A cursory reading of Old Testament books like Leviticus (where I am currently reading) can easily leave a person scratching his or her head. As we read about the ways to live in God’s presence, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds amid the descriptions of rituals, sacrifices, matters of purity, feasts, and the roles and requirements of priests. If we do we will miss the central theme of what our eyes are skimming.
The centrality of this is God’s holiness and how we can come into the presence of a holy God.
How we do it shows our respect and honor for his holiness. That He shows the way is evidence of his love and longing that we no longer be separated from Him. He desired to enter into a covenant relationship with his people.
Even though the New Testament reminds us to be holy and somewhere we know or have heard that God is holy, we have likely heard more messages and read more books about God’s love than God’s holiness. If we are asked to define it, too often our words trip over themselves.
At some point we have heard and understood that to be holy is to be set apart as unique. As one who desires to follow Him, we are to be unique as well and not look like those who are not his. Sadly, we too often look, talk, and act much like those who do not claim Him.
Holiness is not a quality of character that comes in our human DNA.
Our sin nature (not unlike the stories we read in Leviticus) gets in the way of our relationship to the Lord. The place where we may get lost in the weeds in Leviticus is God teaching his children how they (sinful) can risk living in his holy presence. (All those animal sacrifices and purity laws seem impossible.)
God is well aware of our condition ever since the first bite of the fruit in the garden that was not to be touched. He knows well that it separated us from Him and He has been showing us the way back ever since.
Of course God had a plan for that, a plan to bring us into wholeness again through the sacrifice of the perfect Lamb, Jesus. He offers us grace, mercy, and love, but He also provides for transformation. He sets about transforming our character, showing us that we are called to holiness. And that is only something his transformation can accomplish.
The thing about holiness is that no matter how much we try to do or say what we know we should and practice all the things we see as a part of Christ, we cannot really make ourselves appear holy outwardly (let alone inwardly).
Holiness includes goodness and such Christ-like characteristics can only occur with a transformation of our heart by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Then that can be expressed in our external actions and only then.
When the Lord starts cleaning house in our hearts and souls, it is no quick tidying up. Beyond the obvious clutter, dust, and dirt He may see, there are those other things that we hide or don’t even recognize about ourselves − our motives.
John Eldredge puts it this way in his book, The Utter Relief of Holiness:
“Everything we do has a motive behind it. This is such a helpful category. It will be the dawning of a new day for us when we can simply accept Jesus’ offer of genuine integrity by looking at our motives.”
Looking of our motives is not for the faint of heart.
That quest will expose more than we often want to see of the core sin issues that plague us in this life. We will see how often we do things or say things to gain favor or avoid consequences or punishment, how often our fear of man rules our choices. We will also bring to light the truth that our efforts to meet or maintain a moral standard, a life of integrity, miss the point. His interest is not in the letter of the law or doctrine, but rather in the spirit of it.
We don’t throw those standards out the window, but a transformation of our heart to wholeness and holiness is the only thing that can bring us to living by love as the Lord does (along with the other higher laws that were central to his life). Once it is woven into the fabric of our being, it is what allows us to love Him and serve Him above our desire to please others. And that is evidence we are set apart.
The work on the cross and our acceptance of the Lord’s grace means He now lives in us. That doesn’t mean we are perfect, but it does accomplish something we could not do otherwise:
“What is crucial here is this: now we have an option. Without the cross, sin would simply rule in us and over us unchallenged. The hope of genuine goodness could never be ours. But because of the work of Christ for us and in us, we now have the possibility of living a life filled with the captivating goodness of Jesus.”
God knew what it would take to get to the heart of the matter − our hearts. No amount of animal sacrifice or ritual could accomplish what we needed to be reconciled to Him who was wholly pure, good, and holy.
What is the paradox of living in God’s presence?
Living in the presence of our holy God is living in pure goodness, but we cannot forget it becomes dangerous if we rebel or insult God’s holiness.