The holiness of God shines throughout scripture and we are called to be holy as he is holy. Like so many beautiful words and concepts, the idea of holiness has been corrupted to represent a sort of superiority, “holier than thou” which is remote from its true intent. The root meaning of “holy” is the idea of separateness and God is the ultimate in holiness. He is completely separate in nature from all created things, because he is the Creator. The Hebrew qadosh/qodesh and the Greek hagios mean “set apart.” Only God is truly holy, set apart from his creation. We cannot claim any holiness for ourselves. Only God can determine what or who is set apart for him. Because that is the issue; holiness is not just separating from anything, as if we were somehow intrinsically better or superior, but being set apart to and for God. When God declares something to be set apart to or for him, he makes it holy; he sanctifies (same root words). Only God can do this because he alone is truly holy.
God is holy, and the things he sets apart for himself are holy. In Genesis 2:3 God singled out the Sabbath day and made it holy. To mark its distinctiveness, he gave Israel laws designed to focus their minds and actions on him on that set-apart day. They were to do no routine work (Ex 20:8–10). Of course, this concept became corrupted over time by the Jewish elite so that the Sabbath became a burden, a list of restrictions, instead of a joyous setting apart to God (Luke 11:46; Matt 12:10–12). Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath for God, doing the Lord’s work on the Lord’s day. Only the Lord God himself could claim this prerogative, to define what could and could not be done and Jesus is indeed Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:11–8). The creation prerogative is his (Col 1:16). God made a “holy covenant” with Abraham and his descendants (Luke 1:72–73) and set them apart for himself (Ex 19:5–6). This was an act of grace, in no way reflecting anything special or intrinsically deserving on their part (Deut 7:6–8). He gave them his holy law (Rom 7:12).
God directed them to make a sanctuary, a holy dwelling place for his name, so that he might dwell among his people. This tabernacle, and later the temple, were symbols of greater heavenly realities (Ex 25:8–9; Acts 7:44; Heb 8:5). God did not need a temple to dwell in (1 Kings 8:27; Acts 7:48–50) nor was the temple an assembly hall for the people. Rather, only a chosen, set-apart few could draw near to God under that dispensation. God used the tabernacle to teach lessons about holiness. Uncleanness was to be kept outside the camp (Lev 13:46; Num 5:2–3; 31:17; Deut 23:10–14). The tribes were arranged according to election by God, with the Levites closest to the tabernacle itself (Num 1:51–53; 2). The congregation could come only to the door of the tabernacle compound and present themselves to the priest with their sacrifices (Lev 1:2–5). The courtyard contained the sacrificial altar and its furnishings were bronze. Only the priests could enter the tent itself and then only into the outer room, the Holy Place, for its ministries (Ex 28:41–43; Lev 6:16). The furnishings here were gold. No one other than a priest could enter here, and not just anyone could be a priest; they were appointed by God (Lev 10:1–10; 2 Chron 26:16–21). The Most Holy Place represented the very presence of God, who dwelt between the cherubim on the mercy seat. Only the High Priest could enter here, only once a year and only with sacrificial blood (Lev 16:1–4, 11–17; Heb 9:1–7). God prescribed how he could be approached, and there was no other way. All these rules and symbols were not ends in themselves. They were appointed because of sin. In the garden (of which the tabernacle and temple served as types) Adam and Eve walked with God in his very presence and this will be the case again when Eden is restored and we walk among the trees of life with God and the Lamb in the midst of his people (Rev 22:1-3). Our sins separate us from God and the tabernacle and its sacrificial rituals only served to emphasise this. They pointed to the final solution.
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 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 an eternal redemption. (Heb 9:6–12)
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb 9:22–26)
God himself entered into his creation to do what we could not do for ourselves (Isa 63:5; Rom 3:20–24). In our own strength and wretched attempts at holiness we could not approach a holy God. The curtain always stood in the way. Blood of bulls and goats pointed toward the sacrifice of Christ, whose blood paved the way permanently for entry to the Most Holy Place, into the presence of God himself (Matt 27:50–51; Heb 6:19–20; Heb 10:19–20). No longer are we forbidden to touch and partake of holy things because we have been sanctified by the blood of Jesus. The rules, “touch not, taste not” no longer apply (Col 2:20–23). We have no need to fear approaching the high and holy mountain upon which God dwells (Heb 12:18–24). We have been graciously given the pure hands and upright heart that is a requirement for entry to stand in his holy place (Psa 15:1–2). We are now enabled to worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness (Psa 65:4; 96:8–9).
