Like the word grace, the word holy has multiple meanings. In the Bible, we find people, places, objects, actions, and God all being described as holy. This should immediately raise a red flag in our minds, because we should definitely not be viewing God Almighty on the same level as some cup or some human activity. In one passage Yahweh says that He is holy, and in another passage He says that the Israelites are a holy people. Obviously He is talking about two different kinds of holy because He certainly does not view Himself as being on the same level as human beings. Instead, He views Himself as infinitely superior to humans, which is why He says things like:
“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of Yahweh blows on them.” (Isa. 40:6-7)
When we don’t differentiate between types of holiness, the result is idolatry. A classic example here is churches that display “holy relics” of dead saints, such as the bones of the apostle Peter. There is a popular theory in the Church that material objects can become infused with Divine power. Such objects are then treated like magical talismans which can be used to ward off demons. Holy water is a classic example of this. The idea is that you pray over ordinary water and maybe boil it, and through that ritual you end up infusing the liquid with Divine power. You can then fling the water onto whatever you want to anoint. Of course such nonsense is nothing more than arrogant little humans clinging to the fantasy that they can control God. We’d love nothing better than to think we can capture God’s power in a box or a vial and then fling it around at will. The desire to control God runs so deep within humans that many rebellious souls have gathered a huge following for themselves by claiming to give the masses access to God’s power. A fine example here is that idiot TB Joshua, who has made a mint selling boxes of liquid which he actually claims to be the Blood of Christ. TB also mass produces holy water and stickers which he teaches his followers to view as having Divine power. TB is just one of countless leaders in the Church today who is getting rich off of the irreverence of others.
We humans loathe the thought of submitting to our Makers, so we run amuck with the holy toys as a way of trying to make our Gods submit to us. Even non-Christians are intensely attracted to the idea of controlling the Christian Gods, thus God haters and Christians alike have spent centuries searching for objects like the Holy Grail, the Holy Chalice, and the Ark of the Covenant. Such foolishness begins with people not having a proper understanding of the concept of holiness. To help you steer clear of the irreverent idiocy that is happening all around you in the Church today, we’re now going to explain what God means when He refers to various things and beings as holy.
1. HOLY MEANS FOCUSING ON THE CREATOR INSTEAD OF THE CREATED
The first reference to holiness that we find in the Bible is very early on in the Creation account.
God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from His work of creation. (Gen. 2:3)
In the Creation account, we find Yahweh being described as creating new things for six days in a row. All of those things are associated with the world we know today. God brings our planet into being in stages, finishing with the creation of human beings. Then, on the seventh day, He rests. What is the point of this bizarre little story? Are we really to believe that Yahweh grew fatigued from the strain of creating? No. What we’re supposed to be noting here is a shift in focus. For the first six days, the focus is on all of the amazing things Yahweh is making. As we read through the events of the first six days, our attention is divided between the created and the Creator. We’re marveling at all of the things Yahweh is making from nothing, and at the same time, we’re marveling at how awesome Yahweh is to be able to pull off such amazing feats. But then when we get to day seven, Yahweh suddenly announces that He’s not going to create anything new and He says the day is holy. So what we have is a whole day in which the focus is now entirely on Yahweh, and not divided between God and what God is doing.
Now to properly understand Genesis, you have to understand that it was written by Moses. Moses is the guy who Yahweh introduced His Old Covenant to: those hundreds of laws which included laws about a holy Sabbath day. The Sabbath day was the seventh day of the week (our Saturday), and Yahweh commanded the Jews to keep that day as holy. Rather than hustle through the day in a cloud of distraction as they took care of the usual chores of life, everyone was supposed to take a break and use the day to focus on God. The point of this seventh day stopping was to pull everyone’s focus away from the created and shine the spotlight only on the magnificent Creator. Listen to how Yahweh ties together the Creation account with the Sabbath day when He’s giving the Ten Commandments:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. For Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.” (Ex. 20:8)
The purpose of the Sabbath was never just to have a weekend break—it was about people making a conscious decision to turn the focus of their souls onto God. Keeping the Sabbath holy meant making a conscious effort to honor God by focusing on Him, and dwelling on how awesome He is. The Sabbath was a public act of worship. The goal was for other nations to notice that all of Israel was shutting down every seven days for the purpose of exalting her national God.
Imagine a large stadium that is filled with people. In the center of the stadium, high up on a stage, the magnificent Yahweh is sitting on a grand throne. There are a bunch of bright lights all over the ceiling that are making the whole stadium as bright as day, and the place is filled with loud noise as everyone is engaged in conversations with the people around them. No one is paying any attention to God, even though He’s sitting right in the middle of them. Instead, everyone is totally absorbed in their own conversations. But then, at the end of every hour, a loud buzzer sounds, and suddenly all of the lights go out. The stadium is swamped in darkness for a few seconds and the whole place falls silent. Then, a cluster of super bright spotlights suddenly turn on, illuminating just the stage where Yahweh is. Everyone rises to their feet and the stadium is filled with thunderous applause. Everyone’s suddenly focused on Yahweh and they’ve all temporarily forgotten everything else. The applause and cheers go on for ten long minutes, then suddenly all of the lights turn back on and everyone sits down. Soon the stadium is filled with noise again as everyone goes back to chatting with their neighbors about things that have nothing to do with God. This was what the Sabbath day was supposed to be like: it was supposed to be a dramatic stopping of normal activities as a whole nation turned her focus onto the worship of the glorious Yahweh.
