What Does It Mean to Be Holy?
John Kleinig’s commentary on the Book of Leviticus is nothing short of brilliant. Here is how he explains how the Church today is like the Israelites of old and how we today live out our lives as God’s holy people.
“Like the Israelites, all the members of the church are called to be holy (1 Cor 1:2; 1 Thess 4:7) and share in God’s holiness (Heb 12:10). Each congregation is a community of saints or “holy ones” (1 Cor 14:33), people with angelic status and a priestly vocation (e.g., Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:10; Rom 1:7; 8:27; 12:13). These saints are true Israelites (Romans 9–11; Gal 3:26–29; 6:16). They are united with Christ in a fuller covenant and communion. He is their holiness (1 Cor 1:30). They are sanctified by him (1 Cor 1:2), holy in him (Phil 1:1; 4:21; Col 1:2). Since they are holy and blameless before God the Father in Christ, they have access to every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm (Eph 1:3–4). The goal of their sanctification in Christ is participation in eternal life, the divine life of the Holy Trinity (Rom 6:19–23). All this is a corporate, communal reality, something that all Christians have in common because they all belong to Christ.
“Since they are holy in Christ, the promise and admonition of Lev 19:2 applies to them. They are to live and act as holy, priestly people here on earth (1 Pet 1:15). Their lifestyle is governed by the ethic of holiness. Their liturgical participation in God’s holiness shapes the life of the community and their dealings with each other in it. Apart from the laws that dealt with the temple services rather than the Divine Service in the church, the prohibitions and the commandments are even more relevant to Christians than the Israelites. Hence this chapter is used more often in the NT and the early church than any other part of Leviticus.
“The NT does not repeat God’s commandment to observe his Sabbaths (Lev 19:3b, 30a) because Christ had fulfilled the Sabbath (Col 2:16–17). The Sabbaths foreshadowed him and the sanctifying rest that he provides (Mt 11:28–30). His most holy Word sanctifies all things (Jn 17:17–19; 1 Tim 4:5). His disciples therefore enter his sanctifying rest by trusting in him and listening to his Word (Heb 4:1–13). That is why Luther gives this explanation of the Third Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”37 Thus those who participate faithfully in the Divine Service receive what God ordained for them in the Third Commandment. By hearing his holy Word, they participate in his holiness.
“All the commandments in Leviticus about the sanctuary are fulfilled by Christ. He is greater than the temple (Mt 12:6); his body is the new heavenly temple constructed by God the Father (Jn 2:21). All those who are joined to him in Baptism comprise the temple of the living God here on earth—his sanctuary, the place where he dwells and gives access to himself (1 Cor 3:16–17; 2 Cor 7:1; Eph 2:19–22; 1 Pet 2:4–8). The commandment to revere God’s sanctuary (Lev 19:30b) therefore applies to the church. Those who form his holy temple must take care to build it up on Christ and do nothing to destroy it (1 Cor 3:9–17). They must respect its sanctity by withholding his holy things from those who are unclean (Mt 7:6) and keeping themselves free from every defilement of body and spirit (2 Cor 7:1).
“God the Father shares his holiness with the congregation through the body and blood of Jesus (1 Cor 11:20–28). Just as the Israelites were guests at God’s table when they ate the meat from the peace offerings (Lev 19:5–8), so communicants are the guests of the Lord (1 Cor 10:14–22). If they desecrate that holy food and drink, they, like the Israelites (Lev 19:8), come under God’s judgment (1 Cor 11:27–32).
“The members of the church have turned from the service of idols and become involved in the service of the living God (1 Thess 1:9). They therefore must avoid all forms of idolatry (1 Cor 10:7; 1 Jn 5:21), for even though idols are dedicated to nonentities (1 Cor 8:4), they are not neutral or benign pagan artifacts, but instruments for demonic influence (1 Cor 10:20–21; 12:2; Rev 9:20). The saints cannot participate in the Table of the Lord and eat meat at temple with an idol (1 Cor 10:14–22). All those who are idolaters are excluded from the church, the holy city of God (1 Cor 6:9; Rev 22:15). The members of the church are the temple of the living God, his living sanctuary here on earth (1 Cor 3:17). They therefore dissociate themselves from idols (2 Cor 6:14–16). Idolatry is forbidden because it desecrates their holiness.
