Living in Holiness


Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you separate yourself from the unbiblical aspects of your culture and stand out by living in holiness.

Separate from Society’s Standards:  Leviticus 18:1-5.

[5:1]  And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  [2]  "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God.  [3]  You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.  [4]  You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God.  [5]  You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.  [ESV]

[1-5]  Within two chapters of reaching the heights of the Day of Atonement, Leviticus finds itself dealing with matters that are more usually associated with the gutter press; matters like incest, adultery, homosexuality and bestiality. With even a cursory glance at chapter 18, which covers these issues, the command, Do not leaps out. Beyond this, words such as dishonorable, wickedness, defiling, perversion and detestable seem to abound. No wonder contemporary liberal society considers this chapter a relic from the past, which is best forgotten and which is injurious to the values of personal liberty and choice that we prize so highly today. The chapter has provoked the special ire of those who champion the cause of homosexual rights. To read these laws in this negative way, however, is misguided. To do so wholly misconstrues the intention of God’s words and gives a distorted surface reading that ignores the direction within it that give us our bearings when we come to interpret it. God is not a puritanical killjoy, out to prevent His people from enjoying themselves, but rather the reverse. As the one who created humans to be sexual beings, He knows the power of the sexual drive and its ability to bring happiness or to breed misery. He wants to save His people from experiencing distress and to establish those foundations on which healthy families can be built and from which healthy communities can spring. Turn the ‘do nots’ into ‘do’s’ and it will soon become apparent what an ugly, destructive and damaging society would be created if God’s word were to be ignored. Before listing the various sexual practices that will be harmful to family life, God first explains through Moses the basis for His addressing Israel in the way He does. A threefold call is wrapped up in the opening paragraph, the threads of which are picked up later in the chapter. The call to be loyal [2,4]. The call begins as God reminds His people who He is, using the words, I am the Lord your God. The phrase, or its shorter version, I am the Lord, reads to us as if God is asserting His authority right at the start and, given that the phrase is repeated a further five times in the chapter, doing so in an emphatic manner. But this is not the primary intent of these words. In addressing His people like this, God is using His personal name and speaking with them out of a committed and intimate relationship. He is using the name that is associated primarily with His promise to deliver Israel from Egypt. It communicates not so much His authority and right to command, as His incomprehensible grace. He is the God who is faithful to His promises. The title is closely tied to His action in saving His people in the exodus. Beyond that, the name is mostly used when Israel is invited to imitate her God, a God who in His very essence is holy. Here, then, God is using a name that would remind them of the great things He had done for them and the close binding relationship they had entered into in the covenant. It was not a name to crush them by the assertion of overwhelming authority but a name to uplift them by the recollection of overwhelming grace. The same name is used in Exodus 20:2, at the head of the Ten Commandments. His words are not laws to be grudgingly obeyed because God has imposed them on His reluctant people, but principles to live by as a response to God’s saving action in their lives, in the knowledge that obeying them will lead to a fuller and more wholesome way of life. First, then, in the giving of these regulations about sexual practices, there is a call to Israel to be loyal to the gracious God who set them free, by being like Him. The call to be different [3]. Loyalty to God inevitably results in being distinct from one’s neighbors. So Israel is told: You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. The need to reject the seductiveness of past lifestyles in Egypt, and to resist the temptation they will face in the future to assimilate to the lifestyles of the occupants of the promised land, is underlined with the blunt command, You shall not walk in their statutes. How, then, did they live in Egypt and Canaan and what were the practices that Israel was to avoid at all costs? In both nations sex was deified. Egypt was recognized for its licentiousness, and it was well known that incest was practiced by the Egyptian royal family, where brothers regularly married their sisters. Canaan was famed for its encouragement of homosexuality and bestiality, and the practices condemned in this chapter were enshrined in the fertility rites in which temple prostitutes incited their deities to grant fertility to the land by performing sexual acts in their presence. The vocation of Israel was to live a different sort of life, one in which all people were treated with respect rather than used merely as objects to gratify uncontrolled sexual lust. The people of Israel were called to channel their sexual drives within the boundaries of faithful marriage as God had decreed, in the sure and certain knowledge that it would be more beneficial for them to do so than to live promiscuously. To live in line with God’s commands would reflect God’s life-creating purity rather than the destructive and untamed powers of chaos. Their vocation was also to trust in God – a God who was willing and able to look after His people without their having to resort to frantic fertility ceremonies with a view to twisting His arm to provide them with good harvests. Israel had been set free to be holy. The call to life [5]. The call of Israel was a call to abundant life. Obedience to God’s commands would result, not in poverty, death or destruction, but in a fullness of life denied to those who lived by their own laws instead of by God’s word. God promised to look on those who obeyed the terms of His covenant with favor and to bestow on them the blessings of peace and prosperity. Rich and fruitful lives would be theirs. By contrast, the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden served as a standing reminder of the death-inducing and destruction-bearing results of failing to live as God commanded. Some might wish to object to God’s right to say how His people should live, but it should really come as no surprise that the God who made us knows better than we ourselves know how we should function in His world. It should not surprise us that obeying the maker’s instructions is likely to bring the best out of us and lead us to live life to the full.

Separate from Sinful Practices:  Leviticus 18:20-26.

