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In the Old Testament Meaning of the Term
There has been much discussion as to the original meaning of the Semitic root Q-D-SH, by which the notion of holiness is expressed in the Old Testament. Some would connect it with an Assyrian word denoting purity, clearness; most modern scholars incline to the view that the primary idea is that of cutting off or separation. Etymology gives no sure verdict on the point, but the idea of separation lends itself best to the various senses in which the word “holiness” is employed. In primitive Semitic usage “holiness” seems to have expressed nothing more than that ceremonial separation of an object from common use which the modern study of savage religions has rendered familiar under the name of taboo (W.R. Smith, Religion of the Semites, Lect iv). But within the Biblical sphere, with which alone we are immediately concerned, holiness attaches itself first of all, not to visible objects, but to the invisible Jehovah, and to places, seasons, things and human beings only in so far as they are associated with Him. And while the idea of ceremonial holiness runs through the Old Testament, the ethical significance which Christianity attributes to the term is never wholly absent, and gradually rises in the course of the revelation into more emphatic prominence.
The Holiness of God
As applied to God, the notion of holiness is used in the Old Testament in two distinct senses:
Absoluteness and Majesty
First, in the more general sense of separation from all that is human and earthly. It thus denotes the absoluteness, majesty, and awfulness of the Creator in His distinction from the creature. In this use of the word, “holiness” is little more than an equivalent general term for “Godhead,” and the adjective “holy” is almost synonymous with “Divine” (compare Da 4:8-9,18; 5:11). Jehovah’s “holy arm” (Isa 52:10; Ps 98:1) is His Divine arm, and His “holy name” (Le 20:3, etc.) is His Divine name. When Hannah sings “There is none holy as Jehovah” (1Sa 2:2), the rest of the verse suggests that she is referring, not to His ethical holiness, but simply to His supreme Divinity.
But, in the next place, holiness of character in the distinct ethical sense is ascribed to God. The injunction, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (Le 11:44; 19:2), plainly implies an ethical conception. Men cannot resemble God in His incommunicable attributes. They can reflect His likeness only along the lines of those moral qualities of righteousness and love in which true holiness consists. In the Psalmists and Prophets the Divine holiness becomes, above all, an ethical reality convicting men of sin (Isa 6:3,1) and demanding of those who would stand in His presence clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3 f).
Holiness of Place, Time and Object
From the holiness of God is derived that ceremonial holiness of things which is characteristic of the Old Testament religion. Whatever is connected with the worship of the holy Jehovah is itself holy. Nothing is holy in itself, but anything becomes holy by its consecration to Him. A place where He manifests His presence is holy ground (Ex 3:5). The tabernacle or temple in which His glory is revealed is a holy building (Ex 28:29; 2Ch 35:5); and all its sacrifices (Ex 29:33), ceremonial materials (Ex 30:25; Nu 5:17) and utensils (1Ki 8:4) are also holy. The Sabbath is holy because it is the Sabbath of the Lord (Ex 20:8-11). “Holiness, in short, expresses a relation, which consists negatively in separation from common use, and positively in dedication to the service of Jehovah” (Skinner in HDB, II, 395).
Holiness of Men
The holiness of men is of two kinds:
A ceremonial holiness, corresponding to that of impersonal objects and depending upon their relation to the outward service of Jehovah. Priests and Levites are holy because they have been “hallowed” or “sanctified” by acts of consecration (Ex 29:1; Le 8:12,30). The Nazirite is holy because he has separated himself unto the Lord (Nu 6:5). Above all, Israel, notwithstanding all its sins and shortcomings, is holy, as a nation separated from other nations for Divine purposes and uses (Ex 19:6, etc.; compare Le 20:24).
Ethical and Spiritual
But out of this merely ceremonial holiness, there emerges a higher holiness that is spiritual and ethical. For unlike other creatures, man was made in the image of God and capable of reflecting the Divine likeness. And as God reveals Himself as ethically holy, He calls man to a holiness resembling His own (Le 19:2). In the so-called “Law of Holiness” (Le 17:1-16 through Le 26:1-46), God’s demand for moral holiness is made clear; and yet the moral contents of the Law are still intermingled with ceremonial elements (Le 17:10 ff; Le 19:19; 21:1 ff). In psalm and prophecy, however, a purely ethical conception comes into view–the conception of a human holiness which rests upon righteousness and truth (Ps 15:1 f) and the possession of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa 57:15). This corresponds to the knowledge of a God who, being Himself ethically holy, esteems justice, mercy and lowly piety more highly than sacrifice (Ho 6:6; Mic 6:6-8).
