My wife’s grandmother was named Winona, but everyone called her Nonie. She was a godly old woman with snow-white hair. Each Sunday she would play the piano in the old country church where her husband – Grandpa Del – was the pastor. She knew that hymnal inside and out, and when she sang it was like the heavens opened and an angel was leading us in worship.
Every holiday season since my wife was a girl, she would walk across the road to her grandmother’s farm house and make perogies from scratch. It took all day. On Christmas Day, when we gathered to celebrate Jesus’ birth, the ten-foot-long solid-wood table was packed with food. Everything was hand-made with an extra dose of love and served in her finest china.
Like many women of her generation, Gramma Nonie displayed all her best dishes in a cabinet. She had stacks of plates, bowls, tea cups, tumblers, serving bowls, saucers and cutlery. Everything was safely sealed behind glass and only used on special occasions. Around the edges of each dish were hand-painted scenes of country life, nothing like you can buy in stores nowadays.
When Gramma died a few years ago, labels were discovered taped to the back of nearly everything in her home. She’d thoughtfully marked out who she wanted her belongings to go to when she went to be with the Lord. That was how all of Gramma Nonie’s fine china came to us, painstakingly labelled in her own handwriting. And so it was all carefully wrapped and shipped across the country, where it’s now displayed in our own home.
Like any husband, I viewed the special dinnerware as superfluous. One day I asked to my wife why we had to keep all that old stuff around when we have our own regular plates and bowls? To this, my wife shot me The Look. She said in no uncertain terms that her grandmother's plates would remain where they were, proudly displayed and used on special occasions.
And that was that.
Of course, our regular dishes aren’t exactly worthy of the Queen – mass-produced plates, chipped cereal bowls, plastic cups, and mismatched coffee mugs. The regular stuff is fine for everyday purposes, especially when a week rarely goes by without having to sweep the broken pieces of some unfortunate item off the floor.
But when special occasions arise – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, relatives visiting from afar – my wife lovingly pulls out Gramma Nonie’s dishes. Food is carefully served into them and artfully arranged on the table, just like Gramma used to do it. Great care is taken over these special meals, and any time they happen, it’s like Gramma is there with us, cackling at a joke or carrying on a conversation from the next room like she always did.
Gramma Nonie’s dishes are special, cherished, and precious. They’re handled with the utmost care. They represent her very presence whether they’re dormant in the cabinet or full of homemade perogies on the table. They’re reserved for a special purpose.
This is what it means to be holy.
We use this term in church all the time, but sometimes religious words lose their everyday significance. We often think of holiness as purity or righteousness, or being free from sin. This is often the case, but that’s not what holy (Greek hagios) actually means.
Like Gramma’s dishes, the nation of Israel had tools and utensils that were only to be used for special purposes – in God’s Temple or Tabernacle. Everyday items just wouldn’t do. Regular stuff wasn’t evil, it was just regular. There was nothing wrong with Israel’s baskets, cups, plates, and utensils for regular purposes, but only special utensils were fit for the purposes of God. As such, there were special dishes, utensils, and clothes that were only to be used in the Temple. These items were holy.
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. (2 Tim 2:20-21)
As we see here, the opposite of holy isn’t evil or unrighteousness. The opposite of holy is common.
Similarly, the Greek verb hagiazo means “to make holy”. It’s often translated as “sanctify”, but, again, this word doesn’t have much meaning to us outside of church. It isn’t the same as “purify”, although they often go together. A holy instrument may have to be purified after it becomes unclean for whatever reason, but it doesn’t cease from becoming holy despite in uncleanness. It’s still God’s dish or fork or lamp, even if it’s dirty and needs a scrub.
So it is with people. When we’re saved, we’re simultaneously purified (sins forgiven; made righteous) and sanctified (made holy; set apart for God). Our subsequent sins may defile us (make us unclean) but God daily restores us by Jesus’ blood. However, through it all, we’re still his people – still holy – whether we’re clean or not. David didn’t cease to be God’s appointed king because of his sin, even though he needed to repent.
God has called us all for a purpose, just like he did to Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. And before you were born, I sanctified you. (Jer 1:5)
We are God’s holy people – special, cherished, and precious – hand-picked for his divine purposes. As a result, God calls us to live in such a way that reflects our sanctification.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35)
Just like my wife would never discard her grandmother’s dishes, God will never discard any of us. He may need to repair cracks or chips when we fall down, but we are precious to him. God proudly shows us off in his heavenly courts.
Have you considered my servant [your name here]? There is no one like him/her on the earth, a blameless and upright person, fearing God and turning away from evil. (Job 1:8)
This is what it means to be holy as God is holy. It’s not perfection but a separation from the common (Latin vulgaris) things of the world.
God loves you dearly and cherishes you as a precious child. Being holy doesn’t mean being perfect, it means being special.
Just like Nonie’s dishes.