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Set Apart Living by the Law

Over the past two weeks of this new series, we have studied the concept of holiness. Pastor Mario has brought up some very poignant ideas in explaining that, contrary to what we may think, God is not afraid of or intimidated by our sin. God repeatedly goes into dark places and seeks out sinful people in order to bring holiness and wholeness where before there was darkness.

He also clarified that the word for holy is often translated as set apart, and that God is set apart in the way that he loves us. Last week he posed the question, What if the key to becoming like God and loving like him is found in seeing God? What if we need to practice asking the question, What are you doing here, God?

Week 1 Post | Week 2 Post

This week, our focus is on the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible. The people of Israel were chosen, set apart, by God as a holy nation. But what did that mean in their context, and what does that mean for us today?

We have established that holiness is a characteristic of God, and is defined by God's own qualities. God is transcendent—that is, God is unique from the rest of creation. There is no other being in all of creation that is like God. So holiness is about moral purity, but it is also about this type of being set apart, other, from everything else.

Holiness can feel like a scary concept, like a standard that we are being measured against that we will never meet. It can feel divisive, as though we are competing against one another to try to be the best. But that is not the intent of our call to holiness; holiness is jarring because it reveals something so much better than what we know.

Clean and Unclean

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, terms like "clean" and "unclean" are used frequently. In our modern context, we usually want to read these as related to sin and salvation. Biblical scholar Dr. Nicholas Schaser tells us, however, that the intent behind the lists of rules and guidelines around cleanliness served the purpose of bringing the people as close to God as possible.

Although there are pages and pages of the Bible dedicated to instructing the people on how to be holy, the Hebrew people were not, in fact, innately holier than the other nations. Deuteronomy chapter 7 describes Israel as "holy to the Lord;" yet two chapters later, in chapter 9, the author describes their moral failings. Moses makes a point of telling them in Deuteronomy 9:5: "You aren’t entering and taking possession of their land because you are righteous or because your heart is especially virtuous; rather, it is because these nations are wicked—that’s why the Lord your God is removing them before you, and because he wishes to establish the promise he made to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

The Hebrew idea of holiness is not a "holier-than-thou" idea. It refers to being set apart by God for a purpose. In the same way, "clean and unclean" is not about sinfulness and righteousness; there are verses that describe what to do to become clean after having a skin disease, how to wash and become clean again. Being sick is not a sin! Moral perfection is not the point of holiness in the Hebrew context. Separation from what is unclean is the point.

There are other examples where clean and unclean do have a connection to moral purity. But holiness is not the same as morality. If we make it the same, we deny the need for God's help and we find ourselves serving the god of self-righteousness. Holiness is not a legalistic concept, but it has often become one.

An example that might help us conceptualize this is Christmas decorations. What are Christmas decorations made out of? The same things as normal decorations, right? Plastic, and wood, and string, and lights, and sometimes really annoying glitter that gets all over your house. But they are set aside for a specific purpose. We could use them all year round if we wanted to, but there is a specific time and place they are used for. And when you put them up and people come over, they know immediately what they are for. They are set apart to represent a specific thing, and others will know what that thing is.

This analogy falls apart, like analogies do, but Israel was called to be the "Christmas decoration" of the ancient Near East. They were set apart from the nations around them, and set apart to God for a specific purpose. The Law that God provided was to help this people do that, to be set apart for God and for his purposes, and to represent what it means to be under his kingdom.

Holiness in Leviticus

We are going to dive into a passage from Leviticus, the Law given to the people of Israel, in order to see some examples of God's idea of holiness. Before we do that, though, consider this question: What do you think of the Old Testament God versus the New Testament Jesus?

Many people see these as separate and irreconcilable versions of God. The Old Testament God is angry, vengeful, unmoving, unapproachable; the New Testament Jesus is more patient, loving, relaxed. See the images below for a visual of the difference!

Leviticus 19:2 is where we see God command that Israel be holy as He is holy. The rest of that chapter depicts what it looks like to live a holy life. One commentator, Bob

Deffinbaugh, points out that Leviticus with its call to holiness and laws comes after Exodus. After Israel is freed from captivity. This is an essential point to understand, because Leviticus would have been of no use to the people living in Egypt.

To someone who is a prisoner or captive, who is in survival mode, the idea of following all of these laws would make no sense. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. If you barely have food to eat, you do not have the capacity to live by dietary laws. God first delivers them, reveals Himself to them, and then calls them up.