Now when the Sabbath laws were in force, no one knew about Jesus and the Holy Spirit—they only knew about Yahweh. The Sabbath day was supposed to be Yahweh’s day, Yahweh’s time to bask in the adoration of His people. Once we understand what the true purpose of the Sabbath was, we can understand why Yahweh took such enormous offense at the Jews blowing it off. Imagine how insulting it would be to God if the lights went out in that stadium, and the spotlights all shined on Him, but everyone kept right on talking with each other as if nothing had changed. This is how the Jews handled the Sabbath: they totally ignored it. And by ignoring it, they were grossly insulting Yahweh, which is why we find Him speaking so angrily about the Sabbath over and over again in the Old Testament prophetic books.
There are many sins that Yahweh complains about in the Old Testament, but some themes are particularly harped on. Idolatry and a refusal to keep the Sabbath are themes that come up over and over again. Why does Yahweh take such particular issue with these two things? Because both of these actions reflect a willful rejection of Him.
If you murder someone, it’s not just about defying God. It’s mostly about getting that irritating human out of your life. If you steal, it’s not just about defying God. It’s mostly about getting your greedy hands on your neighbor’s stuff. But when it comes to idolatry—that’s all about you declaring that you’ve found a better god than Yahweh. And when you blow off the Sabbath day as an ancient Jew—that’s your way of saying that Yahweh means nothing to you.
The Sabbath was not about legalism. It was all about demonstrating how important Yahweh was to you personally by turning your focus off of earthly things and taking time to do some soul worship. It was your way of making it very clear that you belonged to Yahweh: you were His follower and your life was about pleasing Him. This is why Yahweh said:
“Tell the Israelites: You must observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, so that you will know that I am Yahweh who sets you apart.” (Ex. 31:13)
We must remember that Yahweh taught these same Israelites that He was the only real God: He was infinitely superior to all of those stupid idol gods that they were so impressed by. And since the Sabbath was a way of publicly declaring that you were a follower of the one true God, to blow off the Sabbath was your way of saying that you were refusing to follow the one true God. This was outrageous rebellion for Jews to engage in, because unlike the people who lived in the pagan nations around them, the Jews knew who Yahweh was. It was because the Jews were so well informed about who God was that Yahweh had no tolerance for them publicly defying Him by refusing to respect His Sabbath day. This is why He said:
“Work may be done for six days, but on the seventh day there must be a Sabbath of complete rest, dedicated to Yahweh. Anyone who does work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.” (Ex. 31:15)
Today the death penalty sounds like overkill to us, but that’s because we’re not understanding context. To Yahweh, the Sabbath day observance was like circumcision—it was a special covenant between Him and His followers.
“The Israelites must observe the Sabbath, celebrating it throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.” (Ex. 31:16)
Today, we live under Yahweh’s New Covenant and a lot has changed. Today we worship three Gods, not just one. We worship Yahweh, Jesus, and the magnificent Holy Spirit. Today we aren’t commanded to keep a Sabbath day—that was an Old Covenant requirement. But by studying the Sabbath, we’ve learned about one important meaning of holy. Sometimes when Yahweh says something is holy, He is talking about turning the focus away from the created for the purpose of exalting the Creator.
2. HOLY MEANS PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN CALLED TO DEVOTE THEMSELVES TO GOD
Now let’s talk about a second meaning of holy. In the Old Testament, we find Yahweh describing the Israelites as holy.
“I also gave them My Sabbaths to serve as a sign between Me and them, so they will know that I am Yahweh who sets them apart as holy.” (Eze. 20:12)
What does this mean? How can humans be holy? To understand this use of holy, we have to step back and look at the big picture—specifically the Old Testament picture. When we do this, we find a confusing pattern of Yahweh referring to a bunch of spiritual rebels as His holy people over and over again. The biblical records clearly teach that the vast majority of Israelites never submitted to Yahweh on a soul level. Instead, they openly mocked and defied Him. In our Know Your Bible Series, we walk you through the entire Old Testament in chronological order and it’s downright horrifying to see how fervently committed the Jews were to demonic idols and how deeply they hated Yahweh. So what on earth does Yahweh mean when He refers to such hardened rebels as His holy people? We find help with this definition of holy in the book of Deuteronomy, which is a record of Moses’ last words to the Jews before he dies.
