Holiness Unto the Lord

HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD:  THE CONTRIBUTION OF LEVITICUS

Introduction

            What can the third book of Moses contribute to modern Christian theology? Often, this Old Testament book with its restrictions on eating shellfish and the mixing of fabrics is overlooked because these practices seem odd – even obsolete – for today’s believer. However, this sometimes-neglected book contains rich principles for the Christian community concerning the concept of God’s holiness and how it should influence their lives. Kendell H. Easley writes, “Holiness throughout Scripture, but especially in Leviticus, is the first attribute of God.”[1] This main emphasis in Leviticus is twofold: the holiness of God and what God’s holiness requires of those people in relation to Him. Although it may be an oversimplification, the message of Leviticus is encapsulated in a single verse located in its eleventh chapter.  The author of the book records, “For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy” (NASB Lev 11:45).  By analyzing Israel’s call to holiness in this verse, an individual can witness that God’s holiness is the foundation of which those who are sovereignly called to relationship with Him are deemed holy. Thus they should live considering their connectedness to Him.

“…for I am holy.”

            First, to properly understand the concept of holiness presented in Leviticus, one must know the wellspring of holiness. In short, God’s holiness is the foundation of the sacredness of people, places, and things in Leviticus. It is the divine presence which sanctifies and sets apart the land, the children of Israel, and the various objects associated with Old Testament Tabernacle/Temple worship. Nevertheless, what does it mean that God is holy? In 2 Samuel, Hannah’s song of thanksgiving gives clues to the meaning of the holiness of God. The author of 1 Samuel writes, “There is no one holy like the LORD, Indeed, there is no one besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God” (NASB 1 Sam 1:1). In this verse, God is celebrated for His complete uniqueness from all of the creation. Israel’s God is the quintessence of absolute perfection in every way. Easley writes, “It [holiness] refers to his glorious moral perfections as the One who is the standard of ethical purity.”[2] There is nothing, or no one comparable to God, and His holiness is the crux of this uniqueness.

Therefore, true biblical holiness is only found in relation to this all-perfect deity. God possesses the divine prerogative to demand sanctified actions or obedience. Based on His absolute perfection and uniqueness God issues instructions concerning the holiness of those called into relationship with Him. Some may argue the commands of God are a bit overreaching. However, He is the perfect Holy One and humanity is not. He is their source of being and salvation; not the other way around.

“…thus you shall be holy…”

            First, with the holiness of God in mind, this key verse reveals that God longs for fellowship with fallen humanity. The author writes, “For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God…” (NASB Lev 11:45). God’s holiness is communicable to those people and objects which encounter His divine presence. David P Wright observes, “…contact with something most holy communicates holiness (Exod. 29:37; 30:29; Lev 6:27; [Heb 6:20]).”[3] Thus, Israel’s holiness is in correlation to their connectedness to the foundational holiness of God

Secondly, although God demands wholehearted obedience to His holy decrees, Israel’s holiness is not dependent on her producing holiness by acts of obedience. Rather Israel’s action was to be tempered by the holiness they received by being associated with the Holy One. Terrance E Fretheim writes,

It is important to stress that Israel’ holiness is a reality; it is not something to be aimed at or striven for, or to be associated only with worship.  The call to be “holy” is a call to be true to the relationship in which the people already stand (be who you are). The fundamental way in which the people do justice to this relationship is in obeying the commandments, which for Leviticus means being faithful to God in worship and in life (see 19:2 and what follows).[4]

In other words, the obedience to the God’s command was to be a practical outworking of their relationship with their God. They were deemed holy because of His presence being among them. This communicable nature of holiness is the reason that temple utensils, land, cities, and people were considered sacred before God.

On the other hand, Israel could disrupt this holy relationship by failing to observe God’s commandments. Robert A Kugler writes, “…impurity seems to have been understood to cast the shadow of death over its bearers: the most severe experiences of impurity are the ones that would have been seen as the inappropriate loss of life-force from the individual.”[5] God’s reputation of holiness could be called into question by the nations surrounding Israel if the holiness code was not followed. God’s holiness demanded a holy set apart lifestyle on Israel’s behalf. This is the reason God implemented a sacrificial system to alleviate the wrath incurred by disobedience. This system of atonement would eventually be done away with by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. With these foundational principles concerning holiness in the book of Leviticus, attention needs to turn to the how they apply to New Testament believers.

Principles of Levitical Holiness for New Testament Believers

            First, although the Old Testament sacrificial system has been fulfilled and removed through Christ’s atoning work and the veil of separation was torn to symbolize access into the holy of holies (i.e. God’s presence), God has not lowered His standards. Rightly so, He still demands holiness unto the Lord. The Apostle Peter reiterates this command to holiness as he writes,

Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” (NASB 1 Pet 1:13-16).

The communicable attributes of holiness are still relevant for those under the New Covenant even though the ancient cultic worship is obsolete. Modern day Christians are still deemed holy by their relation to the presence of God. The difference is that the presence of God indwells them under the New Covenant. Apostle Paul confirms this as he writes, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.” (NASB 1 Cor 3:16-17). What was external ritual under the Old Testament has now been internalized in the New Testament.

How should the knowledge of God’s indwelling affect the attitudes and actions of Christians? Levitical offering, sacrifices, and feasts were all types shadows which pointed to the finished work of Christ. Paul confirms this with his statement in Romans. He writes, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (NASB Rom 15:4).  Understanding the principles put forth long ago in the book of Leviticus should motivate Christians to practically exercise what has been given to them with their new position in Christ. We should put away the works of the flesh, not because this makes us more holy, but rather because Christ’s presence has already made us holy before God the Father.

Conclusion

            In conclusion, the principles of holiness found in the often-overlooked book of Leviticus can give valuable insights into the concept of the holiness of God and how it pertains to His people. By examining a key verse of Leviticus 11:45, it becomes apparent the foundation for the holiness of God’s people is established by God’s very own holy presence. This communicable holiness should impact the manner in the way people perceive their standing with God, thus influencing their actions accordingly. In short, although the conditions of Leviticus were fulfilled in Christ, it is still Holiness unto the Lord.


[1] Kendell H. Easley, Holman QuickSource Guide to Understanding the Bible, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 200), 23.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] David P. Wright, “Holiness in Leviticus and Beyond: Differing Perspectives,” Interpretation 53, no. 4 (October 1999): 351-364, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 9, 2016), 352-353.

[4] Terrance E Fretheim, The Pentateuch, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 134-135.

[5] Robert A. Kugler,  “Holiness, Purity, the Body, and Society: The Evidence for Theological Conflict in Leviticus,” Journal For The Study Of The ld Testament 22, no. 76 (December 1997): 3-27, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 9, 2016), 14.




BIBLIOGRAPHY

Easley, Kendell H. Holman QuickSource Guide to Understanding the Bible. Nashville, TN. Holman Bible Publishers.

Fretheim, Terrance E. The Pentateuch. Nashville, TN. Abingdon Press. 1996.

Kugler, Robert A. “Holiness, Purity, the Body, and Society: The Evidence for Theological Conflict in Leviticus.” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament 22, no. 76 (December 1997): 3-27. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 9, 2016).

Wright, David P. “Holiness in Leviticus and Beyond: Differing Perspectives.” Interpretation 53, no. 4 (October 1999): 351-364. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 9, 2016).

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