|Banias Waterfall in Israel|
I know this sounds like a trick question. But I just want to point out that we often think of “Holy Spirit” as a name for God’s Spirit, without thinking of what the name means. What do you think of when you hear the name “Holy Spirit”? Do you think of God’s power, of his might? Do you think of lightning from heaven? Of great miracles? Or do you think of holiness?
In Hebrew, “Holy Spirit” is Ruach HaKodesh, which means literally “the Spirit of holiness.” Holy is not just a name for the Spirit of God. It’s a description of his nature, his character. Why is this important? Because we who are believers in Jesus are supposed to be intimately connected with this Spirit, which means that we, too, are supposed to be holy.
Remember when Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, he said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless anyone has been born from water and spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born from the flesh is flesh, and that which is born from the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5,6). What does this mean? This saying, about being born from water and spirit, describes the process of baptism in the earliest Church. First, you were dipped in water, then you had hands laid on your head to receive the Spirit of holiness. This was the normal procedure in the Christian Church in the earliest centuries. Only later were these two steps separated. To be a Christian was to be baptized and to receive a holy Spirit.
This Spirit of holiness is not just to be an occasional visitor in our lives. 2 Tim. 1:14 says, “Guard the good that has been entrusted to you by the holy Spirit who dwells in us.” The Holy Spirit is to dwell in us, to be a part of our lives all the time. Or as Heb. 6:4 puts it, we have become “partakers (sharers) of the Holy Spirit.” We are to share the same Spirit of holiness that Jesus had. And there are many similar verses.
The presence of the Spirit of holiness in our lives is a key characteristic of being a Christian. One of the most common names applied to Christians in the New Testament is “saints” which actually means “holy ones,” as in Eph. 1:1: “Paul, an apostle of Messiah Jesus by the will of God, to the holy ones (the saints) who are in Ephesus, who are also faithful in Messiah Jesus.” We are holy because of the presence of a Spirit of holiness in our lives. And this is not optional. As it says in Heb. 12:14: “Pursue peace with all, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Without holiness, you won’t see the Lord. It’s a necessary part of the Christian life.
Remember the parable of the Ten Virgins? Five of the virgins, a symbol of the Church, were locked out when Jesus came (“And later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ But he answered and said, ‘Amen I say to you, I do not know you,’” Matt. 25:11,12). Why? They had run out of oil, a symbol of the Spirit of holiness (“But while they were going away to buy some more oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were prepared entered with him into the wedding celebrations, and the door was locked,” Matt. 25:10). Yes, they were Christians. But they were no longer living in holiness. From the Bible’s point of view, holiness is central to the Christian life. You could even say that holiness is the definition of the Christian life.
This means it’s extremely important that we understand what holiness is, and that we can recognize it and identify it. Because there are many, many spirits in the earth and also in the Church claiming to be of the Holy Spirit, but not all of them are holy.
The holiness that the Bible talks about is not necessarily the same as in the Holiness Movement of the last century. Although this movement started out talking about true, Biblical holiness, after a while in many places it degenerated into measuring the length of your hair (for men) or the length of your skirt (for women) to see how holy you were. There were bans on drinking alcohol, dancing, card-playing, and movie-going.
I remember once when I was in a Christian drama group, we went to a Christian school to see if they would like to have us perform there. The principal took his finger, violently scraped it along the side of my head, and said my hair length didn’t meet their “standards.” Now at that time, my hair was the shortest it had been since I was a kid. Before I became a Christian it was pretty long. But after I became a Christian, I cut it short. But apparently it wasn’t short enough for him. He didn’t even ask about the content of our dramas. He didn’t ask about our message. All he cared about was the length of our hair. That kind of “holiness” has lost sight of what true holiness is all about.
Of course, it’s true that Christians should dress modestly. And drinking too much alcohol and some kinds of dancing and card-playing can certainly get you into lots of trouble. But Jesus drank alcoholic wine (“The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’” Luke 7:34). So did his disciples: wine was part of the Passover Meal they shared together (the Last Supper). Jesus even turned water into wine through a miracle. And through most of Church history, wine has been a central part of the Communion or Lord’s Supper.
David danced before the ark of the LORD (“Then it happened as the ark of the LORD came into the city of David that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, and she despised him in her heart,” 2 Sam 6:16). Miriam and the women of Israel danced after the crossing of the Red Sea (“And Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing,” Exo. 15:20). The Psalms talk about praising the Lord with dancing (Psa. 149:3, 150:4).