“Like idolatry, all kinds of involvement in the occult are forbidden for the holy people of God.38 Occult practices are works of the devil which Christ has undone.39 All the practices mentioned in Lev 19:26–29, 31 were dead works that defiled the conscience and led to spiritual death (Heb 9:14). Since Christ has cleansed the hearts of the faithful from these life-destroying works, magic, sorcery, astrology, and soothsaying no longer have any hold over them (Acts 16:16–18; 19:19).
“Their participation in God’s holiness also governs their treatment of each other in the church, the priestly fraternity of Christ, their Brother and High Priest (Heb 2:11–12; 3:1; 1 Pet 2:17). It determines their interaction with each other (Eph 4:22–5:6; Col 3:12–14). By their treatment of each other, they either promote or undermine the holiness of their community (1 Pet 1:14–2:10). While desecration leads to spiritual sickness and death (1 Cor 11:30), their common holiness results in their communal participation in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity (Rom 6:22). Thus acts of desecration and defilement are to be shunned by all for the benefit of the whole community (2 Cor 7:1).
“Christ and his apostles used Leviticus 19 to catechize the saints on what kinds of behavior either undermined or promoted their mutual participation in God’s holiness. Thus we have the following prohibitions that echo those given in this chapter.
• The prohibition of theft coupled with the admonition to work hard to provide for those who were needy with the offering that they presented in the Divine Service (Lev 19:11a reflected in Eph 4:28)
• The prohibition of deceptive and fraudulent dealing with fellow Christians coupled with the admonition to speak honestly (Lev 19:11b reflected in Eph 4:25; Col 3:9)
• The prohibition of oaths among the holy people of God coupled with the admonition to speak the plain truth (Lev 19:12 reflected in Mt 5:33–37; James 5:12; cf. Mt 23:16–22)
• The prohibition of exploiting workers and other disadvantaged people coupled with the admonition to put up with personal injustice from fellow Christians (Lev 19:13 reflected in 1 Cor 6:7–8; James 5:1–6)
• The prohibition of cursing others coupled with the admonition to bless those who abused them (Lev 19:14a reflected in Lk 6:28; 1 Cor 4:12; James 4:11–12; 1 Pet 3:9)
• The prohibition of putting a stumbling block before young saints coupled with the admonition to welcome them (Lev 19:14b reflected in Mt 18:1–6; Mk 9:42; Lk 17:2; Rom 14:13; 16:17; 1 Cor 8:13)
• The prohibition of partiality in the church coupled with the admonition to judge mercifully (Lev 19:15 reflected in James 2:12–13; 3:7–12)
• The prohibition of gossip and slander coupled with the admonition to use gracious and constructive speech (Lev 19:16 reflected in 1 Cor 5:11; 6:10; 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 4:29; James 4:11–12; 1 Pet 2:1; cf. Rom 1:29, 30)
• The prohibition of hatred against the fraternity of Christ coupled with the admonition to love each other (Lev 19:17a reflected in 1 Jn 2:9–11; 3:15; 4:20)
• The prohibition of revenge coupled with the admonition to repay evil with good (Lev 19:18a reflected in Rom 12:19–21 and 1 Thess 5:15)
• The prohibition of sexual sins, particularly prostitution, since they desecrate God’s holy people (Lev 19:29 reflected in 1 Cor 6:13–20)
“The remarkable thing in each of these cases is that Christ and his apostles also added corresponding positive commands. The prohibitions of the misbehavior that contradicts the holiness of the body of Christ correspond to positive exhortations to the good behavior that promotes it. Thus it comes as no surprise that almost all the positive commandments in this chapter are repeated in the NT.
