Holiness and Love
Main Idea: God commands us to be holy, as He is holy, and to demonstrate holiness in the way we relate to other people.
I. An Exhortation from God
II. A Definition from God’s Word
III. Our Holiness Arises from a Relationship with God.
A. We submit to the commands of God.
B. We celebrate communion with God.
IV. We Demonstrate Holiness in Our Relationships with People.
V. Our Holiness Requires Living by Distinctions.
A. The distinction between sacred and secular
B. The distinction between marriage and singleness
C. The distinction between falsehood and truth
Several years ago I was in my office with the Bible open before me. I don’t remember whether I was spending time alone with God or preparing a sermon, but I was thinking and praying about something in God’s Word. I was interrupted by that familiar ping from my computer telling me that an email had arrived. Opening the email at that moment was probably not a good idea, but I did. It was from one of those people who seem to be placed in our lives by God for the purpose of testing our patience and grace. When he wrote that email, this man was in top form—condescending, vitriolic, insulting, yet unstintingly dogmatic. My thoughts about God and His Word vaporized. Those holy thoughts were replaced by anger and resentment. It wasn’t long before those emotions subsided, but then I felt discouraged. How could my mind be filled with God’s holy thoughts one moment and then suddenly, seemingly involuntarily I was flooded with feelings that were far from holy? I’m a child of God; I’m supposed to walk with Him and experience His peace, joy, and love in every situation. How could all of that vanish in a few seconds? How could I sin so easily?
Maybe that incident has a familiar ring to you. The circumstances may differ, but the results are the same. You were tempted and you sinned. Maybe it was anger with a family member, pride, stretching the truth, lust, coveting the things of this world instead of the things of God. Whatever the sin, the question is the same—God has called us to be holy, how can we sin so easily? God’s Word offers help and hope. You and I can live holy lives. The apostle Paul boldly wrote in Romans 6:14, “Sin will not rule over you.”
Many students of the Bible regard chapter 19 of Leviticus as the thematic center of the book. The largest themes of the book of Leviticus are the holiness of God and the holiness of God’s people; those are the themes of chapters 19 and 20.
An Exhortation from God
Chapter 19, verse 2 says, “Be holy because I, Yahweh your God, am holy.” God said that to His people four times in Leviticus (11:44,45; 19:2; 20:26). Similarly, God said, “Be holy, for I am Yahweh your God” (20:7). God also repeated that command in the New Testament in 1 Peter 1:16—“Be holy, because I am holy.” God is holy, and He calls us to be holy like Him. God is holy in every moment of time and in all circumstances; He calls us to be holy in every moment of time and in all circumstances, like Him. God’s holiness means that He is different, other than, and He is unique in that He is perfectly righteous. God calls us to be different, other than, in that we live righteously. Holiness is an intrinsic attribute of God’s nature, and God expresses His holiness through what He does. He calls us to a holiness that is internal and that we express through what we do. What does holiness mean?
A Definition from God’s Word
The word holiness is archaic to a lot of people today. When they hear the word they think of women who wear only long dresses, black stockings, and their hair in a bun. They think of religiously smug people who act “holier than thou.” Those are not positive conceptions of holiness. Jonathan Edwards was a great intellectual and a pastor in New England in the eighteenth century. He wrote the following about holiness:
Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and . . . lovely. (Edwards, Works, vol. 13, 163)
Holiness is not melancholy and unpleasant. Holiness is sweet and lovely. So what is it? Holiness is a condition of our hearts created by God, and a way of behaving lived by us.
First, holiness is a condition of our hearts created by God. In our natural state we are sinners, separated from God, and without hope in this life or the next. Ephesians 2:3 says we are “by nature children under wrath.” Through the saving work of Jesus, God creates a new condition in our hearts. We were spiritually dead, but He makes us spiritually alive. We were separated from Him by sin, but He reconciles us to Himself through Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. The new condition in our hearts is His work. We repent of our sin and put our faith in Him, but Acts 5:31 says God grants repentance and Ephesians 2:8 calls our faith “God’s gift.” We are justified, made right in His presence, but how does that happen? Romans 3:24 says that we are “justified freely by His grace.” First Peter 5:10 says that every part of our reconciliation to Him and our growth in holiness is His work—“the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will personally restore, establish, strengthen, and support you.” He calls us to Himself, and He restores us, strengthens us, and establishes us. Furthermore, how do we grow in holiness or sanctification? God does that. It happens through His power in us. In John 17:17 Jesus did not pray that we would be better people in our own strength; He prayed to God the Father, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth.” God sanctifies us. Becoming holy is something God does in us; He changes our hearts.