How often has the witness of the church done the opposite? How often has evangelism become placing Leviticus on people who still need to be delivered? On people still living under Egypt’s rule? God delivers, reveals Himself, and then calls his people up.

At the beginning of Leviticus 19, we see the famous scripture about God calling his people to holiness, just as He is holy. The rest of chapter 19, presumably then, is about what that looks like. You might be surprised at how beautiful this revelation of God's idea of holy living truly is! It is worth a read (or a re-read) if you have not read it recently. There are many details in this chapter, and we will not go over all of them; for example, how to plant crops, what materials clothing will be made out of, dietary restrictions. These are actually quite interesting and relevant in their own way, but we do not have space for all of them! We will focus on the elements that are most relevant to modern life.

Holy Living in Leviticus 19

3 Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must keep my sabbaths; I am the Lord your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves; I am the Lord your God.

Here we have commands to respect your parents, keep the Sabbath, and not worship idols. This looks a little familiar, doesn't it? You will notice that much of this text is similar to ideas shared in the Ten Commandments!

9 When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. 10 Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

This almost looks like a type of welfare system. We see throughout Scriptures that God has a special care for the marginalized in society, such as the poor, widows, and immigrants. Part of what it looks like to live a holy life is to take care of these. Sounds kind of like our New Testament Jesus, right?

11 You must not steal nor deceive nor lie to each other. 12 You must not swear falsely by my name, desecrating your God’s name in doing so; I am the Lord. 13 You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight.

These seem like guidelines for the simple idea of loving your neighbor. Jesus just summarized them!

14 You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip. Instead, fear your God; I am the Lord. 15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly.

It is kind of wild that some of these have to be included. Who is tripping blind people?? Yet we know that discrimination against people with disabilities is a major issue, and this is a way that Leviticus expresses that concern. God is also concerned with justness and fairness in legal matters; those with money or influence should not have an unfair advantage over those without.

16 Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord. 17 You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin. 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.

It is easy to miss the fact that Jesus was quoting the Old Testament Law when he said this phrase, "Love your neighbor as yourself." In fact, a lot of this feels similar to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, and it is right here in Leviticus!

30 You must keep my sabbaths and treat my sanctuary with respect; I am the Lord. 31 Do not resort to dead spirits or inquire of spirits of divination—you will be made unclean by them; I am the Lord your God. 32 You must rise in the presence of an old person and respect the elderly. You must fear your God; I am the Lord. 33 When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them.

God is admonishing his people to not be like the other nations. Respect God's spaces, do not mess around with spirits, honor the elderly. Do not take advantage of immigrants who may not know the customs of the land.

34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. 35 You must not act unjustly in a legal case involving measures of length, weight, or volume. 36 You must have accurate scales and accurate weights, an accurate ephah and an accurate hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. 37 You must keep all my rules and all my regulations, and do them; I am the Lord.

Don't you want to live in a society like the one that is being described here?

Isaiah 42:6 says that “I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness. I will take

you by the hand and guard you, and I will give you to my people, Israel, as a symbol of my

covenant with them. And you will be a light to guide the nations.”

The culture of Israel, the holiness of this nation, is to be a light.

The commands following the presentation of holiness are about the wellbeing of others and the group. Being a people of generosity, rest, kindness, justice and impartiality is part of how we live as holy people. How we become set apart from the nations around us.

The point though, is not that Israel simply follows the commands and then is fine. Because,

spoiler alert, Jesus is going to rebuke Pharisees and teachers of the law who follow the

commands solely and think they’re all good. Jesus clarifies that actually, it is about love underneath it, not the legalism. It is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason and that isn’t what God has called us to.

We are not called to a moral code, we are called to become a certain kind of person. A person dedicated to the things of God. Set apart from the lesser loves and focused on the best one.

It is also not about us in our strength trying to live this way. But rather by the Holy Spirit in us, in His people. We are not talking about self righteousness. We are talking about the work of God in us.

One of the reasons that the OT understanding of holiness matters is because it reveals to us who God is and some practical words of what living as a set apart people looks like. Because it is set apart to not lie. It is set apart to care for the immigrant who has nothing. It is set apart to love your neighbor as yourself in a culture of selfishness. "Old Testament" God is not saying anything different than "New Testament" God. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. There is so much beauty in how God calls Israel, and by extension us, into Himself and into holiness. The understanding of what is happening in the people of Israel also projects us into how Jesus fulfills the law and lives out the fullness of holiness.


Original sermon by Noelle Fillmore

Blog post revision by Allison Freytes

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