Sunday, February 9, 2014

God's Holiness Permeates the Bible


The Preeminence and Significance of God as Holy in Biblical Revelation

“A true love for God must begin with a delight in his holiness…”

                                                                                                                   Jonathan Edwards

 Holiness: its Biblical Emphasis

          Beginning in Gen 2:3 where “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,”[1] to Rev 22:19 where God warns those who trifle with His words that they shall be removed from the city described as holy, the Bible is filled with direct affirmations, symbolic illustrations, dramatic narratives, and a myriad of implications that God is holy.  Although God’s holiness is portrayed as the preeminent attribute[2] of God’s nature and character and the basis of all his actions, it seems to be the least acknowledged and the most misunderstood among Christians; it is the one subject largely neglected from our pulpits and consistently ignored in our private studies.  Walter Chantry asserts that the “Bible as a whole speaks more of God’s holiness than of His love.”[3]


The Meaning and Usage of Holiness in the Bible

In the OT, most scholars agree that the basic Hebrew root word for “holy” conveys the idea “to separate” but others contend that in its several dialects it means “to be clean, pure, consecrated”[4] for divine use. The Greek usage of the word “holy” denotes “an object of awe”.[5]  In the NT “holiness is here seen to be God’s innermost nature (Rev 4:8).  It embraces omnipotence, eternity, and glory, and evokes awe.”[6]

Holiness in God is not an attribute among all other attributes. It is that intrinsic quality of divinity that permeates His very being and is intertwined with all of His attributes; it is the essential and transcendent quality in God that defines His moral attributes.  Holiness not only defines but tempers God’s attributes.  It is because God is holy that when He loves, He does not pamper the guilty and when angered, His wrath is not uncontrolled rage and punishment administered beyond just deserts.

Where people or things in the Bible are attributed to being “holy,” “sanctified,” “consecrated,” or “pure,” they are so only in relation to and in connection with God’s presence.  Those persons or things described as “unholy,” “profane,” or “impure,” are so because His presence is either not imparted, has departed, or is rejected.[7]  All that the Bible declares concerning God’s nature and character “is comprised in and issues from His holiness.”[8]  It is in holiness that God’s attributes are given their unique and specific features and it is within holiness that they function and are expressed.

In relation to man, “God’s active claim upon a creature consecrates” him, making him holy.  Man’s holiness “follows God by imitation and even participation.”[9]  However, the man who encounters God’s presence must either participate with God’s involvement in human history or be removed in judgment away from the place where His presence is manifested.  “Where He is, His presence sanctifies or judges.  Without His presence, all is profane.  Where His presence is welcomed, His holiness is imparted.  Where His presence is rejected, His holiness inexorably brings judgment.”[10]


Holiness in the Old Testament

          In the OT, the holy nature and character of God is implied in God’s blessing of the seventh day to enjoy creation. The day is holy, not because of any inherent qualities that separate it from the other days as created but because the One who pronounces it and employs it for His own special use is holy.  The Psalmist poetically declares that he will worship God in the temple (Ps 5:7).  The temple is not holy because of any inherent quality in the temple building itself but because the God (who is holy) made the temple in Jerusalem the only place where His Presence resides in a unique, tangible, and visible fashion.  The nation of Israel had erroneously taken the temple itself to be holy and assumed immunity from punishment for sin.  However, God warns that their sins are an affront to His holy nature, which the temple only signifies, and that, unless they mend their ways, his anger and wrath will be poured out on them, even on the place where the temple stands (Jer 7:4,20).

            Dramatic narratives provide vivid portraits of God’s holiness.  Foremost is God’s manifestation to Moses “in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush…[that] was not consumed.”  And when Moses drew near to look at it, God admonished Moses not to come any closer without removing his sandals “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex 3:2-5).[11]  The burning bush portrays God as a holy presence “to purify His people and prepare it for its calling…and the putting off the shoes was intended to express…that reverence which the inward man owes to a holy God.”[12]

            The holiness of God is painstakingly illustrated in the instructions given by God to Moses and Solomon in building both the tabernacle and the temple respectively and in the making of all that pertains to them.  In addition it is scrupulously symbolized in the ceremonial laws, moral commandments, and sacrificial instructions compiled by Moses under divine inspiration in the book of Leviticus.  Speaking of the tabernacle (which can also be said of the temple), Oswalt notes, “not only does the structure symbolize the presence of God with his people, it also shows how it is that sinful people can come into, and live in, the presence of a holy God.”[13]

In Lev 10:3, Nadab and Abihu’s familiarity of their approach to worship and the consequent judgment against them by fire, God declares: “By those who come near Me I will show myself as holy and before all the people I will be honored.”[14]  As such, “God’s sacredness is manifest through the swift and definitive removal of evil from his midst…his glory, so often restricted to loving signs of his power and might, is here revealed in a frightening and awesome manner.”[15] 

          In unequivocal declarations, God attests to His own holy nature and character.  God speaks by His own holiness (Ps 60:6; 108:7), swears by his own holiness (Ps 89:35; Amos 4:2), reveals Himself as holy (Isa 5:16); affirms He is the “Holy One of Israel” (Isa 10:20; Jer 50:29; 51:5), and proclaims His name is holy (Ezk 36:20-22).