On the other hand, holiness is a way of behaving lived by us. When we refer to salvation and sanctification as solely God’s work, it is like looking out at a beautiful corn field and saying, “Look what God has done!” Did God do that? Yes, He did! He caused the seeds to germinate in the soil, He caused the rain to fall and the plants to grow. God did it. On the other hand, didn’t the farmer do that? Yes, he did! He bought and planted the seeds, he cultivated the field and sprayed the plants, and he has to work to pick the corn and sell it.
Our sanctification, the process of becoming holy, is like that. God changes our hearts and makes holiness possible, and we work out holiness in our lives. Holiness is a condition of our hearts created by God, and a way of behaving lived by us. Philippians 2:12-13 says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” but then it says, “For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.” God works in us, and we work out what He does in our hearts. God does what only He can do. He regenerates us, He replaces our spiritual death with spiritual life. Then we do what only we can do. We resist sin and do works of righteousness in His power. The apostle Paul lived a holy life, and in 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul wrote, “By God’s grace I am what I am.” Then in the same verse he wrote, “I worked more than any of them.” Then Paul flipped the coin again and wrote, “yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me.” Holiness is being separate from the world and consecrated to God. Holiness is a condition of our hearts created by God and a way of behaving lived by us. To return to Leviticus 19, what does God say about holiness in this chapter?
Our Holiness Arises from a Relationship with God
God’s people Israel had the opportunity to be holy because they were in a special relationship with God. He had chosen them, redeemed them, and invited them into His presence. In that relationship He told them to be holy, because the God to whom they were relating is holy.
Holiness arises from a relationship with God, and the closer we get to God the more holy we become. The tabernacle in which the Israelites worshiped in the wilderness was a physical illustration of that spiritual reality. The tabernacle was divided into three sections, each one of which represented different degrees of holiness. The outer court was the farthest from the place of God’s presence, so it was regarded as the least holy. Every Israelite was allowed in that space. The bronze altar of sacrifice was located in the outer court, as was the basin of water the priests used to cleanse themselves before they entered the holy place. The holy place was inside the tent. The people saw that space as closer to God. Only the priests were allowed in that room. The lampstand, the table for the bread of the Presence, and the incense altar were located in the holy place, and all the furniture was made of gold. Third, the inner sanctum of the tabernacle was called qodesh haqodeshim—the “holy of holies” or “most holy place” (e.g., Exod 26:33-34). The only furniture in the most holy place was the ark of the covenant, which was also gold. That space represented the presence of God, and it was the most holy. Only the high priest could enter that room. God said that from that place He would meet with His people, so that space was ineffably holy. In the tabernacle, to move closer to the space that represented the presence of God was to become more and more holy. That physical reality illustrates a spiritual reality—the closer we get to God, the more holy we will become, the more separated from the ways of the world and the more consecrated to God we will grow. Our holiness arises from a relationship with God. The key to holiness is staying close to God.
Leviticus 19 and 20 emphasize that we express our holiness when we submit to the commands of God. Chapter 19, verses 3 and 4 include four of the Ten Commandments—honoring parents, keeping the Sabbath, not worshiping other gods, and not making idols. In verse 37 God says, “You must keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them.” In chapter 20, verse 8 God says, “Keep My statutes and do them.” Again, in verse 22 God says, “You are to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances, and do them.” To be holy means to be different, but different in what way? The difference of the people of God is shaped by our obedience to God’s commands. Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commands.” If we have a love relationship with God, we will obey His commands.
Also, Leviticus 19 says we express our holiness when we celebrate communion with God. Verses 5-8 describe the fellowship offering, and the purpose of the fellowship offering was to celebrate communion with God. Sharing in the fellowship offering meant the worshiper was at peace with God.
Our fellowship with God is exclusive. No other god is invited to the fellowship. In chapter 20, verses 2-6 God refers to pagan religious practices and He denounces them. “Molech” was the god of the Ammonites, and God singled out the worship of Molech for condemnation. Sometimes spelled “Milcom” (1 Kings 11:33), this god was also worshiped by people in neighboring nations. Child sacrifice was a prominent feature of Molech worship, which is the reason Leviticus 20:2 refers to the one “who gives any of his children to Molech” (see also vv. 3-4). God calls His people to honor and protect human life, especially the lives of family members. Hence, killing a child to placate a god that did not even exist was an especially egregious sin. In addition to murder, such pagan worship was also unfaithfulness to Israel’s exclusive relationship with the one true God. In chapter 20, verse 6 God referred to consulting the cult functionaries of pagan religions—“mediums or spiritists.” God called such activity prostitution, a graphic way of stating that consulting such people was unfaithfulness to God’s sacred covenant with His people.