Not all movies are bad (although most of them are). So you can’t just eliminate these things altogether. We have to be discerning.
In Jesus’ day, there were many people with a negative kind of “holiness” mindset. Most religious Jews wouldn’t live in Gentile cities. Why? They considered Gentiles and Samaritans unclean, impure. They would cross the street to avoid them. Even today, in the ultra-orthodox parts of Jerusalem, they will sometimes cross to the other side of the street, especially if they think you’re not properly dressed—if a woman’s shoulders or knees are exposed, for example. If you come too close to where they’re living, they will throw little rocks at you, or more recently they were throwing little vials of ink to ruin your dress.
They are taught that Law-abiding Jews should avoid going into a Gentile's house. Why? It’s unclean: polluted with uncleanness and immorality. The rabbis taught that even the land of the Gentiles and the air above it was unclean (Eliyahu Rabbah, Rules, 19). This is where the idea of shaking the dust off your feet came from (Matt. 10:14). As a religious Jew, you would never eat with Gentiles or visit them.
But yet Jesus spoke with Samaritans, like the woman at the well. He spoke with Gentiles, like the Roman centurion. Apparently Jesus didn’t agree with this negative holiness attitude. He didn’t think that this was true holiness.
Do you remember what Peter said in Acts 10, even after Jesus’ resurrection? "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to associate with or to visit a foreigner" (Acts 10:28a). Where did he get this idea? This was a common belief among religious Jews. But does it say anywhere in the Bible that Jews should not visit foreigners? No. This is the rabbis’ oral law. They had taken God’s true law of holiness and righteousness and turned it into a wall of exclusion, a barrier that made it difficult for Israel’s light to shine out to the world. But true holiness is not a barrier: it’s a testimony and an invitation to follow God. As Jesus said: let your light shine before men (Matt. 5:16). Don’t hide it in a container (Matt. 5:15). Let people see your good deeds and glorify God because of your testimony.
Peter did finally get the point: “And yet God has shown me to call no one unclean or impure” (Acts 10:28b). How did this happen? God had given him a vision of a sheet descending from heaven with all different kinds of animals in it (Acts 10:9-16). And he got the message. It wasn’t his job to call people unclean or impure.
Because of this, he went to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, in Caesarea to preach the gospel (Acts 10:25). And because of this, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, too, and the gospel began to spread among Gentiles (Acts 10:44).
When holiness becomes a “holier than thou” attitude, God hates it (“who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!’ These are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all the day,” Isa. 65:5). Remember when Jesus said that the Pharisees “enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels” (Matt. 23:5). It was this same problem. They were making themselves look holy on the outside. But their lives weren’t matching up. Why? Because true holiness is not what you wear. True holiness is how you act. True holiness is an invitation to draw closer to God.
So how can we recognize true holiness when we see it? Holiness in Hebrew is Kodesh. Yes, it’s true this means being set apart. But in the Bible there’s more to it than that. In the Bible, holiness means being set apart for God. The focus is on what you’re set apart to rather than what you’re set apart from. True holiness means being different than the world because your life is dedicated to God’s glory. The focus is on God and loving God, not just on being separate.
A beautiful illustration of this is the betrothal ceremony of the Jewish people in the time of Jesus. This is when the girl was set apart for the boy she would marry. In Hebrew, this is called Kiddushin, from the same root as Kodesh. She is set aside, she is made holy, for him and only for him. How did this happen? She would accept a pledge from the boy, maybe a ring or other item of value that the boy owns. When she accepted it, they were betrothed. Unlike a modern engagement, this was a legal marriage, even though the actual marriage ceremony might not take place for several more years, and they were not yet living together.
In the same way, the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is the pledge given to the Church by Jesus (“in whom you, too, after you believed, were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is a pledge to us of our inheritance...” Eph. 1:13,14; also 2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5), just like the pledge given by the boy to the girl. When we accept the Spirit of holiness in our lives, this is what sets us apart for Jesus and for his return, when the marriage ceremony will finally take place. When we accept the pledge, we are changed. We’re not available for others anymore, because we’re promised to Jesus. Our focus is now on him.