Holiness in the New Testament

          The most famous of God’s avowal of holiness in the OT is also quoted in the NT: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 1:16).  For no other reason than the fact that God is holy are believers to be holy.  Holiness, above all, makes relationship and community with God possible.  Without the imparting and manifesting of divine holiness, whatever form of relationship with God is entertained, it is false and void of true saving significance.  It is only as one contemplates the holiness of God that one is able to gain a coherent understanding of the divine nature and emulate the divine character in practice.

          As “Holy Father,” Jesus Christ confirms God’s holiness in the context of His High Priestly prayer that believers would be preserved and guarded as one in community with the Father and the Son (John 17:11-120.  By the appellation of “Holy Spirit” given to the third person of the Trinity, God is portrayed as holy (Lk 11:13).  God’s holiness is defined with simple but transcendent clarity in Christ as he is described being “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Heb 7:26).  The NT affirms by direct and unequivocal declarations that God, as to the totality of His hidden essence and revealed character, is holy.

            Symbolic of holiness in the NT is the resurrection of Christ from the dead (Rom 1:4), in Pentecost (Acts 2:2-4), and believers as living in community (1 Cor 3:17; Eph 2:21; Rom 12:1; Col 3:1-17; 1 Pet 2:5,9).  With respect to Christian fellowship, “no one is ever called to become holy alone…there is a mutual accountability and encouragement inherent in the call to reflect the character of God.” [16]

The Cross dramatically, literally, and radically demonstrates the highest and fullest revelation of divine holiness in the NT, exposing sinful mankind with both its attractive and repulsive characteristics.  “A holy God must either save or judge.  Man…[must] determine which it will be.”[17]  God’s love and wrath paradoxically demonstrated at the Cross are never to be separated.  Both are the necessary and “inevitable expressions of His holiness.”[18]  The holiness that in love took our sins is the same holiness that demands we be like Him or else there is no fellowship; only on the basis of holiness is there fellowship (Heb 12:14).

The NT everywhere implies that God is holy.  In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, he cautions that one’s righteousness must surpass that of the most venerated religious leaders and demands ethical maturity in all relationships. Especially and deliberately are believers to include those relationships that challenge the genuineness of their profession of faith (Matt 5:20,48).  In parables, Jesus implies holiness when he speaks about the seed sown on good ground and the wheat among the tares wherein he describes a standard of character and conduct reflecting one’s acceptance or refusal of God’s word whereby he either enters in or is shut out of the kingdom.  The holiness of God is implied in the giving of sight to a blind man and in Lazarus raising from the dead (John 9:31-33; 11:41-44).  In both cases it is seen that only those who fear God have their prayers answered.  Behind the healing of blindness and the raising from death is the holiness of God responding to the holiness of Man represented in Christ.

Holiness in the Christian Community

The holiness primarily reserved for God in the OT now characterizes the believing community in the NT (1 Thess 4:3, 5:23).  The connecting link that supports both divine holiness and the community’s participation in that holiness is the Cross where the holy Man Jesus sanctified Himself to God in order that the community would be “sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (Cf. Heb 10:10; John 17:19).[19]

The call for believers is to separate themselves for the worship of God by the giving of themselves as a “living and holy sacrifice” and to conform themselves to God’s holy will described as “good,” “acceptable,” and “perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).  As “living,” such sacrifice is in vital union with the risen Christ.  And the only sacrifice appropriate is a holy sacrifice, that is, one that is expressive of God’s nature.  If defective it reflects itself in opposition to God’s nature and, as such, is not only unholy but also dead.  Only that which is truly holy is truly alive and truly energized by God’s life from which authentic holiness springs.  And only the one who is truly alive can turn in worship and service to the God who sanctifies him.  Believers are called to be a living and holy sacrifice because God is a living and holy God.


Reassessing Biblical Holiness

As this motif of holiness permeates and underlies Biblical revelation in every quarter, believers are required to reassess their theological priorities and conceptual picture of God’s nature.  Whether they contemplate God’s intrusive presence in all its vibrant power in OT history or marvel at the NT passion narratives in all their ignominious beauty, it must be framed within the overall Biblical context of God’s holiness.  Anything less would distort, to a lesser or greater degree, the need for communion with God and birth spiritual children whose maturity and empowerment is stunted by limp hands and feeble knees (Heb 12:12-14; Eph 4:14-16).


