How would you finish that sentence?
Ask a hundred people to finish that sentence and you will receive a wide variety of answers. Some people would say, “God is merciful;” “God is gracious;” or, “God is everywhere.” A few people might even say, “God is nonexistent.” If people were honest they would say, at least at times, “God is complex;” or “God is confusing;” or, “God is absent.” But more than likely, the majority of people would say, “God is love.”
God, for most people, has a great reputation.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to describe God in a single word or phrase or characteristic. God is many things. The most theologically accurate answer would be, “God is.” Period. End of sentence. Maybe, the most genuine answer would be, “God is a mystery.”
While there are many good ways to finish the sentence, “God is…,” I still believe the starting place is to say, “God is holy.” Whatever else He may be, who He is, begins and ends with His holiness.
God’s love is a holy love.
God’s mercy is a holy mercy.
God’s grace is a holy grace.
Even His absence is a holy absence; and His mystery a holy mystery.
God is Holy
What does it mean to say, “God is holy?” The word itself means to be separate, or to be consecrated. To be holy also means to be pure and without stain or blemish. Holiness also carries the idea of wholeness, lacking nothing. To say God is holy encompasses all of that!
To say God is holy means He is above us but not beyond us. It means He is pure, without sin and completely whole. God is in need of nothing. He is fully self-sustaining. As He said to Moses from the burning bush, “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). Yet, somehow, in His holiness, God desires a relationship with us. The wholeness of His holiness is the basis of the Trinitarian relationship—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and is thus the basis of our relationship with the Godhead.
The practical outworking of God’s holiness is seen in His relationship with all of His creation. Two words summarize that relationship—JUSTICE (sometimes referred to as “righteousness” in the Old Testament) and LOVE. Justice is God’s social relationship with all created order. Love is God’s personal relationships with people.
God’s holiness, which flows through His justice and love, was made perfect and personified, in Jesus Christ. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1-5). Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you see the holiness of God played out in both justice and love. The core of Jesus’ teaching and ministry was, “The time has come…The kingdom of God is near (at hand, right before your eyes, and here for the taking). Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15, parenthesis added for clarification). In His prayer, Jesus said, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment was to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’…And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-40). The themes justice and love are the ethic by which citizens of His kingdom live.
God Calls Us to be Holy
Peter writes his first letter to a group of believers in northern Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). These believers were scattered and living through a time of persecution. In 1 Peter 1:1 he writes they were, “strangers in the world.” The Greek word for “strangers” is parepidemois (par-ep-id-ay-mos), meaning “sojourner,” “alien,” or “exile.” The idea is someone passing through a strange land because the circumstances in their home land are extremely dangerous.
In context, because the believers Peter was writing to were going through persecution, the best translation of this word translated “strangers” would be “refugees.” Their lives were so different from the culture in which they lived it was as if they were immigrants in a foreign land. Their differences made them easy targets for persecution and oppression. Following Jesus will make you a refugee in your own land. Because your citizenship is in heaven, you are not from here and you are at odds with the customs and cultures of this land. You are an easy target for ridicule and derision. If at times, in this life, you don’t feel uncomfortable, or if you don’t feel like a stranger in a strange land, you need to check your passport and see where your citizenship really is.
Because of their persecution, Peter tries to encourage them in their suffering by reminding them of the hope they have in Christ. He writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:3-6).
Even in the middle of trials and tribulations, we have the hope of salvation because of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. Thus, Peter continues, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:13-16). It’s as if Peter is saying, “Don’t get caught off guard because of your circumstances. Don’t lose focus because of your suffering. Keep on following Jesus. He is your hope. He is your only hope. Don’t quit! Keep the main thing the main thing.”
What is the main thing? As God is holy, so you are to be holy! That is the main thing! What does it mean for me and you to be holy? Is it even possible for us to be holy?
When I was growing up in the church, we talked a lot about holiness. Unfortunately, however, it resulted in a list of rules and regulations. For example, I was taught holiness had to do with not dancing, not playing cards (except for Rook), not going to movies, not drinking alcohol (but smoking tobacco was ok), the length of your hair, wearing modest clothing at all times, not cursing, and not going “mixed bathing” (swimming with people of the opposite gender). Peter suggests that holiness goes beyond a list of rules, to your relationship with Jesus Christ, and the hope of His return. Holiness has to do with God’s wholeness living out through you and in you. God’s holiness (His wholeness) has to do with you, as an individual, and with the society you are presently living in, living as a refugee. God’s holiness (His wholeness), living through you and in you, has to do with justice and love. If we are to be holy as God is holy, that means in the same way God’s holiness flows through justice and love, our holiness is demonstrated through justice and love. Justice is our relationship to society and love is our relationship to others. Holiness is not a personal lifestyle. Rather it is a public demonstration of your relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ; a demonstration of justice (society) and love (others).
