Holiness and Love (Leviticus 19:1-2, 18)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Leviticus 19:1–2
I. Encouragement from the Old Testament
Let's begin our time in the Old Testament (OT) this morning by looking at the New Testament (NT), specifically 1 Peter 1:13–16. Peter has just begun his letter with a powerful description of the amazing salvation or deliverance that we enjoy by God's grace in Jesus. That reality informs the first word of and the transitional call to action we find in verse 13. Peter writes...
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
How has Peter decided to encourage the faith family to whom he writes? By calling them to live out the new life they have obtained in Christ, and then, grounding that in verse from the Old Testament. Yes, I'm talking about the quote we see there in verse 16... “since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” Now, when you need encouragement and inspiration from the Old Testament, I'm guessing you turn to books like the Psalms, or maybe Proverbs, or maybe one of the prophets, or maybe the stories of David or Ruth or Daniel. But in a letter full of OT quotation and allusions, the very first place Peter turns is... Leviticus.
Yeah, I wouldn't have believed it either. But it's right there in verse 16. Leviticus! To be more specific, Peter is quoting there from Leviticus 11:44 or maybe 11:45. Now, some version of that phrase is found a few more times in Leviticus, and one of those places is our main text this morning. So let's turn and take a look together this morning at Leviticus 19, verses 1 and 2.
II. The Passage: “You Shall Be Holy” (16:15-16)
Consider how chapter 19 begins (remember, these laws were given after Egypt, in the desert)...
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
What's interesting is that along with 11:44-45, this is one of the first places in Scripture where God is described as holy. In most instances where some version of this word is used, it is referring to other things in association with God: the seventh day, the ground around the burning bush, the garments of the high priest, or the Israelite altar, or some part of a sacrifice offered there. But after their deliverance at the Red Sea, the Israelite do lift up to their Deliverer this song of worship:
"Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11)
As I mentioned, in Exodus almost every instance of this word holy is connected with the Tent of Meeting, or the work done there, or those who work there. But one exception to that is in a pivotal passage in Exodus (and I mean pivotal in terms of the grand narrative of the Bible). In Exodus 19, verse 6, God announces his plan for who the Israelites will be... “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (interestingly, Peter also applies that verse to his readers in chapter 2 of his first letter)
So in Leviticus 19, we discover an explanation (or an exploration) of what it means to be “a holy nation”. Now, I probably don't need to remind you that Leviticus is a strange book, especially to modern readers. So we may be tempted to think, “How is any of this relevant to me? To my choices and challenges? To my life today?” That's a great question. Please remember, the Apostle Peter, an apostle of Christ, inspired by God, directly applies this statement from Leviticus to followers of Jesus. As we saw at the outset, he uses it as call to action. Believer, is this your desire? Do you hunger to be holy? Do we hunger to be more and more like God?
If that's the case, then we should hold on to Peter's words. But it's equally important to look back to where Peter himself is pointing us. So... what can a passage like Leviticus 19 teach us about being holy as God is holy? Let me break my answer into two parts: first, to understand what it means to be holy, let's touch on what the word itself actually means, and second, let's examine what holiness looks like in this chapter. So a definition and a description. First the definition.
1. A Definition of Holy
The word “holy” is one of those classics religious words, isn't it? What I mean is that it's a word not used very often in any other context in our culture (except by Robin on the old Batman TV show), and, it's a word that Christians use frequently, but may find hard to define or explain.
How would you define this word? I think it's helpful to point out that “holy” is not synonymous with “righteous” or 'morally pure'. They are often related, but they are not synonyms. One reason we know this is because all sorts of things can be holy, things that are impersonal and amoral. As I mentioned before, the ground and garments and even grain can be holy.
It's important to note that the concept of holiness must always begin with God, just as our main verse makes clear: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” So what does it mean that God is holy? It means He is radically distinct because of his deity. The biblical concept of God's holiness is best expressed in Scripture by the simple (and repeated) question we just heard in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like you, O LORD?” God is radically unique. There is no one and nothing like Him. This is clear from the fact that He made everything else. In light of that stunning truth, He is exalted above all things. This is why it is morally wrong to ignore that distinction; to ignore God's exalted position; to reject that special distinction and treat Him as something common; and in so doing, from a human perspective, to rob Him of His worth.
But beyond that Creator/creation distinction, God is also distinct or set apart from us by virtue of his virtue. This is where holiness and righteousness come into contact. The character of Yahweh, the God of Israel, was decidedly distinct from the petty gods and wicked worshipers and abominable practices of the nations that surrounded God's people. Even though Israel would be tempted to widen the tent of their worship, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to be treated as holy or set apart by his people in every way. And if they were actually hallowing God in that way (i.e., regarding him as holy), it would be reflected in how they lived their lives.
2. A Description of Holy
How would it be reflected in their lives? Not surprisingly, by holiness; that is, holy living. If an experienced and winning Little League coach is being ignored by his players, and his coaching is taking a backseat to whatever each player believes is best (or to interfering parents in the stands), then his distinction as the coach is being disrespected. But any player who recognizes his distinctiveness, who recognizes that 'the coach is coach', he or she is going to stand out from the others. If they are looking to and listening to the coach, those interactions and conformity to his instructions, will set them apart. That's holinesss.
Now, this chapter contains a lot that we could dig into in terms of living holy lives. For example, after the first two verses of this chapter, the next two verses point us to four out of ten of the Ten Commandments. That's important. We could also look at some of the ritual prescriptions here, things related to sacrifice and living out, through symbolic patterns and practices, what it would mean to be a people of purity. We could also examine how being a set-apart people is explicitly practiced when we reject the practices of those who follow false gods.
