Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Holy God of Israel

1The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them:
‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
37 “ ‘Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the Lord.’ “

Leviticus 19:1-2, 37

            The opening sentence of Leviticus 19 provides the main theme of the entire book.  If we read the book of Leviticus and attempting to understand it without being stuck in the details of the rituals and laws, then we will all agree with one theme: that Yahweh is holy.  This theme serves as the main reason why God commands Israel to do all the laws.  God wants Israel to be holy just like he is holy.  This central theme is key for the entire people to internalize, especially because they are surrounded by nations who live their lives without regard to God’s holiness.  And moreover, their lifestyle dishonors God and heaps up sins in the presence of the Lord.  Israel comes out of Egypt, which lifestyle is as wild as the lifestyle of the people of Canaan.  God doesn’t want Israel to indulge and thus squander their lives in meaningless and worthless lifestyle which resulted in eternal death.

            In this chapter, we will find both the vertical aspect with references to the idol making and worship (v. 4), profaning the name of God (v. 12), sacrifice to God (v. 5), and Sabbath keeping (v. 3 and 30), and the horizontal aspect with reference to human relations which is summed up in loving our neighbors as ourselves (v. 18).  Interestingly the Ten Commandments as we know it in
Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 can be found here with different structure.  Here the vertical and horizontal are not separated the way it is as in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, but they are mixed together.  This mix shows that both the vertical and horizontal are not two separate sets of law, but instead they are integrated into the practical life of the people.  This understanding is important so that we may not treat the horizontal law as lesser than the vertical law or vice versa, and thus misunderstand the heart of God’s law.  God is holy, and that’s why he wants Israel to be holy, for Israel is his people.  The way to become holy is by observing God’s law.

            What is even more interesting is the placement of Leviticus 19.  The chapters before (ch. 18) and after (ch. 20) are very intimately connected.  Leviticus 18 speaks about sexual relationships that God commands Israel to not practice.  Leviticus 20 speaks about the punishment of practicing the forbidden sexual relationships.  Obviously the placement of Leviticus 19 is not by accident.  Moses’ intention, and for sure God’s intention, in putting Leviticus 19 in between two logically and intimately connected chapters clearly has something to do with the main theme of the book, which is God’s holiness.  This is very interesting because the main theme of the book is sandwiched between two chapters that focus on sexuality.  We need to pay careful attention to this structure because it certainly highlights the importance of right sexual conduct that is based on God’s holiness.  And if we attempt to understand the Scripture, we will find that sexuality has been an important theme throughout the Scripture, particularly in the Pentateuch.  God created human beings male and female.  And then God blessed them to be fruitful and increase in numbers.  This fruitfulness and increase in numbers relate closely to the charge that humans are to subdue the earth and have dominion on earth.  Clearly there is strength in numbers, and God created humans in such a way that they may grow and dominate the world through numbers.  The only way humans may grow in numbers is by child bearing, and the way to do it is through the right sexual relationship between man and woman.

            Now, sin is the culprit of the depravity of our being.  This depravity also contaminates our sexuality.  This contamination is not developed in the 20th and 21st centuries.  It has been with us since the fall.  God’s law in Leviticus 18 and 20 is meant to govern humans’ wild and unethical sexual conduct.  And the basis of the law is none other than God’s own holiness.  This is a very difficult challenge even for Israel.  They are entering a land where its people exult prostitution and deem such practice as worship.  Their main god, Baal, is the god of fertility.  And the way they worship Baal is by doing sexual intercourse with prostitutes in the temple in order to “enact” the fertility imagination of Baal.  Through such practice the land is defiled.  And the entire Canaan culture becomes unethical.  Sexuality is very important since by nature we have it in our body and soul the urge to unite with our soul mate.  However, in our depravity we no longer know what is right and what is wrong.  God makes it clear in his law what is not to be done.  Furthermore, God also shows what kind of punishment awaits those who practice the abominable conducts.