We should remember that holiness arises from a relationship with God. God produces holiness in us, and when we sin we ruin our holiness and break our fellowship with God. Fellowship with God and holiness go together. If we are not in fellowship with God we will not be holy, and when we sin we break our fellowship with God. Jesus said, “The pure in heart are blessed, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8). We should not think we can commit sin and say, “Everything in my relationship with God is great!” Everything is not great. God is perfectly holy and sin cannot be in His presence, so our sin breaks fellowship with Him. Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have built barriers between you and your God.”
What is the solution for sin that separates us from God? God’s solution is Jesus. Who needs Jesus? Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned.” Everyone needs Jesus, because everyone has sinned and is therefore separated from God. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sin leads to death, but Jesus died our death on the cross as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin, and then He rose from the dead. When we put our faith in Him, His sacrifice on the cross atones for our sin, He reconciles us to God, and He gives us eternal life and power for living—the same power that caused Him to rise from the grave. Christians are people who know we are sinners who were separated from God, and we turned to Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation to God.
We do not turn to Jesus for help only when we first put our faith in Him. We need His forgiveness and cleansing all the time. We also need His power over sin so our fellowship with God can continue. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught us to ask God for pardon for our sin in the past—“Forgive us our debts.” Jesus also taught us to ask God for power over sin in the present—“Do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matt 6:12-13). God does that. God gives us pardon for sin in our past and power over sin in our present, and praise His name one day He will deliver us from the very presence of sin!
Leviticus 19:9-18 describes virtues that should characterize our relationships. When God works in us so that we are holy and we live out that holiness in the way we behave, inevitably we will relate to people differently. We will exhibit certain virtues. The first virtue is generosity. In verses 9 and 10 God commands His people to allow gleaning. Incomplete harvesting was an act of generosity by farmers. They left some produce in their fields so poor people could pick it. God commanded partial harvesting as a way to provide for the poor. God also expects His people today to be generous to the poor. The apostle Paul quoted Jesus as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Generosity is one way we demonstrate holiness. How are you being generous to the poor?
God also commanded honesty. In verses 11 and 12 God tells us not to steal, not to act deceptively, not to lie, and not to swear falsely. In other words, be honest. We speak the truth and do not take anything that belongs to someone else. In verses 35 and 36 God tells His people to be honest in business. Those verses refer to weights and measures in the marketplace. God’s point is that His people are not to tell someone they are selling them a certain amount of their product, when actually they are selling less. In today’s measurements we would say that we are not to sell a pound of something and give the customer only fourteen ounces. Such practices are dishonest.
A lady learned late one afternoon that some friends were coming to her house for dinner. She drove to the grocery store, went to the meat department, and asked for a large roast. The butcher only had one roast left, so he took it out of the freezer, weighed it, and gave it to her. She told him that she wanted a larger roast. Instead of telling her that was the only roast he had, the butcher went to the freezer, put the roast back in, took it out, and weighed it again, and this time he pushed down a little on the scales to make the roast seem bigger. The lady was satisfied, and she said, “I’ll take both of them.” It doesn’t always pay to be dishonest in business.
God says that when we are holy we will be generous and honest. Third, we demonstrate holiness by showing sympathy. In verse 13 God says not to oppress people. In fact, if a poor person is working for us and he or she needs the wages, we don’t wait until the next day to pay. We pay today so the worker can buy food for tonight. In other words, we show compassion to people. In verse 14 God mentions the deaf and blind. We don’t treat them unsympathetically. Instead, we treat them with compassion. Holiness results in sympathy.
Fourth, God required equity. In verse 15 God forbids injustice and partiality in court to the rich or the poor. In other words, we don’t play favorites; we do what is right. We are tempted to show partiality to the rich because they might grant us favors. We are tempted to show partiality to the poor because we feel sorry for them or because we want to “stick it to” the rich. God tells us to tell the truth, whether we are speaking about a rich person or a poor person. In verse 16 God says not to slander anybody. Slander is saying something untrue about someone behind his or her back. God requires holiness in His people, and holiness includes refraining from saying things about people that are not true, in the courtroom or out of it.
