Although some uncertainty still exists among scholars, it seems likely that the Hebrew words translated “holy”, “holiness” and “sanctify” derive from a root which means “to cut” or “to divide”. It is to be expected, therefore, that the idea underlying holiness is that of separation and setting apart. The biblical usage of words to do with holiness confirms this expectation.
The word “holy” first occurs in the command of God to Moses, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground”, Exod. 3. 5; cf. Josh 5. 15. The related verb “to sanctify” (to make holy) is found only once in Genesis: “God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it”, 2. 3. It is clear from these first references that something is holy which is set apart and marked off as different from those things which are ordinary and common. In the cases cited, the seventh day and the ground about the burning bush were rendered holy (separated and distinguished) by reason of their association with the Lord; cf. 1 Sam. 21. 5; Ezek. 22. 26.
When used to describe the character of God, the attribute of holiness draws attention to two distinct features of this.
First, God’s Holiness Indicates His Transcendence. In the O.T., the word “holy” often emphasizes that God is altogether “different” and “set apart” from all else which exists. In her song of joy, Hannah celebrated the fact that “There is none holy as the Lord; for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God”, 1 Sam. 2. 2. He is unique. He alone is to be regarded as God, transcending everything which He has created.
The word “holiness” appears first in the song of Moses and Israel which they sang after crossing the Red Sea; “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?”, Exod. 15. 11. Again the stress is on God’s uniqueness and preeminence, as witness the repeated question, “Who is like … ?”. The One who is glorious in power, v. 6, is glorious in holiness too, v. 11. His intervention in mighty power proved Him to be unequalled and supreme “among the gods”. Elsewhere the O.T. asserts that “our Lord is above all gods”, Psa. 135. 5, just as He is “above all the people”, 99. 2, “above all nations”, 113. 4, and “above all the earth”, 97. 9.
The prophet Isaiah had a great deal to say about the majesty and incomparability of God. In chapters 44 to 47, for instance, no less that 16 times we find expressions such as “there is none like unto thee” and “there is none beside me”. The prophet insisted that there is no other God. There is, he claimed, no other “El”, 46. 9, no other “Eloah”, 44. 8, no other “Elohim’, 45. 21, just as there is no other “Jehovah”, 45. 18! It is significant, therefore, that Isaiah employs “the Holy One of Israel” (or its equivalent) as his favourite and distinctive title for the Lord. This expressive title occurs 29 times in his prophecy, though but rarely elsewhere. How pointed the challenge, “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal?, saith the Holy One”, 40. 25.
God is said to “sanctify” Himself when, by exerting His mighty power, He demonstrated His absolute supremacy, Num. 20. 13. By this means, He compelled others to acknowledge Him to be what He is-wholly unique and “different”. For Him to “sanctify” Himself was, therefore, to “magnify” Himself, causing men to own that He alone is the Lord, Ezek. 38. 23. Indeed, Ezekiel has made it clear that God’s future dealings with Israel, both in chastisement and blessing, will be determined in part by His resolve to be “sanctified” in the sight of the heathen, 28. 25; 36. 25; 38. 16; 39. 27; of. 20. 41; 28. 22.
In a similar sense, it is possible for men to “sanctify” Him-when they attribute to the Lord His true greatness and glory, and when they make Him the sole object of their trust and reverential fear, Isa. 8. 13; 29. 23. The Christian is thus called on to “sanctify” Christ as Lord in his heart, 1 Pet. 3. 14, 15 lit. Those who are to obtain the victory over the beast in the end times will exclaim, “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy”, Rev. 15. 4.
The prophet Isaiah received a vision of God’s throne-room, the heavenly temple, 6. 1-8. There he saw the Lord, seated on His throne, “high and lifted up”, v. 1. The same expression is translated “high and lofty” in a later passage, “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy”, 57. 15; cf. Psa. 99. 3; 111. 9. In a slightly different form, this expression also occurs in 52. 13, “He shall be exalted and extolled”. We know, on the authority of the apostle John, that the Lord in the heavenly temple was the Lord Jesus Himself, Isa. 6. 10 with John 12. 39-41. Before He suffered, He prayed, “Now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was”, John 17. 5. The comparison of Isa. 6. 1 with 52.13 shows that His prayer did not go unheard!
