The Hebrew word for “holy” is “kadosh.” The basic meaning of holiness is separation. To be holy means to be set apart for a special purpose. When holiness is applied to God, it means that He is set apart from the rest of His creation. God is infinitely separate from all His creatures, even the mightiest. Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders (Exodus 15:11) the Jewish people sang after crossing the Red Sea. The answer to this question is no one and nothing – no angel, no man, and no higher power can be compared to Him.
Holiness also implies separation from all that is evil. God is completely separate from sin and impurity of any kind. Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness, the prophet Habakkuk informs us (Habakkuk 1:13). The Holy One of Israel is the essence of moral excellence. He is infinitely perfect in righteousness and purity.
God’s holiness is not just the best we know infinitely multiplied. Human beings cannot grasp the holiness of God by thinking of someone or something very pure, and then raising the idea to the highest degree. We know of nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart – unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The Holy One is holy with an incomprehensible fullness of purity. Before God’s holiness even the most glorious sinless angels must veil their faces. If the heavens are not pure in His sight, how much less one who is detestable and corrupt, man, who drinks iniquity like water (Job 15:15-16).
Because God is holy, everything about the Holy One is holy. All of His attributes are holy; no one else can have them in the same way. Nothing can be compared to His infinity, His eternality, His wisdom, His mercy, His power, His goodness, His omniscience, His kindness, His love, or His self-sufficiency. He is unique in all these attributes. While some Christian leaders are teaching that we are gods, if they understood the holiness of God they would know that there is an infinite difference between the Holy One of Israel and redeemed humanity. Ayn kadosh ka-Adonai: There is no one holy like the Lord (1 Samuel 2:2). To whom then will you liken Me that I should be His equal? says the Holy One (Isaiah 40:25).
Some wise men have said that because of the fundamental importance of this attribute, the holiness of God should be stressed more than any other. The angels surrounding the throne of God call out:kadosh kadosh kadosh – holy, holy, holy (Isaiah 6:3) – not love, love, love or omniscience, omniscience, omniscience, or almighty, almighty, almighty! When His disciples asked Yeshua to teach them how to pray, the first thing that Yeshua mentioned was the holiness of God: Our Father who art in Heaven,hallowed be Your Name. We should always approach the Lord our God with a holy reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28). He is not our good buddy – He is our holy Father.
MAN ISN’T SO HOLY
The English word “holy” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “halig” or “hal,” which means “hale,” “well,” or “whole.” Holiness is healthy! God has made holiness the moral and spiritual conditions necessary to the health of His universe. If holiness is healthy, sin is unwholesome; think of evil as a moral and spiritual sickness. The fall of man has left all of us with a permanent sickness that affects every part of our nature. This illness is so bad, and has lingered so long, and has affected so many that we have become oblivious to it! Since we are immersed in unholiness we have come to look upon it as natural and normal. Morally and spiritually we are like a frog in a pot of water with the heat slowly being turned up under the pot. The frog will not jump out of the pot because the change is gradual and incremental and the frog doesn’t recognize that he is being cooked. Like the frog, the whole world is slowly cooking in a pot of moral and spiritual iniquity, but most of us don’t realize it!
A correct understanding of the holiness of God leads to a proper view of self. It is not until we catch a glimpse of the holiness of God that we realize the full extent of our own unholiness. When a person catches a glimpse of the holiness of God, he will have a sense that God is worthy, and that man is unworthy. Understanding God’s holiness should wake in us the knowledge that there is an infinite chasm between the holy God and unholy man.
Even if we never sinned, we should be conscious that as created beings we are infinitely separate from the Uncreated. But we have sinned and lessened our worth even further. All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment (Isaiah 64:6). No honest man who understands anything about God’s holiness can say, “I am holy.” Quite the opposite – humility, surrender, contrition and confession flow from the knowledge of God’s holiness. Simon Peter, when he realized who Yeshua was, said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man O Lord (Luke 5:8).” It was not until Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up, with the holy seraphim covering their face and crying: holy, holy, holy that the prophet confessed, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3-5).
The holiness of God, the health of the universe, and the judgement of God are inseparably related. Since God is like a great physician, He is concerned for the moral and spiritual health of His universe. He hates evil with the same hatred that a mother hates the illness that would take the life of her child. To preserve His creation God must destroy whatever would destroy it. The Holy God must cut out the cancer of unholiness from His universe. When the Great Physician removes any evil from His creation, He is preserving the universe from whatever degrades and destroys. Someone who did not understand modern medicine or the deadly nature of cancer might think that a surgeon was a sadistic monster to cut out important parts of the body. In a similar way, every judgement in the history of the world should be understood as a holy act of preservation, not as an arbitrary act of a cruel overlord.