“For you are a holy people belonging to Yahweh your God. Yahweh your God has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.” (Deut. 7:6)
Notice who is choosing who here: Yahweh chose the Israelites. But what does it mean to be chosen by God? In this context, it means that Yahweh has given the Jews a bunch of Divine illumination or spiritual education about who He is and what pleases Him. You see, humans can’t find God on their own. God has to choose to connect with us, and He does this all the time. What was special about the Jews is that Yahweh decided to mass choose an entire nation of people in a very public, dramatic way. Yahweh’s illumination of the Jews was a very different thing than the Holy Spirit’s illumination of you today. In your own life, there was a day when the Holy Spirit began speaking directly to your soul. No one else heard what He was saying to you—only you heard it. Today the Holy Spirit calls individuals in secret, private, personal ways. If they respond well to Him, He begins to educate them about who the real Gods are and what They demand from human beings. That’s how things work under the New Covenant, but what happened with Yahweh and Israel was an entirely different affair.
What we find in Exodus is Yahweh hauling hundreds of thousands of Hebrews out of Egypt and leading them into a barren wilderness where they would be cut off from the distraction of other nations. He then performed many miraculous signs and wonders that wowed the entire group and made them realize that He was a totally different Being than all the gods they had worshiped back in Egypt. Yahweh then chose the man Moses to be His spokesperson to all of the Jews. Yahweh appeared to Moses in a visible form and He’d have private discussions with him during which He’d give Moses a bunch of instructions to pass on to the rest of the people. Everyone could see visual evidence of these chats happening, and Yahweh used a miraculous pillar of clouds to be a visual symbol of His Presence among the people. So there was nothing private, personal, or secret about Yahweh’s initial interactions with Israel. He interacted with them in very public, theatrical ways which required very little faith on their part.
Today most Christians never see God showing up to them in visible form. In Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus, the Israelites did see Yahweh showing up in visible form and they saw Him do all sorts of amazing and terrifying things. Yahweh was not an invisible Being who they struggled to believe in: He was in their faces, striking them dead when He became angry, and filling their lives with amazing blessings, such as food raining down from the sky and clothes that never wore out. But all of this sight and clear communication came with a high price tag: Yahweh demanded that the Israelites give Him their total devotion. He organized all of those Hebrew slaves into a nation which He named Israel, and He called Israel to enter into a binding verbal contract with Him which He called a Covenant. The terms of that Covenant were simple: if the Israelites remained loyal to Yahweh, He would richly bless them in every way. But if they turned against Him, He would turn against them and fill their lives with persecutions.
Impressed by this new God’s awesome powers, the Israelites eagerly agreed to be His chosen nation forever and always. But that decision was based on a carnal desire to bask in the great blessings that Yahweh was so clearly capable of giving them. On a soul level, the Israelites really didn’t give a flip about Yahweh, and even as they stood outside publicly declaring their devotion to Him, their tents were filled with equipment for worshiping gods who they really loved—the same gods that they’d worshiped back in Egypt. As a nation, Israel never fully committed herself to Yahweh, and she never let go of those Egyptian gods. For centuries, parents passed those same demonic idols onto their children and we find Yahweh furiously raging about Israel’s rampant idolatry all throughout the Old Testament. But as He rages, He keeps referring to her as His chosen nation, because He still considers her to be bound by the Covenant He established with her.
Let’s use an analogy to get a better understanding of Israel being Yahweh’s chosen nation. Suppose a man named Tom comes up to you one day and asks if you’ll start a business with him. It sounds like a profitable venture, so you agree and a formal contract is signed. Things go very well at first, but then suddenly, everything starts falling apart. Before you know it, you’re up to your eyeballs in debt and all you want is out. You’re in such bad shape that you just want Tom to buy you out and release you from the burden of responsibility of owning half of the company. But Tom refuses to let you out. Instead, he holds you to the contract that you signed and it’s a contract with no legal loopholes. You are legally bound to Tom and because of that, you are massively affected by the choices he makes. Now Tom is mad at you for sneaking off to a lawyer behind his back and trying to find a way to break free of the contract you signed with him, so he is intentionally sticking it to you and making your life a living hell.
This was the position Israel got herself into with Yahweh. Yahweh approached Israel like Tom approached you: she wasn’t looking for a relationship with Him. The Covenant that Yahweh made with Israel is like the contract you signed with Tom: it was legally binding. Just as you quickly changed your mind about wanting to do business with Tom, Israel quickly tired of Yahweh and decided that she didn’t want anything to do with Him. But like Tom, Yahweh refused to let Israel break the contract she’d entered into. When Yahweh calls Israel “My chosen nation” in the Old Testament, it’s like Tom calling you his partner—it’s a term that refers to expectations and obligations, not one that describes a positive relationship.
There was nothing positive about Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, just as there is nothing positive about your acrid relationship with Tom. You hate Tom and you just want to get away from him because you feel like he’s ruining your life. You’re sick to death of him constantly reminding you of specific things you promised to do in that contract you signed. In the same way, Israel was sick to death of Yahweh reminding her of all the promises she was reneging on with Him. Israel hated Yahweh just as you hate Tom and she wanted Him to get out of her life, but Yahweh refused to leave because He had chosen Israel to be His special nation on earth.
