Word Study #32– “Holy”
“Holy” is another term that has been the subject of much (un-holy) conflict, finger-pointing, and general misunderstanding. I am under no illusion of ability – mine or anyone else’s – to straighten it all out; but perhaps a careful examination of the vocabulary can shed a little light.
Hagios is a word that can be used either as a noun or an adjective; and sometimes the translator must make a call, since the Greek grammar allows an adjective or a participle to be used as a noun when it represents a person, idea, thing, or situation which carries the characteristics described by the adjective: e.g., “the faithful” may refer to the person who is faithful, and similarly with other descriptive designations.
In classical writings, hagios referred to anyone or anything devoted to the gods, whether in service or in sacrifice. There was an occasional corollary of purity of intention or behavior, but that idea, in pagan worship, bore little resemblance to a Christian understanding of “purity.”
Hagizo, the verb form in ancient texts, referred to making something or someone “sacred” by a burnt offering. The later form, hagiazo, appearing only in the LXX and NT literature according to Liddell-Scott, retained the connotation of total devotion to God. Notice that in both cases, it is an active verb, denoting an overt act of setting apart for divine use or service.
Hagiasmos, only later theologically colored (and distorted) by its traditional translation “sanctification”, linguistically, is simply the derivative noun applied to the effect of that “setting apart.”
Anything more elaborate than that – of which there is no short supply in theology and tradition – is neither linguistically nor grammatically derived, and certainly does not appear in the New Testament text. Far from being the province of a few singularly exalted individuals, these words describe the life that is reasonably to be expected of anyone who is committed to the Lord – who is “set-apart” from the surrounding culture, wholly devoted to him.
Interestingly, hagios (the adjective), although applied in the Old Testament (LXX), as it was in pagan usage, to places, objects, garments, official assignments, and ceremonies, in the New Testament – except for a few historical references (as throughout the letter to the Hebrews, when highlighting the failure and inadequacy of the old system) — is almost exclusively applied to people. We read of “holy brethren” (I Thes.5:27, Heb.3:1), “the Holy One” (Mk.1:4, Lk.4:34, Ac.3:14, I Jn2:20, Rv.3:7), “holy messengers” (Lk.9:26, Ac.10:22, Rv.14:10), “holy prophets” (Lk.1:70, Ac.3:21, Eph.3:5, II Pet.1:21), “holy children” (I Cor.7:14), “Holy Father” (of which there is only one – God himself!– Jn.17:11), “holy apostles” (Eph.3:5). Please notice that in referring to the “holy temple” (I Cor.3:17 and Eph.2:21), Paul hastens to add “which you all are!”. This designation, along with those to the “holy nation” and “holy priesthood” (I Pet.2:5-9) now belongs to the faithful brotherhood!
Other mentions of a holy “living sacrifice,” (Rom.12:1), “your holy calling” (II Tim.1:8), “the holy commandment” (II Pet.2:21), and the “first-fruits, roots, and branches” (Rom.11:16) are all unmistakably connected to the lives of the faithful.
This is even more universally the case when hagios is treated as a noun, and has been traditionally rendered “saints”. Most of Paul’s letters are addressed to the hagiois (the “saints”), clearly referring to the entire congregation of the faithful, in each locale. He usually includes greetings both to and from the “saints” at both ends of the correspondence. Some translators, bound, I suppose, by the marble-statue-on-a-pedestal image, have rendered kletois hagiois “called to be saints/holy” – but there is neither infinitive nor purpose construction in the text. The calling, at least in this text, is not a goal or a mandate: it is a simple statement of fact — a label. The person who accepts the calling to follow the Lord Jesus, is henceforth designated as a “saint/holy person” – the possession of his Lord, “set apart” for his sovereign purpose.
Please note, however, that this understanding does not by any means abrogate the constant necessity to grow into greater maturity in that position, nor does it imply any sort of magical “instant perfection”. We encounter elsewhere, for example, admonitions that “the saints” ought to be able to mediate each other’s disputes (I Cor.6:1-2); the need for prodding to assemble the relief offering for the “poor saints”(Rom.15:26), and countless (often corrective – “saints” can also be scolded!) instructions to devote ourselves to mutual love and service. The point is, the designation “saints” or “holy brethren” is not reserved for a few rare, unusually devoted or powerful individuals. It is not an achievement, but simply a label – a way of referring to citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus.
This is further reinforced when one notices that every occurrence of the noun form, in any of the New Testament writings, is plural. “Saints” are not lonely hermits obsessed with keeping away from the “dirty” world. Neither are they super-heroes, swooping in to display magical powers. They are simply members of a devoted brotherhood, helping one another to learn to live lives of service – whether messy or glorious – controlled and empowered by their King.
Probably the best example of what Jesus had in mind for those who are “set apart” for his purposes (the lexical meaning of the verb form hagiazo, traditionally rendered “sanctified”), is found in his prayer recorded in Jn.17, especially verses 15-19, where the verb appears three times:
“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not from (do not belong to ) the world, just as I am not from (do not belong to) the world. Set them apart [Make them holy] by the truth: your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I also sent them into the world. And for their sake, I am setting myself apart, in order that they also may be truly set apart.”
All of Jesus’ people are “set apart/made holy”, in order to be able faithfully to represent him in the world!
May we do so, together, with devotion and joy!