“You shall be holy, because I am holy.”
I’ve read that phrase countless times, and to be honest, it always struck me as a bit odd. God is commanding humans – whose sinful condition He is well aware of – to be holy. Uh…God? You know we can’t do it…right? The phrase conjured up the image of an index-finger wielding, over-the-glasses peering stern father commanding, “Obey, because I said so!” while the kid stares hopelessly at him, thinking, “I’m doomed to fail at this!”
I’ve been studying Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers this school year with my Community Bible Study (CBS) class. On top of that, my church is doing a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan using the Read Scripture app (which is amazing – see note at the end!), so I’m rereading sections of those books that we recently studied.
A few weeks ago, when I came across the phrase “be holy, because I am holy” in Leviticus 19, I saw something different there than ever before.
Of course we must be holy as He is holy…because we are made in the image of God!
The command to “be holy, because I am holy” isn’t some smug joke on God’s part, like when the bully on the playground tells the littlest kid in the class to climb the tree he can’t possibly reach. No, it’s rooted in who we were made to be as image-bearers of God. “Be holy, because I am holy, and you bear MY image.”
When that light bulb of obviousness went off in my head, so many other things made sense. Here are three of the implications of this creation-order understanding of the call to be holy.
God’s law is always rooted in His character.
Connecting the dots between being created in God’s image and being holy changed the lens through which I am reading these Old Testament books. Instead of coming to His laws – many of which I don’t understand – with underlying skepticism, I can come to them saying, “Somehow, whether I grasp it or not, these reflect His character.”
Leviticus 19-20 repeat the phrase “I am the Lord” or “I am the Lord your God” 19 times. That’s a lot! The image-bearer-holiness connection helped me shift from reading that as a purely authoritarian, “Do this, because I’m in charge,” to a beautiful linking to God’s character. “Live like this, because this is what I am like.”
I highlighted every instance of the phrase “I am the Lord” in my ESV Illuminated Scripture Journal (an amazing resource graciously provided to me through the generosity of a church member). On the lines opposite the phrase, I wrote down the link between God’s character and the command for us.
Here are a few examples (I won’t spoil your own study by putting them all here for you):
- Leviticus 19:9-10: He is a God who cares for the poor and oppressed; therefore, we care for the poor and oppressed.
- Leviticus 19:11-12 – He is a God of truth; therefore, we walk in honesty.
- Leviticus 19:31 – He is a God of wisdom; therefore, we seek Him and Him alone for wisdom.
- Leviticus 19:35-36 – He is a God of clarity; therefore, we are to be clear in our judgments and transactions.
Side note: Jesus fulfilled the letter of the law. Hence, we are no longer bound by the ritual and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. However, the moral principles behind them remain the same (this is the “spirit of the law)”, and Jesus affirmed the so-called “moral commands” (do not murder, do not steal, etc.) still apply. We can learn a great deal about God’s holiness and what it means to reflect Him to the world by studying Old Testament law.
Is God the authority? Absolutely. Is He serious about His commandments? Yes.
If we stop there, though, I think we miss the very heart of His law and the motivation to obey it. Which leads me to…
Our holiness – or lack thereof – paints a reflection of God to the world.
If God’s law is a direct reflection of His character, and if we are made in His image, then our lives paint a reflection of who He is to the world. We either show them what He’s like, or we mislead them by showing them a different picture. Even the tiniest drop of sin mars the picture – HIS picture. It puts a crack in the mirror. One crack distorts the reflection. A lot of cracks make a clear image virtually impossible to see.
So when God says “be holy, because I am holy,” and when He gives “I am the Lord” as the precedent for each of His laws, it’s as if He’s saying, “This is what I am like. You’re made in my image. Reflect this to the world.”
When discussing this lesson, one of the women in my CBS core group said her mom used to tell her and her sister, “You’re the only Bible some people get to read.”
This is one reason sin is such a big deal, and why nothing short of total holiness is enough…it twists the very picture of who God is!