Though He is infinitely holy and separate from sin, God is nevertheless able to maintain a relationship to His fallen creatures while this current age lasts. For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose Name is holy; I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the heart of the contrite (Isaiah 57:15). If the high and exalted One can redeem something rather than destroy it, He will make every effort to do so. If something continues to resist, it must eventually be destroyed, for holiness can’t exist eternally with unholiness.
From the beginning of Israel’s history the Lord began teaching His Chosen People that since He was holy, we had to be separate from the impurities of the world. He wanted us to pursue holiness because without it no one will see the Lord. God taught His people holiness in a variety of ways: Israel learned about the holiness of God when bounds were set around Mount Sinai and God’s presence came down upon it. Anyone who violated the boundary was put to death (Exodus 19:12-25). Looking into the Ark, where the presence of God was manifested on earth, or even touching it like Uzzah did, resulted in death (2 Samuel 6:7). Seeing God face to face resulted in death, for no one could see His face and live (Exodus 33:20). Violating a holy day, like the Sabbath or the Day of Atonement, earned the death penalty. The various offerings that had to be brought if an Israeli wanted to approach God taught the people principles of holiness (Leviticus 1-7). The priesthood that mediated between God and the people taught the people that they could not approach a holy God directly (Leviticus 8-10). When two of the sons of Aaron despised the holiness of God by offering a strange fire, they immediately died as a result (Leviticus 10:1-2). The laws about impurity and ritual cleanliness taught the people principles of holiness (Lev. 11-15).
Everything about Israel was to be separate from the ways of the surrounding world. The Jewish people were to be an “Am Kadosh,” a holy people. We were to have a holy diet; we were to wear special clothing; we were to observe holy days; we were to live in a holy land, within which there is a holy city, in the center of which was a holy place, within which was a most holy place, in which the Holy One of Israel manifested His dwelling presence on earth.
WE MUST BECOME HOLY
Because God is holy, He will always be morally perfect. He will eternally be separate from sin and evil. He will forever abhor sin, and He will always demand holiness and purity in His creatures. He will always have holy standards that we must conform to, and it is impossible that He will change. We dare not ignore the words of the apostle to the Messianic Jews: Pursue peace with all men, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). Every created thing must either become holy or cease to be.
God is holy with an absolute holiness that knows no degrees, and He can’t impart this holiness to His creatures. There is an infinite chasm between the holy God and unholy man, and no one can acquire the sinlessness that meets God’s holy standards. However there is a relative holiness that the Lord shares with the good angels in heaven and with redeemed men on earth. This holiness God can and does impart to His children, otherwise He would not command us to be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev. 19:2). God is HaKadosh, the Holy One, but He is also Adonai M’Kadesh – The Lord Who Makes Holy (Ezekiel 37:28).
Since sinful man can’t approach a holy God directly, the Lord Who Makes Holy has made it possible for us to approach Him through another – the Messiah. Yeshua, the Son of Man who lived a perfectly sinless life, made such access to the holy God possible. The highest degree of the holiness of God comes to us through Messiah Yeshua. By His doing you are in Messiah Yeshua, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification (holiness) and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Messiah Yeshua reflected in His life the perfect holiness of God. He was always separated to His Father and His purposes. He never sinned. He was always perfectly pure. He is the Holy and Righteous One(Acts 3:14). Not only that, but by His death on the cross He took on the sin and unholiness of every human being who will ever live. The penalty for our unholiness fell upon Him. We must take refuge from God in the Son of God! We must hide our unholiness in the wounds of Messiah, just as Moses hid himself in the cleft of the rock. He then sends His Holy Spirit to start the process of making us holier from within. Then God sees us as part of His beloved holy Son, even while He disciplines and purifies us so that we will be partakers of His holiness.
Becoming holy is not primarily a negative; an abstaining from – not wearing certain clothes, not eating or drinking this or that, not engaging in sinful behavior. Holiness is a positive; holiness comes by drawing near to the Holy One of Israel and having some of His holiness rub off on us. After we come to Messiah Yeshua, and receive His Holy Spirit, we abide in the Holy Scriptures where we learn to grow in holiness. Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth (John 17:17) Messiah Yeshua prayed for us. By faith in the Holy One of Israel, by obedience to His holy Word, by meditation on the holiness of God, by loving righteousness and hating iniquity, by a growing intimacy with the Spirit of holiness, we can acclimate ourselves to the fellowship with the saints (holy ones) on earth, and prepare ourselves for the eternal companionship of the holy God in the New Jerusalem.
I am indebted to The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer for this article.