The concept of holiness is slowly brought to clarity in the Scriptures. What is nascent and seed-like is brought to its ultimate fruition by Christ. From Genesis onward, God begins to prepare us for the blossoming and development of holiness.
The word holy, whether the Hebrew ‘קָדַשׁ’ or the Greek ‘ἅγιος’ convey the idea of separation. That which is holy is different, other, and set apart. God is the preeminent example of the holy, set apart and wholly other. Yet God is on who creates and enters into communion with his creation. This tension between separation and communion, between us and them, is explored throughout the Bible.
One of the most explicit depictions of the deepening revelation and reinterpretation of holiness is presented in Isaiah 58. Isaiah says God is interested in the outworking of sacrificial love, not in merely a literal fasting which simply maintains one’s individual holiness. Isaiah interprets the private and inward activity of fasting as best realized in the outward directed activity of charity. The Prophet reveals a hidden connection between one’s inner-life (love of God) and one’s outer life (love of neighbor). Isaiah reveals that a literal reading of Leviticus 16 fails to fully please God.
The developing understanding of the relationship between letter and Spirit, paralells the biblical development of holiness (us and them). The Book of Jonah explores this tension, a tension which can ultimately only be resolved, not by a new idea, but by the transfiguration of holiness through the cross. The fulfillment of holiness requires not merely new actions or ideas, but a new life, a new body. Israel must die and be born-again. The true fulfillment of divine holiness ultimately requires the death of Christ in which a new and universal body is provided:
For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace (Ephesians 2:14-15; cf. Galatians 3:26-29)
Christ must prepare a new body for several reasons:
- Sin has created spiritual division (hatred, pride, etc.)
- A result of sin is a division of people into nations
- A result of national and family divisions is that there is no longer a single head to the human family
- To make one people holy is to make them separate from others lest they be contaminated by sin
- We interpret separation as superiority
- Therefore, part of the process of salvation is a separation which must ultimately be transformed
- Only Christ can undergo this transformation without undergoing contamination or being permanently subject to death
- After Christ’s resurection, having underwent death, he is capable of instituting a new more universal body, one not primarily bound to the seed of Abraham, but bound by faith, that same faith by which Abraham was accounted righteous, revealing the Spiritual family of which Abraham and Israel participated and were a sign.
- And yet this Spiritual family is still one of a real body and bodies.
It is important to see that the wall of partition, Israel’s separation is a result of Israel’s pride, but also a hedge which God set around them and also part of the process of creating a real people.
The tension between us and them is not simply the result of Israelite pride, but an ironically universal result of the Fall. Therefore, Israel’s outward directed energy as a priesthood (Exodus 19:6) is necessarily secondary to their inward directed energy toward purity. Purity comes before priesthood. At the same time, Scripture reveals Israel’s universal calling and failing to embody this calling
While God is holy and wholly other than man, he also condescends to seek man out and finally to become man and die like a common criminal. His perfect holiness allows him to touch and be touched by the unclean and heal them, to not only fulfill but surpass the Law. God’s holiness is the bond of love which invites people into communion with him. He is so holy that he is capable of drawing near and embracing the most wounded and defiled.
Israel is unable and unwilling to live out a fully godlike holiness which illuminates and sanctifies the world. The nation cannot fulfill its calling (except in the person of Jesus). It cannot fulfill this calling because:
- It lacks a divine nature which allows it to die and come back to life (thus universalizing the call in a new body)
- It lacks the ability to remain uncontaminated by sin.
- It often lacks the willingness to share its blessings.
- It lacks the clarity to grasp the source and nature of righteousness .
- It lacks the love, compassion, and sacrificial Spirit at the heart of the Law.
For these reasons, the holiness which God displays not only surpasses that of Israel, but even radically redefines holiness. Jesus is that holiness which the Law commands and hints of, but cannot create in man. Such holiness, of which all the righteous of the Old Testament partook, is that which comes through faith in Jesus Christ. It is the faith of our fathers, ordered to unity and love.
Being the body of Christ, the church preserves this tension of us and them by focusing its attention both on fellowship and its mission to the world. The historic scriptural development of this theme is reflected in the etymology of the terms ‘synagogue’ and ‘church’. A synagogue is the inward directed (συναγωγη) ‘gathering’ place of people; the church (Ἐκκλησία) is the outward directed ‘proclimation’ of God’s Word.
Ultimately, these two are to be one. The inner life of communion with God is to overflow into and quicken the outward life of fellowship with man. The radical richness of this love is such that it overflows and seeks out, not only that neighbor who is like us, but seeks out the alien and enemy.