Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Holiness and Vision

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

What is the writer to the Hebrews saying in the latter part of this verse?

A casual reading might leave us with the impression that it’s something to do with salvation. We might paraphrase that sort of interpretation this way: “Without being holy, nobody will be able to enter the presence of God and enjoy heaven.”

That’s perfectly true, but I don’t think it’s the writer’s intended meaning.

“Seeing” the Lord

For one thing, the sort of holiness that gets us into heaven is not something we can “strive for”. God sees us as holy, but it’s an attributed, positional holiness that makes us acceptable in his sight. It is really Christ’s holiness, not ours. Access to heaven is not conditional on our ability to maintain a spotless track record after we have come to know the Lord Jesus. Eternal life is the outcome of saving faith. It is not a matter of doing good works or abstaining from bad ones, nor is it the product of any combination of faith and works, though genuine belief will always be characterized by increasing holiness; Paul’s epistles are clear about that.

Another problem: the word “see” in this verse is optanomai. Just the “opt” at the front of it should clue us into the fact that, at least in Greek, the word has something to do with vision. In English, we may talk about “seeing” someone, and what we really mean is that we spent time with them, shared a meal, went out on a date, or whatever. The same word we use to describe vision also serves as a metaphor for the relationship itself. A blind person may “see” someone in this sense. There are plenty of Greek words used to describe relationships and coming into the presence of another, but optanomai is not one of them. The writers of the New Testament never use it in that metaphorical sense. Its primary meaning is either to witness or to appear. It is also used in a secondary sense to mean to attend to something (as when we say in English, “See to it, will you?”), but that sense is not relevant here; the Lord does not need us to “attend to” him.

So then, it is extremely unlikely that “see the Lord” is being used here as a euphemism for going to heaven.

Comprehending Christ

Let’s try something else then. If “seeing the Lord” is not a euphemism for going to heaven, what is it? Perhaps the writer of Hebrews is saying that living a life of separation from evil and from the world is a prerequisite if we want to comprehend the Lord, if we want to understand him.

That’s possible, I suppose. There is one verse in Romans where Paul may be using optanomai in that sense. He quotes the prophet Isaiah to the effect that “Those who have never been told of him will see [optanomai], and those who have never heard will understand.” If Paul intends the two statements as a parallelism, then he is using “see” as a synonym for “understand”. But that is not a necessary conclusion. In the original context, Isaiah was talking about the physical appearance of Messiah, who was “marred, beyond human semblance”, but now is “high and lifted up”. He could be saying, “Those who have never been told of him will witness him, and those who have never heard will understand.”

What we can say is that if optanomai is a synonym for “understand” in Romans, it is the only time in the NT that the word is used that way. It’s a possible but questionable interpretation. If it is correct, then we must understand the word “see” in the sense of “begin to understand”, of progressive knowledge. There is no question of us fully comprehending the Lord. All the separated living in the world cannot accomplish that, though a holy walk in this world would certainly be a step in the right direction.

One day we will see the Lord as he is, but it is utterly impossible that we will ever fully take in and process all that he is. In him are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. Eternity won’t be long enough to exhaust that.

Practical Holiness and Testimony

How about this: he could be saying that living a life of separation from evil and worldliness is necessary in order for others to witness Christ living in us. If holiness does not characterize believers, they will have no effective testimony in the world. That is certainly consistent with the teaching of the gospels and the epistles. “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” If we claim to be disciples of Christ, we need to conduct ourselves in a way that accurately communicates him to the world, otherwise our testimony is useless. In one sense, every believer has Christ already living in him. But the light that is Christ can be hidden or obscured by the way we live. So Paul writes, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

That’s a perfect description of practical, daily holiness. It’s like cleaning the world’s glasses. The unsaved may or may not respond favorably to what they see, but at least they won’t be confused about what it is.

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