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Holy by Contact

By Dr. Gene Edward Veith

I have always been fascinated by the book of Leviticus, mainly because I could not understand it. All of those weird taboos, bizarre rituals, and gory sacrifices—burning entrails and splattering blood here and there—reminded me that the truths opened up in the Bible are not just clear, rationalistic abstractions; rather, they are gloriously mindblowing mysteries.

The Australian theologian John Kleinig understands that very well, so when I saw that he had published a commentary on Leviticus as part of the Concordia Commentary Series that will one day cover the whole Bible, I knew I had to read it.

Dr. Kleinig points out that Leviticus, which sets out the regulations for Old Testament worship, is all about the reality of holiness. That term does not mean just being good, as some Christians think, or being set apart, as some scholars assume. Holiness has to do with the nature and the power and the mysterious Godliness of God.

In the Old Testament, when those who are “unclean” come into the presence of the Holy God—who establishes His real presence above the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle and the Temple—they are zapped into oblivion, sort of like what would happen to us if we wandered into the core of a nuclear reactor. And yet when those who have been made “clean” come into His presence according to His Word, they receive unimaginable blessings.

Interestingly, according to the book of Leviticus, something becomes holy by coming into contact with something else that is Holy. “The Lord alone is inherently and permanently holy,” Dr. Kleinig writes. “Holiness is derived only from him; it is available only by way of contact with him.” God makes His people holy. “Yet their holiness was something that they never possessed for themselves, but kept on receiving from God. It was an acquired state of being, a contingent condition, an extrinsic power, something that was lost as soon as contact with him was lost” (p. 5).

Not only that, but God provides a way for His unclean people to be cleansed: namely, by blood. One of the things blood does in our bodies is to cleanse out the harmful by-products of our metabolism. Spiritually too—though the Bible does not draw our familiar distinction between what is spiritual and what is physical—blood gives us access to God and His holiness. In the Old Testament, people sacrificed animals whose blood purified the worshippers. That was only a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” Jesus Christ, God Himself, who entered our world of uncleanness, bringing His holiness to us.

And, as Dr. Kleinig makes clear, today we become holy by contact with Christ. He is actually present in our worship (as in the Temple), and we gain His holiness in a sacred meal (as in the Temple) in which He gives us His sacrificial blood and His true body in bread and wine.

In Baptism, God makes us holy. Yes, our sin and uncleanness desecrates God’s holiness, but He has made provision for that. We must keep contact with His holiness by means of His Word—note the title, not just “Bible” but “Holy Bible”—and His Sacraments. This we do when we attend the Divine Service. In that contact, God bestows saving faith, and we experience “sanctification” as we live out that faith in our daily vocations.

St. Paul calls Christians “saints,” or literally “holy ones.” Not that we are not “sinful and unclean” (note how our liturgy captures all of this so precisely), but through Christ and by means of our Baptisms, we really are “Temples of the Holy Spirit.” And this has an application, according to Dr. Kleinig, that I had never thought of before.

According to the New Testament, Christians “were to regard their fellow disciples as saints and respect their holiness by forgiving them repeatedly and making up to them,” says Dr. Kleinig. “For next to Christ’s Word and his body and blood, each disciple is the most holy thing that we have” (p. 138).

Dr. Gene Edward Veith is the cultural editor for WORLD magazine, the Director of the Cranach Institute, and a contributing editor for Higher Things.