There is none holy like the LORD:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
1 Samuel 2:2
What do you think of when you hear the word holy? Perhaps you think of a special place like the Holy Land in Israel. Maybe it’s a special time of year like Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter when Christians reflect on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or maybe you think of a person who lived an exceptionally pure life spent serving the needs of others, like Mother Teresa.
But what does the word holy actually mean?
Holy means to be set apart, or separate from something. It can involve being removed from evil and sin, but there is more to it than just moral purity. Holiness is not an abstract or subjective idea but is founded in a source. True holiness is found in God and God alone, and all holiness derives its origins from him. God is holy and everything he does is holy.
God’s holiness means he is set apart in his being and in his moral purity: in his being because his existence is quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything else in creation; in his moral purity because of his complete separateness from sin and corruption.
- God is holy in his being.
God is completely other than us. He is unique. He is like no other being and there is nothing we could compare him to. We might say that God is alien or that he has a complete other-worldliness about him. God is not simply set apart from us because he is the best in every category but because he is in a separate category all to himself. Moses sings in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Similarly, the prophet Isaiah writes, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isaiah 40:18). The answer to these questions is no one.
God is set apart from us because of his transcendent majesty. He is high and lifted up, exalted above everything else in his creation. Isaiah frequently refers to him as the Holy One of Israel. As Dr. R. C. Sproul writes, God’s holiness “signifies everything about God that sets him apart from us and makes him an object of awe, adoration, and dread to us.”
God’s holiness is the only one of his attributes repeated in Scripture three consecutive times. The Hebrew language does this to emphasize something to the superlative degree. In Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room, the seraphim cry out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). And in John’s revelation on the island of Patmos, he sees the four living creatures surrounding God’s throne constantly worshipping, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8). The angels do not shout love, love, love or wisdom, wisdom, wisdom, although God is certainly loving and wise. They only declare holy, holy, holy, thereby exponentially emphasizing this attribute of God as his supreme essence.
2. God is holy in his moral purity.
God is completely morally pure. He is perfect. There is no stain of sin or ounce of uncleanness in him. Scripture says that evil may not dwell in his presence and darkness has no part in him. “There is not the slightest taint of evil desire, impure motive, or unholy inclination about him” (Robert Reymond). Greg Nichols describes God’s holiness as “unalloyed moral purity,” bringing to mind an image of a metal in its purest form, not mixed with anything else.
God is so holy that he cannot look upon evil. “Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One?. . . You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:12-13a). In Old Testament times, the place where God chose to manifest his presence in the tabernacle was called the Most Holy Place, or the holy of holies. No one was allowed to enter it except the high priest, and he only once a year and only after he had performed all the purification rituals and sin-atoning sacrifices to make him acceptable in God’s sight.
When Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, went to the cross and took all our sins upon himself, the Bible says he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and there was complete darkness over the land for three hours (Matthew 27:45-46). When he became sin who knew no sin, the Father had to turn his back on his beloved Son because his moral holiness demands complete rejection and utter hatred of wickedness.
So what does God’s holiness mean for us?
First, we can trust that since there is nothing bad in God, all of his ways are good and his works perfect. He will never do anything evil, malicious, or wrong. “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). We never have to fear that God will act like a cruel tyrant.
Second, because God is holy and we are his creation, he has the right to demand absolute holiness from his people in order to be in his presence. In the Old Testament law, God commanded his chosen people, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). He then gave them moral and ceremonial laws to follow to keep them set apart from the surrounding nations and to atone for any guilt they would inevitably accrue.
In the Psalms, the writer asks who is allowed into God’s presence. The answer is, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart,” capturing the idea of unstained moral purity (Psalm 24:4a). The exact same idea is repeated to New Testament followers of Christ as the apostle Peter admonishes, “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
This has further implications for us than seen at surface level. God’s personal holiness and his exaction of holiness from his created moral beings is meant to show us something. When we truly examine God’s holiness and the requirements of his moral law, we see that we fall woefully short. The apostle Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and “no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12b). God’s holiness is meant to leave us feeling morally bankrupt. None of us will ever be able to have clean enough hands or a pure enough heart to dwell with the thrice-holy God of the universe.
However, the final implication is that even though we can never be the source of our own holiness, or approach the One who dwells in unapproachable light, we need not despair. God comes to us instead. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isaiah 57:15).
God knew that we wouldn’t be able to keep his perfect law or have fellowship with him in our sinful state, so he sent his Son to dwell among us and become one of us. Jesus Christ perfectly kept all of God’s commands while he lived on earth as a man. He also made a way for us to come boldly into God’s presence by sprinkling our impure hearts clean with his righteous blood when he died on the cross. He was able to pay the penalty for our sins because he had no sins of his own; he was the “Holy and Righteous One” in the flesh (Acts 3:14).
When we are humble and admit that we need someone else to be our holiness for us, God gives us just that. He unites us with Christ by faith in him, and his holiness becomes our holiness. We can be holy because he is holy! Praise be to God that he provides the holiness he demands!