God’s holiness has been described as the sum of His infinite perfections. There is nothing for Him to learn, gain, or improve upon. Conversely there is nothing in the universe that can dilute, diminish, or contaminate the holiness of God—not even entering this corrupt, sin-ravaged planet as flesh and blood.
Christ’s holiness was not only unscathed by exposure to the world’s corruption, it also withstood the presence of vile sinners and reprobates. Luke’s gospel records that some of Christ’s closest associates—even some of the disciples—were notorious sinners. “After that He went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi” (Luke 5:27). This is Matthew, and he was a small-time tax gatherer. He was a mokhes, not a gabbai—a knuckle-crusher, not a Mafia boss. A gabbai was a tax collector who owned a regional tax franchise from Rome and hired these little mokhes guys to do the dirty work. Often they sat at a crossroads and taxed the wheels on your cart, the beasts of burden that pulled the cart, the letters you were carrying, the goods you bought, and anything else they could think of. They extorted everything they could from everyone, not only to give the prescribed rate to Rome but also to make their own fortune. They were in collusion with the Roman government and oppressors of their own people. As a result, they had all been banned from the Temple in Jerusalem and excommunicated from the synagogues in every town. In effect, they had traded their birthright for a mess of pottage (cf. Genesis 25:29–34).
Jesus comes to Levi, perhaps the last person on the planet you would ever choose to be a disciple of the Messiah, and says, “Follow Me” (Luke 5:27). So Levi jumped up from his tax table and followed Him. Verse 29 tells us Levi had a big party at his house, and a great crowd of his fellow tax collectors and other sinners gathered. They were all reclining at the table, enjoying the feast. And the Pharisees, with all their legalistic scruples, grumbled at Jesus’ disciples, “‘Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?’ And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick’”(Luke 5:30–31).
In Matthew 11:19, Jesus reports on what people were saying about Him, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” But while He was a friend to sinners, He never adopted their vices or imitated their lifestyles. He remained utterly holy in every encounter. Jesus went into the most contagious sick ward on the planet and emerged unscathed. He was the living cure for every disease. He told the Pharisees, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). This is the greatest illustration of the holiness of Jesus. He could hang around the most wretched people in the society, and it never had a corrupting influence on Him. He had the opposite effect on others.
Luke further illustrates the consistency of Christ’s holiness in the seventh chapter of his gospel, during another dinner meeting, this time at the home of a Pharisee. Christ didn’t mind being with the self-righteous hypocrite—just as He had elsewhere, with more overt sinners, Jesus entered this man’s home and reclined at the table. The houses tended to be open, and a meal would be going on with the dignitaries and people in the community allowed to stand around the outside and listen to the conversation. Luke tells us, “There was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume” (Luke 7:37). For a prostitute, this was a part of her operation. In Proverbs, Solomon describes prostitutes as perfuming their beds (Proverbs 7:17). And she must have been a fairly successful prostitute, because her perfume was in a valuable alabaster vial. Luke paints the scene as she approached Christ:
Standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:38–39)
The Pharisee jumped to conclusions out of the experience of his own heart. What sinful man is going to have a prostitute doing that to his feet without having an illicit thought? But instead of the woman corrupting or tempting Jesus, Scripture says
Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:48–50).
Publicly, she was known for the worst kind of immorality and filthiness, but she was on a mission of repentant worship. She had no water, so she used her own tears. (Luther famously called her tears Herzwasser, or “heart water.”) The only thing approximating cloth she had was her hair, so that’s what she used. The only gift she could give was what she used for her immoral relationships. It had no effect on Christ at all except to draw out of Him forgiveness. Unlike the Pharisees and other religious elite, Christ was not susceptible to the weaknesses of the flesh. The author of Hebrews leaves us with a fitting and conclusive statement on Christ’s unimpeachable holiness:
For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:26–28)
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