We serve a holy God. He tells us in Leviticus 20:26 that He is holy: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” In this verse He gives us the motive for being holy, because He is. The call to be something is not about us it’s about Him. We exist for Him, for His glory, for His purposes. In the words of St. Paul: “For in Him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through Him and for Him.” (Col 1:16) Likewise, Solomon summed it up in Ecclesiastes 12:13: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Since God has called us to be holy, let us believe His promises, and in faith obey His commands. So what does it mean to be holy?
Generally, the idea of being holy has been misunderstood by most people (both past and present). Jesus reprimanded the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees for not understanding the true meaning of being holy (Cf. Matt 6 and 23). Being holy is not about showing people how righteous we are: telling them how much we give to the poor, showing them how much we are doing for the church, or telling them how often we fast and do penance (Cf. Matt 6:1-18). It is also not about what we wear, where we sit and how people address us (Cf. Matt 23:5-1). The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that holiness has nothing to do with a person’s race, nationality or vocation as the Samaritan could love his neighbour more than the priest and Levite (Cf. Luke 10:29-37).
Holiness is the state of the heart, in devotion to God which controls the believer’s life and directs him to “avoid evil, wherever it may be.” (1 Thess. 5:22) We need to know without confusion what it means to be holy! Being Holy is an attitude of the heart. A person who in his heart does not see himself as totally dedicated to the Lord’s service, could dress right, look right, talk right and act right, but still not be living a holy life! “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7)
Lev 20:26 is the most straightforward statement of God’s call to holiness. Israel’s inheritance in the land was dependent upon their holiness, because God had separated them from the evil and sinful pagans around them in order that they might be holy. Therefore Israel must differentiate between clean and unclean, moral and immoral. Hence, holiness is being separated unto God, which has the effect of keeping us from evil (or sin). (Cf. John 17:15) The problem is: How can we lead lives that are separated from the sinful and evil ways of the world and still remain in the world?
Let us turn to Holy Scriptures for the answers. The Apostle Peter quoted the phrase “be holy, for I am holy” in his first epistle (Cf. 1 Peter 1:16). To understand what Peter is saying, we need to understand what he is trying to do. 1 Peter 1:1-12 describes the present reality and future hope of the elect exiles. Peter has proclaimed who we are in Christ. We have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Cf. 1:3). We are elect exiles who will come through suffering to glory–even as our Saviour (Cf. 1:7). After stating these statements of fact, Peter begins to define the basic commands of the Christian life. In verses 13-25 he introduces four commands: 1:13 “Set your hope,” 1:15 “Be holy,” 1:17 “conduct yourselves with fear,” 1:21 “Love one another.” Each of these commands is rooted in who we are in Christ.
Let us look at verse 13: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action…” Peter calls us to be prepared for action. But what action are we preparing for? The action is the first command that Peter gives us: “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Hope is the central category of Peter’s thought. We have been born again to a living hope. This hope is our cause for rejoicing as we saw in verse 6 (in this living hope you rejoice). This hope is the defining characteristic of Christian life.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1:3) What happened when Jesus Christ rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father? Peter explains this in Acts 2, if God has raised Jesus from the dead, and poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, then the last days have come. (Cf. Acts 2:16-17, 33) Israel expected that in the last days God would vindicate his people, judge his enemies, and establish the new creation. And that is exactly what He did in Jesus Christ. All that the Jews thought would happen to Israel at the end of history has happened to Jesus in the middle of history. And because it has happened to Jesus, it now defines all who are in Christ.
Now we are ready to understand Peter when he quotes Leviticus. In verse 14: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” Peter is not commanding us to become obedient children; He is saying that this is who we are. To be “children of obedience” means that obedience to our heavenly Father is simply the natural obvious pattern of our lives. We are children of obedience by virtue of our union with Christ, who himself is the obedient Son. Hence, we should not return to the old pattern of life. We are to be cultural nonconformists. The world lives in the passions of ignorance. We cannot live that way anymore. Our minds have been girded for action. We understand who we really are in Christ. Therefore the whole way we think and live must change. Similarity, St. Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:2)
As He who called us is holy, we should also be holy in all our conduct. (Cf. 1:16) Holiness means to be conformed to the new reality. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. We have been born again to a living hope through His resurrection. He suffered and was glorified. We are suffering and will be glorified, though even now we rejoice with a joy that is filled with glory, because we believe the promises of God, and we are obtaining the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.
We saw that in Leviticus, all the usages of “be holy for I am holy” referred to Israel’s status as a separate people. Israel as a whole was to be the priestly people, a kingdom of priests to use the language of Exodus. The ceremonial cleanness and moral purity of Israel came to an even greater level in the priests. Peter is saying that the church is the new priesthood: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) He has called us. We did nothing to deserve this. Being holy in all our conduct is not a means to impress God. Rather, being holy in all our conduct is simply the result of being called by the Holy One.
St. Paul says: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Romans 12:3) The person who is fully convinced of his own righteousness is misguided and probably the least holy. Jesus illustrates this point by telling the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. (Cf. Luke 18:9-14) Jesus says the tax collector who is humble and contrite of heart is reconciled with God when he leaves the temple but not the Pharisee who is proud and self-righteous.
Do we want anything apart from God, or do all our desires centre in His will? Can we truly say that the will of God is “good and acceptable and perfect” to us? (Cf. Romans 12:2) That strong self-assertive will of ours must go to the Cross, and we must give ourselves wholly to the Lord. We cannot expect a potter to make us a pot if we do not give him any clay, nor a builder to build us a house if we let him have no building material; and in just the same way we cannot expect the Lord to turn us into His instruments of blessing if we do not surrender our lives to Him. Without reservations, without controversy, we must give ourselves to Him to do as He pleases with us. The Apostle Paul says: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” (Romans 6:13). Hence, being holy is about surrendering ourselves completely to the Lord, giving up everything we have to follow Him.
Let us remind ourselves that we are God chosen people, called out of darkness into His marvellous light with the Hymn “We are the Church” by Christopher Walker: