When we think of the word, holy (ἅγιος in Greek), we usually think of moral purity, which is one definition. The other primary definition is: “pertaining to being dedicated or consecrated to [set apart to] the service of God” (BDAG 61). This is also the word for saint.
The idea of holy as both separation and moral purity is fundamental in the Old Testament understanding of who God is. The Book of Genesis begins by saying: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1 ESV) In the act of creation God performs two acts of separation: non-being is separated from being and the heavens and the earth are created separate from one another. God then continues by creating other separations—darkness and light; morning and evening; dryland and water; male and female; and so on. And these separations were declared to be good.
Today, we often refer to separations as boundaries. Boundaries have the characteristics of being clear and concrete. Later in Exodus 20, when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, the law provides boundaries defining who is and who is not a member of the household of God. Members follow God’s law; non-members break the law. These laws are not imposed; they are voluntary taking the form of a covenant between the people of Israel and God. The covenant language is obvious because the commandments begin with a reminder of the benefits of participating in the covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2 ESV) In other words, you were slaves, now you are free—you owe me!
In the second giving of the covenant in Deuteronomy (second book of the law), the benefits are laid out in greater detail in the form of blessings [for following the law] and curses [for not following the law]. For example, we read:
“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field….” (Deut 28:1-3 ESV)
Further down we read the parallel antithesis:
“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field…” (Deut. 28:15-16 ESV)
Psalm 1 builds on these blessings and curses:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers…” (Ps. 1:1 ESV)
The job description of a prophet in the Old Testament focused on reminding people of the consequences of ignoring their covenantal obligations.
Why then did Job, who was a righteous man under the law, suffer? (Job 1:1)
One answer is that existence of evil (Job 1:9). Another answer is the foolishness of men and women (Prov 1:7). The best answer is that we born in sin and require God’s intervention to obey the law. We read:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another…” (Job 19:25-27 ESV)
The possibility of a redeemer is prophesied by Moses (Deut 18:15) and hinted at in God’s core values expressed immediately on giving the law in the form of forgiveness (Exod 34:7). But King David, in his prayer asking for forgiveness, most clearly sees God’s role in our moral condition when he writes:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” (Ps. 51:10-11 ESV)
David recognized that divine intervention was required for human compliance with the law.
God later intervened through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:3-10). Consequently, our moral purity rests on the work of Christ. In Christ and Christ alone, we are blessed to live within God’s law and able in true humility to worship God.