A Word for Today
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
?γιος (holy, sacred, dedicated)
Our understanding of the word ‘holy’ is sometimes coloured by the way in which the word has been used in various Christian traditions down through church history. Yet, often, these traditions have completely failed to grasp the simple meaning of the word as it is used in the Bible. This is why it is so important to be guided by context when looking at how words are used, so that we arrive at a correct interpretation. As Packer states, ‘It is to be feared that our unbalanced preoccupation with this one theme, taken out of context, has tended to produce an unbecoming lopsidedness of character and outlook’. 1
In the Septuagint (LXX), hagios usually translates the Hebrew word qadosh, which designates those places and people that are set aside by God for His good pleasure. These include not only places of worship, such as the tabernacle and the temple, but the priests who officiate in these places. 2 Israel itself was declared by God to be a ‘holy’ nation and encouraged to become holy as God was holy, Deut. 7. 6; Lev. 11. 44. But it was Israel’s failure to sustain this separateness to God that brought about its downfall. Yet, as one commentator has pointed out, ‘Divine holiness allows God the freedom to act in unexpected ways’. 3 God’s love for Israel is reflected in His forgiveness of that nation despite their unfaithfulness, Hos. 11.
In the Old Testament generally, we find God being referred to as ‘the Holy One’ in keeping with His revealed nature, Isa. 40. 25. This characteristic is clearly identified from the expression of the seraphim in Isaiah chapter 6 verse 3, and underpins His authority, Amos 4. 2. God’s holiness, i.e., His separateness, is in marked contrast to our fallen humanity; hence the great difference between our ways and His ways, Isa. 55. 8. This is plainly evident in the necessity of God judging sin in the demonstration of His holiness and the fact that nothing that is unholy will be able to access the city of God, Isa. 5. 16; Rev. 21. 27. As Beale writes, ‘Just as the physically unclean could not enter the temple of the Old Testament, the spiritually unclean will not be allowed to enter the eternal temple’. 4
The Greek adjective hagios occurs more than 200 times in the New Testament, and usually refers to things or persons that have been set apart or aside for, or better still, separated to, God for His redemptive purposes. Thus, we find in the New Testament references to places that are sacred to God, such as: Jerusalem, ‘the holy city’; the temple, ‘the holy place’; and the tabernacle in the wilderness, ‘an earthly place of holiness’. 5 The places themselves were not intrinsically ‘holy’, but they are designated ‘holy’, or ‘sanctified’, through the intervention of God. 6 In other words, they were imbued with the purity of God’s holy character, and it is important to understand that this is emphasized throughout the whole of the Bible, thus making the Bible itself a ‘holy’ book. It is not without significance, therefore, that biblical inspiration comes as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit, 2 Pet. 1. 21.
So, God’s holiness is all-pervasive in everything that He is and everything that He does. And this characteristic of holiness must therefore be seen in all those who seek to serve God, as was so evident in the life of our Lord Jesus. Even unclean spirits acknowledged that He was uniquely ‘the Holy One of God’, Mark 1. 24. Similarly, Simon Peter asserts that our Lord was ‘the Holy One of God’, John 6. 69 ESV.
Just as Israel was chosen by God to be a holy nation, so we as Christians have been separated by God through the death of Christ to serve Him and to live sanctified lives, Heb. 10. 14. Notice the correlation with Israel in this context throughout Peter’s first letter. 7, 8 The word hagios is frequently translated in the New Testament by the English word ‘saint’. Paul uses this term in many of his New Testament letters, but in none of these instances does the word ‘saint’ involve the notion of canonization, Rom. 1. 7; 1 Cor. 1. 2. Neither does he use the term to promote sinless perfection or any form of holiness movement. The term is simply applied by him to all those who were justified by faith in Christ irrespective of their previous backgrounds, cp. 1 Cor. 6. 9-11. Whilst none of us will reach sinless perfection in this life, that should not deter us from seeking to fulfil our calling to live lives of holiness and moral purity, and, importantly, to reflect the character of the God that we serve, Rom. 9. 23, 24; 1 Cor. 1. 2.
For further reading/study
- J. I. Packer, 18 Words, Christian Focus Publications.
- hagios – Bauer, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament.
1 J. I. Packer, 18 Words – The Most important Words You will ever Know, pg. 164.
2 Lev. 6. 16; Eccles. 8. 10; Lev. 21. 7.
3 Ryken, Wilhoit and Longman (eds.), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, pg. 389.
4 G. K. Beale, The Book Of Revelation, Eerdmans Publishing Co., pg. 1101.
5 Matt. 4. 5; 24. 15; Heb. 9. 1 ESV.
6 Note the narrative concerning the death of Uzzah in 2 Samuel chapter 6 verses 6-8. His desire to steady the ark brought retribution from God because it was a threat to the holiness of the ark where God resided.
7 e.g., 1. 15, 16; 2. 5.
8 The appropriation of the language of Israel for the church by New Testament writers is not, in our view, by way of replacement theology, which is an all too common assumption made by many today, but simply used by the writer to parallel and contrast their experiences under the hand of God in different eras.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.