“Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” ” (I Peter 1:15 NRSV)
The word “holy” sounds a little scary. It has the ring of “un-touchability.” But what does the word mean? I Peter quotes the command to “be holy” directly from the Hebrew scriptures: Leviticus 19:1. So to get a handle on what it means to “be holy,” in this context, we need to look at the setting for this command in Leviticus.
Leviticus 19:1 begins a lengthy section detailing the law for how to treat one's neighbors (Lev. 19 to 26.) In Leviticus 19:1, the command to “Be holy as I am holy” framed the understanding for all the laws which followed: as the Israelite community obeyed the laws, they would them mirror the likeness of God.
What did holiness look like? Holiness was a “separate” way of living: a different way of being in the world-not like the daily grind of surrounding people groups, but rather “like God.” To live “differently” or “separately” meant being intentional about how one treated one's neighbor. For example:
- Being conscious of the needs of the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10)
- Not defrauding one's neighbor through lying, stealing, slander or wrong judgments (Leviticus 19:11-17)
- Not hating anyone, but rather “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
In reality, the command of Jesus to love one another and I Peter's reminder to “love deeply from the heart” have their origins in the Levitical codes of holiness. Thus, to be holy involves paying attention to the needs of one's neighbor. One cannot be “holy” and ignore the needs of others. Too often in the larger Christian world, “holiness” is treated almost like a synonym for “morality.” Holiness involves personal purity and ethics, but the emphasis in the first part of Leviticus 19 is on right treatment of neighbor.
Thus the question: Are you “holy” as God is “holy”?