The Expository Files

What is Holy?


Have Christians become lax with regard to holiness? Not much seems to ever be said about it. How many feel as though they are living holy lives? Ask someone about the level of holiness in his or her life and one might be surprised at the answer received. Have Christians neglected holiness? Maybe or maybe not, but holiness still deserves our investigation. After all, God said in both the Old and New Testaments, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet 1:16). The Old Testament is a good place to begin. Let us start by answering a couple of questions. First, what is "holy?" And then, what was the source of holiness?

What is "holy?" Let us start with the origin of the meaning. The Hebrew term for holy likely started from a primitive concept of separation or removal of the sacred from the profane. God took the word and used it to describe many things and activities set apart for worship. The term for holy is found predominantly in a religious sense and usually carries the fundamental meaning of "separated," or "cut off" from common use. The use of the term holy was usually restricted by ceremonial rules or limited to certain people (Israel, priests), places (tabernacle), things (altars), or times (Sabbath). The opposite of the term for holy is often "unclean" or "profane" (see Lev. 10:10).

Qadash, the term for holy in the Old Testament, is used over 600 times in many ways. Many times it is used to name some thing to be separated, the holy place for example (Ex 28:43; 29 30) was separated from common places for worship purposes. Other times it is used to describe a characteristic. God's name is sometimes literally rendered "name of holiness" (Lev. 20:3; 22:2). Zion is sometimes called the "mountain of holiness" (Ps. 2:6). Often the term is used as a verb. To "holy" a thing, is to "consecrate" it, or set it apart from the common. God "holified" the altar (Ex. 29:29), the Temple, (1 Ki. 8:64), people (Ex. 19:10, 14), and places (Ex. 19:23). In a few cases holiness is transmittable to other objects (Ex. 29:37; 30:29; Lev. 6:27) but in most cases only uncleanness is transmittable and defiling to that which is holy (Hag. 2:12-13). The holy objects are too numerous to name here but to give one an idea, the tabernacle (or later the Temple) and all the items involved in the worship, the people who performed the worship, the land around the tabernacle, and the entire nation of Israel were considered holy.

The Old Testament uses the term holy to describe something that is separated from things common, impure, defiled, from vice and idolatry, and consequently becomes an antonym for such things. It describes all the people, places, things, and times in any way associated with God and His worship. Should such an item somehow become unclean, it was to be cleansed again with a blood sacrifice. Skinner summarizes the meaning of holiness by saying that holiness, " short, expresses a relation, which consists negatively in separation from common use, and positively in dedication to the service of Jehovah." 1

What is the source of "holiness?" God said to the Israelites, "For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44). Holiness is not an attribute of God, but His essential nature (cf. Holy Spirit). Holiness refers to God and or that made holy by Him and therefore no holiness exists apart from Him. "Holy" denotes God's own separation from impurity or sin in His perfection of being. Things that were inherently clean could become holy by being dedicated to God and his service either by God or a ceremony established by Him. He alone has the power and authority to make holy and cleanse the things defiled by uncleanness. Therefore all holiness comes from God.

The term holy stems those things separated from that which is common or unclean, and its source is God. But that is just the beginning. Peter quoted, "You shall be holy, for I am holy." in the New Testament (1 Pet 1:16), but idea is nothing new. God indicated in the very beginning that He expected people from every age to be holy. One author comments on the creation account in Genesis 1:26 and observes, "We were created in the image of God. To be in God's image meant among other things, that we were made to mirror and reflect the character of God. We were created to shine forth to the world the holiness of God. This was the chief end of man, and the very reason for his existence. 2 The wise King Solomon wrote, "Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices" (Ecc. 7:29). We were created in His image, but where are we now? Peter's quote still stands true as a statement. We are set apart in Christ. But as a command, can we say that we follow all that closely? Let us examine our lives and see if we mirror the holiness of God.

1 Skinner, J. Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. James Hastings. New York: Scribners, 1899. (395).
2 Found in: Bales, Norman. He died to make men holy. College Press, 1991. (25)

By Steve Quillian
 From Expository Files 7.12; December 2000