In 1 Peter 1:16 we find that Peter quotes a well-known passage from Leviticus: "You shall be holy, because I am holy." As I reflected on that passage I began to wonder "if I am to be holy as God is holy, exactly what does it mean to say that God is holy?" I had vague ideas that somehow holiness had to do with living a life of righteousness and moral purity, but they did not seem adequate or accurate. So, when I learn that God is holy, exactly what have I learned about the nature and character of God?
One of the first things to learn is that English-language dictionaries aren't much help here. They provide some clues, but are as apt to mislead as to provide meaningful -- and, more importantly, accurate -- answers. This is primarily because the original language and context of this passage was not modern English. Looking at the Greek text of Peter's letter will likely be more helpful but, considering that Peter was quoting a passage from Leviticus, I decided that the best way to approach this question was "What did Peter, as an ancient Jew, know about the character and nature of God when he learned that He is holy?" In other words, what was Peter thinking when he wrote those instructions?
To approach an answer to this revised question then requires that we look, not at the Greek text of the New Testament, but at the Hebrew of the passage that Peter quoted.
It does not take long to discover that the Hebrew word (translated for us as "holy") that Peter was familiar with is "qadosh". In English: "sacred, holy, Holy One, saint, set apart"; this last phrase, we shall soon see, comes closest to answering our question. I find that this sort of study often benefits greatly from examining the root and cognates of the word in question, so let's look at them next.
The root is "qadash", meaning: "to consecrate, sanctify, prepare, dedicate, be hallowed, be holy, be sanctified, be separate". Another word derived from this root is "qodesh", which means "apartness, holiness, sacredness, separateness". These three forms of the Hebrew word account for the great majority of the instances of the English word "holy" throughout the Old Testament.
So now we have the beginning of an answer: being holy means being set apart, consecrated, or dedicated to a sacred purpose; separated or segregated from the commonplace, the ordinary. Its opposite is "profane". This is easy enough to see in the context of Jewish law and worship. One day out of every seven was holy, set apart from all the others and dedicated to sacred purposes. Certain persons and things were devoted only to the service of God, they were holy and could not be used for any ordinary or profane purpose. Certain places were holy, and others even more holy, primarily because of their proximity to God (not because of any intrinsic characteristic of the place itself). For example, when Moses encountered God at the burning bush the ground where he stood was holy; the place where God chose to dwell among His people (the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple) was holy.
How does a thing become holy? If God is holy, what is He separated from? What is He consecrated to?
Not only is God separate -- vastly separate -- from mankind, He is separate and distinct from, not even of the same essence or character as, any other "god". God is not man. God is the only truly divine being.
What is He dedicated to? In the words of His Son: I have come to seek and to save that which was lost. He has consecrated Himself to enjoying an eternal fellowship with us!
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