The seraphim in the temple were filled with a sense of awe in the presence of the One who, in dignity and nature, is separated from them by an infinite distance. Hence, before Him they cried, “Holy, holy, holy”. This anthem is echoed in the last book of Scripture: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come”, Rev. 4. 8.
Michael, the archangel, Jude 9, occupies a prominent position of great authority over the angelic army, Rev. 12. 7. But, great as Michael undoubtedly is, his name reveals his lowly attitude before God. It means “Who is like to God?”, and indicates that he, one of the chief (if not the chief) of the heavenly princes, is occupied, not with his own status and importance, but with the immeasurable distance which exists between himself and God.
The story is told of a man who, having just been elected to Parliament, took his family to London for a tour of the city. On entering Westminster Abbey, his eight year old daughter seemed awestruck by the size and beauty of the impressive building. Curious as to what was passing through her mind, her father asked what it was that she was thinking about. “Daddy”, she replied, “I was just thinking about how big you look in our house, but how small you look here".
One thing we sorely lack today is a proper sense of God’s holiness and majesty-of His towering greatness and unutterable glory. A realization of this would awaken us to our own smallness and insignificance. It would bring home to us that we are but “dust and ashes”, dwelling in “houses of clay”, Gen. 18. 27; Job 4. 19.
Second, God’s Holiness Indicates His Purity.The prophet Habakkuk asked, “Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One?”, and added, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity”, 1. 12-13. Paradoxically, God can neither look on sin nor overlook it!
God is personally free from any impurity or evil. He is “a God of truth and without iniquity”, Deut. 32. 4. God cannot be tempted with evil and He does not tempt others, James 1. 13. He hates sin whenever and in whomsoever it is found. David expressed this clearly, “Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness; neither shall evil dwell with thee”, Psa. 5. 4. The Lord can no more approve sin in others than He can commit it Himself.
Sin occasions an inevitable and sharp response from a holy God. His wrath against the sins of men is sometimes portrayed in the most graphic of terms. He speaks, for example, of sins causing the fury to come up in His face, Ezek. 38. 18. He describes one form of sin as “this abominable thing which I hate”, Jer. 44. 4. Make no mistake, the Holy One loathes and detests sin in every form.
It is unthinkable that God should ever condone sin, even though He can (and does) overrule it for His own glory and for the good of others. It is essential for us to bear this in mind when considering the truth of God’s sovereignty. There is the danger of us allowing human reason and logic to lead us to false (even blasphemous) conclusions about God. Any doctrinal system which teaches that God is in any way responsible for sin-whether found in Satan, the angels or men-is alien to the truth. It can never be said of God, as it was some nineteen times of king Jeroboam, that “he made Israel (or anybody else) to sin".
God is merciful; He must be holy. He may pardon sin; he cannot protect it. His holiness loathes that which is evil, His anger burns against it, and His justice condemns it.
We are not surprised, therefore, that Isaiah reacted as he did when confronted by the vision of the thrice Holy One. Faced with the sublime majesty and stainless purity of God, he was compelled to acknowledge, “Woe is me! For I am undone (lost, ruined, cut off); because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips”, Isa. 6. 5. In the presence of God, he was overwhelmed with an impression of his own nothingness and sinfulness.
It was, Isaiah noted, in the year of king Uzziah’s death that he saw “the King” on His throne, v. 1. After a reign of 52 years, Uzziah died a leper, 2 Chron. 26. 21. This no doubt accounts for Isaiah’s double use of the word “unclean”. God’s law required that “the leper in whom the plague is … shall cry, Unclean, unclean”, Lev. 13. 45. When exposed to the unsullied holiness of God, Isaiah could do nothing but confess himself to be a spiritual leper. How welcome must have been the words of the seraph, “thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged”, Isa. 6. 7, the more so as the word “purged” is another form of that used to describe the “making of atonement” in connection with the cleansed leper, Lev. 14. 18-21, 29, 31.
