“Be Holy, For I Am Holy”

Entering the Most Holy Place(This post is part of a series. See Entering the Most Holy Place: a Study on the Day of Atonement for an introduction and list of posts.)

(By the way, I’ve quoted all the verses in NASB, but the popups are set to display NIV so you can compare the two translations.)

I want to warn you from the outset: this is going to sound like bad news. But hang in there with me, because the bad news tells us why we need the good news, and seeing how horrible the bad news is will enable us to see just how incredibly amazing the good news is. Ready? Here we go…

Who is this God who manifested His presence in the midst of the Israelite camp, and who “tabernacled” among us in the person of Jesus, and who lives in our church and our very bodies? How should His character affect ours?

Leviticus has a definitive answer. According to Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; and 20:26, God’s character is holy. In these verses He repeatedly says to His people, “Be holy, for I am holy.” Peter applies this to us as Christians:

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” (1 Peter 1:14–16)

We are to be holy because our God is holy.

Holy. Sacred. Set apart. Pure.

And more than a little frightening.

When our holy God manifested His presence to Israel at Mount Sinai, He warned Moses to keep the people away from the mountain, lest He “break out against them” (Exodus 19:20–25). In fact, the instructions for the Day of Atonement were given in the context of just such a terrifying judgment.

“For the LORD your God is a consuming fire…” (Deuteronomy 4:24) 1

“Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the LORD and died.” (Leviticus 16:1) This refers to a story in Leviticus 10:1-7, but we will focus on the first section:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.’ ” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Like I said before, frightening.

The instructions God gave Moses on the construction and use of the Tabernacle’s incense altar sheds light on the punishment of Nadab and Abihu. Interestingly, it is also first mention of the Day of Atonement in scripture.

“You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it. Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD.” (Exodus 30:9–10)

When Nadab and Abihu did something “which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1), it was not a simple mistake made out of ignorance.

The instructions had been clear. The altar of incense was declared by God to be “most holy.” When Nadab and Abihu offered strange or unauthorized fire on it, they were acting in clear defiance of God. Theirs was an act of blatant rebellion, an inexcusable profaning of the Holy Place. They committed a sin of arrogance, an act of treason against God: They profaned a most holy place. (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 2nd ed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998), 102-103.)

Whether they acted out of premeditation or out of carelessness, it was still the sin of arrogance. They did not take God’s holiness seriously enough, and they died because of it.

This rather frightening incident at the beginning of the Mosaic covenant reminds me of a similar one at the beginning of the new covenant. In Acts 5, Ananias and his wife Sapphira lied about money they were giving to the church, presumably to make themselves look better, and God struck them both dead. God did not change from a God of judgment in the Old Testament to a God of grace in the New Testament; He is one and the same throughout the Bible. He is holy, and He will be treated as holy.

This is the God who makes His dwelling within us. No wonder He says “Be holy, for I am holy.”

Now for the good news (finally!)

Remember that what God did for Israel as a nation often pictures what He does spiritually for those who trust Christ for salvation. Let’s look again at those verses where God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.”

  • Leviticus 11:44-45. We can be holy because this holy God brought us out of the Egypt of slavery to sin. And we can be holy because this holy God is our God.
  • Leviticus 20:26. We can be holy because this holy God sets us apart to be His.
  • Look at an additional verse – Leviticus 20:7-8. We can be holy because this holy God makes us holy.

God has always been a God of grace. You will see His grace everywhere in the Old Testament if you take the time to look for it. It is no coincidence that in the book where God repeatedly commands Israel to be holy, He also provides the sacrificial system to cleanse them from sin. And it is no coincidence that the instructions for the Day of Atonement follow the judgment of Nadab and Abihu. As Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mark 2:17) We will never truly seek or appreciate grace until we first see our sin in the light of God’s frightening holiness.

What is your honest reaction to all of this? Does it change how you feel about God and about yourself? How can knowing these truths make a practical difference in the way you live?


