The holiness of God’s people, then and now

God’s standards of holiness don’t change.

Leviticus 20:26 – You must be holy because I, Yahweh, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own.

This admonition to holiness is set amidst the context of the practices of the nations of Canaan that Israel was displacing.

Leviticus 20:23 – “You must not follow the statutes of the nations I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and I abhorred them.

In the context of Leviticus 20, the “things” the nations were guilty of were the contaminations of idolatry (which included spiritism and child sacrifice), sexual immorality, and eating of unclean foods. Avoiding all of “these things” is what would set ancient Israel apart from the other nations; this is what would make them “holy.” This setting apart is the holiness that distinguished Israel as God’s people.

In consistent fashion, the holy Spirit of God led the first recorded council in Jerusalem to similar conclusions. As those among the nations were coming to faith in Messiah along with the scattered Jews and God-fearers in the synagogues, there were idolatrous practices being introduced into the community of believers, such as food offered to idols and cultural promiscuity. Paul and the other apostles deal with some of these issues in their epistles to various groups of believers. But the council, through the guidance of the holy Spirit, had issued a decisive template for the believing congregations to follow that was worded very similarly to the injunction of Moses to the ancient Israelites in remaining holy.

Acts 15:28-29 – “For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision ​– ​and ours ​– ​not to place further burdens on you beyond these requirements: “that you abstain from idolatrous offerings, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell.”

As can be seen by these comparative texts, avoidance of practices associated with idolatry, sexual immorality and unclean foods have always been the earmarks of God’s people that set them apart from the other nations. Therefore, I believe these distinctions should in like fashion remain as the defining characteristics that demonstrate the holiness or set-apartness of God’s people even today.


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The promises of holiness require active separation from unrighteous practices

Believers are not to join in any effort or activity where the Name or character of God would be maligned or disdained.

Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.

2 Corinthians 7:1

Paul’s admonition here is for cleansing our ourselves from everything that can defile our body and spirit. This, he says, is working toward complete holiness; that is, with holiness as the fulfillment, the end goal, of this cleansing.

However, the motivation for this goal comes from some promises he has just mentioned. Since this is the first verse in chapter 7 in our Bibles, this must mean he mentioned some promises at the end of chapter 6. What promises is he referring to?

Well, the direct answer comes when we review verses 17 and 18: “I will receive you,” and “I will be your father and you will be unto me for sons and daughters.”

These are, indeed, amazing promises. But these promises are contingent on this cleansing, a setting apart of some sort. Let’s review the passage in full to see the context:

Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What agreement has Christ with Belial? Or what portion has a believer with an unbeliever? What agreement has a temple of God with idols? For you are a temple of the living God. Even as God said, “I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore, “‘Come out from among them, and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Touch no unclean thing. I will receive you. I will be to you a Father. You will be to me sons and daughters,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

2 Corinthians 6:14-18

I know this passage has classically been used for the purpose of warning believers not to marry non-believers, and while that is certainly a commendable ideal, that is not the context of this passage; marriage is no where in Paul’s sights here.

The real message is that separation from non-believers is required in any type of joint-effort where a compromise of God’s principles would become involved. Believers are not to join in any effort or activity where the Name or character of God would be maligned or disdained.

As an example, in Paul’s day, it was customary to invite friends to go out to dinner, so to speak, in a temple of a local deity. A fellowship meal in an idol’s temple was the equivalent of going out to eat in a restaurant today. It was also an accepted practice to purchase meat in the local market that had first been offered to an idol. These were such serious issues that Paul devotes a whole chapter (chapter 8) in his first letter to the Corinthians to these practices.

It is also mentioned as a primary restriction required of new believers from the Jerusalem Council decision:

Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood.

Acts 15:20

To remind the believers of the severity of this command, Paul, as he is known to do, quotes from several selections of torah, or God’s instruction, to make his point:

  • Leviticus 7:21 – If you touch anything that is unclean (whether it is human defilement or an unclean animal or any other unclean, detestable thing) and then eat meat from a peace offering presented to the LORD, you will be cut off from the community.”
  • Leviticus 11:8 – You may not eat the meat of these animals or even touch their carcasses. They are ceremonially unclean for you.
  • Leviticus 26:11-12 – I will live among you, and I will not despise you. I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people.
  • Ezekiel 37:27 – I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

He pulls together principles rooted in the holiness of God; avoiding ceremonial uncleanness is the model, the example, of how believers were to ensure they were continuing to pattern their lives in the assemblies of Messiah. If they did so, God would be among them.

Uncleanness went beyond just animals to other sanitary practices among the people of God, from bodily fluids to accidentally touching dead bodies. But the principle was the same: separating oneself from these things was an act of holiness, which by its very definition means to be set apart.

Paul is using that same established torah logic among the believers in Corinth to remind them of their unique position among their generation, and that they should not forfeit their standing with God on the accepted conventions and customs of the day. According to Yeshua’s admonition of Matthew 5:8, believers were to have a pure and blameless heart at all times. Separation from unclean practices was necessary to achieve this.

How can we apply this same principle in our day? What types of accepted conventions in social discourse today compromise the principles of God and his character? What activities demean and denigrate God’s glory, yet are considered “ok” by the rest of our society?

These are the things we are to avoid being “yoked” together (i.e., going along with) non-believers for the sake of fellowship. We cannot be united with them in those things because they compromise God’s integrity and honor.

However, Paul’s admonition is that when we do actively separate ourselves, when we cleanse ourselves from these things, then we are truly behaving like God’s sons and daughters, and only then will he will be present among us. This is the fulfillment of the promises when we take decisive actions to maintain our holiness out of godly respect and honoring of him.