Now in your situation with Tom, he’s much better at business than you are, plus he has a ton of money. So when you get yourself into a real jam, you have no choice but to go crawling to Tom, pretend to be sorry for the ways you’ve been ticking him off lately, and butter him up with compliments and promises to treat him better in the future in hopes that he’ll use his resources to bail you out of your current crisis. This is what we find Israel doing with Yahweh all throughout the Old Testament. She’s bound to Him by a Covenant that He won’t let her out of, but she hates Him, so for the most part she ignores Him and worships the demonic gods who she really loves. Yahweh responds by plaguing Israel with terrible troubles. She finds herself attacked by stronger nations, she gets plagued with droughts and famines. When all other options fail, Israel comes crawling back to Yahweh and puts on some phony act of caring about Him in hopes that He’ll bail her out of her current jam. But as soon as He does bail her out, she goes right back to spitting in His face. We find this pattern repeating itself over and over again throughout the Old Testament. And as Israel pours time, resources, and energy into trying to appease gods who aren’t even real, she makes it very clear that she has no problems sacrificing what’s important to her in order to please a supernatural being—she just doesn’t want Yahweh to be that Being.
Humans have always griped about how demanding the real God is, and yet this is a complete crock, for while we say that pleasing God is too much work, we sacrifice health, joy, character, time, money, and relationships in order to achieve goals which we find more worthwhile. God has never been too much work—He’s just not the One we want to invest in. It’s always been an issue of internal priorities and deciding where we want our loyalties to lie. Israel was fiercely devoted to Baal, Asherah and a host of other gods. It was only Yahweh who she despised. This is why Yahweh refers to Israel as His adulterous wife who is always jumping in the sack with other gods right in front of His face.
“You have left Me and climbed into bed with these detestable gods.” (Isa. 57:8)
He then describes Himself reacting with the jealous rage that we’d expect from a jilted human husband. Yahweh makes it very clear that it was Israel’s refusal to embrace her role as His chosen nation that inspired Him to plague her with problems and eventually destroy her. Israel has never recovered from the brutal beating Yahweh gave her, and she never will. Meanwhile, the Old Covenant has been torn up and discarded, which means all of the boasting Israel does today about being Yahweh’s chosen nation is an absolute crock. Yahweh has divorced Israel and He no longer considers her to be the nation who He has set apart as holy. Today the political nation of Israel and ethnic Jews have no special promises from Yahweh that they can hope to cash in on through good behavior. So when you see the Church sucking up to Israel in hopes of getting blessed by association, realize that such behavior is nothing more than a carnal attempt to manipulate God, and it’s driven by a refusal to acknowledge what God actually says about Israel in the Bible. As a Christian who is serious about pleasing God, you should not be participating in this fawning over Israel that the Church tries to jam down your throat. Instead, you need to focus on honoring God in your own life and stop trying to rip off promises He never gave to you.
So what have we learned about holiness by this discussion of Yahweh’s Old Covenant relationship with Israel? We’ve learned that when Yahweh calls the Jews His holy people in the Bible, He just means they are a people who have been called upon to fully devote themselves to Him. This second definition of holy is about having spiritual obligations and being held to a higher standard because of the extra illumination you’ve received.
Under the Old Covenant, Yahweh used the term My people to include anyone who had become informed of who He was and what He demanded. Once you became informed about Yahweh’s Covenant requirements, you qualified for much stiffer consequences if you rebelled against Him. In the Old Covenant Laws, Yahweh listed off many crimes and situations which were to be punished with the death penalty or exile from Israel. Such laws applied only to those who belonged to the nation of Israel, but becoming a spiritual Israelite was simply a matter of becoming informed about who Yahweh was and what He wanted. A Philistine who converted to Judaism became equal to an ethnic Jew in Yahweh’s eyes, and was supposed to be treated the same. This is why Yahweh said:
“The assembly is to have the same laws for both you and the foreign resident as a permanent statute throughout your generations. You and the foreigner will be alike before Yahweh.” (Num. 15:15)
So then, this second definition of holy is about spiritual accountability. But Yahweh still has more definitions in store.
3. HOLY MEANS A PLACE WHERE GOD IS TO BE REVERED & HONORED
The large city of Jerusalem was spread out over a cluster of four hills, one of which was called Mount Zion. It was on Mt. Zion that Yahweh’s holy Temple was built, thus Zion became known as Yahweh’s holy mountain. In the Old Testament, we also find Zion being used as a nickname for the holy city of Jerusalem. When Yahweh speaks to Moses through a burning bush in Exodus, He says:
“Do not come closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5)
So what does Yahweh mean when He starts calling physical places on earth holy? Well, in these cases He is talking about physical places on earth which have become strongly associated with His Divine Presence. Sometimes the association is only temporary—like it was with the ground around the burning bush. Other times the association lasts a long time. Zion was viewed as holy as long as the Temple was standing. Today there is a lot of heated debate over patches of land in Israel where it is believed that Yahweh’s holy Temple once stood. The reality is that no one knows exactly where the Temple stood—all we can do is make educated guesses. And the spot that the Jews favor is also a spot that the followers of Islam say is a holy place for them, hence everyone wants to own it and everyone wants to bomb anyone who desecrates it. Is all of this fighting over a patch of dirt pleasing to God? Of course not. It’s carnal foolishness.
