carnal mind.
If we study the life of Paul, we can see why sanctification must be God’s doing and God-revealed. When Paul was Saul, he thought he was pure. He did not touch what was unclean, and he had a pure heritage, of the tribe of Benjamin. If you were of the tribe of Judah or Benjamin, you were considered purer than those from the other tribes. Additionally, Paul never failed to keep the purity rituals and to follow the exact requirements of the Law and the Pharisees’ traditions. He was so zealous for the purity of his people he persecuted those he considered unclean, namely the church.
Paul presumed he was fighting for God, but he was fighting against the Lord. His weapon was his own righteousness. Self-righteousness was blinding Paul to the righteousness of God. We are all a little like Paul. Zealous Christians can be just as clueless as he was on the road to Damascus. If we have a self-centered view of purity based in our own good and evil, we conclude increasing our good and decreasing our evil is the way to holiness. Yet, this is blindness, and only God can make the blind see.
In the New Covenant purity is having no righteousness of our own only the righteousness of Christ (Phil 3:1-10). The purpose of God’s holy fire is to remove the chaff of self. Paul called it “suffering the loss of all things.” Just as it was for Paul, God’s sanctifying work can be uncomfortable. Yet, it is love in action. It is God giving us the fulness of who He is.
Paul used Hebrew imagery to illustrate this all-important work. In Romans (2:28-29) he talked about circumcision of the heart. To the Jews removal of the male foreskin set them apart or made them holy. Paul spoke of the carnality of such ideas. True circumcision is not physical or external. It is the removal of the flesh (the self), and it is the work of God.
Moses’ encounter with the Lord at the burning bush foreshadowed this concept. God showed Himself as a bush that was on fire yet not consumed. This image speaks of God’s nature, one who consumes us, yet we remain. The Lord told Moses to take off his shoes. They were most likely leather sandals. It is through the removal of the flesh we experience the reality of God’s presence, for the flesh cannot perceive or know God. It is the essence of blindness. Circumcision is of the heart. It is a New Covenant purity that the carnal mind of the flesh can not grasp.
We tend to look at Christian purity as avoiding worldly things. Just as the ancient Hebrews, we believe we keep our lives clean by disassociating ourselves from unclean things. They would not touch certain things such as unclean animals, dead bodies, and gentiles. If they touched something unclean, they would perform a ritual to restore their purity.
We can have a similar mind, but our definition of what is unclean has changed. We focus on sexual immorality, mind-altering substances, dishonesty, greed and other worldly pleasures. If we do not dirty ourselves with these things, we might consider ourselves pure of heart. If we “touch what is unclean,” we have things to do to get clean such as confessing and renewed efforts to remain pure. This definition, which is wrapped up in good an evil, is fleshly and not spiritual. (1)
To the flesh purity comes from self, who we are and what we do. What we do or don’t do makes us clean or unclean. Even though our intentions might be good, this is the mind of the flesh. To God that which finds its source in self is unclean whether it be good or evil. The flesh will always boast in self even in matters concerning God. Its deeds define who God is and what He does. The Spirit finds its source in God and thus shares in God’s own holiness. A pure heart has no boast but Christ. To the Spirit who Christ is defines who we are.
Suffering is certainly part of God’s dealings. Again, we often look at this with a carnal mind. When we suffer, we wonder what we did wrong. This is an Old Covenant mindset where reward and punishment is the nature of relationship with God. If this was true holiness, Paul never would have needed to suffer. God would have patted him on the back for his excellent behavior. His suffering brought him to the end of his righteousness that Christ might become his all.
Paul’s trials led him to a place where he could understand what he considered so precious to God was really rubbish. Revelation is a change of mind, and this one was astonishing. Our suffering serves to bring us to this same vantage point, but at the end of self, we behold the glory of God. Consequently, we often understand holiness best in weakness rather than in strength.
The fire of God serves to reveal eternal life in us. If we can grasp this, we can recognize that God is at work in our lives even when we assume He isn’t. We wonder why the Lord shakes the good things in our lives. It is logical that He challenges our evil desires, but what if our good desires are threatened? Suppose have a dream we consider a godly desire, and God removes it. It is at such times we beseech the Lord to save our lives, but He has no intention of doing so. We must not use our faith to avoid the cross! Faith was never meant to inflate or gratify the ego. It is the means by which we lose our lives that we might have Christ as our life. Faith is the door to the infinite not our selfish desires.
