God is holy! In the Holy Scriptures, God indicates that His people can become holy as well. How is it possible for humans to become holy—like God?
What is holy?
How does the Bible use the word holy?
The root of the Hebrew words translated “holy” and “holiness” is qadas. “The verb means ‘to be consecrated,’ ‘to be dedicated,’ ‘to be holy.’ Anything that is ‘holy’ is set apart. It is removed from the realm of the common and moved to the sphere of the sacred” (Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, 1991, “Holy/Holiness”).
God is the Holy One, so people and things that He sets apart and that are dedicated to Him are holy. An example is the seventh-day Sabbath (Genesis 2:3; Exodus 20:8).
In the New Testament, the dominant word associated with the idea of the holy is hagios. This Greek word “reflected the law’s expression of the divine will and human obligation to God. It had a strong moral overtone” (ibid.).
God Himself is the epitome of holiness. So, in His desire to have children like Himself, God commands, “Be holy; for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44; quoted also in 1 Peter 1:16).
God has the power to declare something holy or make it holy by His presence
One of the primary ways something can become holy is that the Almighty God declares it to be holy or sanctified, as He did with the seventh day (Genesis 2:3). It is set apart for a godly purpose.
Another way is that the presence of God can create an area that is holy. In Exodus 3:1-5 God’s presence made the area around the burning bush holy.
As Moses drew near to a bush that was miraculously burning without burning up, “God called to him . . . and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground’” (verses 4-5).
What made the ground holy around that burning bush? The answer is that the Lord’s presence made the ground sacred. Joshua experienced something similar in Joshua 5:15.
And yet, the Bible records that God appeared to other people over the millennia and didn’t declare the ground to be holy in every instance (Genesis 18:1; 32:30; etc.). He has the unique ability to designate or declare something to be holy at His command. (Since Jesus said in John 5:37 that no one has seen the Father, these instances must have been of Christ appearing in the Old Testament. See our article “Jesus in the Old Testament?”)
God declared many inanimate objects to be holy
Implements for worshipping God in the tabernacle in the wilderness and in His holy temple were set apart, dedicated, sanctified, made holy for a special purpose by God. There were lavers, lampstands, tables, incense, showbread, priestly garments and, of course, the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was housed (see Exodus 26:33; 40:9 and many places in between).
The high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle and later the temple, representing the throne room of God, only once a year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16; Hebrews 9).
How can human beings become holy?
God wants people to become His children, and thus He wants us to become holy as He is. He has given us free will to make our own choices, so He does not force us to become holy. He wants us to choose His way.
But the Bible shows how challenging the pursuit of holiness is.
Today God wants His people to be holy. He begins that process by His holy calling. He wants us to change from what we are and to be transformed.When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt through powerful miracles, He commanded His people to become holy and to be a holy nation. Just prior to giving His commandments to them at Mount Sinai, He gave them an opportunity to accept His offer to become holy.
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
The Israelites made a commitment to obey God in verse 8: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” This agreement, or covenant, was confirmed in Exodus 24:7-8.
The people promised God that they would obey His voice and keep His covenant. Did they become holy?
The ancient Israelites were anything but holy
Although the people promised they would obey God, they just didn’t! They had good intentions, but time after time, they exhibited anything but a holy attitude. They were “stiff-necked” and rebellious, breaking the very laws they had promised to obey.
Just saying “I believe in God” or “I accept Jesus as my Savior” doesn’t make a person holy. As James wrote in his letter, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). The Israelites promised to do things the way God had instructed them, but their hearts were far from Him, and they did not do what He said.
Something was missing in the lives of the Israelites
Some have concluded that the laws of God were just too harsh—too difficult to obey. But Jesus said, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). The apostle Paul said that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). So it was not the law that was the problem.
God summed up what was missing in their relationship with Him: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).
Hebrews 8:8 explains that the fault was with them—the people. Because of their failure to obey, God would establish a new covenant.