[20]  And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her.  [21]  You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.  [22]  You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.  [23]  And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.  [24]  "Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean,  [25]  and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.  [26]  But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you.  [ESV]

[20-26]  The condemnation of adultery was plain in the Ten Commandments. Adultery is defined in terms of having sexual relations with another man’s wife, and the person who commits it is said to lack judgment and to be set on a course of self-destruction. The condemnation of adultery is maintained in the New Testament but intensified in two ways. First, Jesus moves beyond the outward act to draw attention to the inward attitude of lust that leads to it. Lust is unbridled sexual desire that denies the humanity of its quarry and treats its object as a thing. Secondly, the rest of the New Testament intensifies the prohibition by broadening its scope to include sexual intercourse not only with a married woman but with any woman outside of marriage. The vocation of God’s people, now as then, is fulfilled not simply by avoiding actions that are wrong, but by living wholesome lives that are full of goodness. The next term on the list of prohibited sexual behavior outside the family says, you shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord [21]. In our present context it is ironic that this prohibition should follow so hard on the heels of the prohibition of adultery. Popular opinion today would regard the regulation on adultery as unnecessarily restrictive. ‘We should be able to do what we like with our own bodies,’ it is said. ‘Morality is my private concern. Who gives anyone the right, let along God, to dictate how I should live?’ But the very same society that manifests an addiction to almost unbridled sexual license also manifests a new Puritanism about the treatment of children. Strong, even obsessive, measures have been put in place to ensure the physical, sexual and emotional protection of children. So this command would be as warmly applauded by contemporary society as its predecessor would be fiercely derided. The particular form of fatal child abuse that is prohibited by Leviticus is the offering of one’s children to Molech who was the detestable god of the Ammonites. The rituals associated with his name were certainly shameful and involved the sacrificing of children, probably by requiring them to pass through fire to their deaths. The reason it is included in this list are because its practice would undermine the well-being of the family and would be detrimental to family survival. For Israel to engage with the cult of Molech was to profane the name of your God, because it dragged God’s holy name in the muck as far as the surrounding nations were concerned and made Him the object of their ridicule. The third forbidden sexual practice is that of homosexuality [22]. The plain meaning of this verse is that homosexual actions are considered totally unacceptable among God’s people. Homosexual practice clearly flies in the face of the consistent advocacy of heterosexual marriage in Scripture. If the purpose of the Levitical regulations is to bolster family life and create a stable environment in which children can be born and nurtured, it naturally follows that homosexuality, along with the other practices that are condemned in this chapter, has no place among God’s people, because it would prevent them from reaching this goal. The final forbidden sexual act is that of bestiality, a restriction that is applied to both men and women [23]. Ancient literature testifies that such practices were acceptable in other cultures. But to engage in such actions reduces human beings to the level of mere animals themselves, and rides roughshod over the boundaries God has created between His human and His animal creatures. A lengthy exhortation brings the chapter to a close. It does more than sum up what has been said already, and broadens our understanding of the laws in important respects. To the reasons already given at the start of the chapter for behaving in accordance with the will of God, a further reason is now added. The lifestyle of unbridled sexual license that characterized the Canaanites had become so repulsive that even the land in which they lived was sickened by it [25]. Unless Israelite men exhibited greater respect for women and for children by restraining their sexual passions, they would also defile the land as the Canaanites had done and, God promises them, the land vomited out its inhabitants. Creation itself contains moral vitality, and consequently will reach its limits of tolerance and react to repel such depraved behavior. The first fulfillment of these words came as God drove out the tribes that lived in Canaan so that it could be occupied, as promised, by the Israelites. But sadly, there was to be another dreadful fulfillment of these words, a longer-term one, when Israel, having failed to heed the warnings, were themselves driven from the land into exile. God always keeps His promises.

Separate from False Spirituality:  Leviticus 20:6-8.

[6]  "If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.  [7]  Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God.  [8]  Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you.  [ESV]

[6-8]  The pronouncements regarding the death penalty in chapter 20 are framed by two calls to holiness [7-8, 22-26], which are made up of several strands woven together. Holiness is about consecration [7]. Holiness does not just happen. It develops from intentional decisions and affirmative actions. As it was for the Israelites, so it is for us. To be holy means to commit ourselves to following God and abstaining from actions that offend Him. Obedience (Keep my statutes) is the key. God says, I am the Lord who sanctifies you [8]. The process of being made holy is one that God Himself brings about in our lives. Every time the Israelites obeyed God’s word they activated the presence of God in their midst and strengthened the bonds of union between them. In becoming closer to Him they became more like Him, and less like their pagan neighbors, from whose deities they were required to distance themselves. God still brings about the transformation of our lives into His likeness by His Spirit. But He does it in the lives of those who are obedient.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What threefold call does the Lord give Moses in 18:2-5? What was the purpose of this threefold call for the lives of God’s people?

2.         What is the significance of the repetition of the phrase I am the Lord your God or I am the Lord? What is God telling Israel (and us) by using these words to describe Himself?

3.         Why does God want His people to keep His statutes and rules instead of following the ways of the world? [Note here the connection between God as Creator and God as Rule-Giver. Since He has created us, He knows how we need to live in order to experience true happiness and meaning in life.]

4.         What does it mean to be holy? What is the relationship between obedience and holiness? Why must God be the active agent in our sanctification [20:8] even though we are also to be actively involved by our obedience? [Our obedience, no matter how sincere, is never sufficient to sanctify us due to the presence of sin in our lives. But God, based on Christ’s righteousness applied to His people, accepts our imperfect obedience and sanctifies us, thereby making us holy.]


Leviticus, Richard Hess, EBC, Zondervan.

Leviticus, Robert Vasholz, Mentor.

The Book of Leviticus, Gordon Wenham, Eerdmans.

The Message of Leviticus, Derek Tidball, Inter Varsity Press.

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