That’s also why it’s important to understand the heart of the law, not just follow them on a surface level. Jesus emphasizes this in the Gospels when he says repeatedly, “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” He takes the law and makes it 1,000 times harder to follow by driving at our hearts and motivations. To refrain from murder while hating someone in your heart isn’t holiness. To stay out of bed with people who aren’t your spouse while lusting after them isn’t holiness. To give generously of your paycheck while grumbling about the laziness of those your generosity supports isn’t holiness. Nothing short of total holiness will do. And total holiness is 100% pure in heart, thought, and deed.
We can’t do it on our own – but we don’t have to.
Total holiness is a must to stand in the presence of God. We fall woefully short. We tarnish the image with every snippy comment to our husbands, every over-frustrated response to our kids, every covetous thought toward our friends, every disgruntled inner complaint toward the providence God gives.
Anyone else feeling overwhelmed by this? Yeah, me too. Time for the good news.
Let me let you in on a not-so-secret secret: God knew – and knows – we can’t uphold the law perfectly. Not even close. In fact, many argue that the whole reason for the Old Testament law was to show the people that they couldn’t be righteous in their own right and to constantly point them to their need for a Savior.
That’s exactly why Jesus came. That was God’s plan, all along, from the moment sin entered this world.
Jesus came because He IS the perfect, untarnished, complete image of God. That is why He alone is qualified to bear the punishment for our sin. That is why His righteousness is enough to clothe us in so that we can stand in the presence of God.
- He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3)
- He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1:15)
- In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
- No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:8)
We are image-bearers. Individually, we reflect tiny slivers of God’s character. Together, we reflect a more well-rounded picture, but still woefully incomplete.
Jesus is THE image of God. Complete. Untarnished. Intact.
That Jesus makes us right. Removes our guilt. Purifies us. Shows us what God’s holiness looks like in action.
Then, He gives us the Holy Spirit to help us walk in that cloak of holiness – He actually says it is better for us to have the “Helper” than for Jesus Himself to remain with us on earth! (John 16:7)
We don’t have the power and ability; He does. Now, when we seek to be holy as God is holy, we fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit (How does the Holy Spirit help us? Great question. This article is a helpful place to start.).
Recovering Who We Were Made to Be
I won’t pretend I understand all (or even most of) the laws in the Old Testament. I have a litany of questions and do plenty of head-scratching when I read them and the consequences for breaking them.
But, if I believe God is ultimately good and that His laws are based on His character…if I believe I am to be holy because I bear His image and what I do (or don’t do) has a direct effect on the version of God people see through me…if I trust that Jesus is holy in all the ways I could never be and I stand righteous before Him so I don’t have to be right by my own merit…and if I live by the power of the Spirit He has given us, not by my own efforts…then following Jesus into holiness day by day is not a burden placed on me by an overbearing father but a joyful pursuit of recovering who I was made to be.
So, through the blood of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit…be holy, because He is holy, and you were made to bear His image!
Note: Our church is using the Read Scripture app. You read 2-3 chapters of the Bible a day beginning in Genesis, plus pray through a Psalm a day. The app tells you what to read each day. You can even set a daily reminder to read! You can read on your phone or your Bible of choice (the recommended version is ESV) and check the circle when you’re done to chart your progress. By the end of 365 days, you’ll have read the entire Bible once and the Psalms twice. Plus, the app incorporates short Bible Project videos that help make sense of the readings, which is super helpful in books like Leviticus!
Our pastor’s sermons on Sundays are based on a text from the prior week’s readings. If you want to join in with us, you can download the app, select 1/5/20 as your start date in the settings, and jump right in with us (No need to go back and reread what you missed unless you want to. And no shame if you miss a day, or two, or ten. We’re calling it the “Same Page” series for a reason). Or you can start from the beginning using your own start date. Either way, I highly recommend it!
You can download the Read Scripture app here .
You can listen to our church’s Same Page sermon series here.
Below are links to the ESV Illustrated Scripture Journals I referenced above. You may find better deals on Crossway’s site or elsewhere.
*I may earn affiliate commission through these links.