Holiness

I would say that for the past five to ten years my entire mental framework has been undergoing a re-centering process. I have been moving from a world view centered on the individual in relation to God as a punisher of the unrighteous and rewarder of the just to a world view centered on the incarnational and relational love of God for, in and through his people.

It's not that these two are mutually exclusive (not at all), but when one is more central than the other it makes a big difference in how I live my life, what I think about justification and sanctification, how I think about and live in the body of Christ, how I view the Arts, culture, society and politics and probably a thousand other things I haven't even discovered yet.

This is a version of a talk I gave this spring at a community meeting, but I've been thinking about it quite a lot since. I wouldn't say this talk represents the full fruition of more incarnational thinking, but it does represent a step in its development.


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What is the purpose of our holiness?

Holiness at the most fundamental level means 'set apartness.' To be holy is to be set apart.


Thus the heavens and the earth were finished and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

The Sabbath was more than just a vacation. All creation was good, but the Sabbath day was holy, set apart from the other six.

The Temple was more than just a space where the Israelites could have church. The whole earth is full of His glory, but the Temple was holy, set apart as the place where God's glory would dwell uniquely.

The Israelites were more than just one nation among many. All the nations are subject to the Lord of the Universe, but Israel was a holy nation. God set them apart.

But when God sets something or someone or some people apart (both calls them holy and calls them to live according to this 'holiness') it is always a part of his larger purposes.

The Sabbath was to be a holy memorial to the goodness of the creation and the divine rest at the end.

The Temple was to be a place to which the nations would come to be healed.

The prophet Isaiah writes:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The Israelites were to be the people in the world through whom God would work his purposes to bless the rest of the nations.

God said to Abraham:

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

Through Moses he said to the people:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

God wanted to get at the world through the holiness of his people Israel. He set them apart and called them to live out their holiness in order that he might use that holiness for His glory, for their good, and for the renewal of the whole world.

Things go badly when the people of God forget the larger purposes of their holiness.

Jonah ended up in Nineveh angry with God for the repentance of the Ninevites. He wanted then to be blasted. God said to him:

"You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"

The Pharisees forgot what the Sabbath was about, why it was holy and what God was trying to do with it. And when they criticized Jesus for his Sabbath activity, he had to tell them:

If you had known what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”. Then he said to the man,” Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.

Jesus also told this story:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

It is very important to get our own holiness, our own 'set-apartness,' right. Our holiness is not for ourselves. It is not something for us to take pride in. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” the apostle Paul reminds us.

We are in the tradition of the temple and of the Israelites. God wants to get at the world through us. He set us apart, made us holy and called us to holiness, for the same purpose he set Israel apart.

Just as Moses said to the Israelites Peter says to us:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Furthermore, the realities of Good Friday, of Easter and of Pentecost – of God’s uniting himself with us – gives us a renewed purpose and new creation power. The God who once dwelt in a temple made by human hands now dwells in human hands.

The initial charge God gave humanity was to "Be fruitful and multiply!"

He repeated this charge to Noah when he came out of the ark. He repeated this charge to Jacob when he promised to bless all the nations through him. And he repeated it as a promise to the Israelites in exile. Through the prophet Jeremiah he said:

Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord. Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

We are those who have the first fruits of this promise. We both live out this reality, this coming to fruition of God’s purposes, and we represent the hope for its final accomplishment.

The end of our story is written in the book of Revelation:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The apostle Paul writes in anticipation of that new dawn:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

This is why Jesus said to his disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

He is with us always. We do what we do in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The renewal of the world -- the whole human world: our cities, our politics, our businesses, our neighborhoods, our grocery stores, our backyards -- is God's business. And wonder of wonders, he has chosen us to accomplish that business.

It is true that the world is often our enemy, that it sometimes hates and persecutes us, but like Christ before us, we are called to pour out our lives for that world. It is a broken world that, despite often being against us, desperately needs us to teach them to obey all Christ has commanded us.

Knowing the reason for which we have been set apart, then, how should we live here and now? What then is the purpose of our holiness in this time and at this place? How does God want to use our peculiar set-apartness? As we think about what the world is now and who we are, what does God have for us?

We do have a lot to offer to the world.

Consider Christian forgiveness and reconciliation, as imperfect as it is. Consider what the world of counseling, psychology and self-help could learn from that.

Consider Christian community. What could the world of national nights out and neighborhood watches learn about real life together?

Think about our covenant relationships, the value we place on Christian unity, and the value we place on ordinary life.

We really do have a lot to throw into the renewal of this world.

One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The world needs to bow its knee to Christ, to turn aside from its power politics, from its devaluing of human life, from its love of material things.

But someone needs to show them the way, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey what Christ has taught us.

There are many ways of bringing the gospel to a world in need of healing, hope and peace, but let us consider, as one way of evangelizing the world, letting our holiness shine forth – not to our glory but to the glory of him who has called us out of darkness into light and who wants to extend that call to the whole world.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.


