Big Bible Words: Holiness

How would you explain holiness in plain language?

My Holy Shirt

I have lots of shirts in my closet. To be exact, I have 11 short-sleeve shirts, 12 long-sleeve shirts, and 10 dress shirts. I’m thankful for these shirts, but they’re not all that important to me.

I don’t want to deplete brain power deciding which shirts to wear each morning. So I usually wear them in the order they hang in the closet (according to the season, of course). Occasionally, one of my daughters will choose my shirt of the day. Either way, I’m happy. A shirt adorns my back, and I’m on with my day.

There’s one shirt, however, I truly care about. It’s not the prettiest or highest quality shirt in my closet. But it’s the most important one. It’s special.

Holy Shirt

Holy Shirt

I acquired this shirt in Fort Portal, Uganda in 2008 from a country market. We were there to adopt our twin sons, and this shirt became one of our souvenirs.

I call it my Ugandan Papa shirt. It represents my fatherly love and identification with my sons’ heritage. I wear it only once or twice per year: on the anniversary of the adoption, and sometimes on the boys’ birthday. On those days, I don’t care if I’m at work, at church, or on a trip. I might be at home or around other people. But I’m wearing the shirt.

I don’t put it in the washing machine, because it might not hold up. If it needs to be ironed, we do so with meticulous gentleness.

If the shirt ever deteriorates, we’re going to have to go back to Uganda for another one.

This is my favorite shirt. It’s a special shirt.


That’s what it means to be holy.

It doesn’t mean “good,” although biblically holy things will also be good.

It doesn’t mean “righteous,” although biblically holy things will also be righteous.

It doesn’t mean “sinless” or “sacred” or “worthy of worship.”

It means special. A holy thing is different from everything else in its category. A “holy” shirt is more special than the other shirts. A holy ground is more special than any other ground. A holy land is more special than any other land. A holy assembly is more special than any other assembly.

A holy God is special; he’s different from all the other gods. A holy Spirit is special and unlike any other spirit. A holy people is more special and unique than any other people.

Leviticus 19:1-8 explains holiness simply. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2, ESV). What does that mean? The Lord gives examples.

  1. Revere your father and mother. They are not ordinary, common people. They are special to you (Lev 19:3).
  2. Keep the Sabbath. It is not like every other day. It is a special day (Lev 19:3).
  3. Do not turn to idols. They are ordinary and not special at all (blocks of wood or stone or iron with no rescuing power). Not like the LORD your God, who is special (Lev 19:4).
  4. Peace offerings (one type of Old Testament sacrifice – think of grilled hamburgers or lamb chops) must be eaten within two days. If an Israelite kept any leftovers, he’d be treating them like all the rest of his food. He has profaned what is holy to the LORD. He didn’t treat it as special food (Lev 19:5-8).


The opposite of holiness is profanity. Profanity doesn’t technically mean “bad words” or “curse words.” It means “common words.” Similarly, “vulgar” used to mean “common” long before its meaning morphed into “indecent,” “crude,” or “obscene.”

Leviticus 19:8 shows that you don’t have to defile something to profane it. You merely have to ignore how special it is and treat it like everything else.

So What?

The one who called you is special, so you also must be special in all your conduct (1 Pet 1:15). God is your Father and Acquitter. Christ’s blood ransomed you. You are no ordinary person (1 Pet 1:17-21).

Neither are the others who were also ransomed. They are your brothers. They are special. Now love them and remind them of how special they are (1 Pet 1:22-25).

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  • Kelly

    I sense that something is still missing from your definition. An Olympic gold medal winner is certainly special, but most native English speakers would NOT call such a person holy. Neither would God, I think. Perhaps holiness is a specialness necessarily related to God?

    • Peter Krol

      That’s a great point. I think you’re right. I can’t find any places in Scripture where the word “holy” is used to describe anything generically special. It’s always special to God. Thanks for engaging with the post!