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.
“I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”
Sanctification is the word used to describe the experience of being set apart for God and becoming holy. God is the only source of holiness (Rev. 15:4), and He has at times made some people and some things holy. The Bible is the story of that sanctifying work of God.
In the Old Testament, God sanctified certain days, weeks, and years, and then He gave His people instructions as to how to reverence those holy times. God also sanctified certain places, such as Mount Sinai and Solomon’s temple. God even sanctified the entire land of Canaan so that it would be a fit dwelling place for the people He had sanctified. He did not want sanctified and unsanctified people or things to mix.
Under the law, there were different degrees and purposes for sanctification. Although all God’s people were sanctified, or set apart as holy, His priests and sanctuary were holier than the ordinary Israelites, and God demanded that Israel acknowledge that fact and keep a respectful distance from His servants. But 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 near the priests and be their servants. What an honor it was for the Levites to be chosen and set apart to serve God’s anointed ministers!
In addition to sanctifying men to be His priests, God sanctified certain men and women to be prophets and judges for His people. Sometimes those sanctified people were faithful, and sometimes they were not; nevertheless, all who were sent to His people were sanctified by God to fulfill their office.
The only way sanctification can take place is by transfer from one holy person or thing to another. The reality of the transfer of sanctification was confirmed by Jesus. He said that the temple sanctified the gold that touched it, and the altar sanctified the offerings that were laid upon it (Mt. 23:17, 19). The ultimate source of all sanctification is God, for He alone is holy (Rev. 15:4), but He has always demanded respect for whoever or whatever He sanctifies.
For example, the otherwise good King Uzziah became proud and took it upon himself to enter into God’s holy temple and burn incense on the golden altar. He had been anointed only to be king in Israel, not a priest. God’s indignant priests withstood him and warned him that he was trespassing in the Holy Place, but he would not listen. Then God struck him with leprosy, and the foolish king fled in terror and shame (2Chron. 26:16–20). He was not sanctified to be in the Holy Place. Whenever the sanctification of God’s temple passed onto a person who was not anointed to bear it, that sanctification brought a curse upon him instead of a blessing. Such trespassers were usually slain immediately; however, God allowed Uzziah to live out his days, but only as a secluded leper. The message was clear: honor what God makes holy!
Sometimes, spoils of war were sanctified by the Lord, set apart exclusively for Him and His priests. When the walls of Jericho fell, the Israelites destroyed everything in that city and burned it to the ground. The only exceptions were (1) Rahab and her family, who had helped the Israelite spies, and (2) the silver, gold, brass, and other precious things from the city. Those objects were sanctified to, or “devoted to”, the Lord. Sadly, an Israelite named Achan saw in the ruins of the burning city some gold, silver, and a beautiful Babylonian garment, and 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 transferred to his tent and everyone in it, making them “devoted”! When his sin was exposed, Achan, his wives and children, and all his substance, including his tents and herds, were taken outside the camp and stoned to death and then burned up. Such stories are written so that God’s children might learn that it is dangerous to touch anything that has been sanctified to the Lord.
God sanctified the tithes in Israel, and because His tithes are sanctified, to keep them makes a believer worthy of death, just as Achan was made worthy of death for stealing from God and hiding Jericho’s sanctified goods in his tent. “Will a man rob God? Yet, you have robbed me,” God said through the prophet Malachi. And when the people asked, “How have we robbed you?” God answered, “In the tithe and the offering. You are cursed with a curse. You – the entire nation – have robbed me!” (Mal. 3:8–9). Their tithes and offerings were sanctified, set apart for God, and God had sanctified His ministers to receive them. Israel was forbidden to give their tithes and offerings to no one but a man sanctified by the Lord. Be careful where you take your tithes and offerings, my friend. To place God’s tithes into the hands of a man who has not been sanctified to receive them will bring a curse on both the giver and the receiver. As Jesus warned his followers, “Render unto God the things that are God’s.” That can only be done by rendering the tithe and offering to a man God has sanctified to receive them.
To those not sanctified to come near His servants, God gave this stern warning: “Touch not my anointed, and do my prophets no harm!” But since God allowed nothing unsanctified to touch what was sanctified, one may wonder how it was that unsanctified heathen armies sometimes were able to conquer Israel. Would not those heathen have become “devoted” by entering the holy land? Would not the holy land’s sanctification have transferred to them? The stunning answer to that question is given by the prophets: At various times in Israel’s history, God sanctified heathen kingdoms to come into the land of Israel and execute His wrath upon His disobedient people (e.g., Jer. 22:6–9). No nation could have harmed Israel had not God first sanctified them for that purpose. God even sanctified the birds and beasts of prey before they were allowed to come and devour the carcasses of His slain people (Zeph. 1:7)!
Sanctification in Christ is an inward spiritual condition; it has nothing to do with ceremony. In this covenant, God transfers His holiness only to people, and he does it by the Spirit, which Jesus made available by his sacrificial death. How much better it is to be sanctified by God’s Spirit than to be sanctified with earthly things! Jesus is indeed the mediator of a better covenant, as the man of God said (Heb. 8:6).
An element of the Old Testament which is entirely missing in the New is that men had authority from God to sanctify themselves and others. This was possible because natural things such as oil, blood, and water were used in Old Testament sanctification rituals (e.g., Ex. 19:22; Num. 19:9), and men could handle and control physical things. In this New Testament, however, such cannot be done, for New Testament sanctification is accomplished only by the Spirit of God, which no man can control.
The biblical exhortation for God’s people to “sanctify the Lord” by no means suggests that they can make Him holy. That phrase simply means to honor the Lord. Peter exhorted the saints not to fear men, but to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts” (1Pet. 3:15). Isaiah told Israel that they sanctified the Lord when they trusted in Him (Isa. 8:13). On the other hand, by disobeying God, Moses and Aaron failed to sanctify the Lord, and they both were severely punished for it (Num. 20:7–12). And God is even said to have sanctified (honored) Himself by punishing the wicked who refused to sanctify Him (Num. 20:13; Ezek. 38:16).
Some groups argue that New Testament sanctification is an instantaneous experience, while others argue that sanctification is a process. There is truth in both those positions. For when a person receives the Spirit of God, it instantaneously transfers the holiness of God to that person. That initial experience of being sanctified is referred to in different ways in the New Testament. It is called the baptism of the Spirit, conversion, the new birth, the washing away of sins, redemption, and more. Sanctification’s many titles notwithstanding, it is, as some argue, a one-time experience. But that is not all, for although being sanctified is an instantaneous experience, one may grow in it. Entire sanctification is the result of “growing in grace” and maturing in the knowledge of God. When believers in Christ are first sanctified, they are “complete in him”, as Paul said, but they are also “as babes in Christ”, as Paul in another place said. It takes time for newly-converted people to learn God’s righteousness and fully realize what kind of new creature God has made them in Christ. In that regard, sanctification is a process.
Paul exhorted those who were sanctified to pursue entire sanctification (1Thess. 5:12–24): “We beseech you, brothers, to acknowledge those who labor among you and who rule over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them as highly as possible in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brothers, warn the disorderly, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, and be patient with everyone. 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 for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophecies, but prove all things; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. And may the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.”
May God help all His children to attain to this perfect, sanctified lifestyle.