The holy ones

What do you think of when you hear the word “saint”? Maybe you think of one of the thousands who over the centuries have been venerated and officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Maybe you think generically of a good person. Maybe you’ve even been called a saint yourself, when you did an extraordinary favor for a friend, as in, “Thank you so much! You’re a saint.”

But biblically and simply speaking, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are a saint.

The word “saint” can be translated as “holy one.” But on any given day, we probably don’t think of ourselves as particularly holy. We’re aware of our sins, our faults, our weaknesses. We remember our mistakes and may carry guilt from the past. Whatever a saint is supposed to look like, when we look in the mirror, that’s not what we see.

And of course, we also might also have trouble seeing others around us as saints. You’ve probably heard some version of the following rhyme:

Who can live up to the description “holy one”? Who wants to?

But it’s who we are. How can we come to terms with that fact?

. . .

Previously, we saw how in Paul’s day, letters began by identifying the sender and recipient by name; after this would come the word, “Greetings!” Paul not only identified himself and Timothy by name, but as servants or bond-slaves of Jesus, the Christ. He did not call himself an apostle, as he typically did in other letters. With the Philippians, he didn’t need to. This was a letter between friends.

Paul’s description of the Philippians follows, and it’s equally meaningful: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil 1:1b, NRSVUE). This is the only place in his letters where he mentions these church leaders by their titles in the opening greeting. On the one hand, it’s a mark of respect. But on the other, Paul may be saying, “After you’ve heard my concerns, please take the initiative as help lead the church through the necessary changes.” (No pressure.)

But the key word here is “saints,” which includes all the members of the church, not just the leaders. They are “the holy ones,” whether they recognize it or not.

If we balk at the label “holy,” it’s because we know that only God is truly holy. Compared to God, we’re a hot mess. But what does it even mean to say that God is holy?

How does one describe God, after all? In Scripture, God is revealed to be gracious and loving, patient and compassionate, just and righteous. And God does indeed exemplify all of these qualities and more, perfectly and without fault. But ultimately, human words simply fail. Our descriptions, concepts, and theologies may point in God’s direction, but we as finite beings cannot completely comprehend an infinite God.

This is where the word “holy” comes in. At root, the word “holy” means “different,” and for that reason, set apart, sui generis, one of a kind. To say that God is “holy” is not to add yet one more moral quality to an already long list. Instead of saying that God is holy and gracious, it would be better to say that God is holy in grace. Instead of saying that God is holy and compassionate, we should say that God is holy in compassion. Grace, compassion, love, justice: all of these have their origin in God and find their unity in God.

To say that we or the Philippians are saints, are holy, is not to say that we are as righteous as God. It is to say that we are set apart by God and for God, that we have been chosen to be in a covenant relationship with a holy God. Just before the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, for example, God instructed Moses to tell the people the following:

Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (Exod 19:5-6)

A similar thought occurs in Deuteronomy, where holiness is again inseparable from being chosen to belong to God:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deut 14:2)

Or consider these words from the apostle Peter:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people… (1 Pet 2:9a)

You, my dear Philippians, Paul seems to say, are holy because you have been set apart to belong to God. No one knew better than Paul that even those who belong to God don’t always reflect God’s character. But that’s why the Bible can both declare us to be holy and command us to be holy: This is the truth of who you are; now act like it.

Chosen as God’s special possession. A holy nation. It’s an ancient theme. But Paul says more. He not only calls the Philippians saints, he specifically says that they are saints in Christ Jesus.

We’ll explore what that means in the next post.