Set apart from the start (once I gave myself to you) I did not know how far you’d go to make me someone new! But I am yours, much-loved, learning like a daughter should who wants to know how best to grow and act just like you would. When my Nyarafolo translation partner Moïse and I were working on the book of Leviticus, we met many challenges. But the one that influenced me most was researching the word “holy” and differentiating it from “sacred” or “consecrated,” “set apart.” God is holy, even called by the name “the Holy One of Israel,” and he is not consecrated or set apart.
When applied to God, “holy” means absolutely perfect, morally and ethically completely good. There is no defect in him (this is the meaning of the word we used for his holiness in Nyarafolo: tiɛlɛfun (without defect). Holiness is his nature. This means that he can be relied on. He is always faithful, always does what he has promised to do. When we truly know him, experiencing his presence and activity in our lives, we humans respond to his majesty and otherness with awe and compelling fascination. However, it must not stop there! “The experience of God revealing himself as ethically holy calls for the human response to a holiness resembling his own (Lev 20:7).”
Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 20:7 NIV)
To consecrate yourself, you must commit yourself to being set apart for lifelong service to Yahweh. The priests in Israel were set apart like this, and now we who belong to Yahweh through the work of Jesus Messiah are priests too!
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:1 NIV)
Being set apart, we are to do everything that we can to know him and to live as we should, developing a character different from people who do not belong to him.
Peter was a disciple of Jesus who experienced what it was to walk life daily with this Master. When we follow his story we can see that this was not always an easy road. When Jesus said to throw his nets back into the water where he knew there had been no fish before, Peter learned that the Lord could provide what seemed impossible. He had to risk walking on water to learn that he needed to keep his eyes fixed on Jesus and not on the storm around him. And he learned that his Lord would forgive him even when he had totally failed him by denying that he knew him, at the crisis point of Jesus’ ministry.
Because he truly knew Jesus, Peter wrote to his own disciples about what they must do to follow him. It would not be a matter of just declaring that they believed his claim to be Messiah and ask for forgiveness, but then keep on living according to their world’s standards. No! It would mean making their life purpose a whole new one: becoming like him.
That’s one of the reasons why it was so deeply meaningful to me to participate in translating the two letters in the New Testament that Peter wrote. He was like a coach telling the athletes that they absolutely must give this endeavor everything they have in order to be successful—they are not just sitting on the sidelines!
So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. (1 Pet. 1:14-15 NLT)
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Pet. 1:4-7 NIV)
What? We can participate in the divine nature? That is awesome! It is true that we cannot do this on our own, without the Spirit’s empowerment. He alone can develop that unity with God that literally changes our nature. Peter made it clear that it was because the Spirit had set them apart that they were on track to obey their Lord, right from the beginning of his letter. He said he was writing to:
[those] who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1 Pet. 1:2 NIV)
Nevertheless, even though the Spirit is doing essential work we are not to go on as if nothing is now required of us. With the peace and generous love that come to us from God, we are to do all we can to become morally pure, like him:
But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; (1 Pet. 1:15 NIV)
This was not new to the Jews who knew the essentials of the covenant they had with Yahweh:
“Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:2 NIV)
But to those entering the new covenant, becoming a child of God through Jesus, this had to be startling. And I’m afraid many of us today find it so astonishing that it seems impossible. How can we be morally perfect, without any defect, like God himself?
It is a process that demands our cooperation. We are told to “make every effort” to work with him:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. ( 2 Pet. 1:5-7 NIV)
That list of qualities becomes meaningful to us when we know the Lord and his Word and understand how he lived them out. How do we get to know him and live like he did? James, who knew Jesus as a brother and became a fervent disciple, tells us this:
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (Jas. 4:7 NIV)
When I was a child, back in the days when my parents were missionaries in the Congo, I remember the practice we had of memorizing verses that were on a little pack of cards in a box when we were just finishing breakfast. The one that moved me most, and that I clung to during my older years when I was longing to really know my Lord, was that first part of verse 7: Come near to God and he will come near to you. I can testify that what this says is true. By paying attention to what he left us in the Word, by opening my heart to him in prayer, by listening to mature disciples’ encouragement and teaching, I became closer and closer to him. He became truly the essential person in my life. With every effort I made to know him, he was coming closer to me, more real and present to my senses all the time.
When we get that close to him, we care what he thinks. We even want to do what he tells us to do. We trust him because we know he is good, faithful, completely reliable, so just as we would trust our earthly parent that we know wants the best for us, we learn to respect his direction. It is worth making every effort to participate in his transformation of our nature, and to keep on doing so!
 Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 883.