you shall be holy

Knowledge of the Holy

10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean…– Leviticus 10:10 ESV

26 Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. – Ezekiel 22:26 ESV

When God commanded His people, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV), it was clear that He had certain expectations He was communicating. This divine imperative is found in a whole section of Scripture in which God reiterates His  requirements for what it meant to “be holy.” In verse 2 of chapter 19, God commanded Moses to tell the people, “You shall be holy,” and then He followed it up with a list of specific rules and regulations outlining acceptable and unacceptable behavior for His people.

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father… – vs 3

…you shall keep my Sabbaths… – vs 3

Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal… – vs 4

When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. – vs 5

On that last one, God was very specific and indicated that the portion of the offering that was theirs to eat had to be consumed on the day the offering was made or no later than the day after. Failure to heed God’s command came with dire consequences.

If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people. – vs 7-8

Don’t miss what God says here. Deciding to keep the portion of the sacrifice graciously provided by God for His people and eat it just one day late resulted in the entire offering being made profane. Not only that, the one who offered it was to be cut off or separated from the rest of the congregation. The Hebrew word is karath, and it carries the idea of a body part being cut off. This was a severe punishment, resulting in the removal of the guilty party from the family of Israel. They were to be banished from the faith community. Why? Because they had profaned what was holy to the Lord.

The Hebrew word for “profaned” is chalal, and it refers to the polluting or desecrating of something that had once been sacred or set apart as holy. The offering became unacceptable to God because the one who offered it failed to follow God’s explicit instructions. And not only did the sacrifice become profaned and, therefore, unacceptable, so did the one who offered it. They were no longer fit for God’s presence. They were no longer welcome among God’s people. This is serious stuff.

And God was far from done. His list of requirements for holy living goes on for several more paragraphs, and notice how everyday practical they are.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge… – vs 9

you shall not strip your vineyard bare… – vs 9-10

You shall not steal… – vs 11

you shall not deal falsely… – vs 11

you shall not lie to one another… – vs 11

You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God… – vs 12

You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him… – vs 13

The people of Israel were not free to live however they wanted to live. Their daily activities and interactions with one another were regulated by God and not left up to their own opinions or devices. The rules regulating their behavior were far from subjective and never left up to the personal whims of the individual. God was demanding behavior that was in keeping with His will, not theirs. And if you look closely, so much of what God commanded them to do was in direct opposition to the natural inclinations of the human heart.

God required selfless behavior, reflecting a concern and care for others. He was demanding that His people treat one another justly and with dignity. They were to view one another as holy, set apart by God, and worthy of respect and honor. They had been sanctified or set apart by God as a unit. The entire nation of Israel was considered as God’s chosen people, His possession. And they were to practice holiness as a community, not just as individuals.

Which brings us to the two verses that opened today’s blog. In the Leviticus passage, God warned Aaron, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”  As the God-appointed priest over the people of Israel, Aaron had a responsibility to teach the people what God considered holy and clean. In doing so, he was also to make clear distinctions as to what was common and unclean. These words are important for us to understand if we are to grasp the concept of sanctification.

Just a few verses prior to this one, we have the record of God destroying Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, who had offered strange or unacceptable fire before the Lord. Acting as priests before God, they had done something God had not authorized or commanded them to do.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. – Leviticus 10:1 ESV

And so, God cut them off – literally. He put them to death. And then He instructed Moses to give the following message to their father, Aaron:

“This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” – Leviticus 10:3 ESV

Their behavior had not sanctified the Lord. Their actions had not glorified Him. So, God punished them for their unsolicited and unacceptable behavior. And then He had Moses gather the remaining priests together and provided them with additional words of warning and instructions concerning their behavior in their role as priests. And this concluded with His words: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”

They were to recognize and respect the differences between the qodesh and the chol, the tame' and the tahowr. The Hebrew word qodesh is derived from the word for “sanctified”: qadesh. They were to know the difference between set-apartness and profaneness. The Hebrew word chol refers to anything unholy or unsanctified. It is common, having not been set apart for God’s use and His glory. As priests, Aaron and his sons had been set apart by God, and they were no longer free to live common lives, doing things according to their own wills or wishes. As God’s chosen possession, the people of Israel were no longer free to live common lives, conducting themselves like all the other nations around them. They had been set apart and were now considered holy by God. And He expected them to live that way. But to do so, they needed to know the difference between the holy and the common. They also needed to know the difference between the pure and the impure.

The Hebrew word tame'  refers to that which is unclean or defiled. And in this context, it means anything that had not been set apart and sanctified by God. This included not only the people of Israel, but their behavior as well, and all the rules that were intended to regulate that behavior. The Hebrew word tahowr is intended to reflect the opposite of defilement. It has to do with purity and cleanness. And God’s commands were to be considered pure, clean, and holy, and treated that way. That is why the apostle Paul wrote, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 ESV).

Every rule and regulation that came from the lips of God was to be considered holy and pure, and worthy of obedience. To disregard God’s commands was to treat them as unclean, an act that profaned and desecrated them. That’s why God wanted Moses to clearly articulate the difference between the holy and the unholy, the clean and the unclean. There was to be no confusion on the part of His people. They needed to know the difference so that they might live set-apart lives, in keeping with God’s commands. And that’s why God commanded Aaron and his fellow priests “to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:11 ESV).

An essential part of sanctification is the knowledge of what God expects of His people. It is impossible to live a holy life if you have no idea what that life is to look like. God does have expectations of His people. As Christians, we are to live lives that are in keeping with God’s holy requirements, just as Jesus did. We do not do so to win favor with Him or to earn our way into heaven. We do so because He has set us apart for His glory. Our lives are to reflect our status as His children. But we must be able to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean. And to do that, we must know God’s Word and be willing to receive instruction from His Holy Spirit. God did not save us and sanctify us so that we can continue to live our old lives according to our own selfish desires. We are no longer common. We have been set apart by God for His use and for His glory. We are holy, and our daily behavior should reflect that reality. 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson