“You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
– 1 Peter 1:16
I’ve always found this well known Bible verse to be a bit… intimidating. I mean, is anyone really arrogant enough to think that this is attainable, apart from Christ?
Just ponder that for a moment…
It’s quite the standard, no? Peter uses it to accentuate what the Christian life should look like. The dependence upon, the assurance in, and the imitation of… Christ.
1 Peter 1:3-16
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.””
This command to “be holy” was first declared by God to Moses, after God had clearly defined to Moses the difference between clean and unclean animals. Then, approximately 1,500 years after Moses had recorded the Levitical Laws and documented this concise little summary from God, Peter references “be holy” in his first epistle, in order to briefly underscore for the brethren the importance of living a Godly life. It’s a powerful, little phrase.
Here is where “be holy” first appeared in scripture:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you. “These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you. “And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat. “All winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you. Yet among the winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground. Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind. But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you. “And by these you shall become unclean. Whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening, and whoever carries any part of their carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. Every animal that parts the hoof but is not cloven-footed or does not chew the cud is unclean to you. Everyone who touches them shall be unclean. And all that walk on their paws, among the animals that go on all fours, are unclean to you. Whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening, and he who carries their carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening; they are unclean to you. “And these are unclean to you among the swarming things that swarm on the ground: the mole rat, the mouse, the great lizard of any kind, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. These are unclean to you among all that swarm. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until the evening. And anything on which any of them falls when they are dead shall be unclean, whether it is an article of wood or a garment or a skin or a sack, any article that is used for any purpose. It must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening; then it shall be clean. And if any of them falls into any earthenware vessel, all that is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break it. Any food in it that could be eaten, on which water comes, shall be unclean. And all drink that could be drunk from every such vessel shall be unclean. And everything on which any part of their carcass falls shall be unclean. Whether oven or stove, it shall be broken in pieces. They are unclean and shall remain unclean for you. Nevertheless, a spring or a cistern holding water shall be clean, but whoever touches a carcass in them shall be unclean. And if any part of their carcass falls upon any seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean, but if water is put on the seed and any part of their carcass falls on it, it is unclean to you. “And if any animal which you may eat dies, whoever touches its carcass shall be unclean until the evening, and whoever eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. And whoever carries the carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening. “Every swarming thing that swarms on the ground is detestable; it shall not be eaten. Whatever goes on its belly, and whatever goes on all fours, or whatever has many feet, any swarming thing that swarms on the ground, you shall not eat, for they are detestable. You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them. For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten.”
It almost seems odd that God would suddenly give this summational command to “be holy”, here, within the detailing of the difference between clean and unclean animals. It doesn’t seem to fit. I mean, why not proclaim this phrase after the giving of the Ten Commandments or as part of the oracle upon entering the Promised Land, no? Surely these are much more dramatic moments for such a pithy summary, right?
However, Peter’s usage of “be holy” in his first epistle, in order to underscore his encouragement to the brethren, actually makes sense. I think the “be holy” phrase is extremely personal to him, and for Peter there is no better way to bring home his point to uplift and to inspire the brethren, than to do it as personally as possible.
Take for a moment into consideration the means by which God showed Peter that the Gospel was not just for the Jews. It was when God brought it all together for Peter through the vision of the descending sheet with the clean and unclean animals upon it. And then God commanded something completely radical, to kill and eat that which is unclean:
“And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.”
The next verse then describes how Peter was inwardly perplexed. Could you imagine the perceived, seemingly mixed signal that Peter was facing from God? His whole life had been a continual reminder, as a first century Jew, to make the never-ending effort to be clean, and now God was promoting a practice of uncleanliness? Huh?
Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So he invited them in to be his guests. The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him. And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” Gentiles Hear the Good News So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him. As for the word that He sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree, but God raised Him on the third day and made Him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”
That vision of the sheet which included unclean animals, along with God’s personal command to kill and eat, was the catalyst which brought it all together for Peter: the three years following Christ around Palestine, the miracles, the proclamations of Jesus that He was God, the social unrest and political climate surrounding the climax of Christ’s incarnation and ministry, the prediction by Christ that Peter would deny Him, the crow three times sounding which confirmed the prediction of his denial, the crucifixion, the resurrection, Christ’s appearances to the disciples over 40 days, Jesus’ personal inquiry of Peter as to whether he loves Him, Jesus’ repeated command to feed His sheep; all of it now became clear to Peter.
Here is Peter later sharing that vision experience with the “circumcision party”, in order to defend the fact that the Gentiles are part of God’s plan of redemption:
“Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.””
Again, that moment in the city of Joppa where Peter saw the vision was the moment that Peter realized that the elect of God went beyond the Jews exclusively. It was the moment that he had learned that the Gentiles are also part of God’s salvific plan. It was a complete mind blow, to say the least.
Here, in Acts 11:1-18, Peter is now sharing that vision experience as evidence for the “circumcision party” in order to make the case that the Gentiles have also “received the word of God”, just as they had. A few years later Peter would then write to the brethren, in order to encourage them in his epistle to “be holy”, just as God had declared to Moses after He had defined the difference between clean and unclean animals.
Are you yet catching the connection between the quote and Peter’s epiphany?
The point is, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Maybe, Peter went back to the scriptures after the vision experience to look up and confirm the regulations, and then he stumbled upon the phrase in the Levitical Law (God’s seemingly random underscore to “be holy” amongst the instructions about which animals are clean and unclean). It must have jumped off the page! Maybe not. Who knows? But, it’s a possibly interesting connection none the less.
It’s also interesting that Peter is the only New Testament writer to reference “be holy” from the Pentateuch. Personally, I don’t think that the placement of “be holy” in that particular place in the Levitical Law means more to anyone else in history, than Peter. His reference to it in his epistle, in order to encourage the brethren, was extremely personal. I can’t help but think that that moment stuck with Peter for the rest of his life, and for him to reference “be holy” was something very special.
May we (Christians) adhere to the dependence upon, to the assurance in, and to the imitation of… Christ. May we be encouraged by Peter’s reference of God’s call to “be holy”… for Christ is holy.
Godspeed, to the brethren!
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