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What Does it Mean to be “Holy”?

Image by much0 via Flickr

People today frequently associate the word “holy” with a list “do’s” and “don’ts” that “godly” people are supposed to adhere to. The concept of “holiness” in the Bible, however, is not primary about behavior. It rather refers to something that is unique and set apart from more common things.

God is holy because he’s completely different from anything in this world. Certain objects are called holy because they’re set apart from common objects, having been consecrated to God for a special purpose. And God’s people are called to be holy by virtue of the radically different kind of life we live. Just as first fruits contrast with fruit that has not yet ripened and been picked, God’s people are to contrast with the world that is yet under the oppression of the patterns of the world (Romans 12:2).

Another way of making this same point is to say that we’re called to be like Jesus. We are to be holy, like he is holy. The way Jesus lived was unique, to say the least, for everything about his life put on display God’s loving character. He was the quintessential “first fruit” of the coming creation and the prototype we are to passionately imitate.

This is why the New Testament emphasizes the necessity of following Jesus’ example in all that we do. “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did,” John says (I John 2:6). Our profession of faith in Jesus lacks content except insofar as our lives look like his.

So too, Paul teaches us to “follow God’s example” (Eph 5:1). The Greek word translated “example” (mimetai) literally means to mimic. We’re to do exactly what we see God doing. Of course, the one in whom we see God doing the things we’re to imitate is Jesus Christ. He is the visible expression of the invisible God (Jn 1:18; Jn 14:7-9). This is why Paul immediately goes on to flesh out what he means by commanding us to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2, emphasis added).

This is what it looks like to mimic God. We’re to sacrificially love others the way Christ sacrificially loved us when he gave his life for us.

Peter makes the same point when he tells his congregation that they’re to respond to persecution not with anger and violence, but by graciously enduring it. “To this you were called,” Peter says, “ because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (I Pet 2:20-21).

Jesus himself drove home the necessity of following his example a number of times. For example, after washing the feet of his disciples (whom he knew would in a short while abandon him and betray him), he said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15). The goal of Christian discipleship is to mimic our master.

A few years ago, the media coined the term “red letter Christians” to refer to believers who believe they’re supposed to obey Jesus’ teaching and live like he lived. How sad that it would occur to anyone that there’s a special class of Christians who think obeying Jesus’ teachings and living as he lived is important! The truth is, aspiring to be Christ-like is simply what the term “Christian” means.

We’ve been saved from the “powers of the air” (Eph 6:12) and the “patterns of the world” and freed to participate in the Life of God, and when we surrender ourselves wholly to this salvation, we reflect God’s character and contrast with the world, just as Jesus did. We are God’s holy and consecrated “first fruits.”

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