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What Does It Mean for God to Be “Holy”?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
3 minutes read

He is holy. (Psalm 99:5)

Before we explore how the Levitical sacrifices point to Christ, it is important to discuss God’s holiness. You may have heard the concept that God is too holy to look upon or be in the presence of sinners. For instance, Philip Ryken, a council member of The Gospel Coalition, provides an explanation:

God the Fathercould not bear to look at the sin or at his Son. He had to avert his gaze. He had to shield his eyes.[i]

However, what does it mean when we say that God is holy? How should we understand the concept of God’s holiness in our discussion? The word “holy” is sometimes seen as the opposite of sin. In modern language, when we describe someone as holy, we tend to think of them as good. In modern Hebrew, when we refer to someone as holy, we often mean they are pure and innocent. However, in biblical Hebrew, the word “holy” means “to be set apart.” It is about being distinct and different. But being unique and different doesn’t necessarily mean others are bad. For example, God declared the seventh day to be holy, not because the other days were evil or bad, but because it was set apart for a unique purpose.

In the Pentateuch, God is set apart from all other gods because He is the Creator and they are not. Peter Gentry examined the usage of the word “holy” in the Hebrew Scriptures and concluded that:

The basic meaning of the word is ‘consecrated’ or ‘devoted.’ In the Scripture, it operates within the context of covenant relationships and expresses commitment.[ii]

Our God is also different in his ways. Other gods hate; Our God is love. Other gods seek revenge; Our God desires to forgive. If God’s holiness meant he “could not bear to look at sin”, and we all sin, then it follows that God cannot be in the presence of sinners. But this view is clearly contradicted by the different manifestations of God throughout the scriptures, the promises of the scriptures, and the very manifestation of the Son of God who came to live amidst sinners. Further, if God is omnipresent, he is always present in the fallen world. The universe continues to exist; it is preserved by the Creator’s presence. Finally, there is the famous story of Job, where Satan comes before God and negotiates with him. He did not need to “avert his gaze” or “shield his eyes.”

Since God is holy (unique, different), the space where he dwells must be holy. So, when Israel defiled the camp, it became unclean and no longer holy. This is the same principle as with an operating room in hospitals. If you defile it, you may not do surgery until it is again cleansed. Likewise, the holy place of Israel had to be cleansed, purified, and sanctified with the bible’s version of antiseptics – the blood of the offerings. Christ was holy too, but Jesus didn’t tell sinners to keep away from him as he’s holy and they are not. Jesus touched sinners, loved them, and cared for them. The point is that the holiness of God never prevented him from coming near sinners. In fact, they are the very reason why he came. Jesus was holy because he was different from others — he loved even sinners. More on how God allegedly hates sinners and can’t look at them later in part III of the book.

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[i] Philip Graham Ryken, “The Heart of the Cross”. Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, 2005. Pg 87.

[ii] Peter J. Gentry, “The Meaning of ‘Holy’ in the Old Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 170 (2013): 417.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist