In the New Testament, believers are often referred to as ‘holy ones’ (usually translated as ‘saints’).
But what exactly does ‘holy’ mean?
The word `holy’ means `set apart’. After He had redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, God told them, “You are to be holy to Me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be My own.” (Leviticus 20:26) In the same way, the Church is “a holy nation, God’s special possession.” (I Peter 2:9)
There is a sense in which the Church is already holy: we are set apart by virtue of the fact that God has called us out of the world to be His own people, His special possession. But there is another sense in which we still have to become holy: as we grow and mature in our faith, our lives should increasingly reflect the holiness of our God.
Holiness, then, is distinctiveness. Now for Christians this does not mean withdrawal from the world (so as to avoid ‘contamination’ by worldly influences). It means living differently in the world – exhibiting the values and standards of Jesus and the Father rather than those of the unbelieving world around us.Before we became Christians, we did not know that our true purpose in life was to glorify our Maker, and so we followed our own selfish desires. But now that we have responded to God’s call, it should make a profound difference to the way we live. Jesus cannot be our Saviour without also being our Lord (Matthew 7:21-23).
Holiness is not an optional extra; the ‘saints’ are all of us, not just a special class of Christians. In his first letter (I Peter 1:14-16), Peter exhorts us to holiness by quoting from Leviticus 19, which is a kind of manual of holy living. It covers (amongst other very practical things) family relationships, giving to the poor, treatment of the disabled, the duties of employers, farm management and trade – and includes at its centre the well-known and fundamental command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). While the details will vary from culture to culture, the underlying principle holds good: holiness is a lifestyle. Like the nation of Israel before us, the Church should be a community that demonstrates what it means to live under the rule of God. But unlike Israel (and especially the Pharisaic element within Israel), we must not make the mistake of equating holiness with law-keeping. For us, holiness is not achieved through observance of rules, but by modelling ourselves on Jesus. We can never equal Him, but we can and must walk in His footsteps. In every area of our lives (in our personal relationships and our social ethics, as well as in our specifically religious behaviour) we should grow to resemble our Father in His holiness and purity (Matthew 5:48).
However, this kind of holiness is a continual struggle. The world is forever striving to squeeze the Church into its mould – and very often it succeeds! If we insist on Biblical standards of morality, we are accused of ‘intolerance’ or ‘irrelevance’. But if we are living no differently from everyone else, if we cannot be distinguished from the society around us, then we are failing in our calling to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13). In order to maintain our ‘saltiness’, we need to keep encouraging one another to resist the pressure to conform to the world. While acknowledging that we are all liable to fail (I Corinthians 10:12), we must not make light of sin; the corruption of one member defiles the whole body. One such example would be the case of incest reported in Corinth (I Corinthians 5:1,2), which scandalised even the pagans; Paul however seems to be less concerned about the immoral behaviour itself than about the church’s lack of response to it. Do we not care about our Saviour’s reputation? Unbelievers will look for excuses to reject the gospel – and, sadly, Christians give them far too many.
The Lord Jesus “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14)God does not set us an unachievable goal and then leave us to struggle towards it on our own. We who believe in Jesus have been given the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13) – and He is the Holy Spirit, whose mission is to make us holy (I Thessalonians 4:7,8). We must let Him do his work!