Our Gods are omnipresent, which means there is no place that They do not exist. On Mars, in Israel, at the North Pole, deep in ocean canyons, on the other side of the universe, in Heaven and Hell—there is nowhere we can go to escape the Presence of our Gods. So when Yahweh calls a place on earth holy in the Bible, He’s not saying He is more present there than He is in other places. Instead, He’s setting up monuments of His Presence for people to respond to.
Let’s review what Yahweh said to Moses at the burning bush:
“Do not come closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5)
Yahweh not only tells Moses that he’s standing on holy ground, but He also gives Moses two behavioral commands. Moses is not to come any closer, and he’s to take off his shoes. This is a common pattern that we find with holy places in the Bible: when Yahweh designates a place as holy, He also gives special instructions for how people are to behave when they come to that place. This is how Yahweh turns holy places into opportunities for people to demonstrate their devotion to Him.
Here is where we need to remember why we humans are born on this earth in the first place: this earthly life is our chance to decide how serious we are going to be about honoring our Makers. It’s how we choose to respond to Them that defines where They will transfer us to when we die and what kind of experience we’ll have in that new place. In your life today, the Holy Spirit gives you many convictions, and those convictions are all opportunities for you to honor God. We need God to create opportunities for us to please Him. We can’t just please Him on our own. If God never laid down any rules, there would be no opportunity for obedience. If God never asked us to give up things that we wanted, there would be no opportunity for sacrificial devotion. So while we often dread the idea of receiving some difficult assignment from God, such assignments should really be treasured for the fabulous opportunities that they are.
On earth, when we are eager to please someone, we long for the day when they’ll need some big favor from us. The guy who really wants to impress his girl seizes the opportunity to rescue her from a roadside breakdown. We humans have a value system: the more something costs, the more it’s worth. So when a wife sees her husband giving up his dream boat in order to buy her something that she has her heart set on, she’s super impressed. When a man loses his job and his wife insists on selling the house she loves because she doesn’t want him feeling stressed out by the mortgage, he is really moved by her support of him. There’s the everyday love and commitment of one spouse to another. Then there’s “you just became a quadriplegic but I’m still not leaving you” kind of love. That second kind of love is very rare in this world, which is why we’re so impressed by examples of it in the lives around us.
Sacrifice and cost test the limits of our devotion. This is how God set things up, and then He creates situations in which we have the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of our devotion to Him by going through some kind of hassle. It was inconvenient for Moses to take off his shoes in the middle of a desert. It was a project for Levite priests to go through all the ritualistic hoopla that Yahweh required before they entered the special rooms in the Temple which were called the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (aka the Holy of Holies). So why do it? Why dress up in the special clothes and take the special baths and mix the special incense to burn on Yahweh’s special alter inside the Holy Place? Why not just barge through the curtain that divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place and use the Ark of the Covenant as a table to eat your lunch on? Why treat one place as more special than another? There are two key motivations which please God. The first motivation is that you want to please Yahweh by honoring Him with your respect for His preferences. The second motivation is that you’re afraid of what Yahweh will do to you if you make Him mad. Both of these motivations need to be in the mix if we’re going to properly honor God in any act of obedience. If you drop either one, you end up at a wrong extreme. When you obey God solely out of fear, you end up cowering in a corner, afraid to talk to Him, and believing that He is impossible to please. When you drop fear out of the equation, you end up as an entitled brat who acts like you’re doing God some great favor by obeying Him. To stay in the right place, we need a proper blend of love and fear.
In the early days of the Tabernacle, Yahweh knew He was dealing with a bunch of snarky idolaters who didn’t fear Him at all. This is why He intentionally scared them with violent displays of His awesome power and with some very dramatic killing of those who publicly defied Him. He also set up several holy places that were strictly off limits to everyone except a few chosen individuals. It was only a few designated priests who could enter the Holy Place, and high priest Aaron was the only one allowed to enter the Most Holy Place. A special invitation from God was also needed before anyone could hike up Mount Sinai—a mountain where Yahweh put on a stormy display of His great Presence for the benefit of the entire Israelite camp (see Know Your Bible Lesson 5: God is Holy).
Yahweh came down on Mount Sinai at the top of the mountain. Then Yahweh summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and he went up. Yahweh directed Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to see Yahweh; otherwise many of them will die. Even the priests who come near Yahweh must purify themselves or Yahweh will break out in anger against them.” (Ex. 19:20-22)
So then, if Jesus appears in your bedroom tonight and announces that the patch of carpet you’re standing on is holy therefore you need to take off your shoes and bow your nose to the ground, what do you do? You obey out of love and reverence for God. You don’t obey because you think the carpet is actually infused with Divine power. We must be careful not to blur the lines between the Creators and the created. When God says a place is holy, He is not suggesting that by merely going to the place, you can control the way that He interacts with you. Many people believe that they must be physically located inside a church building before God will listen to their prayers. This is the same as saying we can make God pay extra attention to us simply by changing our location on earth. This is total rubbish. God cannot be manipulated by us, so before you spend a bunch of money traveling to “the holy land,” you need to realize that there is no longer anything holy about Israel, Jerusalem, or the geographical regions associated with Christ’s activities in the Gospels.
