The “privilege of holiness” is not some special benefit that we earn for “good behavior”; instead, holiness is the privilege!
Deuteronomy, chapters 7-9; Mark, chapter 15
Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 25-26 (NLT):
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These seven nations are greater and more numerous than you. When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you.
This is what you must do. You must break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols. For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure…
You must burn their idols in fire, and you must not covet the silver or gold that covers them. You must not take it or it will become a trap to you, for it is detestable to the Lord your God. Do not bring any detestable objects into your home, for then you will be destroyed, just like them. You must utterly detest such things, for they are set apart for destruction.
In the New Living Translation, chapter 7 is titled, “The Privilege of Holiness.” That might be a confusing title for some people, because we think of privilege in terms of a special benefit. The Oxford Dictionary online defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”
Some people might think that the privilege of holiness is “going to heaven.” Others might think of benefits in this life, like a long life, or health, or things like that. Now, God certainly blesses us with many things, in this life and in his eternal kingdom, but I don’t think of those things as “privileges.” A privilege, in the sense that we normally think of it, is something that we’re entitled to. It doesn’t matter whether the privilege results from our status or our actions; we tend to think that we have earned whatever privileges we have. One prime example of that is the American Express slogan, “Membership has its privileges.”
The Privilege of Holiness
I don’t believe that’s the point of the title, “The Privilege of Holiness.” I believe that the point is that holiness is the privilege! God has called us and set us apart for himself; that’s the privilege! The actions that we normally associate with holiness are not a way for us to earn God’s favor. Rather, they are the sorts of responses that we would expect in response to God’s favor.
That’s the theme that comes through Moses’ remarks to the Israelites in today’s reading. They would not conquer the nations of Canaan because they were “better”; they would conquer them because God would enable them to do it. Moses makes this clear in chapter 9: “You must recognize that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not – you are a stubborn people” (9:6). He then reminds them of all of the ways that their fathers had rebelled against God and disobeyed him.
In chapter 8, Moses warns the people to “be careful” once they’ve entered the land and experienced the blessings that God promised. “For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful! Do not become proud at that time and forget the Lord your God, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt” (8:12-14).
If we view material goods or other blessings as the “privilege of holiness,’ we may think that we’ve earned them. When we think that, we become less willing to acknowledge that everything we have belongs to God. The goal should not be to gain wealth; the goal should be to obey God and walk in his way.
That’s why Moses warns them to break down their pagan altars and shatter their pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols…burn their idols in fire, and [don’t] covet the silver or gold that covers them. Do not take it or it will become a trap to you, for it is detestable to the Lord your God. God is able to supply everything that we need – in his way, and in his time. God will always do that in a way that strengthens us spiritually. When we try to hold on to the things of this world, or adopt the world’s “idols” in the thought that they have value, we fall into Satan’s trap. Be careful!
I think God is reminding us today that the privilege of holiness is that he allows us and enables us to “be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16). God calls us to be holy, deems us holy, and enables us to be holy. Holiness is not some incredible burden that God lays upon us. It is a privilege – because we know that is working in us to make us more like Jesus. We can’t do that on our own, no matter how hard we try. But we are called to cooperate with him in that work.
To be holy, at its core, is to be different – set apart by God, and empowered for his use. So what idols do we need to break down and shatter? What steps is God calling us to take in response to the privilege that he’s granted us – the privilege of holiness?
Father, thank you for the privilege of holiness. You call us to be holy, as you are holy. You have enabled us to do that through the presence of your Holy Spirit living in us. Help us to understand today if there are any pagan altars that need to be broken in our lives, any idols that need to be burned. Help us to live each day in obedience and surrender to you, that the character of Jesus may be formed in us. Amen.