At the beginning of Leviticus 19 the Lord commanded his people:
Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
And last week I explained that the idea behind the word ‘holy’ when it applies to the Lord is that he is unique and set apart from everything else. He’s set apart from everything else, because he alone is the Creator and everything else that exists is his creation. He alone is the Creator and there’s a distance between him and everything else; and there’s a majestic transcendence which he possesses over his creatures. But then he’s also holy because he’s set apart from all that is sinful: he’s morally pure and free from all wickedness and unrighteousness.
And when God commands his people in Leviticus 19 to be holy because he is holy, he cannot mean we’re to be holy in the first sense that God is holy. We’ll never become divine or even semi-divine and we can never share that majestic transcendence which God alone possesses. So, when God commands his people to be holy like him, he means his people are to be morally pure like him. They’re to turn away from all that is evil and they’re to set themselves apart from all that is wicked. In others words, being holy like the Lord means being righteous like the Lord, doing what is right and good and upright just as he does what is right and good and upright.
And as we studied verses 1 to 18 together last week, we saw how these verses unpack what that meant for the people of Israel. And do you remember? It was all very down-to-earth and practical. Being holy like the Lord meant honouring their parents and loving the people they met every day. It was about treating everyone in the right way and being generous and just and fair and kind to everyone they met. This is the way God wanted his people to be.
As I’ve said before, God’s laws in the Old Testament can be divided into three categories: there’s are the moral laws which everyone everywhere are obligated to keep; there are the ceremonial laws which pointed to the person and work of Christ and which have now been fulfilled by Christ and discontinued; and there are the civil laws which were for the people of Israel as a nation at that time and which no longer apply to us today, except to the extent that they contain principles which are still binding on us today.
And the laws which we read in this chapter are part of the civil laws for Israel. But even though they were for the Israelites at that time, they contain principles which still apply today, because these laws remind us that being holy like the Lord means living a new and different kind of life. Instead of walking in the ways of the world, and following their sinful and unbelieving practices, we will love the Lord and we will love our neighbour as ourselves.
And so, let’s turn to the passage and to verse 19 where God forbade the Israelites from mating different kinds of animals; and from planting different kinds of seed in the same field; and from using different kinds of material in the same garment. In other words, the Israelites were not to mix things that should not be mixed, but which should remain separate. And the point of these laws may well have been to remind the Israelites that they themselves were not to mix with the other nations, but were to remain separate from them and from their ungodly practices. And that is a principle which applies to believers today, for we must always separate ourselves from all that is ungodly. Instead of being conformed to the patterns of the unbelieving world, we’re to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and we’re to walk in the ways of the Lord.
Verses 20 to 22 are about what should happen if a man sleeps with a slave girl who has been promised or betrothed to another man. According to Deuteronomy 22, if she were a free woman and not a slave, then both the woman and the man were to be stoned to death in order to purge this evil from among the nation. However, in this case, where the woman was a slave and not free, the man was to bring a guilt or reparation offering to the Lord to make up for his sin. And according to verse 20, there must also be due punishment, which perhaps means that the man also had to make a payment either to the woman’s master or to her fiancé.
In verses 23 to 25 the Israelites were commanded not to eat the fruit from any trees they planted in the land of Canaan for the first three years. For the first three years, the fruit was forbidden to them. Then, in the fourth year, whatever fruit was produced was to be regarded as holy and given to the Lord as an offering of praise. But in the fifth year, they were permitted to eat what was grown. In this way, we read in verse 25, your harvest will be increased. The Bible commentators explain that new trees normally take three or so years to produce worthwhile fruit and there are benefits in not trying to harvest a crop too early. However, once the good fruit appeared, the Israelites were not to take it themselves, but where to offer it to the Lord to express their gratitude to him for his many blessings to them. And that’s a principle for us to remember today, because it is our duty to give thanks to God for his good gifts and to render thanks to him.
Verses 26 to 28 make the point that the Israelites were to live different lives than their pagan neighbours. So, the pagans ate the blood of animals, but this was forbidden to the Israelites. The pagans practiced divination and sorcery in order to predict the future, but this too was forbidden to the Israelites who were to trust the Lord for the future. And the pagans used to cut their hair and beards and their bodies and mark themselves with tattoos to mourn for their dead and as a sign of devotion to their gods. But the Israelites were not to follow them in this regard. Being holy means being set apart from all that is ungodly; and it means being set apart from the all the ungodly practices of an ungodly world.
Temple prostitution was a feature of pagan worship and therefore in verses 29 and 30, the Israelites were commanded not to follow the example of the pagan nations. Instead they were to keep the Sabbath Day holy and they were to have reverence for God’s sanctuary and not defile it with such wickedness practices as temple prostitution. Well, we must ensure today that we worship the Lord according to his word and not introduce any practices which he has not commanded us to do.
Furthermore, whereas the pagans consulted mediums and spiritists, the Israelites must not do so. That’s in verse 31. King Saul in the Old Testament was condemned for consulting a medium and asking her to speak to Samuel after his death.
Whereas the elderly are often despised and forgotten in society, the Israelites were commanded in verse 32 to rise in their presence as a mark of respect. They were to respect the elderly and they were to fear the Lord their God.
And not only were they to respect the elderly, but — according to verses 33 and 34 — they were to be kind towards foreigners who lived among them. Do not ill-treat an alien, they were commanded. Instead, treat the alien as you would treat a native-born Israelite. Love him as yourself, the Lord said. So, don’t just tolerate them and put up with their presence; love them. And the reason they were to do so was to mark the Israelites out as different from the other nations, and especially the Egyptians who despised the Israelites when they lived in the land of Egypt and who mistreated them and oppressed them. Instead of being like the Egyptians, the Israelites were to be different and live a different kind of life; they were to love foreigners in their midst and treat them as one of their own.
And finally, holiness meant being just and fair in business. According to verses 35 to 37, when measuring or weighing or counting items to be bought and sold, they were to use honest measurements.
And they were to keep this decree and all of God’s decrees and all of his laws, because he is the Lord their God who redeemed them from Egypt and who had bound himself to them with a promise to be their God and their God of their children and to give them the Promised Land to live in. And so, since he had been so good to them, they were to respond to his grace and mercy by doing his will here on earth.
Being holy like the Lord means that we will not be conformed to the ways of the world, but we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds and we will walk in the ways of the Lord. We will not follow the unbelieving customs of an unbelieving world, but we will worship the Lord with reverence and fear. And we will love our neighbour as ourselves which means we will respect the elderly and we will not mistreat foreigners and we will not cheat one another in business.
But, of course, we cannot be holy by ourselves, but we must rely on the Holy Spirit, who works in us and in all of God’s people to make us more and more holy, so that we’re enabled more and more to die to sin and to live for righteousness. He helps us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and sinful, worldly passions and to live self-controlled and upright and godly lives in this present evil age.
‘Be holy, because I the Lord your God, am holy.’ And the Lord who commands us to be holy enables us to become holy. And so, we must look to the Lord for the help we need to live holy lives each day. And we must rejoice in hope, because he who began a good work in us has promised to bring his work to completion when Jesus Christ our Saviour comes again. And when he comes, every trace of unholiness will be removed from us; and we will be perfectly holy like him; and will come into his holy presence to be with him for ever and for ever.