(Photo by Selma Komisky)
Distinction and Holiness
By AJ Zimmermann
It does not take very long to come across the word “Holy” when reading the Bible. Depending on the translation, Holy appears 950+ times and is an essential word for our Christian Faith. Holy has often been understood as “set-apart”—people or things who are set-apart for worship. And while the understanding of “Holy” as separation is true when it comes to items set apart for worship, I wonder if this definition alone might hinder our understanding when applied to our relationship with God and what Holy has to do with the healing power of God today.
To better understand what Holy means, we need to understand that words in the Hebrew language often have a range of meanings. Think about the word “run” in English. The car, refrigerator, Olympic athletes, and our noses all “run,” but do these all run in the same way?
While an understanding of “holy” as “set-apart” is helpful, it is not the only meaning. In the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis – Deuteronomy), the word “Holy” shows up 225 times and mostly in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. The first appearance of holy is in Genesis 2:3, in which God rests and declares the Sabbath day holy. The Sabbath day is meant to be “set-apart,” but the Hebrew word for holy also includes the idea of “distinct in the midst of;” thus, the Sabbath is to be “distinct in the midst of” the other days of the week. In a culture that is constantly on the move, promoting side hustles, start-ups, and proud of “being busy,” what does it look like to set aside one day a week as a distinct day of rest. Is this call to “distinction” the antidote to the exhaustion we experience?
In Leviticus 19:1-2, the Lord, through Moses, tells Israel, to “be holy, just as the Lord is Holy.” Paul picks up this theme in Romans 12:1-2, “present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship.” Paul then goes on to define this as, “don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is, what is good, pleasing, and mature.” For Paul, being Holy is less about a status of separation, but an action and attitude we participate in. How do we live out the call to be holy? How are we to be in the world but not of the world?
I believe the incarnation of Jesus is the most important thing to happen in history, for our faith, and our conversations about God. In Jesus, God becomes human-sized to help us begin to understand the character and nature of God. We know God is holy, and we know Jesus is holy because Jesus is God. But what happens when our understanding of “Holy” is limited to “set-apartness” or “separateness.” I’ve often heard it said in Christian conversations that God is holy and can’t stand to be around sin – but does that statement line up with what we see in Christ?
What do we do with a Holy God who forgives sin (Matthew 9:2), sits at the table with sinners (Matthew 9:10), can be touched by the unclean (Matthew 9:20), heal the blind (Matthew 9:30), and cast out demons (Matt 9:33) all in the same chapter? I have often had a difficult time understanding how the holiness of God means that God can’t be near imperfection. It seems to me that the holiness of Jesus didn’t repel broken people, but rather holiness is a magnet to the broken, down-trodden, and wounded. Isaiah 57:15 is transformative for our thinking on holiness, distinction, and being “set-apart.” God, through the prophet, writes, “I live on high, in holiness, and also with the crushed and the lowly, reviving the spirit of the lowly, reviving the heart of those who have been crushed” (Isaiah 57:15).
During His ministry, Jesus was constantly around the social outcasts, bringing healing, deliverance, and hope. Jesus lived distinctly. Jesus embodied holiness, and demonstrates holiness as a life-giving power. Yes, there is a sense of separation in holiness, for nothing other than God is inherently holy. And the things we give to God in worship are holy, but what about our relationship with the Holy God? How is it that Jesus healed by touching or speaking? Because in the incarnation, the embodiment of holiness brought and continues to bring healing to many.
To live in the Image of God, to live in our call to holiness, means we become “mini-Christs,” embodying God’s life-giving power, through the Spirit, to bring help, hope, and healing to the broken, hurting, and outcasts in our midst.