Two things are important to understand here; firstly, Jesus and his work were in no way constrained by these Old Testament types, but rather they always pointed to him. Christ was always the meaning behind these rituals. Sacrificial blood was required as a covering, to temporarily sanctify, not because blood in general has some redeeming property, and not because God was no different from any other gods that required such rituals (1 Sam 15:22; Psa 40:6–8; 50:8–15; 51:16–17; Isa 66:3; Mic 6:7–8; Jer 31:31–34; Matt 9:13; Luke 22:18). Blood was required to teach us that only through Christ’s offering of himself, bearing our sins, could we truly be cleansed and sanctified.
The second thing to understand is that Christ himself was in no need of cleansing or sanctification. He is and was intrinsically holy (Psa 16:10; Mark 1:24; John 6:68–69; Acts 2:27, 31; 3:14; 4:27, 30; Rev 3:7). Isaiah saw a vision of the glory of God , with seraphim crying “Holy, holy, holy!” This vision of holiness and sanctification was, says John, a vision of the glory of Christ (Isa 6:1–7; John 12:41 — the link is Isa 6:9–10) with John 12:38–40). He came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3); truly flesh and blood, yes, but not in any respect sinful. He was holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners (Heb 7:26). Jesus was and is intrinsically holy because he is divine. Only God is holy, only God can make holy; Jesus sanctifies (makes holy) us because he is holy (1 Cor 1:2, 30; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 1:4; 2:20–22; 5:26; Col 1:21–22; Heb 2:11; 9:14; 10:10, 14; 13:12; 1 Pet 2:5).
Haggai 2:12–13 explains a point of the old Law, that uncleanness was contagious but cleanness or holiness was not. Something unclean could not be the means of sanctification. Something secondarily made holy, such as Haggai’s “holy meat” cannot make anything else holy. Sanctification can only come from God; our own righteousness is as filthy rags; we need the righteousness from God through faith in Christ Jesus. Jesus could not have accomplished this without himself being holy. Otherwise, when he touched lepers and the woman with the issue of blood, he himself would have been unclean along with them. The Pharisees looked down on Jesus for consorting with unclean, sinful people and for disregarding the many rules about ritual cleanliness (Matt 9:10–13; 15:17–20). Jesus explained in response that he was a doctor come to heal the sick and that defilement comes from within, not from without. Jesus transcends external uncleanness, he enters into and cleanses the heart, just as God promised he would do through his new covenant. He enables us dirty sinners to be holy also and to draw near to our holy God. What God has cleansed must not be called common or unclean (Acts 10:13–16, 34–35).
There is a lot more that could be said about holiness, but three things stand out from this brief survey; what holiness teaches us about the Lord Jesus, about his work and about us. The Lord Jesus, like his Father and the Spirit, are perfect in holiness, as Creator separate from creation, in divinity wholly “other.” In this aspect as in so many others, the Son shares the attributes of his Father. The person of the Son is inextricably connected with his work. Being holy he can sanctify; if he were only “made holy” this would not be possible. Because he is holy he could enter the Most Holy Place and achieve our sanctification, once for all. This should give the Christian tremendous assurance, because our salvation depends not on human accomplishment or repeated ritual but on the gracious action of God who desires to dwell with his people. Finally, through his Holy Spirit, Christ continues the work of sanctification which will one day be complete when we will worship him in the splendour of holiness and dwell with him. We should be reminded that we can call no one common or unclean, nor should we have any attitude of superiority to others who do not live up to our human rules about “holiness,” or inspire a culture of shame or exclusiveness. For salvation and sanctification are not of works, lest anyone should boast, but wholly a work of God.