Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have no continuing city here, but we seek one to come.
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by John David Clark, Sr.
“And sprinkle it upon Aaron, and upon his garments.”
Sanctification is the biblical word used to describe the experience of becoming holy. God is the only source of holiness (Rev. 15:4), and for His own purposes, God has put His holiness upon many different things and people. The Bible is the story of that sanctifying work of God.
Under the Old Testament, God sanctified certain days, weeks, and years, and then He gave instructions to His people as to how to reverence those holy times. Israel had to be taught how to “keep the Sabbath day holy.” Men did not know then, and we do not know now, how to keep anything holy unless God gives us instructions.
God also sanctified certain places, such as Mount Sinai and Solomon’s temple. God even sanctified Canaan’s land so that it would be an acceptable habitation for the sanctified people of Israel. God sanctified the land for the people and the people for Himself. God kept everything in order; He did not (and does not) permit sanctified and unsanctified people or things to mix.
There were different levels of and purposes for sanctification. The priests’ and the sanctuary’s sanctification was far greater than the ordinary Israelite’s, and God demanded that Israel acknowledge that fact and maintain a respectful distance between themselves and His especially anointed people and places. Moreover, in order to provide Israel’s priests with much-needed help in accomplishing their ceremonial activities, God sanctified the men of the tribe of Levi to be servants to the priests. It was an honor for the Levites to be chosen to stand near the priests and to serve them. How much greater an honor was it to be sanctified as one of the Lord’s priests and to minister in the temple of the Lord!
In addition to sanctifying men as priests, God sanctified certain men and women to prophesy among His people. Sometimes they were faithful, and sometimes they were not, but all who were sent with God’s Word to His people had been sanctified.
It was a tragic mistake for a person to enter a sanctified place unless he had been sanctified to do so. For example, after God prospered the reign of Judah’s king Uzziah, he became proud and took it upon himself to burn incense on the golden altar inside the temple. He refused to heed the warnings of the indignant priests; but when God struck him with leprosy, he fled in terror and shame from the holy place of God (2Chron. 26:16-20).
In such cases, there was a transfer of sanctification onto unwise trespassers. When that happened, the trespasser became what is called “devoted”; that is, he took on the quality of sanctification, but not with God’s approval! This was a curse, not a blessing, and there was no forgiveness for that sin. The trespasser upon whom sanctification transferred was typically executed. So, God’s message was consistently clear: keep holy things away from unholy things!
The reality of such transfers of sanctification is confirmed by Jesus. He said that the temple sanctified the gold that touched it, and the altar sanctified the offerings laid upon it (Mt. 23:17, 19). A basic truth, then, confirmed by many Scriptures, is this: the way that sanctification happens is by transfer, from one thing or person to another.
At times, God commanded His people to sanctify certain things to Him; that is, to set them apart for His exclusive use. Often, spoils from a war with Israel’s enemies were sanctified to the Lord. For example, when the walls of Jericho fell, the Israelites destroyed everything in that cursed city and burned it to the ground. The only exceptions were (1) Rahab and her family, who had helped the Israelite spies, and (2) all the silver, gold, brass, and other precious things from the city. Those things were sanctified to, or devoted to, the Lord. When Achan, an Israelite, saw in the ruins of the burning city some gold, silver, and a beautiful Babylonian garment, he took those devoted things for himself and hid them in his tent. What he did not understand was that by taking what belonged to God into his tent, the sanctification that was on those spoils of war was making his tent and everyone who touched it “devoted”! The sanctification God had placed upon those objects was transferred to Achan and all he had, including his wives and children! When his sin was exposed, Achan, his wives and children, and all his substance, including his tents and herds, were taken outside the camp, pounded into the dust with stones, and burned. Such stories show that there is a danger of being cursed by God, not only for trespassing onto holy premises but also for having in one’s possession anything that is sanctified to the Lord.
