Be Holy as YHWH is Holy
Generally considered to be the oldest part of the Levitical Law Codes is chapter 19. The chapter is a mix of what we would define as ritual worship code (3b-8) and social code (9-18). It ends with the famous text quoted by Jesus as one half of the Greatest Commandment: “love your neighbour as yourself” (18b). All of this is contained under an interesting overarching command: “be holy, because I, the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, am holy” (2b). That beginning and that ending serve, I think, as our guide in interpreting the sections in between and is valuable in understanding the entire Law.
Holiness is one of those words that gets used in a lot of different ways. Some use the term pretty much exclusively to refer to sexual morality, usually with little room for debate about what is and isn’t moral in the area of sexuality. Others use it to mean personal morality but include various other domains. Others use it exclusively for personal spiritual disciplines: reading Scripture, praying, being a part of a Christian community, etc. Others use it for communal morality, such as the kinds of social justice topics I’m working through in this series.
The short answer, I think, is that holiness may include all of these things but is not primarily about these things. Holiness is not fundamentally about following the right rules, whether those rules are about private ethical actions, social ethical actions, personal disciplines, communal disciplines, or anything else. It is always tempting to reduce holiness to any of these things, and depending on our own personality and experience most of us probably lean more toward one than the others (for me it is social justice and I have a really hard time with the personal disciplines).
Holiness simply means being set apart for a purpose. God, the Lᴏʀᴅ or YHWH, is fundamentally different than the ways of the nations and their gods around Israel. God’s people, Israel – and I think by fair extension, the Church today – is called to share in this fundamental difference. Like that classic song put it, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” based off of John 13:35:
If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples. (CEV)
The world is governed by black and white rules, by retribution, by violence, by people stepping over each other to get their own ways. Christians can very easily fall into this same way of thinking, just with different rules and different people on the end of our retribution, violence, and stepping over.
But as Jesus made explicit for us, we’re called to something fundamentally different, something set apart from the ways of the world for a distinct purpose (ie something holy): a rule of love. God’s holiness is not based in having the right set of rules or hating the right people. It’s based in a character of love for every single human being.
This post concludes my look at the Law. My goal has been to avoid detailed debates about which rules apply to Christians now and which don’t. Those conversations may be useful to some degree, but only with that basis in place: our command is to love as God is love. When looking at the Law or ethical deliberations in general, our big question is: what is the most loving thing for me to do?
Of course, much debate even amongst Christians does legitimately boil down to this question as we don’t always come to the same conclusions. And while it can sometimes get pretty ugly when we forget to apply that guideline of love to our dealings with each other, part of the beauty of faith in general and Scripture is particular is that we’re all in this together.
We do have some more general guidelines in Scripture about this love ethic, though, like this text that we often hear at weddings:
Love is kind and patient,
never jealous, boastful,
proud, or rude.
Love isn’t selfish
or quick tempered.
It doesn’t keep a record
of wrongs that others do.
Love rejoices in the truth,
but not in evil.
Love is always supportive,
Love never fails! (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a CEV)
Or as 1 John 3:16 puts it:
We know what love is because Jesus gave his life for us. That’s why we must give our lives for each other.
God is holy primarily in that God is love. God is love and calls us to be love. This love looks like Jesus, particularly on the cross.
In other words, a Christian ethic cannot start with the Law or any other collection of rules. We start by striving to look like Jesus: patient, kind, not jealous or boastful or proud or rude, not selfish or quick-tempered, not keeping records of wrongs, rejoicing in the truth, always supportive, loyal hopeful, trusting, self-sacrificial even to the point of death. That love will never fail.