God also commanded mercy. In verses 33 and 34 God says to treat foreigners, or sojourners, as if they are our neighbors. We don’t treat people like they don’t belong and are not wanted. We treat people we don’t know like they’re our friends. Immigration is currently a widely debated issue in the United States. What should the government do about the ongoing problem of illegal immigration? Certainly immigration law is a complicated political issue. However, God’s command to His people is not complicated. God says, “You must regard the foreigner who lives with you as the native-born among you.” In other words, God’s people treat immigrants—legal and illegal—just as if they were born in the United States. Furthermore, in verse 18 God tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and in verse 34 God says concerning the foreigners among us, “Love him as yourself.”
We sometimes hear that Old Testament religion was a religion of rules that addressed external behavior but not the condition of the heart. Some groups made Old Testament religion into a legalistic system, but that is a perversion of God’s intent. Leviticus 19 shows us that God intended His people to love—not merely to perform religious rites and follow moralistic rules, but to love people. Jesus prioritized the command to love over every other command. Somebody asked Jesus,
“Which command is the most important of all?”
“This is the most important,” Jesus answered: “Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God and love people. How do we demonstrate holiness? We love God and we love people. Sure, we don’t participate in the sins of the world, but we also love the people in the world.
The Bible does not describe love as a feeling, and God does not command us to fall in love or to fall out of love. Our culture speaks of love as a feeling, but God refers to love as obedience to a command. Feelings come and go, but our love for God and people remains constant as a matter of obedience, and God holds us accountable as to whether we behave lovingly. What if our love runs dry? Where do we get the power to obey God’s command to love? Romans 5:5 says, “God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” That’s another way God makes us holy. He pours His holy love into our hearts; we get the strength to love all people at all times from God Himself.
Sixth, God called His people to relate to other people in purity. In chapter 20 God gave His people numerous commands concerning staying away from impurity. He told them to refrain from sins like cursing parents (v. 9), adultery (v. 10), incest (vv. 11-12,14,17-21), homosexuality (v. 13), and bestiality (vv. 15-16). God’s commands against all those sins are also mentioned elsewhere in Scripture. Considering the debauchery represented by such a list, it seems amazing that God then referred to the people of Canaan and said of them, “They did all these things.” (v. 23) Truly the people of Canaan were far from God and corrupt. They were committing adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. God stated that their shameless sin was the reason He was driving them out of the land and giving it to His people (vv. 23-24). God was calling His people to be different from the other peoples, holy. He was calling them to be faithful to their covenant with Him. Our holiness arises from a relationship with God, and we demonstrate holiness in our relationships with people.
Our Holiness Requires Living by Distinctions
In the book of Leviticus God regularly addresses distinctions—the distinction between clean and unclean food, the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable sacrifices, and so on. Leviticus 19:19 refers to the distinction between sacred and secular. The mixing of things mentioned in verse 19 was allowed in the tabernacle—the mixing of fabrics in priestly garments and the mixing of spices in tabernacle incense. Because that mixing was practiced in the tabernacle, God said it was special, so it was not to be practiced in secular life (see Deut 22:9-11). Of course, we don’t observe the distinctions about mixing things today. However, the principle is that some things are holy and some things are profane, and that difference ought to be observed. Some things are special and holy. The Bible, for example, is God’s Word, not man’s word, so we treat it with special respect. Worship is especially sacred too, since Jesus made a point to say that He is present where we are gathered in His name (Matt 18:20). Holiness involves making a distinction between the sacred and secular.
Second, we live by the distinction between marriage and singleness. The seventh commandment says, “Do not commit adultery” (Exod 20:14). The penalty for adultery in old covenant Israel was death. Both the command and the penalty were different from those of the cultures around Israel. Those cultures practiced every form of deviation from God’s design, prostitution was one of their religious rituals, and they worshiped pagan gods who were also sexually immoral. In that environment, God said to His people, “Be holy”; you will be different.
Verses 20-22 underscore the sanctity of marriage. When a man was intimate with “a woman who is a slave” (v. 20), that woman was not married, so it was not an act of adultery. Therefore, the death penalty was not applied. However, such sexual sin is immoral activity that is offensive to God, so Leviticus 19 says they are guilty of sin and the man must offer a restitution offering to make atonement (vv. 21-22).
