The phrase “be holy for I am holy” has its roots in the Old Testament portion of the Bible. In fact, all the times that phrasing comes together in a verse, it happens in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. That is except once. Peter used it in the first chapter of his first letter in the New Testament (I Peter 1:16). But then again, Peter WAS quoting Leviticus when he said it, so that really doesn’t count as original content from him.
So, who said “be holy for I am holy” anyway? And to whom was it said?
Well, it’s God speaking. He is the holy one. The people hearing the challenge to be holy are Moses, the priestly leadership and the rest of the Israelites.
Holiness must have mattered to God because he repeats this phrase or a variant of it 6 times in the book of Leviticus (11:44, 11:45, 19:2, 20:7, 20:26 and 21:8). That’s enough to make it a central theme of the entire book. God expected people to relate to Him in a certain way based on this character quality He possessed.
So why did God say it then? And more importantly for us, why does it or should it matter to us today?
An Unsettling Moment
The people had always known holiness mattered to God. The word comes up many times before Leviticus in referencing certain things, like a place (Exodus 3:5), a special day (Exodus 20:8), clothing (Exodus 28:4) and various offerings (Exodus 29:34).
But the most holy space in the camp was the Tabernacle. The structure built by the people based on instructions God gave them served a special purpose. It was the spiritual dwelling of God in the midst of the people.
In it, Moses’ brother Aaron served along with the other priests. The altar of burnt offering resided there, along with the Ark of the Covenant, which was housed in the innermost space of the Tabernacle known as the Holy of Holies. Everything about the Tabernacle, including all the actions that were supposed to take place therein, radiated holiness.
That’s what makes what happened inside its walls one day so unsettling. It may have been the people’s first real glimpse at how seriously God took the matter of holiness.
Nadab and Abihu
God commissioned Moses’ brother Aaron to serve as the first high priest of Israel. Other priests served under Aaron’s leadership including his two sons, Nadab and Abihu. God gave all the priests specific instructions about how to interact with Him and the people and how to perform all the activities in the Tabernacle area.
Then we get this story in Leviticus 10:1-3:
“Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”
We don’t know exactly what their infraction was. Verse 1 says it was “profane” (literally “strange”) fire they offered. It’s difficult to imagine they didn’t know what they were doing. At the least they weren’t careful and at the worst they were deliberately disobedient.
Either way, they didn’t regard the holiness of God as something that mattered all that much. If they had, they would have been more careful or they would have had a healthy fear for their lives.
Regardless, God judged them in a devastating way. It must have served as a wake-up call to the priests and all the nation. God didn’t show favoritism in who could regard him as holy. Even the sons of the high priest were not immune.
And, even though the exact “be holy for I am holy” wording does not occur here, we see God warming up to that definitive command when He sums up the incident in verse 3:
“By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.”
Why Be Holy For I Am Holy Mattered Then
God’s holiness is part of his character. He can’t lay it down. He can’t separate himself from it. Complete moral goodness and perfection define his holy nature. When people in the Bible like Isaiah encountered it, they bowed in awe before it (see Isaiah 6).
The people of Israel were not perfect. They were not innately good or moral. So there existed a vast spiritual chasm between them and God – unholy (mankind) vs. holy (God).
If this was the case, then why would God tell them to “be holy as I am holy?” If He knew the people could never reach his level or standard of holiness, what was the real point of the message?
Two Reasons for Holiness
Even though the people weren’t perfect like God, they could strive to be like him and show humility towards him. Their actions could be holy ones. And when they were, they became more like him in mind and spirit.
In that way, people drew closer to God by following the command. Each successive holy action taken, helped them develop a mind, spirit and will that was more devoted to God and respectful towards him than before. If that’s the only reason for holiness, then it would be enough. God desires nothing more for his followers than that they become more like him each day.
But a second reason that God commanded them to be holy was to be a witness to the surrounding nations.
If you recall, the nations which the people came in contact with along their wilderness journey (and later in Canaan) demonstrated wickedness routinely. They involved themselves with all kinds of unspeakable sins that God did not tolerate. This was one of the reasons God used Israel’s armies to wipe them out as they moved to possess the Promised Land.
So personal holiness was a testimony to these nations. God wanted it known that his people were different – that they were set apart in a unique relationship with a holy God. The religious practices and laws they followed declared to the surrounding nations that this people group and the Being they worshiped were different.
So What About Today? Does Holiness Still Matter?
So do the same reasons apply to us today? Absolutely!
Like the Israelites, we are not born naturally holy. We have a sin nature that we constantly battle. Because of our nature, we can never be perfect like God or exercise complete moral goodness like him. There is a spiritual boundary that separates us from him.
But once a person bridges the boundary by believing in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, we do have the ability to draw closer to God. Through God working in our lives, we can commit holy actions that mold our mind and spirit more into his image. True, we will never attain perfection and be like God, but that’s not the point of our existence.
Why do we exist? For one of the same reasons Israel did – to point people to God. We are witnesses to what God has done in our life. And that is another reason why striving for holiness matters today.
Too often followers of Jesus do not reflect the character of God in their daily life. Their actions are not holy ones. And, whether you want to believe it or not, those actions are seen and do impact other people.
People make judgments and assumptions about our life based on the things we say and do. As followers of Jesus, our main priority while we remain our earth is to witness to and make disciples of all men. Put another way, we are to love God and love others. We cannot do either of those if we are not striving for holiness in our own life.
The Be Holy Conclusion
It would be a mistake to assume that God is out to judge us like he did Nadab and Abihu if we sin. Despite how it looks on the surface, God is a God of grace and mercy. We don’t need to fear for our lives when we make a mistake.
But we do need to revere him and honor his holiness. Intentionally sinning doesn’t do that. Neither does treating people poorly or even using God’s name as an expletive. None of these would be living up to the “be holy for I am holy” command.
We will never be perfect like God. But every holy action we take draws us closer to him.
And perhaps the most important reason to strive for holiness isn’t about us. It’s about other people seeing God in us. Your holy action may just be the thing that makes someone else stop and think. Maybe it’s the thing that draws them to God.
(If you are looking for more reading on this topic, check out the classic work by The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul)
Leave a Comment or Answer a Question Below: Where does your mind go when you read “be holy for I am holy?” What’s your biggest struggle in living a godly, holy life? Have your actions towards another person ever opened a door for you to witness to that person?