What is holiness? Is it purity? Being set apart? Or is it being chosen, dedicated, or sanctified? Holiness is all of these, and how these aspects interconnect can be illustrated with a story about a peanut butter jar.
In Papua New Guinea we used lots of matches. During the rainy season, matches would absorb moisture from the humid air, making them difficult to light. So one day I decided to store them in a clean jar on a sunny shelf, letting the sun keep them dry.
First I needed a jar. I opened a kitchen cabinet and chose a partially empty peanut butter jar, but I didn’t do anything with it right away. I waited a few days. When it had yielded its last knifeful of peanut butter, I removed it from the cabinet, setting it apart from the other jars.
Next came the process of scraping out the remaining peanut butter and washing the jar. Then I removed the soggy label and set the jar aside to dry.
Finally my jar was ready for its assignment. I put a few small match boxes into it, screwed the lid on, and set it on a sunny windowsill. I now had a steady supply of dry matches.
But my work was not done. I needed to be faithful in putting the matches into the jar and replacing the lid to keep the humidity away from them. I needed to keep the inside of the jar clean and dry, and I needed to return it to the windowsill after each use.
The steps I went through with my peanut butter jar illustrate various phases of holiness.
It all starts with purpose. I wanted a place for my matches. God wanted a nation of priests. I chose an ordinary peanut butter jar. God chose the descendants of an ordinary man named Abraham.
Holiness starts with purpose.
Then comes a time of waiting until the time is ripe. I waited until the peanut butter was used up. God waited until Abraham’s descendants grew into a nation. When the jar was nearly empty, I separated it from the other items in the cabinet, and its identity ceased to be a food container, though it still contained a bit of peanut butter. God removed Israel from Egypt, and they ceased being slaves, but there was still a lot of Egypt inside them.
The next phase is cleaning and preparation. I scraped the remaining peanut butter out of the jar and washed it. Then I removed the soggy label and set the jar out to dry. God gave Israel a covenant and spent 40 years removing Egyptian mindsets and pagan practices from Israel, giving them new perspectives and practices according to the covenant. He replaced their dependency on Egyptian slave masters and gods with dependency on Him alone.
The next phase is deployment — starting to fulfill the purpose. I filled my peanut butter jar with matches and put them on a sunny shelf. God sent Israel to take and occupy their land and to live by the covenant so the world could see how He blessed an obedient nation.
Holiness is a cooperative effort between God and His people.
The last phase is twofold: 1) continuing to fulfill the purpose, and 2) staying clean and able to fulfill the purpose. In the case of the peanut butter jar, I did all the work: I kept matches in the jar on the sunny shelf. I kept the jar clean and dry and was careful to keep the lid on. If I got lax in any of these, my matches would become difficult to light. In the case of Israel, the work was a cooperative effort between God and Israel. Israel’s ongoing role was to remember and live by the covenant, refraining from being polluted by other gods. When they did so, God protected and blessed them, and the neighboring nations saw and respected Him. When Israel abandoned the covenant, He disciplined them and sent them prophets and leaders to help them repent and get back on track. Israel’s role was to obey, and when they strayed, they needed to repent and resume obeying.
So … what is holiness? Is it purity? Being set apart? Or is it being chosen, dedicated, or sanctified? Holiness includes all of these — and much more.