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Going over this again I was also struck by an unsettling thought that probably shouldn't be unsettling. If my holiness and the holiness of the particular people of God I am a part of, if that holiness (without exploring the intimate connection between the two more closely today) is not visible to our neighbors, what good is it? What do we think it's for if not to serve as an incarnation of God's love in the world and his purposes for his creation? To make us better? To please God? To make us happy?

If God were to come down and say to us, "Your holiness is no good to me if your neighbors don't see it," would we re-orient our way of being in the world?

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

6 comments:

J.J. said...

My initial reaction to your question about whether our holiness should be on display is, "Yes, but don't tell anybody."
What I've seen of "holiness on display" most often becomes very ugly self-righteousness. I remember a Christian co-worker a few years back 'witnessing' to a good friend of mine who was not a Christian. He described to my friend how he gets up at 4:00AM every morning to pray for 2 hours before coming to work. "How do you make it through life without prayer?" he asked my friend (with whom he barely had a relationship). I'm sure the guy had good intentions and thought he was being a good witness (his holiness was on display). But for the first time I can remember, I could see this kind of 'witnessing' from the perspective of the non-Christian. It was not pretty. Instead of displaying the love of Christ for the world demonstrated in the gospel of grace, it screamed a self-righteous, "I'm better than you because I pray."
I think it is far better to pray for our friends and neighbors in secret (Matt 6:6). In public we love them, serve them, and befriend them. Out of the context of a trusting friendship, conversations about ultimate reality are natural and, in my opinion, much more healthy (and helpful).
I think this kind of thing is what you're arguing against - holiness is for us. So given a proper understanding of the function of holiness, it should be on display for the world to see. Given an improper understanding - please please keep it to yourself.

Jen said...

When I read the passage about the mountain of the Lord I was reminded of "The Great Divorce". Also as I read JJ's comment I was thinking about the interactions in that book. I believe that all the encounters observed are between people who have some kind of relationship with one another. It's not the guy from the bus or George MacDonald who address these people. It's people with a genuine understanding of the purpose of their own holiness as a bridge to those they love.

Janine the Bean said...

God wanted to get at the world through the holiness of his people Israel. He set them apart and called them to live out their holiness in order that he might use that holiness for His glory, for their good, and for the renewal of the whole world.

I really like that Jon. He wants to get AT the world THROUGH us.

Living out our holiness for OTHERS is hugely important. The way you've set forth here is what I want my life and my children's lives to look like. It's radical Christian living. It's "self-help section" demolishing living. I used to re-shelve books in the self-help section when I worked at BORDERS and let me tell you, book after book that I picked up was absolute garbage.

You're right when you say that the renewal of the world is God's business. He uses us, yes. But ultimately, it's his business.

There is so much that I could comment on in your post. I really enjoyed it. It's challenging and I will continue to read and re-read it. Hopefully we can talk more when you're here. This is the stuff that Christians today need to be reminded of, myself included.

I've been thinking a lot about loving my neighbors lately (as seen in a few of my blog posts). This is just it....living out our holiness and letting our light shine. Modeling for our fellow man what Christ-like behavior IS. I think about it even in the way that I talk with my children. I see so many moms that are frustrated, angry, even violent with their children in public. And it saddens me. With this post in mind, we ought to show them that we look at our children in such a way as to say, "for SUCH is the Kingdom." Children are such treasures.

I had this quote saved as I was going to put it on our blog, but it's appropriate in light of the end of your post.

"Our Lord asks but two things of us; Love for [God] and for our neighbor. We cannot know whether we love God…but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or no."

- Teresa of Avila
Interior Castle

So, our holiness is meaningless unless it's lived out for others...would you say that?

The more I think about it and read the verses you've posted, I see that holiness, if not lived out and displayed to the world, is not at all God-glorifying. In fact, it really means nothing.

So, when you write the following....

"Consider Christian community. What could the world of national nights out and neighborhood watches learn about real life together?"

I DO feel that many of us don't get the Christian community that you enjoy with POP. I long for that and I think it's something that a lot of churches struggle with. We don't REALLY want to get to know each other intimately as we say. We'd rather have our fences and superficiality...or so it seems. Community is hard work.

JPB said...

If I was feeling really provocative, I would say that I think Holiness has absolutely nothing (or very little) to do with ethics or morality. I think that helps answer J.J.'s concerns, which I share.

It is, in JJ's words, "the love of Christ for the world demonstrated in the gospel of grace" that is the substance of our holiness.

Christian morality rightly understood is not in another category but simply a function of that set-apart activity.

JPB said...

Another way of putting it (if you have a generous understanding of common grace and natural theology) would be to say that if whatever so-called holiness you're putting on display really isn't attractive to any of the people Jesus's gospel was attractive to ... maybe it isn't real holiness?

Janine the Bean said...

Yes and Amen. I like the way you put it in your last post.