One of the common themes in Scripture is holiness. God calls us in Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Hebrews 12:14 tells us, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.

But what does it mean to be holy? It’s hard to pin down and define. Part of this is because in the Bible holiness is so tied to the person and character of God Himself. It would be natural for holiness to defy clean definition.

Another reason we find holiness difficult to talk about is many of us have likely had negative experiences with people claiming to be holy. In church world, it is not uncommon for some to view holiness in a similar way that the Pharisees viewed it in Jesus’ day. They viewed sin as a contagion; it was something you could catch from other people. So they stayed away from sins and sinners that could infect them. They saw holiness then as something they achieved that could be stained by others. Holiness was like wearing a pure, white pair of skinny jeans. You want people to see that you’re wearing them, but you’re not going to go near places and people that are dirty, because you don’t want the jeans stained.

But Jesus lived out the reality of holiness differently. In Luke 19 we read about Zacchaeus the tax collector. Zacchaeus was immoral and as a tax collector was a traitor to his own people. He was not a good man. And he was the kind of man that the holiness-as-white-jeans crowd wanted to stay as far away from as possible because his sin would definitely stain you. But Jesus went straight to him, and invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, making a statement that Zacchaeus was eligible for the Kingdom of God just as much as the religious leaders.

And that created a scandal. In verse 7 we read, “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’” In other words, “Jesus is going to stain His holiness with Zacchaeus’ sin.”

But Jesus responds, “…the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus saw the holiness of God not as white jeans, but as the bleach that made the jeans white to begin with. Bleach is dangerous. Throw bleach on a black shirt and see what happens. It’ll ruin your clothes. There’s a reason we keep it locked on the top shelf where the kids can’t get to it. Bleach transforms everything it touches.

God’s holiness is like that. It is the transformative power of God that goes to the dirtiest, most sinful parts of the world and makes them clean. This is freeing for us, because it frees us from the guilt and fear of “Am I living a clean enough life? Am I checking off the right boxes and staying out of the wrong areas?” Holiness is in humility drawing near to a holy God and letting God’s holiness make us clean. So we don’t pursue holiness. We pursue Jesus, and Jesus makes us holy.