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Vayikra/Leviticus 20:8 And you shall observe My statutes and you shall do them; I am Adonai who is making you holy.
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This verse stands at the head of a second, almost identical, set of rules about forbidden sexual relationships; the first being in chapter 18, verses 6-23. It is preceded by a section covering the abhorrent practice of child sacrifice that ends in one of the standard priestly formulas: "You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the L-RD your G-d" (v. 7, NASB).Hirsch suggests that the - for, that, when, because - that starts the next verse introduces the list of commands that are being enjoined upon the Israelites; these are the statutes that are to be observed.
The first verb, - Qal, affix, 2mp, vav-reversive - is the most frequent way of issuing a command without using a direct imperative: "and you shall ...". The verb root is , to guard, keep or observe - it speaks of taking care to keep and preserve as well as the practical observation. The second verb, - also Qal, affix, 2mp, vav-reversive - comes from the root , most commonly to do or make, but sometimes - as here - with the sense of performing or carrying out. The third verb, - Pi'el, participle, ms with a 2mp object pronoun suffix - describesHaShem's activities: He is the one who is making the people holy. The switch from the Qal to the Pi'el stem intensifies or strengthens the force of the action, changing the meaning from "to be holy" to "to consecrate, to make holy, to appoint as holy". Hirsch offers the translation, "leads you to holiness".
ObadiahSforno picks up a number of these threads when he comments in the first part of the verse, "In this manner, namely, that you sanctify yourselves through separation from forbidden unions, you will thereby keep and do them for future generations. But if you do not sanctify yourselves, your descendants also will doubtless also fail to be holy for they will have been born in sin as the Psalmist says: 'Indeed I was born with iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me' (Psalm 51:7, JPS)". One generation will lead to another and the children of a forbidden relationship will already be in sin before they start. The Sforno then balances that by commenting to the second part as if HaShem were still speaking: "For in truth, I have prohibited forbidden unions to sanctify you to My service." He seems to see the two parts of the verse working together, but is he confused about who is doing what and why?
Where, then, is the cause and effect in the text? Is this a human action to separate ourselves from "sin" so that we become holy in order to serve G-d? Has G-d provided the rules and the "obedience" mechanism for us to demonstrate and practice our holiness as we try to become like Him? Or is it that G-d is the one who declares or appoints people to be holy and that our subsequent behaviour then flows from that state of holiness? We appear to have two ways of reading the verse: either the actions create the holiness, or the holiness generates the actions. Somewhat inconveniently for our minds, because we like to resolve such apparent contradictions one way or the other, rather than holding two seemingly opposite ideas in tension, the Bible makes it plain that both are in fact true.
At a physical level, on the one hand, our set-apartness for G-d comes directly from our disengagement from the ways of the world and our refusal to participate in patterns of sin and destructive behaviour; our level of holiness is in direct proportion to the level of separation that we manage to achieve. It is G-d's laws that provide the standard that we need to keep and that delineate the types of activity in which we may or may not participate. Other people sense the different way in which G-d's people conduct themselves, the way they speak, the love they show and so know that we belong to G-d. Rav Sha'ul's letters contain two distinct but very similar lists of behaviour and lifestyles that clearly demarcate those who are in the kingdom of G-d from those who are not. A steady development of good habits and practices makes the routine daily observance easier and our kingdom responses become automatic as we grow more like Yeshua.
At a spiritual level, on the other hand, we know that simply keeping rules from an external point of view leads to a lifeless and sterile existence with no love or grace. Change needs to come from within as the holiness that G-d has given us spreads from the inside out. G-d has certainly given us the rules that govern our behaviour, but these are meant to be seen as patterns and habits that those who are already part of the kingdom should naturally develop as they move in G-d's grace and get to know Him better. As our hearts become more attuned to His, as we learn to hear the Ruach speaking and nudging, then our outward behaviour will fall in step and the holiness that we already have will become apparent to others.
Theologians have two words that they use to name these processes: justification and sanctification. Justification is when we are declared "right" before G-d; this is seen as a single moment in time when we become part of the kingdom of G-d, our past sins are forgiven in Messiah Yeshua and we are marked as righteous. Yeshua's words speak of this moment: "He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life" (John 5:24, NASB); that passage from one legal state to another is the key concept. Rav Sha'ul says it again: "Therefore, there is no longer any condemnation awaiting those who are in union with the Messiah Yeshua" (Romans 8:1, CJB). On a judicial basis, the believer in Messiah has changed status from being a sinner, at odds with G-d and an object of His wrath, to being a child of G-d, a fellow-heir and citizen of the kingdom of heaven and - in Yeshua - beloved by G-d for His sake.
On the the other hand, verses such as Yeshua's assurance to the scribe that "You are not far from the kingdom of G-d" (Mark 12:34, CJB), and Rav Sha'ul's "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12, NASB) speak of the process of sanctification: being conformed to the image of Yeshua, which is clearly a transformative process and takes time. Our lifestyles and habits do not change overnight and as we come to know Yeshua and His words better, so we come around into line and are "made" holy. During this process we will, of course, continue in some old habits that will eventually change but in the meantime cause us to sin; repentance and forgiveness are necessary to restore our relationship with G-d but sins committed at this time do not alter our judicial status, provided always that they are dealt with.
Moshe, therefore, in our text above is speaking of both these things. Firstly, G-d had already justified the Israelites (by bringing them out of Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds and declaring them to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests at Mt. Sinai), so they were now expected to live as members of His community, observing His standards for proper relationships and ways of conducting themselves - their status should lead to their actions. Secondly, however, G-d was still sanctifying them by urging them to observe the rules that He had provided; they needed to engage with those rules and live them out in community for the effect to be seen - their actions would lead to practical holiness.
As believers in Messiah, we are called to participate in those same processes today. G-d has declared "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV), so we are called to live out that life of holiness by observing His commands such as "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John 13:34, NASB) and "Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify G-d in the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:12, NASB); both intensely practical and examples of being a commanded people, subject to rules and obligations as a result of knowing G-d. At the same time, Yeshua says, "But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13, NASB), showing that we are clearly in process and that our efforts are necessary to ensure arrival at the desired destination. In either case, Rav Sha'ul is clear that "I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6, ESV).
Further Study: James 1:22-25; Hebrews 12:14
Application: Whether a new believer or a seasoned campaigner in the kingdom of G-d, we all have work to do in reaching our goal and cooperating with G-d to make us into the image of His Son, Yeshua. If you have lost sight of that purpose, why not reconnect with G-d today and find out what is next on His "to-do" list in your life?
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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