“Holy” is a word that’s hard to define. Like “glory”. What do you think of when you hear the word “holy”? Can you picture it?
A quick look at my Bible Dictionary shows that “holy” is hard to define. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament carries connotations of separation and brightness; of God being so much different than we are, so pure, so powerful, so unique, so glorious, so transcendent. God is not like us. We are made in His image but how much is a person “like” the photo taken of them? The picture is like its subject, but the ink printed on a bit of photo paper isn’t the same as the real person in the flesh.
We sing about God’s holiness, and about Him making us holy, so often that we can take for granted what it means. A few months ago I was reading through Leviticus and Numbers, and I was struck anew by the fact that God’s holiness is… dangerous. It’s absolutely terrifying, like being trapped in a cage with a hungry tiger. It’s lethal. I’ll try and explain what I mean.
The book of Leviticus is part of the Old Testament Law given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai after they were rescued from slavery in Egypt. It deals with a lot of rules about how the OT worship system worked, and as part of that it talks a lot about cleanness and uncleanness. Cleanness in animals Israel were allowed to eat, in death, in childbirth, in disease and illness, in houses with a mould problem, in sex, in how you treat the vulnerable, in a whole load of everyday things! You read all the rules, and God can be pretty specific about what cleanness, or holiness, looks like.
Why does God care? Well, back in Exodus 20 the Law is given to show Israel what it looks like to be God’s people. And it looks like absolute perfection. Complete holiness, because God, their God, is holy (Leviticus 11:45, 19:2, 20:7). And God’s people are to reflect Him to the rest of the world – this is part of how all nations would be blessed through them (Genesis 12:2; 22:18) – and show them how good knowing God is – because when His people keep the covenant Law, God will bless them in abundance (Leviticus 26:3-13) and it looks amazing! Beautiful, lush, fertile land that provides a fantastic amount of food (v3-5); peace, and victory against all enemies (v6-8); a growing and flourishing nation (v9-10); and, best of all, God Himself living among them (v11-12).
But also, God requires a perfect people so that He can have relationship with them. God is perfect, pure, and holy, and can only be approached on His own terms. Israel had to worship in a certain way, the way God designed. Otherwise they would die. In Leviticus 10, two of Aaron’s sons try to offer incense to God in a way other than what He prescribed, and God literally vaporised them (10:2). The priests had to be completely sober when ministering in the tabernacle, otherwise they’d die (10:9). The Day of Atonement, a highlight in Israel’s religious year, the one day where the high priest was allowed to go into the bit of the tabernacle where God’s manifest presence was, was a matter of life and death. He had the awesome privilege of being able to meet God as face-to-face as someone could, but he had to burn incense so it made a cloud over the ark where God’s presence was otherwise he’d die (16:12-13). And this was besides having a complete wash, putting on special clothes, sacrificing a bull (as a sin offering to atone for his own sin), sacrificing a goat (sin offering for the nation), sprinkling the blood of the dead bull and goat on the covering of the ark to make the innermost bit of the tabernacle holy, and doing the same for the rest of the tabernacle, and sprinkling the altar outside with the blood to consecrate that as well. Then he takes a second goat, puts his hands on its head and confesses the sins of the nation, and then sends it off into the desert to figuratively carry their sins away. (Lev 16:1-22)
The priests had specific clothes they had to wear to just work around the Tabernacle (see Exodus 28 – I especially enjoy v42-43 where God commands them to wear pants or risk death). There were specific rules about who they could marry, prohibitions against touching dead bodies – even of their loved ones – what they did with their hair; and they had to be physically healthy and unblemished. See Leviticus 21 for a description of those rules. Coming near the Tabernacle was an offence punishable by death if you weren’t from the same tribe as the priests (Numbers 3:10), and all the things in the Tabernacle had to be carefully wrapped up in several layers of cloth and skins when being transported to prevent people being killed. (Numbers 4).
It’s insane how deadly God is, and this is just His presence. Human beings are sinful, so we can’t be in the same place as God, or even look at Him and expect to live, which is often why when people in the Bible see God they’re absolutely terrified. He is so pure, and we are so impure, that to dare to go near Him is to risk obliteration; as Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”. So why do we dare to even try to worship God? How can we dare to pray, to sing together on a Sunday if to approach the Holy One is to dance with death?
Our pure and holy God has always provided a way for the unworthy to approach Him. In the OT, this was an extensive sacrificial system where an animal bore the death penalty your personal sins deserved. The shed blood of a bull, or lamb, or goat, or pigeon, replaced your own to satisfy justice. But this pointed to something far greater that was to come. Because how can a dead sheep or cow be a decent substitute for the life of a human being? The poor animal probably doesn’t have a concept of God, let alone good and evil. And I’m pretty sure they weren’t lining up to get slaughtered on humanity’s behalf. As it says in Hebrews 10:4, it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
But Hebrews also talks about Jesus Christ, the great High Priest and Sacrifice that the Old Testament worship system pointed to. Have a look at this:
“But when Christ appeared as high priest… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Hebrews 9:11-14
On that rugged, blood-stained bit of wood on a hill 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ, the perfect, holy Son of God let Himself be beaten, whipped, mocked, abused and sentenced to death by suffocation while hanging in agony from some nails. And this death was His perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins and the sins of the human race for eternity. He swapped places with us and was obliterated by God’s wrath in our place so that we could be made holy (Colossians 1:22; Hebrews 10:10) Holy! You know, holy like God? The God who is so holy and pure Israel couldn’t go near Him unless they had a death wish? How awesome is that, that Jesus would give up His holiness and swap it for our moral filth at Calvary! And now we are counted perfect, righteous, pure, holy, forgiven; and not just merely acceptable and “safe” to go near God but sons, heirs, the beloved Bride of Christ! We haven’t just been given permission to approach the Throne, but to be close, so close to the One who sits on it! To call the God who once could not be approached “Father”, to be united in intimacy with the King of the ages, to have the Spirit of power who raises the dead live in us and work to help us and teach us… this is no small thing, and it should fill us with wonder.