In the New Testament: The Christian Conception.
The idea of holiness is expressed here chiefly by the word hagios and its derivatives, which correspond very closely to the words of the Q-D-SH group in Hebrew and are employed to render them in the Septuagint. The distinctive feature of the New Testament idea of holiness is that the external aspect of it has almost entirely disappeared, and the ethical meaning has become supreme. The ceremonial idea still exists in contemporary Judaism and is typically represented by the Pharisees (Mr 7:1-13; Lu 18:11 f). But Jesus proclaimed a new view of religion and morality according to which men are cleansed or defiled, not by anything outward, but by the thoughts of their hearts (Mt 15:17-20), and God is to be worshipped neither in Samaria nor Jerusalem, but wherever men seek Him in spirit and in truth (Joh 4:21-24).
Applied to God
In the New Testament the term “holy” is seldom applied to God, and except in quotations from the Old Testament (Lu 1:49; 1Pe 1:15 f), only in the Johannine writings (Joh 17:11; Re 4:8; 6:10). But it is constantly used of the Spirit of God (Mt 1:18; Ac 1:2; Ro 5:5, etc.), who now, in contrast with Old Testament usage, becomes specifically the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost.
Applied to Christ
In several passages, the term is applied to Christ (Mr 1:24; Ac 3:14; 4:30, etc.), as being the very type of ethical perfection (compare Heb 7:26).
Applied to Things
In keeping with the fact that things are holy in a derivative sense through their relationship to God, the word is used of Jerusalem (Mt 4:5), the Old Testament covenant (Lu 1:72), the Scriptures (Ro 1:2), the Law (Ro 7:12), the Mount of Transfiguration (2Pe 1:18), etc.
Applied to Christians
But it is especially in its application to Christians that the idea of holiness meets us in the New Testament in a sense that is characteristic and distinctive. Christ’s people are regularly called “holy ones” or holy persons, and holiness in the high ethical and spiritual meaning of the word is used to denote the appropriate quality of their life and conduct.
As Separate from the World
No doubt, as applied to believers, “holy ones” conveys in the first place the notion of a separation from the world and a consecration to God. Just as Israel under the old covenant was a chosen race, so the Christian church in succeeding to Israel’s privileges becomes a holy nation (1Pe 2:9), and the Christian individual, as one of the elect people, becomes a holy man or woman (Col 3:12). In Paul’s usage all baptized persons are “holy ones,” however far they may still be from the saintly character (compare 1Co 1:2,14 with 1Co 5:1 ff).
As Bound to the Pursuit of an Ethical Ideal
But though the use of the name does not imply high ethical character as a realized fact, it always assumes it as an ideal and an obligation. It is taken for granted that the Holy Spirit has taken up His abode in the heart of every regenerate person, and that a work of positive sanctification is going on there. The New Testament leaves no room for the thought of a holiness divorced from those moral qualities which the holy God demands of those whom He has called to be His people.
Holiness. Chief attribute of God and a quality to be developed in his people. “Holiness” and the adjective “holy” occur more than 900 times in the Bible. The primary OT word for holiness means “to cut” or “to separate.” Fundamentally, holiness is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and consecration to what is pure.
In the OT, holiness as applied to God signifies his transcendence over the creation and the moral perfection of his character. God is holy in that he is utterly distinct from his creation and exercises sovereign majesty and power over it. His holiness is especially prominent in the Psalms (47:8) and the prophets (Ez 39:7), where “holiness” emerges as a synonym for Israel’s God. Thus Scripture ascribes to God the titles “Holy” (Is 57:15), “Holy One” (Jb 6:10; Is 43:15), and “Holy One of Israel” (Ps 89:18; Is 60:14; Jer 50:29).
In the OT God’s holiness denotes that the Lord is separate from all that is evil and defiled (cf. Jb 34:10). His holy character is the standard of absolute moral perfection (Is 5:16). God’s holiness—his transcendent majesty and the purity of his character—are skillfully balanced in Psalm 99. Verses 1 through 3 portray God’s distance from the finite and earthbound, whereas verses 4 and 5 emphasize his separation from sin and evil.