To the Jews a pure heart worshipped no other gods but the Lord. It meant that they didn’t worship graven images like the pagans did. In fact, God commanded that they not worship anything they could view with their eyes. Most believed this was fulfilled by not giving sacrifices to other gods. The new testament revealed the fulness of what this foreshadowed. God’s people are set apart for the infinite unseen God. It is the infinite that completes us and the divine that defines our lives. This is in contrast to the world where the finite completes us, and self defines our lives.
God is always working to bring us to true worship just as it was with Israel. It is not just giving Him lip service, so He will give us what we want or protect what we have. God shakes the finite. Yet, He does so to bring us to the infinite, the unshakable God. He brings us to the end of what was veiling eternal life and that is often a finite definition of life with self-gratification at its core. If we look at someone who proclaims that Christ is their life, the chances are that proclamation comes from the loss of all things, even what the world calls a good life.
Therefore, it is vital to present ourselves to God as a living gift offering in times of pressure for these are times of revelation. God is at work to remove whatever is veiling His glory. The point of the trial is not to get it over with but to behold the Lord!
There are so many ways to describe the Christian life. Some call it a journey, and it certainly is. God is taking us to Himself, and along the way we lose ourselves. Yet, it is equally true that it is an unveiling. God is revealing Himself to us and as this happens the veil of the flesh is removed, for it is self in all its good and evil that obscures divine glory (II Cor 3:14).
What do we see in the presence of a Holy God? Behind the veil of the flesh we perceive a God who is separate, otherworldly, and unapproachable, one whom we must appease to avoid His wrath and to know His blessing. When it comes to God, this is all self can see. If we believe the Lord is separate from us, we separate ourselves from each other. We divide ourselves between the clean and the unclean, and the more holy we consider ourselves the greater this separation becomes.
In Jesus’s day, the faction that considered themselves the holiest of all was not the Pharisees but the Essenes. They formed a community on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. There the Essenes thought they could live as the true people of God. They rejected King Herod, the temple, and even the Pharisees as corrupt. In their mind, only they were true Israel. They would create a pure community from which the Messiah would come forth to redeem His people (They actually believed God would send two messiahs, one a priest and the other a king). They, the sons of light, would be the ones He would use to reestablish Israel. The impure Jews and the gentiles were bound for destruction. The Essenes zeal for the Law was unlimited. For example, they tried not to have a bowel movement on the Sabbath, because that was working. They would not leave wool in dye on the day of rest because the dye was at work!
Where did all this “holiness” take them? The gospels do not mention the Essenes, and apparently Jesus never went to their community. The Romans destroyed the Essene community before converging on Jerusalem in 70 AD.
When we know that the Holy God has torn the veil, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold on to our clean and unclean distinctions. Not only do we consider ourselves as holy, but our neighbor as well, even if they can’t perceive it for themselves. When God came out from behind the veil, the world became a holy place.
Our lives are holy and nothing that happens escapes this truth. Under the Old Covenant paradigm, the good and the clean got God’s blessing, and the bad and the unclean got His curses. We have allowed this mind to seep into the glory of the New Covenant. Faith has become something we use to escape the bad things and to claim the good for ourselves.
Yet, faith is for seeing God. It does not take much faith to recognize God in the good, but it does to see Him in the bad. Therefore, holiness is happening even on our worst days, and all ground is holy. Freedom is being able to realize this. It is a new paradigm, one that changes everything.
Holiness is something we see, not something we achieve. A holy person is one who lives in the gift of God, and when we live in His gift, all of life becomes a place where we take off our shoes.
(1) This does not mean that there is no longer right and wrong. Yet, the fact that you do not do these things is not the measure of your rightness with God. You have an infinite measure and that is Christ. A holy person lives in that measure and refuses all others even if they are good. Holiness is the revelation of God’s righteousness, not our own. At the same time, participation in Christ will produce good fruit in our lives, the fruit of the Spirit.