September 8, 2009
In the last few days, there is a topic that has captured my heart and is building in interest and passion: what is holiness? What does it mean? At first, it was just a wondering at what the word “Holiness” means. I mean, it’s everywhere: Be thee holy; Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty; Holy to the Lord (hung on a big gold plate on the front of the High Priest’s turban); the Holy Bible; holiness, holiness is what I long for; his holiness the Pope; the Holy Roman Empire; etc. It’s not just in the Bible; the word has seeped its way into “Christian” cultures, as well. The words holy/holiness appears 654 times in the KJV Bible. That’s more times than the word sin/sinned/sinner (588 times). So it must be an important concept.
However, when I think of holiness, I get a vague image of white light combined with incomplete explanations from various sermons and books over the years. For a subject that appears throughout the pages of scripture constantly, we in the modern, Western church do not talk of holiness much.
So, what does it mean?
That’s what I started wondering. But I realized that there was a deeper thing to ponder, and that is the essence of holiness. Not only “What does the word ‘holy’ mean,” but “What is holiness?” I believe these are two different questions. In the Bible, there are some words for holy in Greek and Hebrew, but those are still words in human languages. As I begin to ponder this question, I suddenly find myself wondering: can you even describe holiness in a human tongue? I suddenly find myself believing that human words are things that God has hijacked to give us His revelation in the scripture, but that they are wholly inadequate to even begin to describe this radical quality called holiness. It’s like trying to show the full beauty of a sunset in a photograph, or trying to give the impression of the awesome terror of being caught in a thunderstorm through a recording: both are impossible.
So, realizing that deeper than the definition of the Greek and Hebrew words for holiness, there is an underlying reality that cannot be expressed in language, I want to embark on a quest to explore what holiness is. In the last few days, I’ve begun asking that question, and I’ve started requesting of God, “Help me to understand what holiness is; what ‘holy’ means.” “Show me your holiness.” My reasons are many.
First, and foremost, it is a desire to know God deeper. In my understanding of holiness up to this point, influenced greatly from The Knowledge of the Holy, by A.W. Tozer (one of the few books I’ve read says anything meaningful about the topic), I believe that holiness is the central most defining aspect of God. I base this primarily on Isaiah 6, where God is called, “Holy, holy, holy.” There is no statement like this anywhere else in scripture (the triple holy), which leads me to believe that God’s holiness, whatever it is, is what makes Him Him. Without it, more than any other attribute of God, He would not be the God He is. It is, in other words, the primary aspect of God. I see love as lagging just behind holiness, because of statements like I John’s “God is Love.”
However, if this is the primary aspect of God, the very core of His essence (so much as his essence is revealed to us), and I do not understand it, then I do not know God very well, and I’m missing out on some of the greatest delights and pleasures and ecstasy of knowing Him. Therefore, I want to understand His holiness that I may know Him more and fall deeper in love with Him.
Understanding God’s holiness also gives me another lens through which to understand the Cross. I believe that as I understand holiness deeper, I will come up with an understanding of the Cross that goes something like this: Jesus left the perfect holiness of heaven and came into this defiled world to take our unholiness and sin upon Himself and bury it, so that we could be holy again and know and be with a holy God (because part of holiness is that it must not come into contact with unholy things, lest it be defiled). On the third day, He rose from the dead, taking back His holiness from the clutches of Satan and offering us imputed holiness in Himself.” I believe that will be a powerful thing once I flesh it out a little more.
There are also some very practical reasons for this pursuit. First, is that I think the Japanese have a greater cultural awareness of holiness… sort of. They have an awareness of cleanness and uncleanness and separating things for specific uses. The most obvious example of this is not wearing your shoes in the house: the house is, in a sense, “holy” for this reason. So, though this, I hope to come up with a way to more effectively share the gospel with the Japanese (like the above-mentioned).
In addition, I hope to find a way to better explain to the Japanese, or anyone, who God is. If holiness is His most defining characteristic, and I want to explain to someone who God is, then I must know holiness backwards and forwards, inside and out, so that I can explain it, especially if I’m doing it in freaking Japanese. This is especially true for Japanese people, to whom a proper understanding of God is perhaps the hardest step in understanding Christianity. It’s not just that I must know God more, but I want to be able to explain who He is better to others.
That’s God’s holiness. Thanks to Tozer, I see (though this may change with time), our holiness as being different. When we talk about God as holy, it is the awe-inspiring, majestic, other-worldliness of Him we speak of. When we speak of our holiness, it’s often righteous actions we’re speaking of. So, I want to understand that holiness, too, that thing I’m pursuing in actions and that I believe is imputed to us at the moment of salvation.
So, there it is. My latest quest. And somehow I’m going to carry it on whilst getting ready to move to Tokyo, take a furlough, and without giving up studying Japanese. Amazing.
And while I’d love to jump out and read a book on the subject by someone who lived at least 300 years ago (as per John Piper’s advice), I’m going to refrain from that for the moment. I recently re-started reading the Old Testament, and I’m in Exodus. Wow! I’m reading through a description of the temple, right now. The temple is basically about separating the holy from the unholy, climaxing in the holy of holies, where the Holy God dwells. The fact that I can use the word “holy” so many times in one sentence means that there’s a lot about holiness to be understood from Exodus! What a great place to be. So, I’m going to try to search the scriptures myself, for a time.
That being said, something I hope to do soon is to look at the meaning of holiness, the word, in the original Greek and Hebrew languages. If I’m going to grasp its essence, I must first try to figure out what in the world the word that we use to describe it actually means. I’m specifically really interested in the relationship between “holy” and “sanctified.” Do they mean the same thing? Something even close? We shall see, yes indeed.
If you can’t tell from this, I’m passionate about this little (maybe big) project. I feel like there is an infinite world of light, pleasure, and resounding glory to be found out there in God’s holiness, and up till now, I’ve barely dabbled my feet in the endless depths of the ocean of who He is. I honestly just want to take a day and fast and pray about this, because I feel like that’s about the most exciting thing I could do right now. I really think that this is something big that God is doing in my heart. And that’s where it must end up. Understanding His holiness is not just a mental exercise, but one that will pierce to the very deepest parts of my heart with unquenchable light. This is a heart exercise, because that’s where the knowledge has to penetrate once I’ve figured out the facts. This is a truly exciting endeavor.