“Your name be honored as holy.” (Matthew 6:9)
“Holy” is a slippery word, hard to grasp but possessing an unmistakable power. In Jesus’s prayer we turn it into a request: Let your Name, God, be honored as holy—let it be “hallowed,” as older English has it, in the world and in our lives.
What does that mean?
Your Name Be Honored as “Other”
In one of the Bible’s most awe-inspiring scenes, the prophet Isaiah sees a vision of God in the heavenlies:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and His robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above Him; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another:
Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts;
His glory fills the whole earth.
The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.(Isaiah 6:1-4)
In Hebrew the word for “holy” is kadosh; in Greek hagios. Latin uses the word sanctus, to translate it, so in English we have a variety of related words: holy, sanctified, sacred, consecrated, and saint.
All of these words share the basic meaning of “set apart” or “other.”
Holiness implies transcendence. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush and asked to know God’s name, God replied “I AM THAT I AM.”
This is a holy name. It has no reliance on anything else; it is not creation-bound.
When I give someone my name I reveal a thousand points of connection with the created world: I am Rachel (a Hebrew name, many thousands of years old, that means “Lamb of El” or God and connects with Jewish history through the matriarch of Israel) Starr (a family name, connecting me to generations in my own family) Thomson (a Scottish last name deriving from the English “son of Thomas”—itself a name with many connections to history and places and generations).
The name of God has no such connections. He is who he is.
He is holy.
God Is a Holy Spirit
Because of its transcendence, holiness also implies purity. This is how we are using the word when we implore one another to live holy lives. We understand that to live a set-apart life means to live a life that is pure, that is clean on some fundamental spiritual level.
In the Old Testament, God instructed the levitical priests, who were themselves specially holy (consecrated) to the Lord to “make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev 10:10, NASB).
Generally speaking, that which was “unclean” usually connected to death or to sexual impurity in some way. This is true even in the dietary laws, where most of the animals considered “unclean” are carnivores or scavengers, who eat from the dead.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus encountered evil spirits that possessed people and caused disease, infirmity, and madness. They are interestingly called “unclean spirits”—unholy spirits.
Pagan gods were also generally seen as unholy spirit beings, the worship of whom specifically included unclean or unholy sexual and spiritual practices.
By contrast, the Spirit of God is a holy spirit; in fact, he is called THE Holy Spirit.
Isaiah responded to his vision of God’s holiness by crying out,
Woe is me for I am ruined
because I am a man of unclean lips
and live among a people of unclean lips
and because my eyes have seen the King,
the LORD of Hosts.
But God does not leave Isaiah in this acute awareness of his own sin and impurity. Instead, God himself takes steps to change the situation:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said:
Now that this has touched your lips,
your wickedness is removed
and your sin is atoned for.
We Are a Holy People
In the same way, we are atoned for by Christ’s sacrifice and made holy, chosen for the Lord. This is not our doing; it’s a gift of God.
Marriage provides a powerful picture of what this means. Married people are set apart for one another; they have a sacred bond that would be profaned if shared with anyone else. The Bible links or at least parallels sexuality and spirituality many times. Idolatry is consistently compared in Scripture to adultery.
As God’s people, we have been made “holy”—set apart for him. We are “married” to God in a covenant that must be held sacred and kept pure. This is what it means to be a “saint” or “holy one.”
1 Peter 2:9 reminds us:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people for His possession,
so that you may proclaim the praises
of the One who called you out of darkness
into His marvelous light.
When we speak of holiness, then, what we should not have in mind is a list of rules. What we SHOULD have in mind is a life of total commitment and set apartness.
God has called us to be his holy people, so he has set us apart from the profane and the common and made us pure, equipped for his purposes, and filled with his praise.
We were not born like this. Peter is clear that we were once in darkness; we were unclean, unholy. But God has chosen us to share in his transcendence as a people who belong specially to him.
That is not just a change of behavior; it is a change of identity.
Making God’s Name Holy
What then does it mean to make God’s name holy, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer?
In last week’s post I wrote about finding ourselves in the fatherhood of God. Here, in the second line of the prayer, we embrace God as he is—holy and Other—and commit to honoring him as he is.
When we pray that God’s name will be honored as holy, we give up our right to make God in our own image. We give up our right to live for ourselves, recognizing that his holiness calls for our own holiness. (“For it is written, Be holy, because I am holy,” 1 Peter 1:16.)
We also pray that God’s Name (his reputation or the known part of himself) will be honored as holy not just in our own lives but all over the world.
This is not a selfish decree of God. There is a direct connection between our honoring of God’s transcendence and purity and the degree to which we can live the lives we were born to live. This is true for us and for every other human being on the planet. When we learn to “walk by the Spirit,” we learn to live truly free and fulfilled.
Isaiah’s vision ends where he could not have imagined: not only does God not destroy him or dismiss him as unclean, not only does God step in and purify him, but he is then given the opportunity to join God in his mission.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we are given the same opportunity. Made pure and set apart by the action and will of God, we have the chance to lift our whole world to a higher, purer life.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying:
Who should I send?
Who will go for Us?
Here I am. Send me.
Lord, let your Name be honored as holy.
(This is Part 60 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)