The numerous Scriptural references to God’s holiness by declarations, symbols, narratives, and implications clearly demand that any legitimate interpretation of Biblical texts to formulate doctrine must include the contemplation of divine holiness in coherent and practical terms.  As such, man’s redemption is incomplete if considered in terms limited to deliverance.  To find salvation is not only to be free from sin and its consequences but also to participate in God’s holy nature and character as it longs to be actualized within the sphere of human existence.  Only then is Biblical salvation authentic and only then is the experience of the Person of God a dynamic and empowering life principle residing in and emanating from the believer and the community to the fallen world at large.  “Holiness is what God is.  Holiness also comprises his plan for his people.”[20]

[1] Saint Joseph Edition of the Holy Bible (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1963).
[2] E.F. Harrison, “Holiness; Holy” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, revised, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 725.  Harrison further states, “It is no exaggeration to state that this element [of holiness] overshadows all others in the character of the deity as far as the OT revelation is concerned (Ps 99:3,5,9).  The lesser emphasis in the NT is readily accounted for on the assumption that the massive presentation under the old covenant is accepted as an underlying presupposition” (Ibid).  In Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, it is asserted, “Far more mention is made in Scripture of God’s Holiness than His All-power, Wisdom and Omnipresence combined.  The Scriptures establish the holiness of God long before they picture His Love.  Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers repeatedly portray the God of Holiness; it is not until we come to Deuteronomy 4:37 that we find an outright declaration of His Love, and that is given in a context of awe-inspiring holiness.”  Guy P. Duffield and N.M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles: LIFE Bible College, 1983), 75.
[3]  Mark Water, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 476. 
[4]  R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Chicago: Mood Bible Institute, 1980), 786.
[5]  Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 14.
[6]  Ibid., 16. Regarding holiness as defined in both OT and NT, see Duffield, Foundations, 74.
[7]   Dennis F. Kinlaw, in Beacon Dictionary of Theology, ed. Richard S. Taylor (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press), 259.
[8]   M. William Ury, “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996),344.
[9]   Geoffrey Wainwright, “Holiness,” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press), 286.
[10] Kinlaw in Beacon Dictionary, 259.
[11] All Scripture quotations are from the NASB unless otherwise noted.
[12] C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1, translated by James Martin (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989), 439-440.  Keil and Delitzsch also comment that “the burning thorn-bush represented the people of Israel as they were burning in the fire of affliction, the iron furnace of Egypt (Deut 4:20).  Yet, though the thorn-bush was burning in the fires, it was not consumed; for the flame was Jehovah, who chastens His people, but does not give them over to death” (Ps 118:18), Ibid., 438.  Concerning Moses’ approach to God, Matthew Henry further observes, “God gave him a needful caution against rashness and irreverence in his approach”; and, “The ground, for the present, is holy ground, made so by the special manifestation of the divine presence, during the continuance of which it must retain this character; therefore, tread not on the ground with soiled shoes.”  A Commentary of the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Old Tappen: Revell), 281.
[13] John N. Oswalt, “Tabernacle,” in Baker Theological Dictionary, 755.
[14] NASB, cf. margin note.
[15] Roland J. Faler, T.O.R., The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. 1, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall 1968), 73.  
[16] Ury, “Holy, Holiness,” in Baker Theological Dictionary, 340.
[17] Dennis F. Kinlaw, in Beacon Dictionary, 259.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ury, in Baker Theological Dictionary, 340.
  • Saint Joseph Edition of the Holy Bible. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1963.
  • Bromily, Geoffrey W., Ed.  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
  • Brown, Raymond E., and Fitzmyer, Joseph A., Eds.  The Jerome Biblical Commentary.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall 1968.
  • Duffield, Guy P., and Van Cleave, N.M., Eds.  Foundations of Pentecostal Theology.  Los Angeles: LIFE Bible College, 1983.
  • Elwell, Walter A., Ed.  Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
  • Harris, R. Laird, Archer Jr., Gleason L., and Waltke, Bruce K., Eds.  Theological Workbook of the Old Testament.  Chicago: Mood Bible Institute, 1980.
  • Henry, Matthew. A Commentary of the Whole Bible.  Old Tappen: Revell.
  • Keil, C.F., Delitzsch, F.  Commentary on the Old Testament.  Translated by James Martin.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989.
  • Kittel, Gerhard and Friedrich, Gerhard, Eds.  Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged.  Translated by Bromiley, Geoffrey W.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. and Coogan, Michael D., Eds.  The Oxford Companion to the Bible.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Taylor, Richard S., Ed.  Beacon Dictionary of Theology. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1963.
  • Water, Mark, Ed.  The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment