New Testament Holiness

How do we reconcile the following two biblical statements?

1. God is Love
2. God is holy

Are they in conflict? Do they represent different, contrasting aspects of a deity who suffers from multiple personality disorder? Is preaching the love of God a bait-and-switch technique, to get us into his orbit until the demands of holiness can be laid on us? Or are they DIFFERENT WAYS OF SAYING THE EXACT SAME THING??? Based on years of studying the Old and New Testaments, and on the Gospel fact that Jesus, and only Jesus, is declared to be God’s definitive, complete and living Word, I say:

God’s Love is nothing but Holiness.
God’s Holiness is nothing but Love.

The nature of God’s love as holiness, and God’s holiness as love, is revealed uniquely once for all in the rabbi from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. It is revealed specifically in the event of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, in which the power of God is shown to be the power to give life. This is the flesh and bones behind the Pauline statement that love never fails.

Jesus Christ transformed many traditional religious ideas, giving them new life and meaning in light of the one great commandment “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all you mind and with all your strength” which he consistently interpreted in terms of the second, which is like it, “love your neighbor as yourself”. Many examples could be given. One such traditional concept, radically transformed by Jesus in his teaching and practice, is the concept of holiness.

In the Hebrew scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament, holiness gets a great deal of treatment. In brief, however, anything that is holy has at least one, but most often two or more, of the following three characteristics:

  1. It is dedicated to God
  2. It is set apart from what is, by contrast, called common or unclean
  3. It is cleansed or purified, often as a condition of being thus set apart

Anything that was holy was made so by association with God, who is said to be holy. The same is true for the behavior required of the Israelites, who were to “make a distinction between the clean and the unclean” because they themselves were a holy people. Some things were forbidden them expressly to make them unlike the other nations, and by implication they were thereby to become a showcase for God’s holiness.

This matter of holiness as separating the clean from the unclean led to certain ways of being careful about what one who was ceremonially clean could do or be near, because uncleanness was contagious and holiness therefore was fragile. It is this relationship of contagion and containment that Jesus reversed in his ministry.

Holiness attaches to the presence of God. That is why the temple, all its utensils, and the priests who offered sacrifice had to be sanctified – cleansed and set apart – for service in God’s presence.

Jesus came proclaiming the nearness of God’s reign – the kingdom of God – and according to Christian belief he also is the embodiment, as Immanuel, of God’s presence and holiness on earth. But unlike what we find in the case of the temple and its utensils, or even its priests, in the Old Testament, the New Testament shows Jesus touching the unclean and not being defiled thereby. Instead, he reverses the flow of contagion and the unclean is cleansed. The first of the healing miracles in Luke’s gospel is very explicit about this. It says he reached out and touched a leper, making him clean. Here is what the OT says about a leper:

Lev 13:45-46, NIV:
The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.

Yet we see [in Luke 5:12-16] that Jesus was approached by a leper who, in violation of this commandment, came to him with a simple request: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” And Jesus reached out and touched him, saying: “I am willing. Be clean.”

What is the lesson in this for the people of God today? It is that we who follow this Jesus (and to whom he has said: the deeds that I do you shall do also) are to see ourselves not as a separate, threatened class of the endangered righteous who must beware of becoming contaminated by whatever is epidemic in the world; but as healing agents of God, commissioned to contaminate the world with the cleansing, healing effects of God’s love. Thus New Testament holiness produces fearlessness, and this fearlessness is characterized by personal vulnerability, a willingness to touch the untouchable and, if need be, to face the cross.

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