The Beauty of Holiness

mountain

What image does the word holiness conjure in your mind?

Is it positive?

Negative?

Just plain weird?

Would you ever describe holiness as attractive or beautiful?

The concept of holiness is admittedly quite abstract to us, “What does it even look like?” we ask.

“Does it involve smoke and flames on a mountain top?”

“The slaughter of animals?”

“Erecting a fancy tent in the desert?”

We know God is holy, but what does that even mean?

We could simply say that holiness means being set apart, to be other. Which is true but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter, it doesn’t really satisfy our longing hearts.

Occasionally, it seems to mean that someone dies (Leviticus 10:1-7; 2 Samuel 6). It causes the Israelites to “tremble with fear” (Exodus 20:18-19 NIV). Yahweh is rightly described as, “a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24 NIV) because he is holy; he “is God; besides him there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:35 NIV). The author of Hebrews concludes, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31 NIV).

But is that it?

Is holiness nothing more than something to be feared?

Something other. Something unattainable, locked away in highest heaven?

Or is there more to holiness?

Enter Jesus.

The Eternal Son of God.

Perfect Deity and Perfect Humanity, coexisting in Perfect Unity.

He is, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV).

The exact representation of his being.

Everything that we see and hear and experience of Yahweh in the Old Testament is made flesh in Jesus as we watch and listen and participate in his life through the New Testament.

To answer the question, “What does holiness look like?”, if we are looking for a concrete answer, we must look at the life of Jesus because he is the embodiment of holiness. Everything he did was holy, from his carpentry to his miracles. His words were to the metre of holiness and his actions in time with God’s holy cosmos enveloping symphony.

It is ironic to note that the people who were most offended and put off by Jesus were the holy Joes (and Josephines) of his day while it was the sinners who were most attracted to him,

“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”” (Mark 2:15-16 NIV)

Jesus was so popular with sinners he even earned a derogatory nickname from the religious elite, “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19 NIV).

“Surely a holy God would not associate himself with the likes of them,” or so thought the Pharisees and other religious people, “Surely if God were to come to earth it would be us he would eat with.”

To which Jesus quickly retorts, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 NIV).

This should surprise us.

God’s holiness should terrify us because it consumes sinners like a fire devours straw. Yet here we see something altogether unexpected. Sinners flock to Jesus and he embraces them. Absolutely scandalous! Of course the moralists and religious folk were mortified, this was not how they had imagined events playing out. It was they who were to be embraced for their steadfast devotion. And it was for this very reason they missed out on God’s embrace because they failed to fall upon his grace. A holy God certainly, but a gracious God? They hadn’t counted on that! Who could have expected such a turn of events?

The sinners perceived the beauty of God’s holiness in Jesus through an experience of his abundant, overflowing grace. They longed to be holy as God was holy (Leviticus 19:2) but they knew they could never measure up. They knew they were failures but still they longed. This is why they were the recipients of God’s grace, a grace which makes one holy, because they knew they could never do it on their own. They needed help. They needed God himself. And God provided. Spectacularly.

Grace makes holiness beautiful.

What image does the word holiness conjure in your mind?

Is it positive?

Negative?

Just plain weird?

Would you ever describe holiness as attractive or beautiful?

Time and again the Apostle Paul refers to Christians as God’s holy people. This wasn’t wishful thinking or naïve optimism on Paul’s part. That Christians are God’s holy people is a fact established by Jesus through his sinless life, substitutionary death and victorious resurrection given to us freely by grace through faith. We are holy, therefore, we should live holy lives. We need to be who we are. If God has declared us to be holy then we need to live out of that new identity he has purchased for us at great cost to himself.

If our holiness is to be patterned after Jesus’ holiness it must be infused and empowered by God’s grace. We must exude grace. There should be a beauty to our lives which is attractive to others and will awaken a longing within them to be holy too.

If our lives are going to offend people (and they will, just as Jesus’ life offended the Pharisees and the religious people of his day) it should be in substance rather than form. What I mean is that our lives should not repel people because of our attitudes toward and treatment of them, these should be the very things that in fact do attract them to Jesus. If they are going to be offended by us it should be on the basis of our beliefs about where our holiness comes from: that it is a result of God’s grace to us through repentance of our sins and faith in Jesus as the only God, who is both Lord and Saviour.

C.S. Lewis’s words on humility in Mere Christianity apply equally well to holiness,

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really [holy] man he will be what most people call [“holy”] nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is [sinner].

Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.

If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about [holiness]: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

To pursue holiness is to repent of our narcissism and instead “[fix] our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV). If we take ourselves too seriously then we’ll never come to truly understand God’s grace toward us in Jesus because our attention will be focused primarily on ourselves, for he gives grace to the failures, the losers and the sinners; to those who know themselves well enough to look elsewhere for holiness. But he opposes those who take themselves too seriously and think they’ve made it (James 4:6).

We can either be in on the joke or the butt of it. By God’s grace let’s learn to join with him in laughing at ourselves as he makes us into the holy people we have been declared to be in Christ.

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