In Leviticus 11, there is a lot of discussion about what foods were considered “clean” and “unclean” for the Jewish people. There are detailed lists of animals which fall into either category, and secondary instructions about what to do if one comes in contact with something which is considered to be “unclean”.
To our Modern eyes this might all seem a little silly, or at least boring to read. Why does the Bible have to dedicate chapter after chapter to lists and laws and ceremonies and rituals? I think that at least part of this answer is given to us near the end of chapter 11 of Leviticus:
For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44-45 ESV)
God clearly has a plan to show that his own people are like no other people on earth. Through the law, they would dress differently, eat differently, worship differently, work differently – they were to be instantly recognizable as different. While this “difference” is not all that it means to be “holy”, it is a good step to understanding holiness. God is saying to his people that he has called them out to be his own possession, that he has brought them out from all the other nations on Earth, and as a result, they must “holy” (different, other, set apart for the things of God) in every thing they do.
The call to “be holy for God is holy” should stop us in our tracks. God’s holiness makes him distinct from every thing in creation. That is in his being (ontologically speaking for those of you while like big shiny words), God is separate and distinct from all creation because he is the Uncreated Master of all things. This is a kind of holiness which we cannot seek to attain to.
On an other level, God is “holy” that his character is pure and perfect and set apart from all other beings. God’s moral holiness – separation from anything that could place a speck of defilement on his perfect character – is what his people are called to imitate. “be holy, for I am holy”. What? How could we even begin to think we could live in a way that reflects the moral perfection of God?
I think there are two main natural responses to a call like this. The first to be overwhelmed, discouraged, and ground to a paste (figuratively) under the weight of this calling. We may work really hard for a while, trying to be as righteous as possible, and to separate ourselves from the culture around us as possible, and the most likely outcome of trying to approach holiness this way is depression and despair. We can never do it. We can never even come close to reproducing the holiness of God in our own strength, so we get discouraged and give up.
The Second natural response is to get really legalistic about your life. You begin to make rules upon rules to protect yourself against possible sin. After all, this is what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. They sought to meticulously obey the letter of the law, and were actually quite successful at it. Thus, they became proud of their “holiness” and very disdainful toward the great unwashed masses who could live up to their standards.
The Biblical approach to the command to “be holy for I (God) am holy”, is written for us in the words proceeding the command. The Lord says “I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God.” Before God calls his people to holiness, he tells the three things. First, he tells them who they were. They were slaves in Egypt. They were brutally oppressed with no hope for a better life. Second, he tells them who they are. They have been brought out of Egypt, out of slavery. Though they once were slaves, they are free people. Packaged into that is that they are a people who have been redeemed – bought by God. They were marked by the blood of the passover, and each saw the glory of God in bringing them out of the land of slavery. Finally, he tells them about his relationship to them. God didn’t bring Israel out of bondage because he was bored and wanted to try out some of his plagues. God purposefully and lovingly brought them out so that he could be their God; so that the people could know him as their deliverer, protector, and saviour.
What does all this mean? I cannot plumb all the depths of what is given to us in this verse, but I think it is abundantly clear that God’s call to holiness always rests on having a pre-existing relationship with him as Redeemer. God does not say “be holy and I will love you” – that’s backwards. He says, “I have set my love upon you, have Redeemed you from the power of your enemies, have paid your ransom so that you can be in right relationship with me, NOW be holy as I am holy. He says “I am your Father, imitate me!”
This call to holiness means that we can only attempt to live a holy life for God if we are already confidently trusting in his saving work for us on an ongoing basis, and that we are secure in our relationship with him because of what he has done for us, not what we will do for him.
Brothers and Sisters, we are called to live a radically different life from the culture around us. Because Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant, we don’t have to worry about eating clams, or have proper tassels on our clothing, but we are still called to live a holy life, founded on the gospel, a life that is recognizably distinct from those around us. We don’t live this way to please ourselves, or to be neo-christian-nonconformists, but to show the world around us the goodness and the joy that comes from living the holy lifestyle to which we have been called.
Be holy because your Father in heaven is holy.