In the OT God demanded holiness in the lives of his people. Through Moses, God said to the congregation of Israel, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lv 19:2). The holiness enjoined by the OT was twofold: (1) external, or ceremonial; and (2) internal, or moral and spiritual. OT ceremonial holiness, prescribed in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT), included ritual consecration to God’s service. Thus priests and Levites were sanctified by a complex process of ritual consecration (Ex 29), as were the Hebrew Nazirites, which means “separated ones” (Nm 6:1–21). Prophets like Elisha (2 Kgs 4:9) and Jeremiah (Jer 1:5) were also sanctified for a special prophetic ministry in Israel.
But the OT also draws attention to the inner, moral, and spiritual aspects of holiness. Men and women, created in the image of God, are called to cultivate the holiness of God’s own character in their lives (Lv 19:2; Nm 15:40). Psalm 15, for example, deals with God’s ethical requirements. To the question, “Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?” the Lord responds. “He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart” (v 1, 2). In a similar vein, Isaiah represents God’s ransomed community as “the holy people, the redeemed of the Lord” (Is 62:12).
In the NT the ceremonial holiness prominent in the Pentateuch recedes to the background. Whereas much of Judaism in Jesus’ time sought a ceremonial holiness by works (Mk 7:1–13), the NT stresses the ethical rather than the formal dimension of holiness. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the early church perceived that holiness of life was a profound internal reality that should govern an individual’s thoughts and attitudes in relation to persons and objects in the external world.
The NT Greek equivalent of the common Hebrew word for holiness signifies an inner state of freedom from moral fault and a relative harmony with the moral perfection of God. The word “godlikeness” or “godliness” captures the sense of the primary Greek word for holiness. Another Greek word approximates the dominant OT concept of holiness as external separation from the profane and dedication to the service of the Lord.
Because the NT writers assumed the OT portrait of deity, holiness is ascribed to God in relatively few apostolic texts. Jesus affirmed the ethical nature of God when he enjoined his disciples to pray that the Father’s name might be esteemed for what it is: “Hallowed be thy name” (Mt 6:9). In the Book of Revelation the Father’s moral perfection is extolled with the threefold ascription of holiness borrowed from Isaiah: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (4:8; cf. Is 6:13). Luke, however, contemplated God’s holiness in terms of the dominant OT concept of his transcendence and majesty (1:49).
Similarly, the holiness of Jesus Christ is asserted in the NT. Luke (1:35; 4:34), Peter (Acts 3:14; 4:27, 30), the writer of Hebrews (7:26), and John (Rv 3:7) ascribe holiness to both the Father and the Son.
Since the Spirit comes from God, discloses his holy character, and is the instrument of God’s holy purposes in the world, he also is absolutely holy (Mt 1:18; 3:16; 28:19; Lk 1:15; 4:14). The common title, “Holy Spirit,” underscores the ethical perfection of the third person of the Godhead (Jn 3:5–8; 14:16, 17, 26).
In the NT holiness also characterizes Christ’s church. The apostle Paul taught that Christ loved the church and died for it “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:26). The Greek forms of the verbs “sanctify” and “cleanse” suggest that Paul had in mind the “once for all” (1 Pt 3:18) imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the church on the basis of his death and resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 6:11). Peter addressed the church as a holy people in language borrowed from the OT. Separated from the unbelieving nations and consecrated to the Lord, the church is “a holy nation” (1 Pt 2:9; cf. Ex 19:6).
But the NT more often discusses holiness in relation to individual Christians. Believers in Christ are frequently designated as “holy ones,” literally meaning “holy ones,” since through faith God justifies sinners, pronouncing them “holy” in his sight. A justified sinner is by no means morally perfect, but God does declare believers to be guiltless before the bar of his justice. Thus, although Christians at Corinth, for example, were plagued with numerous sins, Paul could address his erring friends as those who were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy ones” (1 Cor 1:2). Despite their problems, the Corinthian believers were “holy ones” in Christ.
The NT, however, places great stress upon the reality of practical holiness in the Christian’s daily experience. The God who freely declares a person righteous through faith in Christ commands that the believer progress in holiness of life. In God’s plan, a growth in holiness should accompany believing.
Paul urged Christians at Rome to “yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (Rom 6:19). The Book of Hebrews urges believers to strive for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). A goal of the Christian life, therefore, is conformity to the moral image of God. In this sense Paul enjoins believers at Ephesus to “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). God graciously provides the spiritual resources to enable Christians to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).
By J. C. Lambert
Bibliography. O.R. Jones, The Concept of Holiness; S. Neill, Christian Holiness; R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy; J.C. Ryle, Holiness; S. Taylor, Holy Living; A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy; Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Holiness,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988)