Heart Verse: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
Holiness is a big ask for a planet filled with flawed human beings. I had this epiphany halfway through my very slow deep dive into Leviticus. I admitted that I was at sea somewhere between spotted bald heads and goats in Azazel. The sacrificial system is a foreign language to those living on this side of the Cross (thank you, Jesus!). Surely Leviticus is meant to be more than a list (with six hundred plus laws, it makes for a lengthy one). I scratched my head. I scrunched my brow. I closed my Bible and petitioned the Lord, “Abba, what is it You want to teach me in this book? I know that every word of scripture is breathed by You, which means that every word has great significance, but I am missing the message here. Please open the eyes of my heart to receive and comprehend it.” He was happy to oblige.
I began poring over the notes in my ESV Bible. I love this version because of its “essentially literal” (word for word) translation. Many of us own a variety of Bible translations to enhance our personal study, and we each have our favorite. ESV is mine. The Spirit began teaching as I dug in. Leviticus is not the “dos and don’ts” manual of a cranky parent. Leviticus is a call to holiness. It is the standard for holy living. But before we can digest that, we need to recognize God’s holiness, His most fundamental characteristic. To be holy is to be set apart. In Richard Lint’s essay for The Gospel Coalition he gives this definition, “The holiness of God refers to the absolute moral purity of God and the absolute moral distance between God and His human creatures.” But where does that leave us? Relegated to the dark side of the moon, no doubt—cold, isolated and forgotten. Not so when our Holy God is a Loving God.
In Leviticus, we witness Yahweh building a temporary pathway to human holiness—to communion with Him—through a ceremonial sacrificial system and a set of laws, all to be lived out under the oversight of a consecrated priesthood. Paul R. House, author of “Old Testament Theology,” states that through Leviticus we can see “how Holy God defines sin, forgives sin, and helps people avoid sin,” and “how God’s will is revealed, His presence can be assured, and people may be declared holy….” Yahweh’s directives to Israel through Moses were clear: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6a), and, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2b).
Fast forward to the New Testament. Christ replaced the sacrificial system through His one-time payment of our sin debt. Through this a new pathway to holiness was forged: Sanctification. When we receive the gift of salvation we are sanctified (set apart for holy use). Referring to Jesus’ recitation of Psalm 40:6-8, the author of Hebrews writes, “When He said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then He added, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will.’ He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:8-10). But, there is also the process of sanctification that unfolds throughout our daily Christian walk. In response to God’s holiness and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling we grow in holiness.
We are no longer required to present the Levitical offerings and sacrifices. Jesus is the sacrifice. We too are to be living sacrifices in Him, just as Paul writes to the Romans, “I appeal to you brothers by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). He has set us apart.
We are no longer beholden to Aaron’s priesthood. We are the priesthood. We must remember that we are not our own—we are Christ’s—and we must take hold of Peter’s reminder: “As you come to Him, a living stone, rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-7). He has set us apart.
As I reflect on my so-called epiphany, I recognize my distorted thinking. One of my “Help Lord, I’m falling!” life rafts has long been Colossians 3. When Paul elaborates on our new identities in Christ—what we’ve gained and what we must now let go of—sanctification should be a no brainer, and yet we continue to wrestle with the flesh. He then writes the following passage, which always restores my heart: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:12-17). If I were to write a key word summary of these verses, it would resemble this: Chosen. Holy. Beloved. Forgiven. Love. Harmony. Peace. One body. Wisdom. Thankfulness. These words intricately weave both God’s call and God’s promise in one stunning fabric. Is that not the epitome of holiness?
In Colossians 3, Paul twice uses the phrase “put on” while instructing the Colossian church to emulate the characteristics that reflect God’s nature. Now, every woman can relate to a good wardrobe reference, and this is no exception. Paul is encouraging Christians to “wear” their holiness as a garment (inwardly and outwardly). This reminds me of a Women’s Spring Tea that my sweet sister in the Lord, Karen Walker, recently hosted at First Baptist Church of Rochester, Pa. This year’s theme was, “What Are You Wearing?” For her message, Karen began by describing several types of uniforms and what they tell us about the wearer. She then spoke about our spiritual attire, which caused us to reflect on what others see in us as we navigate life. Are we living as God’s image bearers? Do they recognize that we are ambassadors for Christ as we engage with them? In essence, is our holiness evident?
As I resume my deep dive into Leviticus, I do so with fresh eyes. The prominent arrow pointing to Christ (initially not visible to me) is evident in the religious and social protocols laid out for the Israelites. Although the paradigm for acquiring holiness may have shifted between Leviticus and The Gospels, the standard has not. The question is, are we meeting it? Are we living as spiritual houses? Like living stones? Have we taken up our mantle as holy priests? For myself, some days not so much, and I believe I am not alone in this. But, living under grace we know that “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning…” (Lamentations 3:22-23a). Because of that, we can begin each day “putting on” all that is holy, the appropriate dress for a believer, and in doing so, honor the standard God set for us long before true salvation had come.