In the weekly home-group I attend we have been looking at the concept of holiness as it goes across the Bible, using this video and paper Bible study as a starting point (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9vn5UvsHvM).
Holiness is a very complex topic; it encompasses more than morality. It is a way of expressing God’s perfection and the difference between the Creator and the created. Whereas we show love or participate in it, God is love. More than that, He is perfect love: selfless, giving, forgiving, and patient. Chalcedon’s lovely piece yesterday on the importance of mercy connects with the theme of holiness in the Bible. God’s holiness is expressed in the Cross of Christ, where we see His perfect love that sets us free from slavery to sin.
Under the Old Covenant, in order to enter God’s presence and preserve the purity of that presence, Israel had to obey a system of sacrifices. In addition to this, they had to abstain from practices that would “defile” them: that is, practices that would make them unfit to enter God’s holy presence. Moreover, they had to maintain their loyalty to Yahweh, their God. Fellowship with the gods of the nations was understood as a violation of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, and Yahweh referred to it as “adultery” and “harlotry” in the words of His prophets. When they brought those gods into Yahweh’s presence, they defiled the sacred space of the sanctuary, and this ultimately led to the loss of the “Glory” that dwelt in the Holy of Holies. The Book of Ezekiel depicts this scene, in which the Glory joins the seated figure of Yahweh on His chariot-throne, drawn by cherubim, and departs from Jerusalem. This, understood properly, is one of the saddest scenes in Scripture.
But the story does not end there. Yahweh is a God of covenant faithfulness (in Hebrew, hesed, as in Beth-esda, “house of grace”). Yahweh understands that humans are weak, that, as Paul says, they fall short of His glory. So He found a way to make it possible for humans to live with Him forever. The Bible refers to this process with a variety of images. Sometimes it refers to “cleansing”, picking up the “clean” and “unclean” vocabulary of ritual purity that we find in books like Leviticus. Other times, it refers to God taking away our “heart of stone” and giving us a “heart of flesh”.
This is not possible without grace. In and of ourselves we can never satisfy the standard of God’s holiness or His moral perfection. Our motives are often crooked, our thoughts and deeds wicked. The ritual system of the Old Covenant illustrates this problem for us. Under that system, a holy object became defiled if it touched an unclean object. Thus, for example, if pig’s blood touched God’s altar, that altar could no longer be used until it was cleansed. Under the New Covenant, God’s holiness takes away our uncleanness. God took the initiative and took on flesh to save us, that we might be with Him.
The prophets looked forward to this day and rejoiced in it. Ezekiel depicts God’s glory returning to the Temple, but now, as interpreted by Paul, we understand that the Temple refers to God’s covenant people. His presence lives among us as a community, and within us as individuals. When the Holy Spirit comes to live in the believer when he is born again, that is God’s presence entering the new temple. Christ Himself, is the ultimate and perfect Temple of God: God’s presence indwelling a man, joined together in perfect unity. Thus it is Paul’s delight to proclaim in ecstasy that God is conforming us to the image of His Son, just as John declares that when He is revealed from Heaven, we shall be like Him.
But, as the hymn puts it, “only by grace can we enter…not by our human endeavour, but by the blood of the Lamb.” God provided the cleansing sacrifice, His very own Son. The Father welcomes the Prodigal home at last.