Because the Lord’s tithes are sanctified, to fail to bring them to the Lord makes a believer who holds on to them worthy of death, just as Achan was made worthy of death for hiding Jericho’s sanctified goods in his tent. God sanctified the tithes in Israel. The people were commanded to bring them to the ministers whom God had sanctified to receive them. Israel was forbidden to squander their tithes on idols or to deliver them into the hands of any other than a man sanctified by the Lord. We, too, must be careful as to where we take our tithes. To deliver God’s tithes into the hands of a man who has not been sanctified to receive them will bring a curse on both you and that man. As Jesus warned his followers, “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”
An unexpected biblical use of the word sanctify is in reference to human beings sanctifying God! Of course, the phrase “sanctify the Lord” by no means suggests that we can make Him holy. Rather, it means that we honor Him. Peter exhorted the saints not to fear men, but to “sanctify the Lord in your hearts” (1Pet. 3:15). Isaiah (8:13) warned the people to sanctify the Lord by trusting Him. Once, Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify the Lord; consequently, they were both denied the privilege of entering the Land of Promise (Num. 20:7-12). In some cases, God is even said to have sanctified (honored) Himself by punishing the wicked who refused to sanctify Him (Num. 20:13; Ezek. 38:16).
Since the unsanctified could not touch the sanctified, how was it that unsanctified Gentile armies were able to conquer Israel, God’s sanctified nation? After all, in harming the Israelites, would not the heathen have become “devoted” by the transfer of Israel’s sanctification to them? The stunning answer to that question is given by the prophets: God sanctified certain heathen kingdoms for the purpose of inflicting upon Israel His terrible punishment (Jer. 22:6-9). No nation could have destroyed Israel had not God first sanctified that nation for that purpose. God even sanctified the fowls and beasts of prey before allowing them to devour the carcasses of His slain people (Zeph. 1:7)! For all others, however, who may have had self-willed intentions of harming God’s people, He gave this stern warning: “Touch not my anointed, and do my prophets no harm!”
An element of the Old Testament which is missing in the New is the act of sanctifying oneself. Because earthly elements were used in Old Testament sanctification rituals, men could sanctify themselves and things by following God’s ceremonial directions (Ex. 19:22; Lev. 11:44; 2Chron. 29:15). In the New Testament, this cannot be done. New Testament sanctification is accomplished only by the Spirit of God.
Under the Law, both God and anointed men, at different times and in different ways, could sanctify things, such as the tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex. 29:43; Ex. 30:26-30), the people of Israel (Ex. 19:14-15; Ex. 31:13), the brass altar (Ex. 29:44; Lev. 16:19), etc. But there is not one example in the New Testament of anyone or anything being sanctified by using earthly elements. Sanctification in Christ is a matter of spiritual holiness, not ceremonial propriety. God alone now transfers His holiness, and does so only by His Spirit.
By the atoning work of Christ Jesus, access to the Spirit of God (and, therefore, access to sanctification) is provided for all who believe the gospel. This sanctifying touch of God comes to man only in the name of Jesus. And how much holier it is to be sanctified by the touch of God’s Spirit than by the sprinkling of animal blood, or the ashes of a red heifer, or olive oil!
Some groups argue that New Testament sanctification is an instantaneous experience, while others argue that sanctification is a process. As is usually true in such controversies, there is truth in both positions, and both doctrines err in denying the truth that is in the other.
When a person is baptized with the holy Spirit, the holiness of God is immediately transferred to him. This initial experience of being sanctified is called the baptism of the holy Ghost and is also called “conversion”, “the new birth”, “the washing away of sins”, “redemption”, etc. Its many titles notwithstanding, it is one instantaneous experience.
(Some groups teach that before one can receive the baptism of the Spirit, he must sanctify himself by conforming to a certain style of dress and conduct, but conformity to an external, specified norm is not sanctification. In Christ Jesus, sanctification is accomplished only by the holy Spirit.)
But the nature of sanctification is such that, while it may have an instantaneous beginning, there is growth in it. Entire sanctification is a process. This is actually a maturing in the knowledge of what sanctification entails, for when we are first sanctified, we are “as babes in Christ” and it takes time for us to break old habits and to realize what kind of new creature God has made us in Christ. In the verses that follow, Paul exhorts us to pursue this entire sanctification (1Thess. 5:12-24). May God help us all attain to this perfect, holy lifestyle:
“And we beseech you, brothers, to acknowledge those who labor among you and who rule over you in the Lord and instruct you, and to esteem them as highly as possible in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. We exhort you, brothers; warn the disorderly, cheer up the faint-hearted, hold on to the weak, be long-suffering with everybody. See that no one repays evil for evil to anyone; rather, always pursue what is good, both for one another and for all men.”
“Rejoice always; pray continually; in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophecies; but put everything to the test; hold on to what is good, and avoid every appearance of evil.”
“And now, may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless until the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. Faithful is he who calls you, who also will do it.”