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The word “holy” occurs 551 times in the NIV translation of the Bible and 576 times in the New King James version. Surely, it is a word and a concept to be taken seriously. It is not, however, a word that was easy to translate in Kewa, the Papua New Guinea language that my wife and I studied for many years.

The English language definition of holy refers to something that is “dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose.” In other words, it is sacred. But what if there is no such word or concept as “religion” or “sacred” in the language? “Although it is a well-defined classification in our culture, there was no such category in Kewa. Things or ideas were not considered “religious” on the one hand and “secular” on the other.

The inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple had two rooms, one the “holy place,” and the other “the holy of holies,” a Hebrew language way of forming the superlative: the “most holy place.” The Scriptures, not just the Torah, were also referred to as “holy writings.” Again, a translation problem in the Kewa because, at the time, it was an unwritten language.

Even things in the Temple were considered holy: “Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar?” And Moses was told to take off his sandals because the ground beneath them was holy (Exodus 3.5). The ground considered holy because the Lord God was present there.

Another way to refer to the “holiness” of something is by claiming its purity. We are to be holy in all that we do (1 Peter 1.15-16), exemplifying a new nature in Christ, such that we are declared “holy and right and without fault” (1 Thessalonians 2.10). This kind of holiness refers to our moral nature and claims that we “share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12.10). Christians have been purified and made holy (1 Corinthians 6.11). But we are not holy like God.

When we pray the Lord’s prayer and say, “hallowed be thy name,” we are honoring the name of God as holy and acknowledging that he is pure and without defect. Humans are sinners and not holy by nature, although Christians are told to be “holy.” Our actions and words are to be dedicated to God, set apart from the natural course of our world. Holy, however can also a designation in the Bible for certain “men of God” For example, “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1.21).

One of the analogies or metaphors that Paul uses for our body is as a “house.” In assuring us of the resurrection he says, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5.1). Our “house” has Christ as its cornerstone and we are built on that foundation: “you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2.19-20).

What is even more remarkable is that “In him the whole building [our body] is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2.21). Wow, Christians are a “holy temple” in Christ!

God is holy and now his holy spirit lives in us, so we are his temple, his sacred dwelling place. We are to get rid of the profane acts of the world and live differently. Paul asks, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6.19-20).

Being holy, is to be holy in all that I do (1 Peter 1.15). This cannot mean being blameless or without sin. Peter also uses the metaphor of our lives as “spiritual houses” to show that this is an on-going process: “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2.5).

Even the holy temple of God had to be kept clean and there were attendants who made it that way. They didn’t just clean it once and we likewise do not just confess our sins once. Confession is the way to keep the house clean, making it a suitable, sacred and a “holy” place for the Holy Spirit to live.

God is indeed holy in a complete sense. That is who he is and that is his nature. We cannot claim to be holy like God and yet God, in his mercy, has given us the Holy Spirit to live in us. And what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit? He speaks to us in our minds and hearts so that we do things according to God’s will. He comforts us in sorrow, and he teaches us how to live a faithful and righteous life. Jesus made this clear when he said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14.26).

We can only be “holy” by the gift of God’s spirit. And his presence provides us with such gifts: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5.22).

Be holy as I am holy” is not an idle or unobtainable command. But any “holiness” we have is because of Christ in us--not because we did something to achieve it.

Karl Franklin


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