The words translated “holy” in the Bible (Hebrew qodesh, Greek hagios) mean “set apart”, “separate”, “other”. When applied to objects, it takes on the connotation of “sacred”; when applied to people, it becomes “saints”. Note that the New Testament refers to all believers as saints, not just the extra-special people. All are expected to be different than the non-believing culture around them.
One of my favorite expressions of God’s holiness comes from the prophet Isaiah:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,Isaiah 55:8-9
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
God is Holy
At the risk of stating the obvious, God is NOT human. He is not even a part of the universe. He is outside, other, above, and beyond the cosmos that He created. He is not bound by natural laws. He does not have to meet our timetables. He doesn’t answer to us. He has no peer, no equal, no corollary, no parallel 1.
The Bible has several passages that try to describe God’s holiness. Isaiah said that “the train of his robe filled the temple” and that He was attended by winged creatures continually saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:1-4). Those same creatures show up again in Revelation 4. Ezekiel 1 has more imagery, even more spectacular. In Exodus 19, just prior to giving the Ten Commandments, God’s presence made the mountain shake, and no one except Moses could consider approaching it. Everything about the design of the tabernacle as a worship place emphasized how holy God was, and how He was not to be approached lightly.
Another example of God’s holiness is given in the Old Testament book of Job. Poor Job would seem to have good reason to complain: His family had been killed; his riches were all stolen or destroyed; and his health was miserable. His friends were convinced that this was all his fault. They insisted that he confess and repent of whatever horrible sin he had committed to bring this punishment on himself. Job held to his innocence, and asked “God, why are you treating me so badly? It’s not fair!” God did indeed have His reasons, and planned to bring Job through his trials to renewed joy afterward. But… God didn’t explain Himself to Job. He wasn’t obligated to. His answer in chapters 38-42 was basically “I’m God. Who are you to place any kind of expectation on me?” Job agreed, and answered “I was wrong. I’ll shut up now.”
God’s People Are To Be Holy
Several times in Leviticus, God told His people to “be holy, because I’m your God, and I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26). Those words were addressed to the original Israelites, but Peter quoted them as applicable to Christians as well (1 Peter 1:14-16). Since humans generally aren’t surrounded by angels singing praises or causing mountains to smoke and shake, what is it that God expects of us?
Again, the word “holy” mostly means “set apart”. God wants His people to stand out, not to blend in with the culture around them. We are to be noticeably different by the way that we reflect His characteristics. To the Israelites, the main difference was to NOT worship the idols of their neighboring kingdoms. For Christians, Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia describes the “fruit” of being inhabited by the Spirit of God: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). This difference is something that God can use to attract others to want the same fruit for themselves.
Separate, But Accessible
God’s awesome holiness makes it even more incredible that He would come to us in person. Jesus, “Emmanuel – God With Us”, is the most complete expression of love imaginable. Although God is rightly set apart, completely “other” and separate from us, He still chooses to reach out and offer us a chance to be connected with Him.
For another perspective, you might enjoy this 5-minute video definition of the word “holy”.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- Some might think of Satan as a parallel, but that is incorrect. Like humans, Satan is also a being created by God. He has no life in himself, and is far inferior to God in every way.