We need to remember that Yahweh has changed Covenants, and much of the foolishness that goes on in the Church today stems from a refusal to let go of Old Covenant rituals. Even if some group of spiritual rebels constructs a new temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem, you need to realize that such a place would not be considered holy by Yahweh, but that both He and Christ would find the whole venture extremely insulting.
People do not define what is holy and what isn’t. Our Gods are the only Ones who can attach a legitimate label of holy onto a place or thing, and the only reason They do so is to give us an opportunity to honor Them by following Their specific rules about how we are to interact with that place or thing. Any moron can fling liquid around a room, mumble a bunch of prayers, announce that it is holy ground, and then make up a bunch of rules for how you have to behave when you go there. You need to be on your guard against people use sacred labels as a means of controlling others. People have entirely different motivations for using holy labels, and those motivations are usually quite shady. God is never going to encourage you to revere created things. God will always turn your focus onto Himself.
4. HOLY MEANS THAT SOMETHING HAS BEEN SET APART FOR THE PURPOSE OF HONORING GOD
Now that we understand why Yahweh called certain places holy, let’s talk about why He attached the holy label to certain things. From regular clothes and dishes to one of a kind objects like the Ark of the Covenant, Yahweh talks about a lot of holy things in the Old Testament. Like holy places, holy things came with special instructions for use, and Yahweh used holy things to teach people key principles about how He wanted them to interact with Him. For example, we are supposed to view our Creators as being in a totally separate class than created things. We are not supposed to relate to Them in the same way as we do other people—They must be treated differently because They are unique. One way that Yahweh drove home the point of His uniqueness to the Jews was to come up with a unique recipe of herbs and spices that were to be used only for God-ordained activities. Anointing people and things with fragrant oils was a very common activity for the Jews—it was their way of marking something out as particularly special. Well, Yahweh was all for being treated as special by having Jewish priests burn fragrant oil on His incense altar inside the Holy Place, but to make His oil stand out as more special than the rest, He came up with His own blend of fragrances that could not be used for anything else.
“Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to Yahweh.” (Ex. 30:37)
Once a special “just for Yahweh” oil was established, that oil could be used to anoint other objects as holy.
“Take the anointing oil and anoint the Tabernacle and everything in it; consecrate it and all its furnishings, and it will be holy.” (Ex. 40:9)
One holy thing could be used to make other things holy. This might sound like a silly game to some of us today, but remember that the purpose of holy things was to teach people important spiritual principles. The things themselves were irrelevant—the point is that Yahweh was giving a command.
Whenever one of our Gods commands us to do something, we are forced to choose between a soul attitude of obedience or defiance. It doesn’t matter if we’re mixing up fragrant oils, sewing priestly gowns, or standing on our heads eating watermelons—what God cares about is our soul attitude. Why are we doing what we’re doing? Are we trying to demonstrate our eagerness to please Him by obeying His instructions and respecting His preferences? Are we trying to manipulate Him? Are we just going through meaningless rituals out of habit?
Today, Israel and the Church are making a hefty profit off of promoting hype about “the Holy Land,” but it’s holy things that are getting us into the most trouble. The popular game we play is that Divine power can be physically captured in objects which we declare to be holy. It’s rather like charging your cell phone—once that battery is loaded with power, you get to decide how you’re going to spend it. Making calls, texting friends, streaming videos, playing games—you feel in control because you’ve sucked electrical energy from a wall outlet and trapped it in this convenient little battery that you can take with you anywhere you go. This is how Christians treat their bibles. When demonic troubles arise, just crack open the Holy Word and send those demons packing by quoting holy Scriptures at them. Or, if all else fails, just wave the book around in the air like a flag.
We do the same with holy water. Boil some water, pray over it, and zap: you’ve got the essence of God trapped in a bottle. You can now go flinging His essence around on whoever and whatever you want in order to achieve purification, sanctification, spiritual protection, or some other goal that you arbitrarily pull out of the air. The point is that you can trap, confine, and dispense God at will. It’s the ultimate power trip for human beings, and of course we can’t help using holy stuff to manipulate gullible minds.
The Catholics have invented seven holy sacraments which are all promoted as having power to accomplish some positive end. Baptism is one—and it’s taught that you must be baptized in order to achieve forgiveness of sin and get your soul infused with sanctifying grace. Then there’s the Eucharist or Holy Communion, during which we all munch on the literal body, blood, soul and Divinity of Christ, which come conveniently packaged as edible bits of bread and wine. This sacrament increases our union with Christ, it unites us with the Church, and it separates us from sin. The problem with this kind of teaching is that the objects and rituals themselves are being viewed as having power, while God is reduced to being dependent on these things. God can’t save us unless we get baptized. We fall out of union with Christ unless we keep eating Him. Really??
