Holy? Really?

By Mark D. Roberts

May 2, 2017

Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem.

Isaiah 4:3


A row of green M&M's with one red one in the midst.In the opening chapters of Isaiah, God condemns Israel for its immorality and godlessness, predicting a day of painful judgment. The “sinful nation,” a “brood of evildoers,” “have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their back on him” (1:4). This unholy people will suffer the painful judgment of God.

Yet, that is not the whole story. In the early chapters of Isaiah, the Lord also looks forward to a time of restoration, when the people and land will be blessed. In that time, those who have survived the judgment “will be called holy.”

What does it mean to be holy? We don’t hear the word “holy” very often in contemporary English, except perhaps in the phrase “holier than thou.” Holy people are thought to be self-righteous at best, and quite strange at worst. You really don’t want people in your workplace calling you holy.

Yet, the biblical notion of holiness doesn’t have a negative connotation. To be holy is to be special, special to the Lord. Holy things are not for ordinary use because they are dedicated to God, say, for use in the temple. Holy people, by analogy, are set apart by God for relationship with God and for his purposes. Holiness isn’t simply a matter of being separate from the world. It is being distinct from the world in order to be fully devoted to and invested in God’s kingdom.

If we jump ahead several centuries, we learn in the New Testament that all who receive God’s grace through Christ are holy people. We have been set apart by God for an intimate relationship with him and for participation in his cosmic work. If we are holy in this sense, we aren’t cut off from the world. In fact, like Jesus, we are intimately involved with this world and its people. But we are different, in heart and in action, in commitment and calling, because of our relationship to a holy God.


How do you understand holiness?

In what ways do you live as a holy person?

How do you reflect the distinctiveness of God in your daily life? In your workplace?

Is it possible to be holy, in the biblical sense, without being some kind of oddball or offending others?


Gracious God, even as you once called Israel to be holy, so you have called us. Those of us who know you through Christ have been set apart from his world. Yet we remain in this world to bear witness to you through our words and deeds.

Help us, dear Lord, to be a holy people. Teach us how we are to be different from the world and its values. Yet, teach us also how to reach this world, how to extend your love and grace to the people around us. May our holiness be like your holiness: separate in crucial ways from the world, yet profoundly engaged with the world and its people. Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentaryIsaiah

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

More on Mark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Learn Learn Learn Learn

the Life for Leaders newsletter

Learn Learn Learn Learn