Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holy, holy, holy: Degrees of holiness

In the Bible, some things are called holy. Fewer are called most holy (in the Hebrew, typically "holy holy"; in English, sometimes "Holy of Holies"). As far as I can tell, God alone is called "holy, holy, holy" (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8).

The things of this world, or the places, or the people, are called holy when they are of God and for God. When God calls his people, he declares that his people should be holy, for he is holy. This is something like a refrain in the book of Leviticus: be holy for God is holy (11:44, 11:45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26, 21:8, 22:3, 22:32). Again, for us holiness is not mere separation from the impure in the world; it means drawing closer to God.

Relatively few things in the Bible are designated as most holy. Most often, the "most holy" things are the altar, certain offerings reserved for the priests to eat, and the inner sanctum -- the Holy of Holies -- in the Temple. The altar, among the most holy things, had a special blessing: it would make holy whatever touched it (Exodus 29:37). The Holy of Holies within the Temple was also unique: there was the very presence of God, manifested in a way that was rare in the world, but expected at that place.

And then there is one striking reference to something "holy holy" -- striking in the possibility of a double meaning, and in its implications:
Seventy 'sevens' are determined upon your people and upon your holy city: to finish transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy. Know, then, and understand that from the going forth of the decree to restore and build Jerusalem until the anointed ruler ... (Daniel 9:24-25)
What, exactly, is anointed? Are they discussing the Temple and anointing the Most Holy place, or are they discussing the anointed ruler?

I know there are those who insist this has nothing to do with the Messiah. But I'll tell you plainly, the ancient Jews believed "All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah" – Berachoth 34b, and again, "All the prophets prophesied only in respect of the Messianic era" – Sanhedrin 99a. So the thought of referring this to anything and everything but the Messiah is not in keeping with ancient Judaism.

Instead, here we see a possibility: that the Messiah has a unique connection with that rebuilt Temple, and particularly with that "anointed, Most Holy" here. The manifest presence of God on earth and the Messiah are connected in this passage; the Temple and the Messiah are blurred together. "Destroy the Temple and in three days I will rebuild it" -- Jesus identifies himself with the true meaning of that holy place. At Jesus' death, the curtain veiling the Most Holy place was torn, again pointing out Jesus' connection to the Temple and especially to the Most Holy place, the place where God's presence was found on earth.

And Jesus, true Holy of Holies, brings us to one more thing that the Bible calls most holy: the sacrifices. Among the most holy sacrifices were the sin offerings and the trespass offerings. And these -- these were given the priests to eat. Jesus is the most holy sin offering, the most holy trespass offering, given to the priests to eat. Peter understood that well when he wrote and declared that all of those in Christ are priests. Not only are we a royal priesthood, but like Christ we are part of the house, the dwelling-place, of God: "living stones being built into a spiritual house". Again, holiness is not at all a separation, except from things that are perishing. It is a drawing-in, a transformation, an ever-closer fellowship with God.

I'm not quite done with this series on holiness, but here I will leave off with this thought: the holy and the most holy are bridges between this world and the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. All the holiness in this world depends on the holiness of God. If God is not holy, then nothing is holy.

Picking up from there next time.


Martin LaBar said...

That's a great final sentence.

Weekend Fisher said...


Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

"Among the most holy sacrifices were the sin offerings and the trespass offerings. And these -- these were given the priests to eat. Jesus is the most holy sin offering, the most holy trespass offering, given to the priests to eat".

A 'deep point' on this matter indeed - Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10 regarding those in the wilderness and ourselves comes to mind.