God promised the people of Israel, and ultimately the whole world, “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts” (verse 10). This promised covenant provides the Holy Spirit so a person can have the heart to obey.
After Christ’s return, Israel will have the opportunity to be that holy nation God wanted them to be, and all people will eventually have the opportunity to be holy like God.
The gift of the Holy Spirit
The gift of the Holy Spirit changes people from the inside. It produces beautiful, holy fruit in the lives of converted Christians: “Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are godly attributes that can be produced in our lives if we have the Holy Spirit.
We are physical. Human beings are subject to the physical temptations and passions of this world and of our human nature. So, how is it possible for us to be holy—to have the nature of God? We cannot worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) if we don’t have His Spirit.
The ancient Israelites are a prime example. We are warned in 1 Corinthians 10:5-11 that what they did after coming out of Egypt was very displeasing to God. They lusted, committed sexual sins, tempted God, murmured and complained, and committed idolatry.
This list is similar to a list of attitudes the apostle Paul warned we would see in the last days.
“For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy” (2 Timothy 3:2; see also verses 1-5). This describes man’s nature without the Holy Spirit.
A transformation to holiness
There is a process that must take place for a human being to become holy. Jesus Christ said it begins with a calling by the Father: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). In 2 Timothy 1:9 this calling is referred to as “a holy calling.”
When God calls people, they will begin to examine whether or not they truly have that deep desire to obey God. This evaluation process can take more time for some than for others. Everyone wants to be good, but really thinking and doing good can require one to make significant changes in how one lives.
The next step in the process of becoming holy involves change. God grants the gift of repentance—sorrow that leads to real, permanent change (Romans 2:4). Repentant people will begin to transform their lives to reflect God’s Word. They will have a deep desire to change from their old way of life to God’s way. They will begin to realize that they cannot be converted without God’s help. This will lead to their receiving the Holy Spirit.
When the disciples and others were assembled on the holy day of Pentecost in A.D. 31, they heard the apostle Peter give a very convicting sermon. In Acts 2:36 he explained to them that they were all responsible for crucifying Jesus Christ.
When people reach this point in the process of becoming holy, they will ask the same question Peter’s audience asked: “What shall we do?”
Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (verse 38).
Put the past behind you and begin to live God’s way
Baptism is a unique ceremony that involves a person’s total commitment to change from doing his or her own will to living a life based on God’s Word and His will. Baptism symbolizes the death and burial of our old self and our past sins. It is a major step in the process of becoming holy.
Paul wrote about how Christians are washed of past sins (baptized) and sanctified (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). The meaning of the word sanctified is similar to holy: set apart for a special purpose, purified, consecrated, hallowed, made holy. As Peter said in Acts 2:38, those who repent and are baptized can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
God’s presence becomes evident
That person now has God’s Spirit living in him or her. We cannot be holy without God’s Spirit. His Spirit reveals His perfect character and attributes.
He will give us this precious gift, if we’re willing to respond to His calling, repent and be baptized. Then we must commit our lives to striving for perfection and following the example of Jesus Christ.
God compares the gift of the Holy Spirit to a guarantee or down payment of a future time—the resurrection—when He promises complete and total holiness can be ours (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13-14). Then we will be like Him: “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
God wants His people to become holy
God wanted His people to become a holy nation when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. In Leviticus 11:45 He told them: “For I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
But their hearts were far from Him. Under the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:10) they will have an opportunity to become holy when they receive God’s Spirit.
Today God wants His people to be holy. He begins that process by His holy calling. He wants us to change from what we are and to be transformed. He wants us to be reconciled to Him so that He might present us “holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight” (Colossians 1:22).
God’s presence in our hearts and minds becomes evident by His Holy Spirit in us. We begin to develop the same godly attributes that describe God (Galatians 5:22-23). This same fruit of God’s Spirit must define us if we want to be holy like God.
The apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:14-16: “As obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’”
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