  1. My thinking in the following section is influenced by insights from chapter 6 in R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 2nd ed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998).

The Dwelling Place of God

Entering the Most Holy Place(This post is part of a series. See Entering the Most Holy Place: a Study on the Day of Atonement for an introduction and list of posts.)

In order to understand the rituals for the Day of Atonement, we need to be familiar with the Old Testament Tabernacle, a portable worship center that the Israelites took with them as they traveled. Exodus 26-30 records the instructions God gave to Moses about building the Tabernacle and everything inside it, including the robes the priests would wear. 

Tabernacle floorplan
Tabernacle Schematic – by Epictatus at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Tabernacle – By Illustrators of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When the tabernacle was built and dedicated, God’s glory filled it (Exodus 40:34–38). (Centuries later when King Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, it had the same layout, and at its dedication God once again filled it with His glory; see 2 Chronicles 7:1–3). Since His glory was manifested in a special way in the tabernacle, you could say that it was God’s dwelling place on earth. When the Israelites were camped, that dwelling place was in the center of the camp. God so desired an intimate relationship with His people that He lived in the midst of them!

But access to God was still limited. Although any Israelite could come into the tabernacle or temple courtyard, only priests and Levites could enter the Holy Place. And even they couldn’t go into the innermost room, the Most Holy Place where God manifested His presence; only the high priest could go there, and he could only go there once each year – on the Day of Atonement.

Apparently that wasn’t enough for God; He wanted even greater intimacy with us. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) – The phrase “made his dwelling” in the Greek is one word: “tabernacled.” The glory of God now lived in a human body instead of a tent or building. Anyone, not just the high priest, could see God the Son, walk with Him, and talk with Him.

But Jesus was limited when He walked on earth; He could only be in one geographic location at a time, and He traveled within a very small area. Once again, that wasn’t enough for God. He wanted even greater intimacy with even more of us. Look at Ephesians 2:19–22.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Notice the plurals and the repeated word “together.”  God is building us corporately into His temple/tabernacle. God’s intent for the church is to be His dwelling place, the place where He manifests His glory on earth. His desire is that any time anyone enters any kind of church gathering in any place, they should encounter the presence of God.

But there’s more – an even greater intimacy between God and His people.  1 Corinthians 6:19 says that each individual Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Every person who truly trusts Jesus is a dwelling place for the living God.

Think about it. I mean REALLY think about it.

The church is a place where the God of the universe lives and manifests His glory.

Every Christian you know is a place where the God of the universe lives and manifests His glory.

You are a place where the God of the universe lives and manifests His glory.

Does this effect how you think about the church, or other Christians, or yourself? Is there some practical application God wants you to make that you would feel free to share in the comments below?


O.T. Journal: Genesis and Exodus

ot-journal-logo (A seminary class assignment originally dated September 18, 2006.  For an introduction and table of contents for the series, see New Series: Old Testament Reading Journal). 

I read large portions aloud in a version new to me (NLT2), which made certain things pop out and caused me to react emotionally in ways I hadn’t before. I felt awed by the beautiful, poetic repetition in Genesis 1; I choked up at the heart wrenching emotion of Joseph at his reunion with his brothers; I laughed at the irony of Pharaoh’s daughter paying Moses’ own mother to nurse him; I got irritated at Moses when he whined and flat-out contradicted God at the burning bush; I “rooted for the good guys” during the ten plagues and the Red Sea crossing like I was reading an action-adventure novel. I also saw a connection I hadn’t seen before: when Jethro encouraged Moses to set up a system of judges, I thought, “How are they going to know how to decide all these cases?” And right after that, my question was answered by God giving the civil laws at Sinai. Overall, I saw in a new way the “humanness” of these two books and how much they focus on relationships, both among people and between people and God. Even the seemingly tedious details of the tabernacle plans and construction emphasize relationship, for as God says in Ex.29:46, “I am the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I could live among them.”

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