So if we’re already promised to Jesus, if we are set apart as holy to Jesus, how should we live? Like a bride, we should be preparing ourselves for his return, getting rid of everything that would not be pleasing to him. So what is true holiness? A holy life is a life of loving devotion to God, just like a bride getting ready for her wedding. Holiness is the opposite of sin, because sin means disobeying God, displeasing God. But holiness means obeying God, caring about what God thinks.
So for example, in Eph. 1:4 holiness is compared to being blameless, which means being without sin (“For he has chosen us in Messiah before the foundation of the universe, that we might be holy and blameless before him in love”). We avoid sin because of our love and devotion to God. And all of this operates through love.
So how can we discern false holiness from true holiness in the Church and in ourselves? Some Christians are afraid to discern Christian ministries because of the sin against the Holy Spirit (“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven,” Matt. 12:31). But Jesus specifically warned us to look out for false prophets (“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves,” Matt. 7:15). These include people who do great miracles (“Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness,’” Matt. 7:22,23). They did great miracles. But Jesus says he never knew them. Why? Because they practice lawlessness. What does this mean? It means that in their hearts and in their lives they are disobedient to God. Yes, they are religious. They are even religious leaders. But they are not holy, because holiness means being obedient to God.
So if they are doing miracles, which certainly makes it look like they are from God, how can we tell who is from God and who is not? Jesus said you’ll know them by their fruit (“You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they?” Matt. 7:16). What fruit is he talking about? It can’t be miracles, because Jesus said that even lawless people will be able to do miracles. So what is he talking about? What kind of fruit could he have in mind? What kind of fruit should we look for in the life of someone that is truly of God?
Well, if a godly person is holy because he’s filled with the Holy Spirit, the fruit of his life will be...the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And what is the fruit of the Holy Spirit? (“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law,” Gal. 5:22,23). If we have the Spirit of holiness, we will get rid of fleshly desires and sinful passions (“Now those who belong to Messiah Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,” Gal. 5:24).
So how do we discern Christian ministries to see if they are really of God or not? We look for the fruit of the Spirit, not just when they’re on stage, but also when they’re off stage. How do they live their lives?
Let me give you a test case and see how you discern it. When I was a student at Oral Roberts University, there was some famous preacher preaching (I can’t remember who it was anymore) in the stadium there. The place was crowded with thousands of people. We theology students were down on the stadium floor, about halfway back from the stage. The preacher was talking about how God not only can heal us, he wants to heal us. All we have to do is have faith, and he will do it—he said it was a promise of the Scriptures. He was a really dramatic preacher, and he had everybody in the place all stirred up. Then he told us to stand up and reach out to God for our healing. People were standing and shouting all around us.
One of my fellow students was a polio victim. He walked with those crutches that go around the wrist. He was a gentle, kind, and quiet kind of guy, but very friendly. And if there’s anyone that wanted healing in that place, it was him. And when that preacher told us to reach out to God for a healing, he was one of the first ones on his feet. You could see that he was reaching out to God with everything he had.
That’s when some of the other theology students tried to get him to walk without his crutches: “Come on, just have faith,” they said. But it didn’t work. So they began to say to him that he needed to trust God more for his healing. Then they started to say that the reason he wasn’t getting healed was because he wasn’t trusting God enough. And they continued to say the same thing louder and louder, as if that would help him somehow. This kind of encouragement is like a slap across the face. Here he was trusting God with everything he had inside him, but they were accusing him of lack of faith. Instead of helping him and believing with him, they began tearing him down with their words. This is the way I have heard many people, including many big-name preachers, teach healing: that if you don’t get healed, it’s your fault—not God’s fault, not the preacher’s fault.
Okay, so let’s discern these actions using the fruit of the Spirit. Was what they were doing and saying to this young man loving? Was it patient? Was it kind? Was it gentle? Or were they in fact accusing a brother, which the Bible says is what the devil does (Rev. 12:10)?
I’ve even heard a preacher say that if the apostle Paul “had faith like us” he wouldn’t have experienced so many problems and persecutions. How would you discern that? Is that a loving kind of statement? Is it kind? Or is it arrogant? It’s also false, of course. The Bible says, in Acts 14:22: “it is necessary for us to enter into the kingdom of God through many tribulations.” 1 Thess. 3:3 says, “that no one might be disturbed by these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.”
