Holiness as Defined by Christ
In the Old Testament, the concept of sanctification and holiness was broad. It included not only living in accord with God's standard of morality, but, for the Jews, it also included the ritualistic requirements of the covenant He had with Israel.
The book of Leviticus contains many laws required of the Israelites that they might be undefiled before Jehovah. It was necessary that they observe these laws, both moral and ceremonial, in order to be considered clean and worthy of worshipping Him. Concerning these laws, Jehovah said, "Therefore you shall observe all My statutes and all My judgments, and perform them: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:37).
The holiness of God demanded obedience on the part of the Jews. They were to be holy in their conduct, because God was holy. "For I am the Lord you God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44). It is interesting that in this particular context, the Lord had commanded the Jews to refrain from eating unclean animals. Later, this aspect of God's law changed.
However, the call to holiness for us today is no different than it was for the Jews. The only difference is a narrowing of the definition of what is holy before God. The same call to holiness is present under the new covenant. In fact, Peter quoted the admonition of Jehovah in 1 Peter 1:15-16, "But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, "Be holy, for I am holy." You may note that the call to holiness in this context had nothing to do with ceremonial uncleanness. Rather, they were to separate themselves from the "former lusts" (vs. 14).
In both cases, holiness is enjoined upon those who desire to serve God. The difference is in the definition or scope of what is holy. With the change in covenant, there was a change in what God requires of man. Jesus spoke clearly of this change in Matthew 15. The scribes and Pharisees had expressed their objection to the practice of Jesus' disciples. They did not follow the Pharisaic tradition of ritual washing before eating (vs. 2). Jesus indicated their traditions were empty, and said in verse 11, "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." Later, in explaining himself to his disciples, he indicated that immorality (evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies) is what defiles a man, not to eat with unwashed hands. In the new covenant, it is not what goes into the stomach, but what comes "out of the heart" that will stand between God and man.
An interesting illustration of this narrow definition of holiness is found in Luke's record of the conversion of Cornelius. God taught Peter that Gentiles were to be included among the redeemed by a vision. In the vision, animals considered unclean under the Old Covenant were let down from heaven on a great sheet. God gave the command, "Rise, Peter, kill and eat" (Acts 10:13). At Peter's objection, "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean" (vs. 14), God answered, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (vs. 15). By indicating that the animals previously denied the Jews were now to be eaten, God taught the more important lesson that the Gentile was to be included among the redeemed together with the chosen Jew.
While the scope of what God considers holy is narrower under the new covenant, it is a mistake to equate the more narrow definition with a lower standard. Some believe that because we are under grace, God is no longer as stringent in His judgment of man. This is not so. Paul indicated that the grace of God, as great and effective as it is, gives us no excuse to licentiousness. "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2). The Hebrew writer indicated that the standard of God's judgment is more stringent under the new covenant. "If the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?" (2:2-4).
Again and again Christians are called to be holy in their conduct.
As Christians, we must recognize that God expects us to live holy before him. If we recognize the exacting standards found in the old covenant, it will help us to understand what He requires of us today.