Sanctification is a life-long process guided by the Holy Spirit, that begins with us aligning our hearts with Christ.
For most of my life, I have been a rule follower. As the oldest child in my family, I was the one who set the rules in the household. I am a firm believer that rules are set in place to keep us safe. But, that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my days of rebellion. No, I am far from perfect.
In eighth grade, during field day at school, the class was coming back from the football field after a long day of games and I was the first one back to the building. Being the considerate rule-follower that I was, I knew it was my job to hold the door for everyone. I also noticed one of the boys—a kid who had bullied me in elementary school—was at the back of the class. He was off on his own and would be the last one in the door. I was actually excited to hold the door for him because I was going to get a lot of satisfaction out of hearing him thank me. But, when he walked through the door, without even looking at me, he said nothing. “You’re welcome,” I said loudly, jogging to catch up with him.
He turned, looked at me, and replied, “I’m not thanking you. If the situation were flipped, I wouldn’t have held the door for you.” What. A. Jerk. Right? Now, a teacher was standing a few feet away from us, but I didn’t care. As much as I would love to say that I took the high road at that moment, instead I muttered a few nasty curse words and marched away. My cursing, and struggle with that particular sin, did catch up to me a few weeks later (but that is a story for another day).
As we dive into scripture today, I want you to be thinking through moments in your life when you found rules difficult to follow. Maybe a bully pushed you to your limit. Maybe a rule seemed unfair. Whatever it is, I want you to think about it and open your Bible to Leviticus.
We aren’t going to start with a passage, or a narrative, as I normally do. Instead, we are going to start with a simple phrase that was repeated three times in Chapters 21 and 22:
For I am the LORD who sanctifies them.Leviticus 21:23, 22:9, 16 (ESV)
This is said three times, each after a list of rules is given to the Israelites. Do this because I am the Lord who sanctifies. Did you know that the word, ‘sanctify,’ appears roughly 700 times in the Bible? One of the many names of God used in the Old Testament (and in Leviticus 20) is Jehovah M’Kaddesh, the Lord who sanctifies. And, in Old Testament times, before Jesus had come into the picture, the Israelites were required to follow a list of rules laid out in Leviticus to be sanctified.
But, here’s an interesting thing to consider: do you understand the meaning of sanctification? Growing up in the Church, I believed that sanctification was synonymous with sexual purity. Over the summer, I was given the topic of Sanctification to address with high schoolers, and I thought, great, I get to give high schoolers the sex talk. But, friends, sanctification is so much more than sexual purity. Yes, sanctification is a cleansing or purification of oneself. But purity is more than sexual purity. Purity in the words we speak (ouch, sometimes that one can hit home) is something a lot of us may struggle with on a regular basis. Purity is about following Christ in everything we do (not just in romantic relationships). And when we follow Christ, we find that our actions will begin to align with Him too.
I want to remind you of this thought: sanctification is a life-long process, guided by the Holy Spirit, that begins with us aligning our hearts with Christ. It isn’t a once and done thing. God is continually sanctifying us, and continually purifying us. As we read Leviticus today, studying the scriptures of sanctification, I want you to think through that phrase and what it looks like in your life. What sin(s) is God saving you from? How is He sanctifying you?
You shall therefore keep all my statues and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples.Leviticus 20:22-24 (ESV)
Let’s unpack this piece of scripture briefly. God is commanding the Israelites to follow his rules because He is delivering them to the promise land, Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Canaan was home to the Canaanites, a violent group of people who are mentioned quite a bit in scripture. Their practices were barbaric, as many scholars believed that they practiced temple prostitution, child sacrifice, and bestiality, among other atrocities. Compared to the teachings of the prophets, this religion would prove toxic to the Israelites and ultimately contribute to the falls of both Israel and Judah later in scripture. But, God is saying here that He has separated the Israelites from the violent ways of the Canaanites.
You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.”Leviticus 20:26 (ESV)
The Israelites, in order to be sanctified, had to be separate from the Canaanites. Canaanite culture was sin culture. In order for God’s people to be Holy, they had to follow His laws and decrees. Why? Christ hadn’t come yet. Until the world was ready for the teachings of Jesus, they had to follow these laws. The only way for humanity to find its way back to God was through perfection. As God was holy, perfect, and sanctified, we had to be holy, perfect, and sanctified.
Of course, reading any further into the Old Testament, we can learn that the Israelites failed to be perfect as God had instructed. They weren’t pure. They indulged in sin, fell prey to immorality, and were destroyed because of it. But, that’s just it; we all fall prey to sin. While sexual immorality is a large piece in any culture, those of us who aren’t tempted by sexual immorality are tempted in other ways. Lies can be as destructive as sexual sin. Theft is equally an issue.
Jumping to the New Testament, I want to talk through a verse in 1 Thessalonians:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the gentiles who do not know God…1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 (ESV)
This verse is pretty straight forward; part of being sanctified is aligning our sexual actions with God’s Word and laws. I know that this can be hard. We live in a culture that sells sex. But, so did the Jews when this was written. Do you think times have changed? They haven’t. Our Canaanites today are Atheists. Our deities are social media, ourselves, and celebrities. Times haven’t changed, but the appearances these gods have taken have. Our culture might not build statues of nude gods, but our cell phones can give us easy access sin and distraction from Christ.
Jehovah M’Kaddesh, however, seeks a relationship with us. As His name implies, He is the God who sanctifies us, the God who makes us holy! However, God calls us to be above this lifestyle. He does. Being pure means being of pure thoughts. Can we have pure thoughts when our phone screens are showing us impure images? And, I know, it’s easier said than done. Like I previously mentioned, our culture sells sex. But, the good thing is, we don’t have to try and do this alone.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 (ESV)
I love the way Paul lays this prayer out for us. Notice how he talks about the spirit, the soul, and the body. The word blameless doesn’t insinuate that we’ll never sin again. On the contrary, that is why sanctification is a daily choice. That’s why it is a life-long process. We will never be sanctified until the second coming! Notice how he says in verse 24, that God is faithful, and He will do it. This is good news for us! God will give us the strength to be a nation set apart for Him! It’s not up to me to fix myself. If that were the case, I’d never be enough. But, I don’t have to be enough, because God is. And God is faithful. He will never fail us.
God doesn’t just want us to follow the rules, going through the motions day by day. It isn’t about the rules, it’s about the relationship. It is about where our hearts are. If our hearts turn to Christ, and our minds are set on following Him, our actions will begin to reflect Him as well. As Christians, we should want to follow His rules. But, the only way to follow the rules is to first lift our eyes to Christ and choose to follow Him. The rules mean nothing without a relationship with Him. Likewise, you cannot truly have a relationship with Him if you continually turn away from the rules He has set in place to sanctify and purify you.
Years ago, when Leviticus was written and the rules were set in stone for the Israelites, they didn’t have Christ. They had a terrifying God who spoke in the mountains to Moses. Ultimately, Christ had to come to bridge that gap. I am forever thankful for the sacrifice Christ made so that I don’t have to be perfect.
So, what sin is it for you today? A friend and I have committed to cutting out toxic speech, thoughts, and behaviors in an attempt to allow our words, thoughts, and actions to be more Christ-like. Maybe for you, it’s self-deprecation. Or, it’s an addiction social media. Whatever it is, give it to God. Lent is a great time to start this. You and I have been invited into a personal relationship with the Savior of the world. Our sins were washed away by His blood.