The Pharisees, the religious leaders in the time of Jesus, were legalistic. They claimed they were righteous because they always obeyed the laws of God and that made them righteous. Thus, they considered themselves superior to others. Not only that, but they also added more commandments to God’s law and condemned others for disobeying them. They had no scriptural background for these restrictions. For instance, one of the Lord’s laws is to do no work on the Sabbath—the fourth commandment. But it wasn’t clear to them what the definition of what work was. They wondered how much walking one was allowed in order to keep from breaking God’s law. Scripture didn’t inform them. So, they concocted a Sabbath Day’s Journey, which was a distance of around two-thirds of a mile. A Jew could walk this far and no farther on a Saturday; otherwise, they’d be working and breaking God’s law. On and on it went. Thousands of these man-made rules were created. The Gospel of Mark refers to a few such restrictive laws.
“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)” (Mark 7:1–4). 1
Christians are vulnerable to legalism as well. Some may consider themselves more righteous than others because they are more devout than they are. They do not know or have forgotten, apparently, that their holiness comes from God.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3–4).
Also, Christian legalists, like the Pharisees, have added to God’s laws. Some have forbidden dancing, drinking, listening to worldly music, or wearing flashy clothing, for example. Nothing in the Bible forbids these activities and are not required for Christians to walk in holiness. Nevertheless, if one does these things, they will judge his or her relationship with God as inferior. Thus, legalists are criticized for acting as if they are “holier than thou,” as the saying goes. They have erred. We are never to think that our righteousness before God is based upon what we do nor to consider ourselves superior to others.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
The word “holy” is the Greek word “hagios,” and this is what it means:
“Holy, set apart, sanctified, consecrated, saint. Chaste, pure. Its fundamental idea is separation, consecration, devotion to the service of Deity, sharing in God’s purity and abstaining from earth’s defilement.”2
The Lord is holy. He Himself is “set apart” from sin and the world. In fact, His name, which identifies who He is and His character, is holy.
“Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise” (Psalm 106:47).
In the Lord’s prayer, we say to the Father, “Hallowed is Your name.” The word “hallowed” is in the galaxy of derivatives of the word “hagios.”
He is holy, and Christians are told be holy.
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
This God who requires us to strive to be set apart, loves us and commands us to love others. Therefore, if Christians come across a brother or sister in the Lord, they expect each other to walk in holiness, but, in that expectation, they are to love each other. Perhaps they have denied themselves certain worldly things and are more set apart than others. However, they are not made holy by their actions, nor are they superior because of them. When we encounter others whom we think have fallen short of being set apart, we must realize that God working holiness in Christians is a life-long process, and not everyone will be where we are in that journey. Let us be merciful. Let us have wisdom. It is in God that holiness and love meet.
1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (2016). Crossway Bibles.
2Zodhiates, S. (2000). In The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.). AMG Publishers.
Gif courtesy tenor.