But what's absolutely stunning about this chapter is the connection made clear by a verse like verse 18. Look with me at what that verse teaches us about reflecting God's holiness:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Now wait a minute. Something in that verse sounded extremely familiar. Did you catch it? “...you shall love your neighbor as yourself...”. Most of us know that command because Jesus himself described it as the second greatest of all God's commands in the OT. So Peter wasn't the only one who went back to the book of Leviticus when thinking about a life glorifying to God. Jesus himself did that very thing. And he did it in one of the most crucial passages in the NT.
But it's also important to see that this command is not a 'one off' in this thirty-seven-verse-long chapter. Look down at verse 34 as well:
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
There's the same 'love language'. This time, it isn't simply being applied to one's Hebrew “neighbor”. It's also prescribed for the “stranger”, the foreigner, the immigrant. What does this love look like? It means treating that stranger in the same way you would treat the native Israelite; treating him as you “yourself” would be want to be treated.
Okay, so that's two verses out of thirty-seven. Is that really an emphasis? Though the word “love” only appears twice in this chapter, verses about what this love looks like are everywhere: vs. 9-10, v. 11, v. 13, v. 14, vs. 15-16, v. 17, v. 20, v. 29, v. 32, vs. 35-36. Beyond verse 18, the word “neighbor” also appears in verses 13 and 16. And beyond the terms “neighbor” and “stranger”, there are a variety of other people identified here: the “poor and sojourner” in verse 10, the “hired worker” in verse 13, “the deaf” and “the blind” in verse 14, both the “poor” and the “great” in verse 15, “your brother” in verse 17, “a woman who is a slave” in verse 20, “your daughter” in verse 29, and the “gray head” or “old man” in verse 32. Think about the diversity of the people mentioned here. And think about how many of these people are what we might call 'vulnerable' (i.e., prone to mistreatment, neglected, discriminated against, taken advantage of). Is it any wonder that when Jesus wanted to depict neighborly love, he told the story of a man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road?
For any who desire to be holy, this diversity should challenge us. It reminds us that sometimes the people who are easiest to look past or hardest for us to love are the very people to whom God is calling us. I think it also makes clear that God is concerned with (to borrow the imagery of Jesus) everyone we meet along the path (not just some). As our Master taught us, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46) The amount of verses in this chapter that describe what it means to love one's neighbor is also a challenging reminder for us that love means more than being nice and friendly. Leviticus 19 teaches us many things about love, including that love is sacrificial and equitable and meek and forgiving. Let me encourage you to go back and reread this chapter, asking that question, “What is God showing me here about loving my neighbor, the second greatest commandment?”
Brothers and sisters, friends, it's hard to escape the fact that holiness and love are emphatically intertwined in this passage. According to what we see here, to be holy is to be loving. Meditate on that for a moment... to be holy is to be loving. To be holy does mean other things as well, but what we find here is critical. Now, for some, this emphasis may come as a surprise. There are many Christian traditions that emphasize a kind of social separation when it comes to holiness and being holy. For these traditions, holiness is regularly communicated in terms of what you stand against and how different you are from the world. But according to the words of the Holy One himself here in Leviticus 19, holiness is more about standing for love, and, not so much how different you are from the world, but how similar you are to God. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
Of course, we shouldn't be surprised by the fact that holiness and love are emphatically intertwined here. In that same song from Exodus 15, the Israelites declared this about the God of their fathers, “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed” (v. 13). And God reminds them of this fact in the closing verses of Leviticus 19. Look at the final statement in verse 36: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The very love in which they had been led, was the very love they were called to reflect.
In both the OT and NT, God calls his people to be holy as he is holy. Do you belong to God's people this morning? If you do, then please hear that first as a call to fix your eyes on God, and second, as a call to, using Paul's words from I Corinthians 14:1, “pursue love”. You might be fighting the good fight against a particular sin in your life, but... are you pursuing love? You might be developing a better grasp on Christian theology, but... are you pursuing love? You might be faithful in this or that ministry, or listening to more Christian music or giving more money or standing against some injustice or anti-Christian movement, but... are you pursuing love?
III. Holiness by Association
How could ground and grain and garments be described as holy? Only one reason: because of their association with the God who alone is holy. Holiness by association. Those things were set apart for him and sanctified by him. If you are follower of Jesus Christ, then that's true of you as well. Holiness by association, and association through God's Son. According to 1 Peter 3:18, Christ died “that he might bring us to God”. Like the Hebrews, He brought us out of slavery as well. Amen? But Hebrews 10:14 also tells us this about his death, “For by a single offering he [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Savor what that means. Amazingly, by grace, through faith, God has first “perfected” you, that is, he set you apart with the righteousness of Jesus himself. Therefore you are “saint”; a holy one. But He is also, second, setting you apart day by day; that is, he is renewing you and conforming you to the image of His Son. So the God who is love (I John 4:8) has made it possible for you to become like him through the death and resurrection of his Son.
Therefore one way of expressing “be holy for I am holy” is found in Ephesians 5:2, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us...”. Love is everywhere. In most places with most people, it is treasured. But there is no love like the love of Jesus. It is a... distinct love; a holy love. So the love we've been talking about this morning is most clearly seen in Jesus. Therefore, our desire should ultimately be, not simply to be loving, but to love like Jesus.
Is that your desire this morning? To grow in love as you grow in grace? Talk to God now about that very thing. And please don't forget that if you belong to Christ, your failures to love and love well, with a holy love, are covered by his blood. If you struggle in that way, acknowledge that you've neglected love, confess those failures, and receive His forgiveness. As you do that, I believe you will hear again that call to action with the new ears of divine love: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023)
September 24, 2023Speak the Word with Boldness (Acts 4:23-31)
August 27, 2023Praying for God's People (Daniel 9:17-19)
August 20, 2023Daniel's 'Not of This World' Example (Daniel 1:8-17)