It’s important to realize that Yahweh never promoted the idea of objects having power, nor did He affirm this rot about His essence being something we could trap in physical objects. When Yahweh told His people to go through ritualistic motions, He made it clear that it was an exercise in obedience. When animals were sacrificed for sin, the animals themselves were irrelevant. Yahweh responded to the soul attitudes of the ones making the sacrifices.
Throughout the Old Testament, we find plenty of examples of people being granted forgiveness and acceptance by Yahweh without sacrifices being offered because the authorized sacrificial system was not in operation. It is one thing for Yahweh to say, “Sacrifice a lamb because I say so, and if you honor Me with your obedience, I will forgive you.” It’s an entirely different thing to say, “As the lamb gasps its last upon the sacred altar, Divine power that was lodged in the cellular structure of its physical being is released. That power then wafts through the air towards you, enters within you, and transforms your soul.” This second scenario assigns power to a created thing and to a ritualistic behavior instead of leaving all the power with God. This second scenario is how the Catholics present their sacraments: the actions and objects themselves control the flow of Divine power. They also limit the effects of that power. For example, the Catholics teach that the Eucharist helps us care for the poor, it takes away venial (minor) sins, and it keeps us from future mortal (serious) sins. Whenever we start listing off such specific effects, we’re also setting limitations. The implication is that the Eucharist helps us care for the poor, but not for the rich or the middle class. It takes away venial sins, but not mortal sins. And it doesn’t infuse us with sanctifying grace—we need baptism for that. This is just a bunch of carnal rubbish.
Our Gods are not controlled by what religious behaviors we go through on earth. Christ is God Almighty, He isn’t snack food, and He does not smile on this idea of you having to physically eat Him on a regular basis in order to increase your communion with Him. Does a human wife have to take a few bites out of her husband’s arm now and then in order to stay connected with him? Does a man have to suck his wife’s blood like some kind of vampire in order to keep their union intact? Of course not, yet we present our Gods as being more limited than humans whenever we start in with guff about needing the aid of rituals and sacred objects in order to maintain our connection with Them.
Relating to God is something you do with your soul, not your earthsuit. Whenever someone tries to tell you that you must go through physical behaviors to maintain your spiritual connection with your Makers, you need to ask, “Is God being presented as dependent on something or someone in this situation?” Anytime we start saying God can’t do something without our assistance, we are just trying to dominate Him. The reality is that God doesn’t need our help with anything. He doesn’t need our faith to perform miracles. He doesn’t need baptism to save us. He doesn’t need atonement sacrifices before He can forgive sins. God is an autonomous, omnipotent, limitless Being.
We need to remember that our Gods hate idolatry, and idolatry is the worship of any created thing or being. Under the New Covenant, Yahweh has abolished the entire sacrificial system, and that system was what the holy things in the Old Covenant were tied to. What this means is that even if archaeologists were to unearth the Ark of the Covenant tomorrow, it would be meaningless. The Ark was labeled as a holy thing when the sacrificial system was in place, and it was a strong symbol of Yahweh’s personal Presence among the Jews. But now that the sacrificial system has been abolished, the Ark no longer has a function, thus it becomes reduced to just a box overlaid with gold. It’s the same with the cross that Jesus hung on. Today there are scores of people who would pay big money to make physical contact with some splinter of wood that was supposedly a piece of the actual cross that Jesus hung on. This is how idolatrous we become with this notion of holy things: we start worshiping the things instead of the real Gods.
In Numbers 21, Yahweh had Moses make a bronze snake which He then used as a prop in a series of miraculous healings. Centuries later, we learn that the Israelites had saved that snake and turned it into an idol god which they were worshiping instead of Yahweh (see The Fate of the Bronze Snake). Such is the problem with God using physical props with us. While the props help us recognize a Divine Being at work, we often become distracted by them to the point of worshiping the props instead of God Himself (see The Laying On of Hands). Medallions of saints, guardian angel pins, crosses, Bibles, artwork—what kinds of Christian paraphernalia are you lugging around in life? Has any of it become a source of irritation to your jealous Gods? This is something you need to ask the Holy Spirit about. As serious Christians, we need to be aware that it matters to our Gods how we interact with created things, and we need to adjust our behaviors to align with any preferences that They express.
5. HOLY MEANS GOD IS INFINITELY SUPERIOR TO ALL
In the Bible, we find Yahweh telling the Jews that they are His holy people. Now we know that when He says that, He’s talking about the fact that He has educated them about who He is and what He wants, and He is going to hold them accountable for how they respond to that knowledge. But in other places in the Bible, Yahweh says that He is holy, and in these cases, He’s certainly not talking about accountability. Instead, He is emphasizing the fact that He is so ultimate, so superior, and so impressive, that He is the only One worthy of worship and reverential submission.
