Be Ye Holy For I Am Holy (3)

A. E. Long, Nutley

Part 3 of 3 of the series A Holy God - A Holy People

All quotations are from the Revised Version

We have seen that the holiness of God places obligations on the individual Christian, since he is expected to be like God in holiness. Its connotations are wider in that God does not regard the Christian as an isolated unit, but as a member of a company composed of kindred souls. Such a community is variously delineated in the New Testament. Holiness, therefore, has a corporate aspect; it stamps the whole as well as every part. Every company of Christians should be seen to be holy in its “togetherness”.

In both divine purpose and destiny, the Church is holy. The Epistle to the Ephesians views the Church as the aggregate of all believers, past, present and still future. It is of these, composing the universal Church, that Paul wrote “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; . . . that it should be holy and without blemish”, 5. 25, 27. Thus the Church is destined to be as holy as Christ Himself. It was chosen, not only with its ultimate destiny in view, but that in its present character it might be holy, for we are chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish, 1. 4.

The New Testament indicates several facets of the Church’s holy character.

1. A Holy Priesthood: A Holy Nation

Peter writes of “a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” and “a holy nation . . . (to) shew forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”, 1 Pet. 2. 5, 9. Peter’s first Epistle is clearly rooted in the Old Testament. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians to whom he wrote would have recognised its allusions thereto. “A holy priesthood” and “a holy nation” are twin facets of the Christian church which refer back to God’s choice of Israel: “if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then . . ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, an holy nation”, Exod. 19. 5, 6. Although the priesthood came to be vested as a specialised priesthood within the tribe of Levi, it was not God’s original purpose that it should have been so. Israel as a whole was chosen to fulfil the function of “a kingdom of priests”. It was only because of their sin in the worship of the molten calf that the priesthood was restricted to one tribe out of the twelve; an idolatrous people could never discharge the privilege of being “unto (God) a kingdom of priests”. Likewise, Israel was never “a holy nation”. An essential part of God’s purpose was that Israel as a nation might witness to the truth of a holy God in their midst. Alas, the time would come when she would exceed the surrounding nations for wickedness, 2 Kings 21. 9; Ezek. 5. 6. The Pharisees of our Lord’s day supposed that they had attained to God’s purpose for Israel and that they were “a holy priesthood” and “a holy nation”. In the Lord’s parable of the wicked husbandmen and the vineyard they were condemned out of their own mouths by their answer to His question: “when therefore the lord of the vineyard shall come, what will he do unto those husbandmen?” They replied “He will miserably destroy those miserable men, and will let out the vineyard unto other husbandmen, which will render him the fruits”. This provoked the significant rejoinder “the kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”, Matt. 21. 40, 41, 43- These words marked the transference for this age of Israel’s dual function as “a holy priesthood” and “a holy nation” to the Church, which Peter describes as “a holy priesthood” and “a holy nation”. Other allusions in Peter’s first letter support this view. Israel had been an elect nation - “Israel my chosen” Isa. 45. 4. Correspondingly, Peter wrote to “the elect”, using the description “an elect race” of the Christian church, 1 Pet. 1. 2, 9.

The purpose of “a holy priesthood” is “to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. These sacrifices are in complete contrast to those offered by Israel’s priests, which were largely animal sacrifices, involving the shedding of blood. The sacrifice of Christ “as of a lamb without blemish and without spot”, involving the shedding of His “precious blood”, infinitely more precious than that of the repetitive animal sacrifices offered under the covenant of law, marked the end of that which had been merely temporary and anticipative. Thereafter, the beneficiaries of the new covenant of grace, based upon a completed sacrifice, were distinguished by a spiritual quality - “a spiritual house . . . to offer up spiritual sacrifices”. The specialised priesthood of the law, which had stemmed from Israel’s failure as a nation to be “a kingdom of priests , was set aside in the Church, and God’s original purpose was reverted to. Every Christian is now a priest unto God, there is no distinctive class of priests above a “rank and file” of Christians. There is no Scriptural warrant for any distinction as that between clergy and laity; such is artificial and man-made and in reality a perpetuation of a system that stemmed from Israel’s defection from God’s purpose.

