God’s plan for Israel was that they should be a God-fearing nation in order to point all other nations to Him. As a result, after the Exodus, He gave them a place to worship, priests to mediate between Him and them, and sacrifices to perform for their cleansing.
When Jesus came, He perfected each of those roles in Himself. He spoke of His body as the temple to be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. He took the role of the High Priest. And He became the sacrifice, once for all.
When He ascended to the right hand of the Father, He gave believers the same three roles, not to redo what He had done but, because we are in Christ, to act as an extension of Him:
And coming to Him as to living stones, you also are being built up as a spiritual house for a royal priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)
Israel was to be separate and holy, to point the nations to God.
Jesus was separate and holy, providing the way of reconciliation to God.
Believers now are to be separate and holy, to point all other peoples to God.
We are not to be separate and holy in order to be reconciled to God–Jesus accomplished that for us. But in understanding that we humans cannot atone for our own sins, that we in fact need a Savior, it seems some have concluded that the separate and holy issues aren’t for today.
Yet the New Testament writers make it clear. Peter specifically quoted from the Old Testament law in his first letter as support for his call to be holy:
but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1:15-16)
Paul spoke about separateness:
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 – emphasis mine)
Jesus prayed for His followers specifically about being in the world and yet being set apart:
I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:15-19 – emphasis mine)
No list of things to do or things to stay away from. Yet Paul is quite clear that our lives are to be different from those who don’t believe:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called . . . So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. (Ephesians 4:1, 17-24 – emphasis mine)
Why, I wonder, do we hear so little about living a holy life? Some Christians speak as if holiness equates with legalism, but certainly the Bible doesn’t call us to be legalists. Rather than standing apart from the world, it seems many Christians make it their goal to fit in. How we handle our money, the entertainment we choose, our treatment of the homeless, how we dress, what we write–in so many ways, it’s hard to say Christians are not conformed to the world.
And wasn’t that Israel’s problem? Didn’t they want to be like the nations around them rather than to be holy like God, so they could represent Him to the lost peoples?