The Practical Implications of the Holiness of God for the Believer.Both God’s law and the gospel agree in requiring the redeemed person to “be holy” because God Himself is holy, Lev. 11. 44 (cf. 19. 2; 20. 7; 21. 8) and 1 Pet. 1. 15. Peter clearly took the O.T. demand that God’s people had to separate themselves from all that was ceremonially unclean (see the contexts in Leviticus) as a picture and type of God’s requirement that His people today should be holy in all their conduct. The believer should abhor and abstain from every form of evil, Rom. 12. 9; 1 Thess. 5. 22.
The prophet Zechariah spoke of a glorious day when Israel will be holy to God, 14. 20-21. Then the words “Holiness to the Lord” will be inscribed on the “bells of the horses” (contrast Exod. 28. 36) and every “pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holiness to the Lord”. The point is clear-holiness will then affect every department of Israel’s life. So it ought to be with us! The “bells” do not form an essential part of the horse’s harness, nor are they particularly valuable. They are used merely for decoration. Everything that the Christian has, even the seemingly small and unimportant things, should be consecrated to the Lord. The holiness of Israel’s cooking utensils in that day teaches us to dedicate to God even the most common and mundane duties of our lives.
Paul exhorted the Corinthians, in the light of God’s great promises, (i) to cleanse themselves from all “filthiness” (lit., that which defiles and besmears with mud and filth: in the context, mainly idolatry and immorality) and (ii) to “perfect holiness” in the fear of God, 2 Cor. 7. 1. Holiness of life is, then, a gradual and continuing process. We need to work at it. As Paul implies, it is a reverential fear of God which causes the tempted believer to exclaim, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”, Gen. 39. 9.
Because God is holy, consider that Holiness is an integral part of the will of God for us. "This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication … for God has not called us to uncleanness but to holiness”, 1 Thess. 4. 3, 7. Paul prohibits all sexual intercourse outside of marriage. The Christian is to take a partner for himself in the pure and holy relationship of marriage, v. 4; cf. Heb. 13. 4. He is not, as the heathen, to engage in fornication with its associated lust and shame, v. 5. In particular, he is not to defraud and take advantage of his brother by invading his marriage and having an immoral relationship with his wife, v. 6. God has called us to holiness.
Holiness is essential if we are to serve God acceptably.He demands holiness of His servants. Ponder the words of Joshua to Israel, “Ye cannot serve the Lord: for he is an holy God … Now therefore put away the strange gods which are among you”, Josh. 24. 19, 23. God’s standards have not lowered. If we are not willing to be holy, then we must find another God to serve! The apostle Paul could call his converts to witness “how holily” he and his fellow-labourers had behaved themselves among them, 1 Thess. 2. 10. We must be “sanctified” vessels if we wish to be fit for the Master’s use, 2 Tim. 2. 21.
Holiness is essential if we are to enjoy fellowship with God.David posed the question, “Lord, who shall dwell in thy holy hill?”, Psa. 15. 1. The answer that he gave was, “He that walketh uprightly … and speaketh the truth … he that backbiteth not with his tongue … “, w. 2-5; cf. 24. 3-4. Isaiah said, “The Lord is exalted: for he dwelleth on high”, 33. 5; cf. Psa. 113. 5. He then proceeded to describe the character of the person who is fit for God’s presence: “He that walketh righteously … that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood (violent actions), and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil; he shall dwell on high”, vv. 15-16. Christian, note the danger of exposing the mind, through the ears and eyes, to that which is evil.
4. Holiness is essential if our prayers are to be heard and answered. "If I regard (purposely view) iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me”, Psa. 66. 18. Effective prayer demands “holy hands”, 1 Tim. 2. 8. In conclusion, let us resolve to “put off … the old man”, with all its corruption, deceit and sinful desires, and to “put on the new man”, which, according to God’s plan and purpose, has been “created in righteousness and true holiness”, Eph. 4. 22-24.