The signs which the Bible tells us will appear to signal the end of this world are increasing. But who is paying attention to them? There is controversy, argument, and disagreement over whether or not things like the meteor that struck Russia or the unusual weather in many places in the world are a part of these signs. But there is one sign on which all true believers in Jesus should agree, and that is the topic here.
One sign that stands high in importance above most of the others that signify the coming of our Lord to this world is mentioned often in God’s Word–but it is a sign that, sadly, is often ignored by the church. That sign is holiness.
Not the sign you were expecting? Jesus is expecting it. Scripture says that when he comes back for his church, he expects it to be holy, so that he can “present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27 NIV).
If a local church is not living a life of holiness, however, that does not mean that He is not coming. It just means that they are not going.
“If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5 NIV).
Jesus is coming back for a holy church. Holiness is a major sign of his return. But it is not a sign that most people, even Christians, associate with that return. Its extreme importance, however, can be seen in Peter’s second letter. After first beginning with a description of some things often associated by people with the end of the world, such as fire and unusual events in the heavens, Peter turns attention from these extreme and unusual things to a much less considered sign, the sign of holiness:
“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives (2 Ptr. 3:11 NIV).
That little admonition is stuck right in the middle of Peter’s address, and then he returns to a further description of the other signs attending the end of the world, the more familiar signs of fire and other frightening events. It is no accident that that warning comes right in the middle: It is central to the whole end-times plan of God. Holiness is at the very center of everything about God.
Now, most people understand holiness to have something to do with how one lives one’s life. But there is a second meaning to that word that is actually even more fundamental than that; it is the foundation upon which moral and upright living is based and out of which moral living flows. That more fundamental meaning is one of separation, of apartness and uniqueness.
When God describes himself to his people in the book of Hosea, he says, “I am God, and not man–the Holy One among you” (Hos. 11:9 NIV). God makes a distinction between himself and man, and that distinction is that of holiness. The presence of God and his holiness in the people of his church is what distinguishes that people from all others.
When Moses was shouldered with the great responsibility to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt, he understood this principle, for he said to this God who is the Holy One:
“If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Ex. 33:15,16 NIV).
Moses was to lead the people out of Egypt, the supreme representative of the world system at that time. God’s people were to come out of that system. Their literal separation from the world stands for all time as a symbol of the call for God’s people of all time to do the same.
This same principle of separation or holiness played a large part in the Old Testament regulations which God gave to his people to set them apart from the other people. Leviticus, chapter 11, contains many such rules. But true religion is not about rules, for they easily appeal to man’s desire to flatter himself that if he just obeys certain rules, he can please God and earn his salvation. Rather, the rules are simply a visible sign to the world that God’s people are not part of this world and do not partake of its ways.
After many specific instructions in Leviticus 11 about what can and cannot be eaten, God reveals the reason for these detailed regulations:
“For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:47 NIV).
Here we see again the high place holiness has in God’s plan. The people were brought out of slavery in Egypt. Brought out, separated. That is holiness. The regulations and rules about various aspects of daily life do not make one holy; they simply are signs of holiness already within those observing those signs–people made holy by the Holy One living within them.
Egypt often represents the world in God’s Word. That this principle of separation and distinction is a universal principle, and not just an Old Testament one, is made clear by a New Testament call for the same separation of one’s self from the world.
“Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:17,18 NIV).
This call for all time for all God’s people becomes all the more serious as the time of the end approaches. For at the end, God will destroy this world, just as he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. And just as he called Lot and his family to separate themselves from that place that was set to be destroyed, so too are all God’s people called to come out from this doomed world. The last book in the Bible deals with the last things of this world, and it says there:
“Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues'” (Rev. 18:4 NIV).
This coming out is both internal and external. We are to be a holy people of God in this dark world. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Ptr. 2:9 NIV). And, as holiness implies separation, we are to separate ourselves from that which defiles in this world.
There is a danger here, of course, that danger being that it is all too easy to go to the extreme of thinking that because one has seemingly removed one’s self from the world, that one is therefore better than the world, better than others. Self righteousness is always a danger in spiritual matters and always repugnant both to God and others.
But that does not mean that there is not a true and genuine–and humble–separation that can and should take place in the life of a believer. We are still to separate ourselves from the ways of this world and strive for holiness. When we do this, we should not be surprised if the world hates us and despises us for it. For we witness against it of its wickedness.
“(Do not) be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:12,13 NIV).
“The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would” )Gal. 5:17 NIV).
“Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now” (Gal. 4:28,29 NIV).
That persecution will end when this world ends. But until that day, those who make themselves holy through their union into Jesus Christ and who live out that holiness in this world, will always be a stark witness that shames and frightens those who do not. We are not to be frightened by their opposition to our holiness in Christ, but they will be frightened by what their own lack of holiness portends for themselves:
“(Be) not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (Ph. 1:28 NIV).
The principle of holiness or separation is the distinguishing mark at the end of this world. Now, at this time and in this world, it is not always clear who belongs to God and who does not. There are some unbelievers who live what appear to be good, moral lives, and some who call themselves believers who do not. But the day is coming when all that will end. On that day, the true reality of all will be made visible to all, and only those who are in Christ will go to be with him.
“They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him” (Mal. 3:17,18 NIV).
Then the final separation of the holy from the unholy will take place. When Jesus descends from heaven to take his church to himself, it will be a holy church. That is why Hebrews 12:14 admonishes us: “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (NIV).
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mt. 25:31,32 NIV).
Be united with Christ and his holiness, and separated from the world now, or be separated from him forever. Be holy–or else!