by Susan Jacob MD
Sanctification means purifying or cleansing oneself physically as described in the ceremonial details given in Leviticus. In the Old Testament, these rituals were to be used at the time of sacrifice [not used since the time of Christ for Christians as he was the ultimate sacrifice for all eternity] or priestly approach to the Holy of Holies, before personal approach to the tabernacle. Today, of course, it means entering the church or the madbaha (alter), cleaning of temple or ceremonial vessels and other processes. Sanctification or purification is also spiritual. We are going to concentrate on learning about spiritual purification in this talk.
Let me quickly remind you that besides our personal effort at sanctification, our clergy also contributes to the process through their prayers for us everyday. However, we are going to concentrate on personal effort for sanctification since there is no time to cover both aspects.
The majority of us in this hall are adults and so we have been interviewed for various jobs. What do you do before an interview? Most people, before an interview, will inform themselves of the requirements of the job so they can present themselves in the best light possible. They check websites, talk to people who have held those positions and try to get advice from other sources. Similarly, to know God’s instructions on various aspects of our lives including sanctification, we need to study the Bible and understand it. Having passed the interview process, the next stage in our career leads us to a goal of moving upwards, and so our effort is focused on attending training sessions, network, and put in more time and effort than is required at the job. All of these steps are so that we can get ahead as fast as we can. Often all these efforts are at the cost of missed church attendance and personal prayers.
Should we not try to learn God's instructions and follow it with the same fervor that we put into an earthly job? After all, one is temporary just for a few years but the other is for eternity. In Romans 1:21-22 it states for although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, so their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise they became fools. Shall we try and get out of this foolishness and really learn the fear of God? Remember that everything that is good, including life, is a gift from God.
You can not acquire full knowledge about the instructions of God through just listening to sermons and talks – [ what do you do in school?] it takes effort, discipline and God’s grace to learn and understand what is important in the sight of God. In the first verse of
I Thessalonians chapter 4, it says: Finally brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God's will that you should be sanctified.
It is human nature to try and take the easy way out by just listening to different preachers. This is because you do not want to put in the effort to read and understand the Bible yourself. Again, if we find that it is difficult to do God’s will or to follow his commands, we prefer to ignore it hoping that we can fly in under the radar escaping God's notice. Of course, this is an absolute impossibility. Why? Remember Jesus said that God notices everything. Let me quote James 1:23 - 25 about just listening to the word. Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who merely listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror and after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it, he will be blessed in what he does.
This also reminds me of the advice my 3 year old granddaughter gave to her mother. Normally she is a chatter box but that day she was very quiet and thoughtful- suddenly she asked her mother “Mama does God call people?”
Sangeetha (my daughter) said, “Yes, Sara he does”.
The next question was “Mama, why does God call people?”
Sangeetha explained that when God needs you He calls you.
Sara thought for a little while and said “When God calls, does it mean you have to go to heaven”.
Sangeetha said “Yes.”
Sara was very quiet for some time and then she said “Mama when God calls don’t pick up the phone, pretend you never heard it.”
Ninety percent of us prefer to think that if we pretend not to hear God that we can somehow slide past and everything would be fine. You cannot ignore God's call, can you? Ask Jonah if he could have. He would have loved not to have to go to Nineveh.
Why do you think that God asks us to sanctify ourselves? Let me go back to the analogy of the interview. Would you go to an interview with dirty torn clothes disheveled and unkempt? No! You would not, unless you did not want the job. So, would you approach God who is holy and pure in a sinful state? If you did, you would find yourself flat on your face figuratively speaking.
I am going to give you some examples from the Bible of people who thought they were sanctified; yet, because they did not pay attention to the commands of God, were punished by God. When the two sons of Eli the priest, who were also priests themselves, in spite of following sacrificial and purification rituals, did ungodly things, and continued to approach the holy of holies, God had them killed. [1 Samuel chapter 3]
In I Sam 6:19 we read God struck down 70 people who were priests because they looked into the Ark of God. These were priests who had been sanctified. You would wonder why they were punished so severely. One of the commands God had given to Aaron and his sons was that no one could look into the ark and God had made arrangements to prevent this from happening.
One event that took me a long time to understand was the story of Uzzah (II Samuel 6:6-8) – God had given very strict instruction to the Levities on how the ark was to be carried on poles – it was not to be touched by men. After David’s triumph in battle as the ark was being carried back into the city of David on a cart, the cart tilted and began to fall – Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark to prevent it from falling to the ground. – He was immediately zapped!
I often wondered about the unfairness of this? Here was this man who was purified, who tried to keep the ark from falling into the dirt- Why did he have to die? In God’s sight, the dirt itself was clean but the hand of the man even ritually clean was not clean enough to touch the ark. More than the dirt on the ground, it is the hand of man that God finds unclean. If we think that going strictly by rituals alone would sanctify us, it is obvious that it is not enough. In spite of all the rituals we follow, there is no ritual that will make us completely clean. The story of Uzzah shows how strongly God feels about our sanctification if we want to come near to Him.
