What Is Holiness?

By Kay Arthur   •   June 6, 2007

“I will be treated as holy. … Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 10:3, 19:2). If this is the English translation of the very words of God, then isn’t it obvious, student of His Word, that we have a responsibility to discover what God says about holiness? But how does one go about a topical study of God’s teaching on this subject–or any subject? The first thing I do is go to a concordance and find where the word (holiness) and related words (e.g., sanctification, sanctify) are used in the Bible. Under what circumstances does God first introduce the word and the topic? What does He say after that? If I look up each occurrence of the word and study its context, then I will have God’s mind, His teaching, on the subject. This is inductive study. So let’s explore briefly how this is done and what you can learn for your life–what will help you to treat God as holy and to be holy yourself!

A good concordance is invaluable. It tells us that the word holy is used more than 650 times in the New American Standard Bible, apart from synonyms. It is first used in Exodus 3:5 when it describes the place where Moses is standing. Since holy is such a significant word, I mark it in a distinctive way in my Bible so I can easily see where it is used. You may want to do the same thing. I draw a purple cloud around holy and color it yellow.

Now read Exodus 3 so you see the setting in which God introduces the word holy. Why do you think the place where Moses is standing is called holy ground? As I’ve shared in previous studies, ask the 5 W’s and an H: who (is speaking and to whom), (about) what, when and where (it is happening), and why and how. As you read, these questions will help you to discover what God says.

When I do a topical study in the Old Testament, I want to know the Hebrew or Aramaic word for holy and its meaning. In the New Testament, I look for the Greek word. Once again, a concordance will have the answer. The word holy means “sacred, set apart from the profane (unholy) and for God.” Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible says, “The primary Old Testament word for holiness means ‘to cut or to separate.’ Fundamentally, holiness is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and a consecration to what is pure.” In the New Testament the word for holy, hagios, is the same root word for saint and sanctified. Now, let’s jump to Leviticus, the third book of the Torah–also called the Law or the Pentateuch. The Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament.

It’s interesting that God never describes Himself as holy until He has delivered the children of Israel from Egypt. When they are camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai for a month of instruction on how they are to live as His holy people, God says for the first time, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). The holiness He demonstrated in Exodus, He now states in Leviticus.

God has just ordained Aaron and his four sons as priests. The turbans on their heads bear the title: “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36-38). Watch what happens to two of his sons in Leviticus 10:1-3:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.'” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.

Now read it again, continuing through Leviticus 10:7 for a fuller picture. Mark the word fire and its synonyms with a red pen. Also mark holy. What do you learn from marking fire? Holy? Now, stop and think about what you observed. How did Aaron’s sons fail to treat God as holy? If you didn’t see the answer, read Leviticus 10:1 again. Sobering, isn’t it? They were worshiping God their way, not His way. They offered fire–but it was strange fire–not what God had ordered. Can God be worshiped any way we want? Or is He to be treated as holy and worshiped His way? Is there any application here? What should we do?

God is holy. God is to be obeyed. Look again at Leviticus 19:2. Israel was set apart for God (Exodus 19:3-6); therefore, they were to be holy. But was it only the priests and Israel? Read 1 Peter 1:14-16 where Peter quotes Leviticus. Mark holy and think about how this holiness is demonstrated or lived out. What does verse 14 say? Now, keep reading right through 1 Peter 2:5 and then 2:9-12. Holiness, among other things, can be seen in our lifestyle. So as those who are declared holy, each of us needs to ask, “How well is holiness being seen in my day-by-day living?” May we heed Romans 6:19, remembering that sanctification is holiness.

As Jesus prayed for you in John 17:17–”Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth”–my goal is that God would use this study for your sanctification. Look at Ephesians 5:25-27, and you’ll see what is happening. Studying the Bible inductively–discovering truth for yourself–helps you to see God and yourself in truth. Read Isaiah 6:1-12 and discover what happened to Isaiah when he saw God as He really is. It will get you ready to hear God’s voice and heed His call, no matter how other people respond.

Until the next issue, read through the first five chapters of Isaiah. Color in blue every reference to God’s people (sons, Israel) and their pronouns. Note how God is described in Isaiah 1:4. Color the references to the Lord in yellow. Make a list of what you learn, then apply all you’ve observed. Are there any parallels to your life? What do you need to do to be holy as God is holy? Let’s follow Isaiah’s example and go forth to serve the Holy One in holiness.

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  1. Nicole Deaton says:

    thank you