• The commandment for Christian children to respect their parents (Lev 19:3a reflected in Eph 6:1–3; Col 3:20)
• The commandment to provide food and other necessities for the needy members of the church from the offerings presented to the Lord (Lev 19:9–10 reflected in Rom 12:13; Eph 4:28; James 2:14–16; 1 Jn 3:14–17; cf. Acts 2:45; 4:34–35; Rom 15:26–27; 1 Cor 16:1–2; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:1, 12; Gal 2:10)
• The commandment to fear God (Lev 19:14b, 32b reflected in Mt 10:28;
1 Pet 2:17; cf. 2 Cor 7:1; 1 Pet 1:17), which is qualified by the assurance of salvation (1 Jn 4:14–18)
• The commandment for pastors and all disciples to rebuke those who had sinned (Lev 19:17 reflected in Lk 17:3; Eph 5:11–14; Gal 6:1–5; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:15)
• The commandment to love their neighbors as themselves (Lev 19:18b reflected in Mt 19:19; 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8)
• The commandment to submit to the elders of the church and to honor them (Lev 19:37 reflected in 1 Pet 5:5a; 1 Tim 5:1–2)
“Christ and his apostles emphasize the crucial importance of the commandment to love your neighbor. It is second only in rank to the commandment to love God (Mt 22:39; Mk 12:31). It is the kingly law that informs the life of God’s royal family (James 2:8). Its enactment results in the fulfillment of the whole law of God (Rom 13:8–10; Gal 5:13–14). Jesus taught that it was one of the two hinges on which the whole of the OT hung, like a door on a doorpost (Mt 22:40). Yet by making that claim he did not abolish the liturgical foundation for human participation in God’s holiness, nor did he redefine holiness in ethical terms. Rather, he taught that since he had fulfilled the whole law by his self-sacrificial love so that he could share God’s holiness with his disciples (Jn 17:17–19), they, in turn, were to love their fellow saints as people who were all alike loved by God (1 Jn 4:9–11).
“The commandment to love your neighbor applies first and foremost to the congregation, the community of faith. The people of God are called to love their fellow saints (Eph 1:15; Col 1:4; Philemon 5, 7; cf. Heb 6:10), their brothers in Christ (1 Pet 2:17; 1 Jn 2:10; 3:10, 14; 4:20–21), each other (Jn 13:34; 15:12, 17; Rom 13:8; 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 Jn 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11–12; 2 Jn 5). By increasing their love for each other, the Lord Jesus strengthens and establishes them in his holiness so that they remain blameless before God the Father (1 Thess 3:12–13). Their common participation in Christ and his holiness provides the basis and stimulus for their mutual love.
“Yet the range of their love is to reach even further than the church. Just as in Leviticus the love for the neighbor was meant to extend to the needy aliens who resided with God’s people and so were potential beneficiaries of his grace (Lev 19:18, 33–34), so the love of Christ’s disciples is to reach beyond the boundaries of the church. Hence in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus turned the question of the young lawyer around to challenge him to be a neighbor to those in need, no matter who they were (Lk 10:25–37).
“The saints are therefore called to copy Christ and reflect his merciful holiness by interceding for others and showing mercy to those who lack God’s grace, which comes only through faith in Christ. All unbelievers are potential recipients and beneficiaries of God’s grace and holiness (Gal 6:10; 1 Thess 3:12; 1 Tim 2:1–6; Heb 13:16; Rev 5:8–10). The love of Christians is to reach out even to their enemies (Mt 5:43–48; Lk 6:27–36). Since Christians belong to the holy priesthood of Christ, they are to use their access to God the Father to intercede for those who abuse them (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:28). Thus, when God calls on the church to share in his life-giving holiness, he also commissions it to serve as his holy, compassionate priesthood, seeking to reconcile lost humanity to God.”
John W. Kleinig, Leviticus, Concordia commentary, 418-22 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2003).