Some of these preachers know how to get people stirred up, all right. But what exactly are they stirring up? ‘Hallelujah! I am God’s anointed apostle to Asia! And I declare a season of great prosperity upon this land...’ What kind of spirit is that, really? It sounds kind of boastful to me. Is that real holiness?
Some Christians are very impressed by the thunder and lightning of some preachers. It’s very dramatic. They like to hear someone who “can really preach up a storm.” One of the best of these fiery preachers there has ever been was Elijah. He confronted the people of Israel with their sins. And he actually called down fire from heaven that burned up his sacrifice on Mt. Carmel. The people were shocked! They began to cry out, the Lord he is God, the Lord he is God! But the revival stalled in its tracks. Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life, and Elijah went running in fear into the desert. What went wrong? God had done a mighty miracle. But except for that one brief moment, the people did not turn back to God. They did not change their ways and repent. Why not? These are the thoughts that filled Elijah’s mind as he travelled all the way down to Mt. Sinai in the desert, where Moses had received the Ten Commandments. Why? Why? Why?
On the mountain, he came to a cave, and God told him to go and stand at the mouth of the cave. “And he said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD.’ And behold the LORD was passing over! And a great and mighty wind was tearing apart the mountains and shattering the cliffs in the presence of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind,” 1 Kings 19:11a. Surely this was a great miracle of God! And it was. But the LORD was not in the wind.
Then there was an earthquake, another great miracle! (“And after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake,” 1 Kings 19:11b). The LORD was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, like the one that had fallen on Mt. Carmel (“And after the earthquake, a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire,” 1 Kings 19:12a). The LORD was not in the fire. Yes, these were all great miracles of God. But the presence of God is different than the miracles he does. They are the effects of his power, but they are different than what he himself is. So where was God?
Then Elijah heard a calm, soft voice (“And after the fire, a calm, soft voice,” 1 Kings 19:12b). And in that voice, the LORD spoke to him and told him what to do. What is the message of this story? Yes, God does do great miracles and signs and wonders. But God himself is different than the sign or the wonder. God is a personal presence that reveals himself in the still and quiet calmness of our spirits.
I mentioned Jimmy Swaggart once before. He had crowds in the hundreds of thousands. He was a very dramatic, very popular preacher. He would sometimes weep when he was teaching. There were sometimes amazing miracles in his meetings. But he himself was not being reached by his own message. After his meetings, he was out with prostitutes. His preaching was not leading him into holiness. Why not?
What was it that his messages were stirring up, and of other preachers of that kind? Is it the Spirit of holiness or is it the flesh? The message sounds good. It sounds spiritual. But if it’s not leading to holiness, if it’s not leading us into the presence of the Spirit of holiness, then it must be stirring up the flesh instead. Right?
So why do people enjoy this kind of preaching so much? I’ll tell you why I used to enjoy it. It feels good, it’s entertaining. But it can distract you from honestly examining your heart before the Lord, and changing your heart. Yes, there may be miracles. But it doesn’t confront you with that calm, soft voice. You just do your religious drama once a week, you listen to your superstar preacher, and you’re off the hook. It will help you be more religious. But it doesn’t help you live a holy life.
I know because I’ve been there: ‘Pastor great sermon! ‘ But then I myself would feel dry afterwards. It was a good show. But it wasn’t holy. Even the apostle Paul experienced this: “but I beat my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified,” 1 Cor. 9:27. Of course, it feels good to get a compliment. But if the sermon is really great, they’re not going to be thinking about the pastor at all. They’re going to be thinking about what Jesus said and what the Bible says. The pastor does his job when he disappears from the picture, leaving you looking at the Word of God. Then you can tell that the message really is God’s message, not a man’s message.
Jesus calls us to lay down our lives, every day, every hour. This also means to lay down our ministries. This is a hard one for me. I always thought that doing things for God is how you validate yourself as a pastor, having long lists of activities that some ministries have. The more you do, the more “spiritual” you are. But somewhere along the way, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose sight of the goal. It’s easy to lose sight of the holiness, the peace, and the joy that come from your private relationship with God, things that no one can see and no one can measure.
It’s your relationship with God who is in secret. As Jesus put it, “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt. 6:6). It’s your “first love” as it says in Revelation (Rev. 2:4). This is where we experience true holiness, where we grow in holiness: when God strips away all the pretense and all the religion, and it’s just us and God. This is a wonderful hidden thing, a precious, eternal thing.