This idea of holiness being both justice and love is seen all through Scripture. From the Old Testament admonitions to care for the widows, the orphans, the immigrants, and the poor. To the instructions in the Law of Moses to leave parts of your fields unharvested for the poor. To the prophets calling nations and governments, not individuals, to repentance for their lack of caring for the poor and the vulnerable in their countries.
You see this idea of holiness flowing through justice and love in Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes, and how He ministered and cared for “the least of these.” Jesus spells this type of holiness out in His parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 where He tells us to care for the homeless and the thirsty and the hungry and the immigrant and the sick and the prisoner. You see it in Jesus’ teaching of the “first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and when He tells us if we are going to throw a party not to invite the rich and powerful but to go into the highways and byways and bring them in.
The idea of holiness is speaking up for those who cannot speak up, caring for those who cannot care for themselves, and making a difference, not just in your own individual life, but in society as a whole. This is why, at FCC, we believe part of our calling is to be a conscious for the community, to raise up issues no one else wants to address, and to be a holy nuisance to the people in power.
This idea of holiness is seen in the words of James where he tells us that true religion is caring for the orphan and the widows (James 1:27). You even see this idea of holiness in the book of Revelation where we are called to stand up and speak truth to Babylon (Empire), even if it cost us our lives.
The issue today is we are not holy as God is holy. We have not allowed His holiness to permeate our lives through justice (society) and love (others). Our problem is we have become so heavenly minded we are no earthly good. Our problem is we have convinced ourselves salvation is an individual matter with very little social ramifications. Our problem is we are looking for heaven to be an escape from this world instead of bringing a touch of heaven into our everyday existence. Our problem is we are better citizens of our country then we are citizens of God’s kingdom.
God has called us to be holy as He is holy. He has called us to be salt and light in this world so “that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16). Like God’s holiness, our holiness should overflow with justice and love.
In order for you to live, you have to breathe. In fact, your breath is your life. No more breathing, no more life. In order to breathe you have to continually do two things—inhale and exhale. On average, a person inhales and exhales 20,000 times per day.
Now, let me ask you a question: Which is more important, inhaling or exhaling? To my surprise, if you Google this question you will find there is a big debate about this. It’s about as useful of a debate as which came first, the chicken or the egg. The point is, breathing requires doing both. One leads to the other. You don’t have breath without both. Inhaling and exhaling are not two sides of the same coin. If you want to live, you can’t choose to do one more than the other. You have to do both, all the time, or you will die!
The same is true for holiness. God is holy, and He has called us to be holy. God’s holiness is seen through the lenses of justice and love. Holiness is the air we breathe. If you want to be spiritually alive you must breathe in and out—exhaling and inhaling—God’s holiness and let it flow through you in justice—your relationship to society; and in love—your relationship to others.
How do we live out this type of holiness?
Over 16 million people in the United States have a breathing problem known as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). The most common cause of COPD is years of breathing in harmful chemicals like tobacco or dust or other pollutants. Spiritually speaking, all of us have breathed in harmful pollutants that keep us from being holy. So, by way of application, if you want to breathe holiness (and you should, because God is holy), here are four key words for you to take-away. To help us remember them, they spell out COPD.
C – Commitment
Commit your life to Christ. Quit playing games and give Him all of you there is to have. Commit to living a holy life.
O – Openness
Open yourself up, and make yourself available for God to use. Open your eyes to the needs, and to the injustices, all around you. Pray for God to break your heart for what breaks His. Look for opportunities to get involved and to make a difference.
P – Passion
What are you passionate about? What do you see going on in our society that makes you angry? Is it juvenile violence like we have seen in Nashville? Is it people suffering because of inadequate healthcare? It is issues surrounding the treatment of immigrants? Is it the environment? It is homelessness in the wealthiest county in Tennessee? Is it the opioid epidemic? Is it economic injustice, or systemic racism, or mass incarceration, or abortion? What it is that you are passionate about? That passion may be God’s way of calling you to do something.
D – Doing
In the immortal words of Nike, “Just do it!” When you have committed your life to Christ, and opened yourself up to be used by Him, and through your passion He calls you to do something, DO IT!
Holiness is the air we breathe, and it flows out of us through justice and love. “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16).