Backwards holiness

Posted: May 3, 2013 by J in Bible, Mission, Pastoral issues, Theology

Growing up as a Christian, I was taught that holiness was about keeping separate from sin. It was symbolised in the OT by the laws on purity: touch something unclean and you yourself become unclean. So don’t touch – keep distance. So with holiness, it’s fragile, easily contaminated or tainted by the sinfulness of the world. It needs to be protected, kept at a safe distance from the wickedness and pollution all around us.

Naturally enough, as a young Christian I chose Christians as my friends. All my friends. They were clean. The non-Christians were a contaminating influence. Over the years, I found it helped if I limited my contact with non-christian people. Christian boss, church friends, etc. I’d be friendly to my neighbours, but not get too close. Separate. Holy.

Over the past few years I’ve been taking a long, hard look at Jesus, and I’ve been unsettled by what I’ve seen. He kept going near to sinners. He kept touching unclean people. Jesus was always getting in trouble for hanging with the lowlife. He didn’t seem to want to spend much time with the super-religious Pharisees. In the end, he finished his life hanging between two criminals. Whatever Jesus’ holiness was, it wasn’t about keeping separate.

But more than that, when Jesus touched the unclean ones, they became clean. His holiness was not fragile, it didn’t seem to need protection. Rather, it seems to have been aggressive, expansionist, infiltrating the lives of the people around him. It was sin and uncleanness that turned out to be fragile. Look at how the unclean spirits react when Jesus comes on the scene: terrified. Look at Jesus touching the leper (Luke 5). He doesn’t become unclean: the leper becomes clean.

Look at what happens when Jesus eats at Zacchaeus’s house (Luke 19). This little outcast tax-collector abandons his greed and corruption, and starts using his money for the poor! Jesus’ goodness invades and conquers this household.

We could go on multiplying examples.

Jesus’ holiness seems to be all backwards. Instead of being about withdrawal, separation, it’s about arrival, contact, expansion. Jesus explicitly subverts the Mosaic laws of cleanness. For his cleanness is something that comes near, it’s a missionary force, a transforming power that impacts the world around him. In the face of Jesus’ holiness, evil beats a hasty retreat.

So why is it that Jesus’ holiness is so different from ours? If we’re doing mission with Jesus, and he’s the leader, then why does he set this unhelpfully confusing example to us? It’s all very well for Jesus. But we disciples can’t go reaching out into the muck of this world, getting caught up in the middle of it all, making connections with the sinful people who live there, and expect to see transformation, and hope to stay pure in holiness ourselves.

Can we?

Or is it my view of holiness that’s backwards?

  1. kristanslack says:

    Reflecting on my own very similar childhood I think I thought the same way. In my understanding, a command from the Bible to avoid idolatry somehow became “avoid idolators”. The only people to avoid from what I can tell are those who profess to follow this Lord Jesus and live in serious sin. In fact, Paul speaks to this very thing in 1 Corinthians 5.

    “9   When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. 10 But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. 11 I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. “NLT-SE

    • Jonathan says:

      That’s a helpful passage for thinking through holiness, thanks Kristan. Suggests that the modern day equivalents to the Pharisees and scribes whom Jesus warned people about might be people in the church.

  2. Alan Wood says:

    Absolutely, Jonathan. I can’t remember when someone once pointed out to me that Jesus made people clean (leper, bleeding woman, dead body) by touching them, whereas the whole system of holiness worked the other way. It was a long time ago, but it’s a point I keep coming back to and chewing on. I think it means that our holiness needs to come from sanctification by the Spirit within, not from our outward observances. And it ought to be Spirit-powered and ‘aggressive’, as you say, not reactive and negative, if we’re to be Jesus’ followers. But worldly holiness (and OT holiness, as far as I can tell) work the other way.
    So how do we read OT holiness as wisdom for us in our walk with Jesus now?
    And can we have any expectation that we’ll be seen by other people as “holy” if we follow a Jesus-shaped holy lifestyle? Is there a holy Jesus-shaped lifestyle, or is that an outward-y question?

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