“You are to regard only Yahweh Almighty as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be held in awe.” (Isa. 8:13)
It’s tough being a full time prophet for God, and in Isaiah 8, Yahweh is giving Isaiah a stern pep talk. He’s warning His prophet not to cave into the pressure to compromise his devotion to God just to have less friction with the rebels all around him. Isaiah lived about 700 years before the birth of Christ, and the Israel he knew in Isaiah 8 was a spiritual hellhole. Snarky King Ahaz of Judah has just learned that snarky King Pekah of Israel is joining forces with the pagan nation of Aram to come and spank Judah, which is where Isaiah lives. So everyone’s freaking out, plus no one gives a flip about pleasing Yahweh. Meanwhile, Yahweh is downloading one doomsday message after another into Isaiah’s brain, and the prophet’s constant negativity isn’t making him a favorite. Isaiah is probably down in the dumps one day and wondering if trying to stay loyal to God is worth it when he’s getting constant flack. He then describes Yahweh giving him a very personal message.
For this is what Yahweh said to me with great power, to keep me from going the way of this people: “Do not call everything an alliance these people say is an alliance. Do not fear what they fear; do not be terrified. You are to regard only Yahweh Almighty as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be held in awe.” (Isa. 8:11-13)
Here we have a man who is living in really scary times. God has prophesied that Isaiah’s homeland of Judah is in for a major spanking by the terrifying Assyrians, who are going to suddenly sweep down from the north and butcher everyone. This is rather like you finding out that some terrorist group is planning to bomb the heck out of your local community sometime in the next week and God has personally confirmed to you that He is going to bless their assault and ensure that they score hundreds of casualties. In the face of such superior earthly powers, how do you not go into a meltdown of fear? We humans are very delicate things and so easily injured. Yet though we live in a world that is filled with danger, our Gods say that They reign with absolute control and that nothing happens which They don’t want to happen. They also say that They are infinitely superior to all, therefore They are the only Ones our souls should be deeply revering. This is the point Yahweh was making with Isaiah: yes, great troubles were on the horizon, but Yahweh was infinitely greater. Instead of fearing created beings like the people around him were doing, Yahweh ordered His prophet to revere Him alone.
“Do not fear what they fear; do not be terrified. You are to regard only Yahweh Almighty as holy. Only He should be feared; only He should be held in awe.” (Isa. 8:12-13)
Whenever we come across examples of God referring to Himself as holy, we need to examine context to figure out what particular characteristic He is emphasizing. But in general, the theme will be one of superiority. God is greater. God is better. God is ultimate.
“So people will be brought low and everyone humbled, the eyes of the arrogant humbled. But Yahweh Almighty will be exalted by His justice, and the holy God will be proved holy by His righteous acts.” (Isa. 5:15-16)
We humans have a real aversion to submitting to God, and we’re always trying to promote ourselves as superior. Here in Isaiah 5, Yahweh is reaming out unrepentant rebellious Jews who are delighting in defying God every way they can think of. In this passage, He prophesies that He is going to give these rebels the spanking they deserve. In doing so, He will demonstrate His great holiness or superiority over those who think they can defy Him without consequences.
RESPONDING TO GOD’S HOLINESS
So how are we to respond to God’s holiness? Well, here’s where our understanding of the various meanings of holiness is going to be put to the test. Let’s check out how Yahweh instructs the Israelites to respond to His holiness.
“I am Yahweh, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:45)
“You are to be holy to Me because I, Yahweh, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be My own.” (Lev. 20:26)
“Keep My commands and follow them. I am Yahweh. Do not profane My holy Name, for I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. I am Yahweh, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am Yahweh.” (Lev. 22:31-33)
At first this sounds confusing, but all becomes clear once we apply what we’ve learned. When God is referring to Himself as holy, He means He is infinitely superior to all created things. When He refers to the Israelites as holy, He means they have been called to fully devote themselves to Him. Let’s now slip these two different definitions of holy into our confusing verses and see what happens.
“I am Yahweh, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be fully devoted to Me, because I am infinitely superior.” (Lev. 11:45)
“You are to be fully devoted to Me because I, Yahweh, am infinitely superior, and I have set you apart from the nations to be My own.” (Lev. 20:26)
“Keep My commands and follow them. I am Yahweh. Do not profane My infinitely superior Name, for I must be acknowledged as infinitely superior by the Israelites. I am Yahweh, who made you to be fully devoted to Me and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am Yahweh.” (Lev. 22:31-33)
These verses make a lot more sense once we realize that Yahweh is using two different definitions of holy. When God orders humans to be holy, He is ordering them to be fully devoted to Him—to hold nothing back. And He says this is a reasonable command because, hello, He’s GOD, and by definition a real God is One who is infinitely superior to all other things. Why on earth would we fully devote ourselves to any being who is less than God? This would be ludicrous, as Yahweh often points out in the Old Testament prophetic books when He’s railing about the idiocy of idolatry.
“To whom will you compare Me? Who is My equal?” asks the Holy One. (Isa. 40:25)
Have you never heard? Have you never understood? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of His understanding. (Isa. 40:28)
So then, we have three holy Gods: Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And because these Three are so indescribably awesome, magnificent, and all-powerful, there is only one reasonable way for us to respond to Them, and that is with total devotion. What does total devotion look like? It means loving our Gods obsessively with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. Such are the lessons we learn about holiness from the glorious Yahweh.