“Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1, NASB)
When I hear the word “holy,” without reference to any concrete definition, the slate of my mind is blank. God’s children are supposed to be holy, but what does that mean? What does it look like? The commandment to be holy is all over the Bible, so we have to understand what it means in order to follow it.
Considering the Hebrew word clears the jungle path a little. Kadosh, as I’m sure many of you know, means to be set apart for a specific purpose. Okay, good. We’re closer; we’ve got the basic original definition. But in this Walk, words are only as useful as their effect on our lives. So what does this mean for the way we live?
A verse at the end of Kedoshim aids in our search for a tangible definition: “Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus 19:26). “Set you apart” is from the Hebrew word havdil, which means to separate. At the end of Shabbat, on Saturday evening, the ceremony called Havdalah marks the separation of Shabbat from the other days of the week. Shabbat is a special day that’s treated radically different from the other six. It has a metaphysical status of being set apart and distinct, but on the earthly side it requires action to make it set apart and distinct, as the Lord instructs (Exodus 20:8–11).
So the Sabbath teaches us that holiness is a status, but it also requires action to fully be what God intended. When He instructs us to sanctify Shabbat, or to sanctify ourselves, it’s obvious that we’re meant to do something.
What we are to do to be holy is actually straightforward, once we read Torah passages like Kedoshim, Gospel passages like Yeshua’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), and Apostolic passages like 1 Peter 1:13–2:3. First Peter 1:15 says, “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all behavior,” thus emphasizing that the holiness of God’s children is accomplished through our behavior. First Peter 2:1 adds that we should put away all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. Hebrews 12:14 urges us to pursue holiness. Leviticus 19 explains that being holy is honoring our parents, respecting God’s Sanctuary, caring for the poor, avoiding witchcraft, loving brother and foreigner alike, and many other actions. We can’t say we’re holy and then act like unrepentant sinners.
But we cannot do this in our own strength. “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). The Word of God is planted within us by the Holy Spirit, and it is in God’s power that we can “do” the holy life. “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). He gives us the ability and desire to follow His Word, but we must cooperate and act on His guidance.
Now I can sketch a picture on that blank slate in my mind: being holy is me going about my life, yielding to the Holy Spirit and choosing to obey God’s instructions with every situation that confronts me.