Scripture suggests various kinds of “spiritual sacrifices” which believer-priests may offer acceptably. The Psalms indicate some. Psalm 51. 17 describes the first acceptable sacrifice that a sinner and a repentant saint can offer to God: “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise”. The tax-gatherer in the Lord’s parable offered such an oblation when brokenly he prayed “God be merciful to me a sinner”. It was an “acceptable” offering, for he “went down to his house justified”. Psalm 51. 19 refers to the “sacrifices of righteousness”, in which God would “delight”, in contrast to the unrighteousness of which David had been guilty. Psalm 50 twice refers to “the sacrifice of thanksgiving”, vv. 14, 23, since the thankful acknowledgment of mercies received glorifies God. This accords with New Testament teaching: “Through him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name”. In the same context we read “to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased”, Heb. 13. 15, 16; cf. Rom. 12. 13. Such sacrifices rendered to God’s people are accounted as rendered to God Himself, Heb. 6. 10. Psalm 27. 6 refers to “the sacrifices of joy” or “shouting”, R.V. marg., which suggests ecstatic feeling and even exuberance in praise.

If “a holy priesthood” is directed Godwards, in connection with its spiritual worship, “a holy nation” is displayed manwards in its witness, for its purpose is to “shew forth the excellencies of” God. Israel failed in her witness to the divine virtues. God had set her in a strategic position among the nations to witness more effectively to His excellencies: “I have set her in the midst of the nations, and countries are round about her”, Ezek. 5. 5. Unhappily, her conduct failed to manifest anything other than her own wickedness and departure from God. The Church has succeeded to Israel’s lost mission, in that she is now called to witness to the divine excellencies. She is to shew forth “him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”. Light may be equated with truth, Ps. 43. 3; John 3. 21. In an idolatrous world, the Church’s witness is to the great truth that there is “one God . . .of who is over all, and through all and in all”, Eph. 4. 6, to whom all men owe fealty, a truth manifested by the Church’s own allegiance. Light is also revealing: the truth of God lights up His blessed character and reveals a whole galaxy virtues. Psalms 27. 4 and 90. 17 refer to “the beauty of the Lord”, a virtue of the Eternal One capable of being reflected in ephemeral man. Peter describes God as “the God of all grace”, 1 Pet. 5. 10, while Paul affirms that “God is able to make all grace abound unto you”, 2 Cor. 9. 8, so that we reflect grace as a divine virtue. The writer to the Hebrews affirms that we are “partakers of his holiness”, a quality we may exhibit before others. These and other divine excellencies should be reflected by God’s people, that men may see them in human vessels and glorify their divine Author, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven”, Matt. 5. 16.

2. A Holy Temple

Paul writes “know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroyeth the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are”, 1 Cor. 3. 16, 17. In this passage, Paul indicates yet another facet of corporate holiness, describing the local church at Corinth as an inner sanctuary of God, a most holy place for the Holy Spirit. It is a solemn passage which stems from Paul’s statement in verse 9, “ye are . . . God’s building”. Paul had been a “master builder”, since he had “laid a foundation” at Corinth in his testimony to the Gospel, to which the Corinthians had responded and had then been constituted a local church. “Another” (Apollos) had built upon the foundation laid by Paul. Other Christian ministers were building upon the same foundation. How careful they needed to be, “how” and “what sort” of work they built upon it! Slipshod workmanship and shoddy materials must be eschewed; “wood, hay, stubble” would but serve as fuel for the testing “fire”, which only “gold, silver, costly stones” would abide. Then “let each man take heed how he buildeth . . . the fire itself shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is”, vv. 10. 13. God’s “holy temple” must be developed by holy men using holy methods and holy materials. To build with unworthy materials or to use inferior methods brings with it the total loss of effort and deprivations of reward, and “if any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss”, v. 15. Paul used a similar metaphor in the Epistle to the Ephesians. The Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit”, 2. 20-22. In this spiritual temple every “living stone” fits exactly because in the divine purpose it has its proper place. The stones in Solomon’s temple were prepared at the quarry for the exact position they were to occupy and no adjustment was necessary on the site, “there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building”, 1 Kings 6. 7. In like manner every “living stone” in this spiritual temple is prepared by God so that it fits exactly where God intended: “fitly framed together”. Furthermore, it grows as “living stones” are added together, and the growth is unto holiness, it “groweth into a holy temple in the Lord”.