God delivers an outrageous command in Leviticus 11:44: “Be holy, for I am holy.” But it’s impossible to be like God, so why did He command this? Unfortunately this isn’t just one of the “those Old Testament” things we can ignore under the New Covenant, because Jesus repeated it in even clearer terms: “Be perfect, as Your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And Peter echoed it is as well: “it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY” (1 Peter 1:16). What are we to do with this formidable demand for God-like perfection?
Before the command, God provides a little context in Lev. 11:44: “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”
The word consecrate, like holy, is a churchy word, and we hardly have any sense of what it means outside a religious setting. Holy and consecrate are from the same root word, which means to be set apart. The connotation is being set apart for a purpose. I could say I consecrate my stove for cooking. I don’t use my stove as a table, or a cutting board, or a chair. (I do sometimes use it as a drying rack, I’ll confess).
To be holy means to be set apart. And God is saying, “Set yourselves apart for my purposes, because I’m the LORD your God. I’m really important to you, so why not live for me?” Such a request only makes sense. Being set apart is being separate and different. God is “holy” because He’s so vastly different from us. For starters, He’s perfectly loving, a trait no human can claim. But we can learn to love more like God does, which is why he calls us to be separate and different. The high divorce rate indicates people do not understand how to love, and pop culture confirms this. Countless song lyrics, movies, and television shows reflect the selfish demands typical of modern love: “I need your love” is the theme, and that desperate plea dominates in families and friendships as well as romance.
God offers a way far different from the selfish love-taking which surrounds us. We can learn to give love instead of taking, and not in response to selfish demands. So He sets us apart from selfish taking, and sets us apart for selfless love.
But none of these synonyms for “holy” do justice to the full meaning. The idea of this verse is closer to “Be ye outlaws!” (KJV-j/k). Societal outlaws are separate because they act outside the norms of society (laws). They reject the rules, and consequently are set apart from others (prison). Until caught, they live on the margins of society, banded together with fellow criminals who are the only people willing to associate with them. In this close-knit community, they establish ethics and leadership different from those of the larger society.
Sound familiar? The description has an uncanny resemblance to the early Christians of the New Testament. But they would be appalled at the dirty cultural baggage the term “Christian” has acquired, so let’s use “the called out ones.” This is what the Bible calls them, since God called them out of the world system, to be different, separate, set apart, “called to be his own holy people” (Romans 1:7). In other words, they are called to be outlaws.
The called out ones don’t follow the normal ways of their secular counterparts. They obey the laws of the land so long as they don’t contradict their Leader. But these Jesus freaks admit to following a known criminal: “this Man…you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death” (Acts 2:23). Only the lowest criminals were crucified, but such was the fate of their King. Even when the formal laws are obeyed, the called out ones are a subversive group undermining the unwritten laws of power, greed, and self-first. In fact, their manual says not to conform to the patterns of this world (Romans 12:2).
Instead, these outlaws follow an different ethic, called the Greatest Commandment, the Law of Liberty, or the Royal Law. Romans 13:10, 13 summarizes the one law of the outlaw: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law….Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Laws are superfluous when love is present; love fulfills the law, and then it goes beyond it with “joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
While the called out ones live as part of normal society, they have their own marginal community which they like to call “The Body of Christ.” Working together, they have special roles assigned by their Leader and they all need each other to survive, just as human organs are interdependent (Romans 12:5). The following passage describes this community well:
“We are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as scum of the world, the dregs of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).
Such was the standard of living among the first called out ones. They were constantly being arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail. Their property was seized unlawfully and their leaders were executed. They were literally outlaws, persecuted for worshipping a criminal through a lifestyle of love. But why did the authorities punish them for such an innocuous cause?
Because love is actually quite dangerous. God’s way of loving threatens to “upset the world,” as the early outlaws did (Acts 17:6). Love is so different from the world’s business as usual, because it breaks down barriers and ignores demands disguised as rules. The early outlaws hung out with the prostitutes, criminals, demon-possessed, lepers, paupers, and other scum of society. They ripped down ethnic, social, and gender barriers and challenged the idol worship and temple prostitution which fueled whole economies. They refused to follow the rule to settle down and build a kingdom for yourself on earth, and instead worked to grow God’s kingdom by introducing people’s to His grace.
And “Christians” today are also called out to be outlaws, living in the world, but not following its rules and ways. We’ll look at more verses about this lifestyle of outlaw love next.