Holiness means to be “set apart.” If something is chosen out of a group and set apart from the rest, it has become “holy” in a basic sense. It is no longer common, but rather unique to a certain degree. Whatever characteristics it may share with the original group, it now has a clear and distinguishing feature in being set apart.
In a pagan sense, holiness only applies to objects and places. A particular area is set apart for religious purposes. A particular object becomes the “property” of the “god.” It is taken out of common usage and set aside for a particular religious usage. But this sort of mentality focuses on the “boundaries,” so to speak. This exact area or this exact thing is now sacred. It is a locational holiness, a clear dividing line that makes it possible to know what is sacred property and what is common property, as if God had moved into and possessed an apartment.
It should be noted that this object-holiness and place-holiness also occurs in the Bible. Moses is commanded to remove his sandals “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). But the place is not holy because it has been set apart for God for whenever He decides to show up, like a pagan temple, but rather it is holy because the holy God is there. Objects also may be holy in a Biblical sense, as seen throughout Exodus and Leviticus. But the object is not holy because it is “God’s property,” but because it has been set aside according to a command from the Lord. Though a full exploration would take this article too far afield at the moment (and it is worth returning to at another time), it is enough to say that it is God who makes holy and not man who makes things holy for God.
This is probably the easiest to see with a sort of holiness that applies only to the Bible: personal holiness. The Lord says: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). And to quote Paul, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). To be holy as Christians means to be set apart from the world, to be taken out of darkness and into His marvellous light. As Paul emphasizes in Romans, such personal holiness expresses itself in obedience, in the good works which flow forth from faith. We are not holy in the sense of “do not touch!” We are holy because we are conformed to Him who is holy.
This admittedly long preface sets up the main question: what does it mean for God to be holy? God’s holiness cannot mean that He is set apart for God. It is man who is set apart for God. Nor does God’s holiness mean that He conforms to the will of God, so to speak. The Lord gives the Law, and the Law-Giver is not the same as the one who is set under the Law (Christ, of course, placed Himself under the Law, but He had to condescend to do so).
Rather, God’s holiness consists in that He is the utterly set apart, unique, and almighty Lord of heaven and earth. His holiness has no equal and no parallel. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19). “I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6).
These last quotations show a tendency about how we think of God’s holiness. God is holy; we are not. God is righteous; we are not. This is certainly true, but it is not exclusively how the Word presents the holiness of God. Isaiah 6 gives perhaps one of the most instructive passages here. The Lord appears to Isaiah in the temple attended by the seraphim (who only appear here in the Bible). Isaiah sees little more than the feet of the Lord, the very bottom hem of His garment, and yet this is enough to fill the whole temple with His glory. His reaction is quite natural: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah recognizes that his uncleanness, his sin, has made him unfit for being in the presence of God, and therefore he fears that he will be destroyed, as is only natural. The all-holy God cannot abide the presence of sin.
Yet it is the seraphim themselves who should be noted here. These fearful creatures, whose name means “the burning ones,” defy Isaiah’s exact description. At best they have a head and feet or legs and six wings and hands, though not much else is said about them. I personally think that it is their voice which causes the thresholds to shake (though one could also reasonably say it is the Lord’s voice). The seraphim alone are enough to inspire awe and holy terror. Yet with their wings they hide their faces and their feet, and with their awe-inspiring voices they cry “Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Armies! The whole earth is full of His glory!” These angels, who are not spoiled with sin and can indeed stand in His presence, still must veil their eyes before the awesome holiness of the Lord.
To put it simply, God is not holy only because we are sinners who cannot stand before Him. God is holy because He is the One Who Is. He was holy before sin entered the world. He is holy even in the midst of sinners now. He will be holy even after sin comes to an end. The Lord is holy in a wholly unique way, and even in eternity, God will remain utterly set apart.