You are richly blessed, Peter says: new birth (1:3), love for Jesus (1:8), bolstered by prophets who were aided by Spirit (1:12)–all these define and describe you.
Therefore is the hinge word (1 Peter 1:13), linking God’s activity with that of His followers. We are accustomed to this rhythm of ‘theology’ preceding ‘responsibility’ (for example, sermon series on Ephesians routinely move from the theological base established in chapters 1-3 to the believers’ response in chaps 4-6), which tends to make ‘the Christian life’ a matter of cause and effect (because God has done that, you must do this). This is a common tack—one I have happily used in sermons and studies—but I find myself wondering whether it is the only route available. Does this approach work, for instance, when we come to the final element in the first batch of Peter’s list of commands and hear, “be holy”?
It’s easy to bracket this phrase by, say, seeing holiness as a future state, something we don’t experience to any great depth now, but which will be fully ours once we land in heaven. But if that’s what Peter has in mind–if this ‘command’ is really more a word of encouragement for those who are facing great distress about what awaits them–why does the rest of his list (“be self-controlled”, etc) sound like it applies to life here and now?
Maybe Peter is on about a subset of Christians–those who, by virtue of internal wiring or external circumstances find themselves with a sweet disposition and a low-stress workplace such that they meet each day with a smile and a song. But again, the rest of this section looks like it’s meant for the entire body of Christ-followers–all of God’s scattered elect, not some. (btw: when Paul begins a number of his letters by greeting “the saints,”, he’s using a form of the word we translate to ‘holy’, and suggesting the same idea: all of you)
Religious jargon, perhaps? The sort of pious talk that shows up at weddings and funerals where things get said that everyone expects, but also understands to be irrelevant to real life? Or, just one more phrase to add to the endless string of rules etched into the church walls, looming over us from cradle to grave, setting a high bar, making us feel guilty when we lack the strength, will, or support group to obey?
None of these options seems particularly satisfying. Surely Peter isn’t just blowing smoke, or requiring the impossible. Not only that, but why put “be holy” among a group of exhortations otherwise aimed at all believers in the here and now?
So let’s pause and back up for a moment, into a definition for holy. Typically, we begin with its OT roots, particularly as we find them in the sacrificial system laid out in that covenant’s early books. In that context, holy describes animals set apart from the rest of the flock, and dedicated to a particular function, namely sacrifice. Remember too that these animals were all unblemished; as far as good eyes could see, they were pure, even perfect.
Now bring those ideas forward, and apply them not to animals but to people, specifically Christians. ‘Set apart’ and ‘dedicated to’ make a measure of sense for us (the latter causes a little concern when we think of ‘holy’ animals being killed–but then we recall Paul’s words in Romans 12 about being ‘living’ sacrifices, and we breathe a sign of relief), and even seem possible. There’s some slippage, of course: we’re not always as disciplined as we’d like to be, and occasionally the empty calorie or sketchy amusement slips in.
Indeed, it’s the purity piece that trips us up, that hint of needing to be perfect. This is especially the case for those raised in an environment where one’s sinfulness has been emphasized. We’re forgiven, yes, but sinners still, the rubric goes. Purity? I can wear a ring, make a promise, or try real hard not to swear–but in my heart, I know I ain’t.
An impasse, then. If “be holy” is for now and for all, but being holy requires purity–along with separation and dedication–we’re up a creek sans paddle, right?
A way through: go back to holy and probe the word once more. Start with those OT sheep.
The ‘perfection’ of these critters: how was that determined? By those who knew sheep, knew what to look for, what the standards and expectations for ‘unblemished’ involved. The call was made by those who were competent to render judgment; the sheep did not offer an opinion.
So: might it be reasonable to extrapolate that ‘perfection’ is up to the judge thereof? We say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that makes perfect sense to us. Might the same be true here? If so, then we all, like sheep, have not only gone astray , but have also been welcomed back–sought, even–by One who knows sheep, and who has decided that we belong in His pen (try reading John 10 through this grid). What matters is what the One making the call says–this matters even more than what we say or think about ourselves. And if He says we’re OK (as Peter insists in 1:1 and 1:3, for example), well then….
Read like this, holy has more to do with location than morality. That is, if we’re selected by God and welcomed into His family (we can easily shift the metaphor from a sheep pen to a household), we are–by this definition–holy. Holiness is a function of where we are and who we’re with and how we got there.
Which raises a question (several questions, but this post is already running long…): what then is the force of “be holy”? If holy describes who, by God’s grace, we are, why would Peter frame this to sound like there’s something we’re to do? After all, doesn’t this command come at the end of a string of commands (like, be self-controlled), all of which involve particular action. Is “be holy” somehow different?
Yes, in this way. “Be holy” acts rather like the injunction to ‘act your age’, given by the parent who knows that, according to your birth certificate, 8 or 13 or 22, and encourages you to live into that. Similarly, when God rescues us from sin’s captivity and brings us into His kingdom, we are (if what I’m saying here scans) holy. Now, Peter (like others) says, live into that.
What I’m suggesting here is that rather than thinking about how often and badly we fall short, and how we can never be perfect, or hardly even good enough, and how unattainable holiness is, we embrace our ‘calling’ instead, and agree with God who brought us here. We see ourselves as holy, because we are where God is (and with Spirit inside us, this notion has even greater implications). To say it another way, holiness is not so much a quality we strive for, or a status from which we might slip, as it is a consequence of our new birth, and a characteristic of the family into which we have been adopted.
This makes holiness not elusive or impossible, but descriptive of those called by and drawn to God who live like a member of the clan. They live this way because of who they are, not because of some external obligation. They are attentive to God’s will as they make choices and commitments (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3); with glad hearts, they partner with God’s Spirit. Obedience is not their first thought so much as it is desire, more and more, to walk in the way of Jesus.