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4 Things You May not Know about Holiness

Holiness small sxcWords for Holiness in Greek, Hebrew & Aramaic appear over 1000x in Scripture. Issues of holiness were important to those in the biblical era. Almost every aspect of life was impacted by shared and contended ideas of The Holy.

Yet, nowhere in Scripture is holiness clearly explained; it just is. This is a problem. Our secularist & scientific bent when combined with the culture, language, time and space gap between us and them clouds our ability to discern the meaning of ideas like holiness when they appear.

The tendency throughout Christendom has been to confuse holiness with purity & morality, thinking that to speak of God as holy suggests that God is morally unstained by this world.[1]

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a connection between holiness, purity & morality, but one cannot truly understand that connection without first understanding what holiness was in its essence to the biblical writers.

So, let me give a quick synopsis here, that we can unpack together later.

Holiness has 4 basic meanings, 3 of which stem from its most basic meaning.

  1. Ontological Holiness—a statement of being. Holiness is an essence attribute not a moral attribute. Holiness speaks to YHWH’s nature as true “God”—real divinity in isolation to all other entities.[2] As Rev 15:4 declares, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.” It’s closest associations are with terms like glory & majesty, and other terms and images (like storm theophany) used to capture for the imagination the lethal energy of God’s overwhelming presence.
  2. Derived Holiness—speaks of belonging to the divine. Holiness is an acquisition of the Holy One who draws someone or something into isolated service. This holiness is a fact not an attainment. It is not a moral nor ethical statement, but, rather, a purpose statement. That which is made holy by commissioned service to the Holy is never to be used for any other purpose.
  3. Practical Holiness—regards the rules of belonging to the divine, of fulfilling holiness’s call. Encounters with the Holy demand awesome reverence, & extreme care. The Holy must be approached on His terms. At its core, this involves a reverent replication of the character, will & purpose of Holy YHWH in daily life. Each major functionary in the Old Testament engaged diverse aspects of this replication, whether priest, prophet or sage.
  4. Eschatological Holiness—speaks of our future transformed state before an unveiled holy God. YHWH’s holiness is an eschatological promise of judgment and glorification. It is punitive & purgative, consuming what is out of sync with Him, yet transforming those accepted before Him. I John 3:2 expresses this well, “We shall be Like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”

In these four senses of holiness, we find the starting point for many important conversations over particular texts, especially in regard to the New Testament’s use of holiness concepts post-cross. These are, however, an essential beginning when attempting to unravel the meaning of the ancient sacred writings of Israel.

[1] McComiskey, “קדש,” TWOT 2:786-9. In Akkadian literature, the word-root used for “HOLINESS” in Hebrew does concern purity. This purity, however, is NOT moral. It is used to speak of earthly things free from pollutants. In Akkadian literature, “unholy” would be things like mixed metals, soiled linen, or objects influenced by malevolent spiritual forces.

[2] In Sumerian & Ugaritic literature, “HOLINESS” speaks of that which belongs to the divine realm vs. the human realm. This is not a moral distinction, but an ontological distinction. HOLINESS speaks of something that is part of a different sphere of existence. The Hebrew use of “HOLINESS” to speak of YHWH seems to be, like the Sumerian & Ugaritic, more ontological than moral. Jackie A. Naude, “קדש,” NIDOTT 3:877-87; Procksch says, “There is always an energy in the holy which is lacking in the pure or clean. If both קדש holy and טהר clean may be brought under the concept of the religious, both are distinct from the ethical, with which the religious is not to be equated.“ Procksch, “ἅγιος,” TDNT 1:89; Otto says, “’Holiness’…. is a category of interpretation and valuation peculiar to the sphere of religion. It is, indeed, applied by transference to another sphere – that of ethics – but is not itself derived from this.” Rudolph Otto, Idea of the Holy Pg. 5.

[3] Media pic is from sxc.hu

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