True holiness is like a cool stream on a hot day flowing through our souls. It’s the living waters that Jesus talked about to the woman at the well (“Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water,’” John 4:10). In Jewish thinking, living waters are purifying: they are used to cleanse from different kinds of ritual impurity (like those in Lev. 15).
That’s why John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan River. It was flowing, living water. It was a baptism of repentance: cleansing the body and the soul. That’s what God wants to be flowing through us continually: a beautiful river of purifying water.
That’s what David is talking about in Psa. 23: “In pastures of fresh grass, he makes me lie down; beside the waters of resting places he leads me” (Psalm 23:2). What does this mean? It’s often translated “beside quiet waters.” But what it actually says is beside the waters of resting places. What is this talking about? In Israel, there are not very many springs and wells. To find one can be difficult, and can mean a long journey, the journey a shepherd would often take with his sheep every day. When you get there, you’re going to rest. And you’re going to drink that wonderful cool water again and again until you’re completely refreshed.
“He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3a). What does this mean? The word for soul here is nephesh, which means literally “breath” or “spirit” or “life.” Have you ever felt your life ebbing out of you, to where you feel half dead? When you are in that place of rest, drinking in the cool waters of God’s presence, he brings your life back to you; he restores you. After that, you’re ready to go back out into the hot sunshine of the desert and follow the “trails of righteousness” that he will lead you in (“he leads me in the trails of righteousness for the sake of his name,” Psalm 23:3b). The desert in Israel is crisscrossed with sheep trails everywhere. Which one should you take? But God will lead us in the right ones, the trails of righteousness for the glory of his name.
Psalm 23:4: “Even if I walk in a valley of darkness (or of the shadow of death), I will not fear evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Even when we’re in a place of danger, our fears melt away. Why? Because we know that God is with us. Even in the presence of our enemies, we’re not worried. Why? Because the shepherd is standing there with us.
Psalm 23:5: “You prepare before me a table in front of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” He provides for us even in the presence of our enemies. Why? Because we’ve been anointed with oil, a symbol of the Spirit of holiness. Our cup overflows. With what? As Jesus put it to the woman at the well, with a spring of living water (John 4:10,14).
As Isaiah put it: “Everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters” (Isa. 55:1) Or as Revelation repeats the call, “the Spirit and the bride (the Church) say: ‘Come.’ And let the one hearing say, ‘Come.’ And let the one thirsting come; let the one who wants take the water of life as a free gift” (Rev. 22:17). When we come to the water of life, when we drink that cold, clear water, this is when we remember who we truly are: not living our own life for our own purposes, but giving up our self-lives for a life joined to God forever. This is when we surrender everything to God, because all those other things have no real value, no eternal value. Even religion itself has no eternal value. But our relationship to God is forever.
Discernment is not always easy to do. But we must do it if we want true holiness. We cannot allow false teachers and false promises to get us off the path, to steer us away from the Way of Jesus, the “Way of Holiness” as Isaiah calls it (“And a highway will be there, and a roadway, and it is called the Way of Holiness,” Isa. 35:8). Jesus called it the narrow way, difficult to find; unlike the wide way that many travel (Matt. 7:13,14). We must seek to find it and we must stick to it until the end.
And if we have surrendered ourselves to God, we will love the things that God loves. What does God love? “For God so loved the world...” (John 3:16). Even though God is holy and awesome, his holiness does not turn him away from the world, but toward the world. His holiness leads him to love a sinful world and to try to rescue as many as he can from it. Holiness is an invitation to a better way of life, a more rewarding, more fulfilling life, because it’s an eternal life with God. But you won’t find it in the thunder of applause of an audience, or in the lightning strike of a miracle. You’ll find it in the cool, clear waters of a private resting place with God. Amen?
So how do we discern if something is truly holy, if it’s truly of God? Use the fruit of the Spirit test: Does it bring “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Amen? Let’s go to Jesus in prayer. Lord, we lay aside all our burdens and worries, and we come to you now, to rest with you now, to sip some of that cool, clear water in a place of rest. Lord, remind us of who we really are, remind us of our betrothal to you. Remind us of the true holiness that comes from your Spirit of holiness. Refocus our eyes on you and away from all the distractions of our lives, and even the distractions of religion. Lord, we love you. And we love your truth and the peace that it brings to our lives. And we thank you. In Jesus’ name.