What in the world is holiness?

Imagine you are a great painter and you have an idea for your next masterpiece. You pull out your sketch book to record the idea, and it looks phenomenal. Next, you pull out your canvas, paint the backdrop and a rough outline. You work from back to front painting the simple colors, then the more complex. You add shadows and highlights to make the masterpiece stand out. Then, when all your work is done, you step back to admire your very own artwork. It looks nothing like you imagined. In fact, it looks painfully bad compared to what you wanted it to be. In your disappointment, you decide to throw it out.

By definition, God is perfect. He did not screw up when He made us and creation cannot be less perfect than He envisioned. This is why I believe God planned redemption from the very creation of the world. Nonetheless, God can become angry with His creation when it chooses not to live according to His created order. People were set apart from the rest of creation from the beginning, and thus created holy. This means that God desires holiness from us. What does it mean to be holy, though? I fear that too often, we are content with answering with the words, “Set apart!” Can I just say: thanks for the ambiguity! Knowing that I am set apart reveals no more about holiness than does the command to be holy. My fear is that the western church has little, if any understanding of what holiness actually is. If we don’t understand holiness, how can we even attempt to live holy lives? So, what in the world is holiness?

Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them. He came down after sacrificing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the fellowship offering. Moses and Aaron then entered the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell facedown on the ground.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own firepan, put fire in it, placed incense on it, and presented unauthorized fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them to do. Then fire came from the Lord and burned them to death before the Lord. So Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said:

I will show My holiness

to those who are near Me,

and I will reveal My glory

before all the people.”

But Aaron remained silent.[1]

Reason for animal sacrifices

Animal sacrifices were given according to a specific set of instructions (Leviticus 1-4). These instructions revealed something about God’s character and revealed something about the type of worship that pleases God. It suffices to say here that the animal sacrifices offered by Israel were offered as atonement for sin and in remembrance of God’s great mercy toward Adam and Eve for their rebellion. God actually covered their nakedness (shame) with the skin of an animal. Thus, atonement is direct restoration to the original created order. When we ask forgiveness, we are literally asking God to return us to our natural place in the created order. This is how animal sacrifices were to be offered before Jesus became the final sacrifice, and the fulfillment of the Law (his death made atonement for all sin).

The present dichotomy

Here we witness two different types of sacrifices being offered. One that pleases God and one that does not. The first was given by Aaron. God was pleased with Aaron’s sacrifice on behalf of the people because this sacrifice was given according to God’s instruction and in reverence to God’s nature. As a result, God revealed His glory to all the people. When God revealed Himself, the people praised Him all the more!

The second sacrifice was given by Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. God was not pleased because He had not commanded such an offering. As a result, fire consumed them and they died before the Lord.

What I notice from the very start is that God actually takes our worship very seriously and very personally. It is amazing to think that when we worship God, He acknowledges that worship and He responds to that worship. Because of this, our worship will either receive God’s blessing or it will not.

So, why was Aaron’s sacrifice blessed while his sons’ sacrifices were not? Aaron’s sacrifice was offered according to God’s instructions listed in the first chapters of Leviticus. Aaron’s sacrifice also reflected God’s character and was offered genuinely. On the other hand, Nadab and Abihu’s sacrifices were not offered according to God’s instructions. They did not reflect God’s character (they were not orderly, they were not offered in the context of community, and there was not recognition of unworthiness). Finally, their sacrifices were not offered genuinely, but expectantly. Nadab and Abihu offered their sacrifice only after God had revealed Himself to the people and blessed them. They seemed to offer this sacrifice for the purpose of gaining God’s blessing.

While I read this story, I have to ask myself what my motivation is for worshipping God. The stark reality is that we worship God because of what He has already done for us, not because we want some kind of reward for worshipping Him. Aaron offered a sacrifice based on God’s promise of redemption. Nadab and Abihu, however, offered sacrifices based on God’s blessing toward the people immediately following Aaron’s sacrifice. This means that God is already deserving of our worship! He has already covered the shame of original sin. He has already provided atonement for Israel through sacrifice. He has already provided salvation to all people through Jesus!

After this event, Moses turned to Aaron and said, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: I will show My holiness to those who are near Me, and I will reveal My glory before all people.” What God meant was that if anyone hoped to approach Him, he or she should approach Him as holy. Still, no matter how people chose to approach God, He would always be honored before all people. So, when we approach God we approach Him as holy, remembering that God does not depend on our worship. He has all honor anyway.


Approaching God as holy

What exactly does it mean for us to approach God as holy? Within the sacrificial system, there is a direct reference to God covering humankind’s shame. In Genesis 3, we witness this covering. Humankind was God’s prized creation and made in His very image! In God’s created order, He had (and has) all authority and human kind was subject only to Him. This means that to approach God as holy is to approach Him for who He is, not who we want Him to be. It means we are to approach Him as the absolute king. It means we are to approach God with the upmost humility.

            If we are made in God’s image, then we are to be holy as God Himself is holy. It is the created order and it becomes impossible to honor God as holy if we ourselves are not committed to being holy. So, we:

  1. Live, now, according to God’s created order.
  2. We serve God as king.
  3. We treat all people like we are actually equal (because we are).
    1. We are not designed to rule over any other person.
    2. It is okay if we do not get our way.
    3. We steward creation well.

This really does set us apart from the world. The great news here is that by commanding holiness, God actually frees us to do what is right and to truly treat others as our equals. This is not possible without our commitment to approach God as holy. The challenge here is a simple one. We should be the people that God designed us to be!

[1] Leviticus 9:22-10:3

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