            In today’s world, we see that the holiness of God is not important.  The world cares not of God’s holiness.  Their ethical conduct is governed by what makes them happy or unhappy.  In the matter of sexuality, the governing rule is also the same for them, one’s happiness.  Gayness is being celebrated as if nothing is wrong with it whatsoever.  Pope Francis even joined in the parade and advised the Catholic Church to not concern itself with issues of homosexuality.  He hinted for inclusivity of the church that would allow even homosexuals to participate in the worship of the holy God.  In this year alone, 2013, a lot has happened in relation to gay lifestyle.  The supreme court ruling of gay marriage.  Desmond Tutu’s remark of preferring hell than entering heaven to meet God who is homophobic.  And now Pope Francis indicating new theology and new gospel.  And so not only the world has passed on its unholiness throughout generations, but now the church is being shaken to join in, and thus to lose its holiness.  In this way, God’s people is being challenged to dishonor God’s holiness.  Loving our neighbors as ourselves is important, yes.  True that we ought to love even those who practice homosexual lifestyle.  But our love should not mean that we then compromise the truth and more importantly the holiness of our God.  Sadly, many people, including Christians, in the name of love, condemn God himself, who is love.  And so they place love as their god and replace the true God with an idol, love.  This new idol is cheered as the leader of the world in order to lead the world out of “slavery”.  Many church leaders also cheer on this new idol.  And so in the name of love they lead the people of God to the wrong direction, just like Aaron led Israel astray by making the golden calf and called it as the god who led Israel out of Egypt.

            Leviticus 18-20 stands.  Jesus says that the word of God will not pass away.  The world will pass away, but not the word of God.  Leviticus 19 stands in the center of Leviticus 18 and 20.  God’s holiness is the real deal here.  God brought Israel to the middle of the desert between Egypt and Canaan to separate them from the corruption of the world.  God gave them the law in order to purify them.  God wanted them to become who they should be, the image of the holy God.  Then God sent them to enter the holy land.  In the same way, God’s church is to be who we should be, the image of the holy God.  And we are sent into the world to proclaim of the holiness of God.  As we are in this world today living as image of God we are proclaiming to the world that this land, the earth and the entire universe, belongs to God.  How can we proclaim it if we become like the world and not like our holy God?  The way of the world is a very challenging temptation for God’s people.  The same challenge was faced by Israel when they finally entered the Promised Land.  They gave in.  They became saturated with the way of Canaan.  Despite God’s patience with Israel by sending prophet after prophet to remind them time and again of the way of the holy God, Israel refused.  And then the day of judgment came, Israel was exiled.  The land was defiled.  In the same way, God’s church will be judged accordingly in our time.  The judgment day will come.  And whoever defiles the holiness of God will be exiled.  I do not wish to see such thing happen to the church of God.  Martin Luther did not want to see that either, and therefore he called God’s church to be reformed.  Perhaps this is also time for the church to be reformed again.  To uphold the holiness of God once more, while still upholding God’s love to balance it.  Right now the church is imbalance.  The weight is too much on the love side.  This imbalance is devastating because the effect is then the creation of promiscuous church.  The book of Leviticus stands in the middle of the first five books of the Bible.  Old Testament theologians are in agreement that the book of Leviticus is at the center of the Pentateuch.  The holiness of God, thus, is the central argument and foundation of God’s law.  And this holiness of God is the very foundation of the greatest commandments as mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39, which is to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbors as ourselves.  While the world is hating God, we are commanded to love God.  While the world is only loving itself and thus “hating” its neighbors, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is all because we are God’s people.  And we are separated from the world to live like God lives.  How do we know how God lives?  Look at Jesus.  He is God living among humans.  And he never compromises God’s holiness with love.  He loves and he stays holy.

            Pope Francis is right that the church needs to be engaged with issues of justice.  But the pope should not do so at the expense of engaging the issues of homosexuality, abortion, and birth control.  Both are important.  The issue of justice is very much God’s concern.  But the issue of right sexual relationship is also God’s concern.  As God’s servants we should never ignore one teaching because we want to highlight another.  We all need to keep them all in proportion.  Do not ignore a certain issue just because the world is demanding it.  God’s church is called to be holy.  Just like Israel was called to be holy.  God called Moses to deliver his message in Exodus 19:5-6 saying:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

And this notion of kingdom of priests and holy nation is understood perfectly by Peter.  In 1 Peter 1:15-16, Peter quotes Leviticus 19 and reminds God’s church: 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”   And then in 1 Peter 2:9 he reminds the church But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  And thus Leviticus 19 and Exodus 19 are not only for the people of Israel at that time, but also for us his church.  We are called to be kingdom of priest, a holy nation, because our God is holy.

* The Business of Christian Education LV

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