Following Jesus is hard. Not hard in that I do not see any reason to do it. It is quite the contrary. I am constantly drawn to Him. But it is still hard! I feel challenged each time I meet Jesus in the Gospels. I am challenged to be more like Him. A major challenge for me comes with Jesus’ relentless desire to associate with sinners. How does this fit with the call to holiness and abstaining from sin? In wrestling with this, I have come to rethink the meaning of holiness as a mission than a private moral conduct.
The Mission of Holiness. This can be seen in the call of Israel. Beginning with Abraham, God conducts a plan to bless and redeem the whole world (Genesis 12). This leads to the rescue of the Hebrews from Egypt and their establishment as a holy people of God (Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 14). Why was Israel set apart? Is it so they could know the right moral truths and go to heaven when they die? Was this about their private spirituality and relationship with God? Hardly. A prominent theme throughout the Psalms and Prophets is Israel being set a part to reflect the image of God as a light to the world (Psalm 96, Isaiah 49). For Israel, a call to holiness was not a call to isolation so the bad people could not get close. Israel was set a part, given the Law, and tasked with reflecting the image of God to the other nations. That is holiness.
The church is privileged with the same mission. Peter echoes the Levitical call to holiness (1 Peter 1:16). This is situated within an address to Christians in a hostile society. The church’s call to holiness was to be the priesthood, temple, and chosen race seen by the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:4-12). Like Israel before, the church is to be the place on earth where people come to learn about the Creator. Holiness is again a mission to be the light to the world.
Neglect of the Mission. During the 2nd Temple Period, after the return from Babylon through the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., being a light to the world ceased to be a priority. It was replaced by a longing of God’s vindication of Israel. A string of foreign powers, including Rome, ruled over the Jewish people. How can this be if God is faithful to the promises made to Abraham? Hope for the kingdom (and the slaughtering of foreign oppressors and traitors) takes center stage in Jewish thought.
In this climate, the Mosaic Law takes on a new significance particularly in the dietary laws and table fellowship. The inter-testamental literature displays the importance placed on food laws in light of the hopes of the kingdom. The stories from the Maccabean revolt include accounts of Jews being martyred rather than violate the dietary laws (1 Maccabees 1; 2 Maccabees 6-7). The book of Tobit places the cause of the northern kingdom’s captivity on violations of food laws. The Qumran community of Essenes viewed themselves as the true Israel. They, therefore, separated themselves from sinners and held strictly to the food laws.
Within this environment, the hope of the kingdom and deliverance are tied directly to food and fellowship purity. If you associate with sinners, it is a clear sign you will not be in the kingdom. Because of this, holiness was viewed as a separation from the world for fear of being made unclean. No one wanted to miss the kingdom. Israel stopped being a light to the world and placed their light under a basket.
Redefinition of the Mission. Despite the emphasis on proper associations and eating with the right people, Jesus was constantly eating with sinners and tax collectors. This is explicitly or implicitly found in twelve distinct passages and in all manner of stories within the Gospels. It is found in call stories (Mark 2; Luke 19), controversies (Luke 7, 15), and parables (Luke 14). It cannot, therefore, be dismissed as a fluke. It was integral. Controversy arose since the Kingdom meant the judgment of tax collectors and sinners. It did not mean sitting down and having some fish and wine. What did Jesus think He was doing?
Rather than seeing His holiness as driving Him away from sinners, it drew Jesus to them. Jesus concludes His encounter with Zaccheus by declaring that the Son of Man came to “SEEK and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus sought Levi, Zaccheus, and countless unnamed others who saw in Him the fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel and the world. They did not make Jesus unclean as the contemporary teachers believed. His holiness made THEM clean.
Embracing the Mission. How are we then to utilize this in our mission? First, we must recognize holiness is to be spread, not bottled up. It is to be spread by taking it to the people who are lost and broken. It will not suffice to say “Well, the doors are open on Sunday and they can come if they want.” The Pharisees and Essenes would have said they same thing. We are set apart for a purpose, not a private moral conduct. If we are true to holiness, we will go to the broken.
Second, our holiness is a mission to call people through the love of God. Jesus extends mercy and grace to sinners and tax collectors and that is what inspired repentance. Look back at the accounts of Levi and Zaccheus. Jesus offers peace and friendship, not a three-point sermon listing all of their sins and faults. This is what the revolutionaries and Pharisees would have done (and perhaps us too). Consider the accusations against Jesus. He was labeled a drunkard and glutton by His opponents (Luke 7:33-34). These dinners do not sound like solemn, judgmental confrontations. They sound instead like celebrations of mercy, love, and deliverance. This is why the sinners and tax collectors were comfortable around Jesus. As we shine as holy people of God, let us reflect the Creator’s love which inspires a transformation of heart.
Every fiber of my being tells me this is wrong. It is too hard. Sin needs to be called out. People need to be shamed. Facebook posts need to be ‘liked’. Sinners need to be avoided lest their evil rub off on me. That seems so obvious, yet it is not what the Messiah did with sinners. He called people to repent in light of God’s love for them. It was those who thought of themselves as the morally pure which received the harshest rebuke. I must trust Him that His method is best. Let me conclude with the hardest part for me from John 20:21. “As the Father sent Me, I also send you”.
by Jared Rogers