The Hebrew word for “holiness” means separation–quite literally, ‘to be cut away.’ It also means “perfection,” as we see in our English word “holiness”–“wholeness” of beauty, love, moral integrity.
Jesus was the Holy one, our supreme example of holiness: he was separate from all impurity in the world, yet so “whole” in his love for us that he took upon himself our pain and our sin.
Many Christians only think about the first dimension of holiness, as if a “holy” life is one that stays isolated from the world so as not to be dirtied by it. But if we see Jesus as the one who is holy, then we must conclude we’re not being holy until we are covered in the suffering and pain of the world like Jesus was. True holiness means separation without isolation; contact without contamination.
Jesus embraced lepers. He made his home with sinners. If we are holy, we will be doing the same. C.T. Studd, a missionary whose biography impacted me greatly, famously said,
“Some people want to live in the sound of chapel bells, but I want to run a mission a yard from the gates of hell.”
Jesus gave two great images in His famous “Sermon on the Mount” that make this same point.
Believers are to be “salt.” Salt works better if it’s scattered. I love salt, but even I don’t like to pour myself a big bowl of salt to eat. When salt is scattered, however, it brings the natural flavors out of food, and can preserve food from going bad too quickly. The people of God should be like this. We are to preserve and we are to add beauty. To do this, we cannot be contained in “Christian community.” We need to be scattered into every dimension of society, promoting justice and equality and mercy. We are to be in every dimension of society (art, music, Hollywood, politics, etc.) preserving, promoting justice, and adding beauty.
Believers are also to be “light.” Light works best when it is gathered. Put yourself in the shoes (or sandals) of a camel rider at the time Jesus preached this sermon. If it’s the middle of the night and you are looking for a place to rest. I’d say there is a better chance that you will be able to see a group of lights from a distance rather than the faint glow of someone’s Yankee Candle in the window. When the people of God are together in love and fellowship, the beauty of their community becomes a bright light, a beacon of hope, for all the world to see. The local church is God’s demonstration community, putting on display in its love for one another the beauty of Christ (John 13:35; Acts 2:42-47; Ephesians 3:10; Matthew 5:16).
Christians are to be both. Our church should have an attractional force and a sending power. That’s why we judge our success by both seating capacity and sending capacity. Or, as I’ve heard said, success is not just butts in the seats but boots on the streets.