Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
The Bible speaks profoundly and frequently about the holiness of God. The book of Leviticus alone spends ten whole chapters talking about holiness (17-26). In fact, when you take the Bible as a whole, I suspect holiness may be the best supported attribute of God. In other words, if you could only name one thing about God, you could be pretty confident in responding “God is holy.”
But holiness (as a concept) is a bit ethereal as well. What is holiness? What does it look like? And (looking to texts like Leviticus 19:2 and 1Peter 1:15-16), how do we fulfill God’s command to embody holiness as well?
On the surface (which is often unfortunately as much as we care to investigate), holiness seems to have something to do with purity: clean and unclean. If you’re still in Leviticus, let your eyes flip around a couple pages in either direction, and I suspect you’ll land on some instruction about sexuality (18:6ff), not consuming rare steak (19:26), not allowing anyone with physical deformities in church (21:17ff), and not to wear cotton/poly blends (19:19).
There are diverse reasons for these issues of “purity.” Some seem to be lightyears ahead of their time and address realities of germs and genetics and other things that the ancient Israelites knew nothing about. Others seem to be purely symbolic—the Israelites are to be different than those around them simply because God is different than the gods other peoples worshipped.
But purity is never the point, in and of itself. Not really. God is the point. “Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
And besides, when we mistakenly equate holiness with purity, we reduce holiness to something we do NOT do.
We don’t have sex with our grandchildren (Lev 18:10).
We don’t eat shellfish (Lev 11:11-12).
We don’t offer child sacrifices (Lev 20:2).
We don’t cheat people out of their wages (Lev 19:13).
Now don’t you get me wrong: These are good rules. I like these rules. I think the world is a better place when we follow these rules…… (OK, maybe the one about shellfish is wrong—but the rest of them!!!).
But God does not instruct the Israelites by saying “Don’t do the things that I don’t do!” No! God says, “Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
Holiness isn’t something you DON’T, it’s something you DO.
“Do these things,” God says, “because I do these things.”
“Be this way,” God says, “because I am this way.”
So if we are commanded (in both Old and New Testaments) to “Be holy!”, how do we do that? What does that look like?
In the tradition of the preachers of old, I’ve got three points to help us get to the bottom of that precise question.
1. God is holy
We must acknowledge—first and foremost—that God is holy.
Pastor Tom Tate reminds us that God’s holiness is multidimensional. He says: “God is holy. God is set apart from everyone and everything else. God is different. God is independent. However, God also chooses to be with us (Immanuel) and to live among us (incarnation)” (Feasting on the Word, 196).
The holiness of God is emphasized over and over throughout the Old Testament, and particularly in Leviticus and the prophets. We read (like in Isaiah 43:3) God say: “For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” We encounter in the Psalms and other places testimonies of God’s holy name: “For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name” (Ps 33:21).
Holiness is (as I already suggested) the defining characteristic of God in the Bible. If we piece all of that together, we discover that holiness is a kind of ethic—a kind of standard for action that God commits to. God is holy because what God does, God does in a certain kind of way.
So to begin with, we must acknowledge that holiness involves being like God.
2. God intends us to be holy too.
We, as the people of God, are invited to be that way too.
“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2)
“But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1Peter 1:15)
How many times in how many ways do our scriptures reach out to us—implore us!—to be like the God we worship, to act like the Christ we follow, to imitate and reflect our Head—the Word of God, with God in the beginning, incarnate and with us in Jesus the Christ, and continually present with us through the abiding of the Holy Spirit.
Holiness is something that God is, and holiness is something that we are to be too.
That’s great, Pastor, but you still haven’t answered your own question: What do I do!!!
This—maybe even more than everything else—is the part that matters. You know and profess that God is holy. You recognize and affirm that God (through the Bible) calls us to holiness too. I’ve suggested that holiness is a kind of ethic—a way of operating in the world. So here we go……
What is holiness? Holiness is love lived out.
Maybe that definition surprises you. But let’s look (for instance) in between the verses of our reading: Leviticus 19:9-10. Remember, this chapter began with the instruction to be holy, and then proceeds to show what that looks like. Here it is:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.
Being holy means we are sometimes inefficient. But not in the ways we are usually inefficient. Being holy means our inefficiencies provide for the needs of others. Love is holiness lived out.
Keep reading (vv.11-12):
Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.
More good rules, right? And the heart of these rules too lies in (1) the nature of God, and (2) embodying that holiness in the world. Why don’t we steal, lie, and so on? It’s because is contrary to the ethic of holiness to which God calls us. It is contrary to the love and respect God expects us to show one another. Love is holiness lived out.
The rest of this section of scripture proceeds in a like manner. Don’t mistreat a neighbor. Don’t tie up someone’s wages in a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo. Don’t let cultural bias get in the way of legal justice. Don’t spread lies and tell slanderous stories about other people.
It’s all right here. And it’s not really about what we “don’t” do so much as the overarching ethic of holiness we are called to live out in our lives. Love is holiness lived out.
And it culminates at the end of v.18: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
In fact, the author so wants to ensure you get his point that it is repeated again at the end of this chapter that tells us how to “be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” At the end of v.34, we read again “You are to love him in the same way as you love yourself.”
Love is holiness lived out.
We sometimes get this mistaken notion that Leviticus is this dry, boring book. And I suppose I will freely acknowledge that parts of it are dry. But we have in chapters 17-26 (over a third of the entire book!) a rather passionate plea for an ethic of holiness that brings provision, protection, and even forgiveness to this world. These chapters support a high view of human dignity and worth that defies discrimination and demonization.
God (in these chapters) calls us outside of ourselves.
These chapters call us to God. To be like God. To be holy, as God is holy. To live out the ethic of love that God has been living out since the beginning of creation.
God is set apart. Love sets us apart.
God is different. Love proves us to be different.
God is independent. Love displays our independence from the powers and pressures and cycles of violence in this world.
God is also Immanuel—God with us. And when we love others as God loves us, then we too bring the presence of God into their lives.
And God is incarnate—en-fleshed—in Jesus the Christ. No wonder—No wonder!—Jesus too emphasizes these verses from Leviticus as a key to eternal life (Luke 10:25-28). In our pursuit to live out holiness through love, we embody—(incarnate)—the riches of God’s love amidst the poverty of spirit that plagues this world.
Love is holiness lived out.
“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”