Today distinctions based on the sanctity of marriage continue to mark God’s people as different. God’s Word says that physical intimacy is reserved for marriage, and marriage is between one man and one woman. In the United States, 50 years ago no one would have anticipated that the commitment of God’s people to that distinction would make us out of step with society, but today we find ourselves in circumstances similar to those of ancient Canaan. Like the Israelites, we are surrounded by deviancy from God’s design, and God says to us, “Be holy.” God calls us to love our neighbors fervently and publically, but He also calls us to refrain from the sinful ways of our culture. We honor God’s distinctions between marriage and singleness.
Third, our holiness is defined by the distinction between falsehood and truth. In verses 23-31 God called His people to be different from the false religions around them. When fruit trees bore fruit, the people were to give praise to the one true God, not to other gods, because the one true God gave the harvest—not the harvest gods of false religions. In verses 26-31 God prohibited a list of sins that were commonly practiced by those who believed the falsehood of pagan religions—divination, cutting the body as a sign of devotion to a false god, making one’s daughter a prostitute, and consulting the guidance of mediums. God commanded His people to be holy, different.
When we consider all the areas of life God addressed in this one chapter, the clear message is that God’s call to be holy encompasses every part of our lives—spiritual, ritual, moral, and social. Holiness is being separated from the sinful ways of the world and consecrated to God in every part of our lives. Years ago I was first introduced to Robert Munger’s booklet My Heart Christ’s Home. Ever since, it has affected the way I think about God’s influence in every part of my life. Munger wrote,
One evening I invited Jesus Christ into my heart. What an entrance He made! It was not a spectacular, emotional thing, but very real. Something happened at the very center of my life. He came into the darkness of my heart and turned on the light. . . . He started music where there had been stillness. . . . I said to Jesus Christ, “Lord . . . I want to have You settle down here and be perfectly at home.”
Munger then described his life as a house. The different rooms in the house represented different parts of his life, and he showed Jesus around the house of his life. He started with the study. Jesus saw what he had been reading and thinking about, and Jesus replaced that reading material with different books and different pictures on the wall. Then Munger showed Jesus his living room, and Jesus said, “This is a delightful room. Let’s meet here every morning.” So he started spending time with Jesus in his living room. Then he showed Jesus the workroom, and Jesus helped him to do better work. When Jesus saw the recreation room, Jesus gave him better ways to spend his free time. There was one room left to show Jesus, but Munger did not want Jesus to see it. The hidden room was a small closet where he kept a few things locked away. He didn’t want anybody to know about those things, especially Jesus. But he wrote,
With trembling fingers I passed the key to Him. He took it, walked over to the door, opened it, entered, took out all the putrefying stuff that was rotting there, and threw it away. Then He cleaned the closet and painted it. It was done in a moment’s time. . . . [W]hat victory and release to have that dead thing out of my life!
An idea occurred to Munger. He asked Jesus if maybe He could do in every room of the house what He had done in that dirty closet. Jesus reminded him that He was only a guest in the house; He was not in control of every room. At that point Munger ran to his safe, got the title deed to the house, and he signed his house over to Jesus. “‘Here,’ I said. ‘Here it is, all that I am and have, forever. Now You run the house. I’ll just remain with You as a servant and friend.’ Things are different since Jesus Christ has . . . made His home in my heart.”
Yes, things are different when Jesus takes up residence in our lives. Everything is different because He becomes the Owner of the house. He becomes the Master of every corner of every room; every part of our lives becomes holy. When God spoke to His people Israel in the Sinai wilderness, He called them to be holy because He is holy. He says the same thing to us. So we give Him the keys to every room, and as He takes charge our whole lives become holy.
Reflect and Discuss
- What are the themes of Leviticus 19 and 20?
- How does Jonathan Edwards describe holiness? Do you typically think of holiness in this way? Why or why not?
- Whose responsibility is the work of holiness?
- What does the tabernacle illustrate about holiness?
- According to Leviticus 19 and 20, how do we express holiness in our relationship with God?
- How should we demonstrate holiness in our relationships with other people?
- Explain God’s command to practice partial harvesting. How are you being generous to the poor?
- In Leviticus 19:33-34 God says to treat foreigners, or sojourners, as if they are our neighbors. According to this, how should Christians treat legal and illegal immigrants?
- How would you respond to a person who says that Old Testament religion was just a religion of rules that addressed external behavior but not the condition of the heart?
- Is Jesus the Owner of your house? What areas are you unwilling to submit to His lordship?