I have a tendency to compartmentalise God’s holiness to the Old Testament, as a job for the Levitical priests. But we are called to be holy, like God is holy, and to be modern-day ‘priests’. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what this means, but I think it has to do with living our lives in a way that will both separate us from sin and also bring people to God.
God’s holiness is absolute and sometimes a little uncomfortable. The meticulous preparations that the priests had to go through to meet God and the animal sacrifices are rooted in God’s holiness. This all seems rather remote for me: I don’t really have any connection with this approach to religion. And yet, we are called to be a holy temple, a holy priesthood, holy vessels, enter holy places, and to be holy, because God is holy (1Cor 3:17, 1Pet 2:5-6, 2Tim 2:21, Heb 10:19, 1Pet 1:14-16).
What does being holy mean? It isn’t about how we dress, or sacrificing animals – and it never was. God has always been interested in how his people prepare their hearts to meet him, not in outward appearance (1Sam 16:7), and in how his people offer themselves as sacrifices, not animals in their place (1Sam 15:22, Psa 51:16-17, Rom 12:1-2).
So, what are the duties of a modern-day ‘priest’? I think it is two-fold: on the one hand, we are called to be separate from sin. This may sometimes mean our conduct making those around us feel uncomfortable about their behaviour (Eph 5:11), but it shouldn’t mean locking ourselves away from society because...on the other hand, we should be connecting people with God. The role of the Levitical priest and of Jesus as our high priest is to connect us with God (Heb 8:1-2). A “holier than thou” attitude isn’t going to work in bringing people to God so, like Jesus, we need to find a way to ‘eat with tax collectors and sinners’ in order to bring them to God, without being drawn into a lifestyle that isn’t compatible with God’s holiness.
Sadly, holiness doesn’t come easily to us. In the same way that, by God’s grace, we can be forgiven, we are presented to God as holy because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us (Col 1:21-24).