So far I have been giving you examples of lack of complete spiritual cleansing from the Old Testament. In Mark 7:14 in the New Testament, Jesus touched on something that was very similar. He told the crowd following him that nothing outside a man can make a person spiritually unclean . Later in Mark 19-20, Jesus gives the explanation of his comments to the disciples at their request. Christ said nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean because it goes into the stomach and then out of the body. What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean for from within, out of men's hearts come evil thoughts, greed, malice, arrogance and other sins. This is what makes a man spiritually unclean.
So, now we have looked at reasons for spiritual sanctification. Let us look at the process needed for sanctification. Our main reason being that we want to, in fact we need to, be spiritually clean to be closer to God.
For the followers of Christ, personal sanctification comes in three stages:
The first stage is recognizing our sinful nature, acknowledging the need for the grace of God, confession of our sins, and being born again (John 3) in the Holy Spirit. For those who want to know what Jesus said about being born again, look up the gospel of John chapter 3.
The second stage is justification through faith.
The third stage is the sanctification and the delivery from the bondage of sin by the Holy Spirit. The payment being the blood and death of Jesus.
These three stages of sanctification are illustrated beautifully in the miracle of the cleansing of the leper in Matthew chapter 8.
In Jesus’ day, leprosy was a terrible, debilitating disease which could be transmitted to others and for which there was no cure. I saw this horrible disfiguring disease when I was a medical student at CMC Vellore. Part of our introduction to clinical medicine included our visiting Karigiri, a rehabilitation center for lepers, and visiting a clinic for the treatment of leprosy. There are two kinds of leprosy. In the first one, you may not see a lot of skin manifestation but there is severe systemic disease. The second kind is where the person suffers disfiguring ulcers and even loss of fingers, toes, and other parts of the body. As students we had to help clean the ulcers and to help in bandaging. It was so revolting that almost no one could eat their meals afterwards. Today, we have a cure for leprosy but at the time of Christ there was no cure and it was a contagious disease. This was the reason why the lepers had to live outside the city and if healthy people came close they had to warn them by crying out “UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!” and ringing a bell.
Leprosy was such a dreaded disease at that time that according to the ceremonial rules in Leviticus, if a person had even one spot on his skin he had to have a priest check it out and declare him clean or unclean. That one little rash on the skin, if due to leprosy, could signify disease already spreading throughout the body.
In the Old Testament, God used symbolism to teach the people. Leprosy was one of His teaching points. In Numbers 12: 9-15 and II Kings 5 leprosy was seen as the consequence or punishment for a specific sin against God. One spot or lesion on the skin signified that the disease had spread throughout the whole body. The progression of leprosy that eventually makes the person hideous and repulsive is again a good comparison to sin which can progress and make us hideous spiritually. For instance, when one commits a sin it permeates the whole being of the person, their thoughts, and emotions. If, as it happens sometimes, the leprosy is arrested and cured, the person would be examined and declared clean by the priest. God taught through symbolism that only those who were clean could approach God.
St Paul in Ephesians says that a sinner is considered to be spiritually dead (Eph 2:1-2) just as the leper is considered to be dead to society. Though we may often consider ourselves spiritually cleansed, in Isaiah 64:6 it says all our so called righteous acts are like filthy rags in his sight. But then who is clean? It sounds almost like a loose proposition. We will come to that later. We will see how we can be clean.
Let us see what the leper, whose story we are following, did in his approach to Jesus. In Matthew chapter 8 it says that he asked not for healing but to be cleansed. He did not demand it but asked in humility.
Let me digress here. I often notice that when we talk about humility eyes begin to glaze. Let me clear this for you. When you do a good job at work and feel you need a raise or promotion would you just enter your boss’ room and boast about how good you are and demand a raise? He probably will show you the door. When you approach God would you tell Him, “You know I did you the honor of confessing my sins; am I not great, wonderful and so it is my right to get what I am asking for?” No - - You ask humbly because there is nothing you do that is worthy in God's sight. Let us imagine the words the leper would have said. He may have said - - - “I am a leper, unclean, unable to be with normal people – I have no claim on you but I have absolute faith that you can make me clean. I beg you to heal and cleanse me by the grace of God.”
The leper trusted Christ- He recognized by faith Jesus’ compassion and believed that Christ could heal him. You can say this approach towards Christ showed his faith in action. He acknowledged without fear that Jesus was the Son of God and worshiped Him. This also shows us the second stage of the process of sanctification ---justification through faith.
Jesus, the spiritually clean person, showed his love and compassion when he chose to touch the leper and heal him. He could have just done this by saying a few words. In the story of the centurion Christ cured the centurion’s servant from a long distance off, with his words. But here by touching the leper he showed that he loved and cared for him.
Jesus cured the leper and then commanded him to go to the priest to be examined so that he could be declared clean as required by law. This ancient ceremony of accepting the cleansed leper into society symbolizes the cleansing from sin and being made holy. We can also say it symbolizes our deliverance from sin by Christ at the cross. We can also say that the cleansing of the leper is a symbol of the miracle of conversion i.e. of a new spiritual birth. That is being born again, or saved in faith.
We need faith to be cleansed – Faith needs action. I wonder how many of us remember James' famous words in chapter 2 v. 26? He said, “as the body without the spirit is dead so faith without deeds is dead.” Each person needs to acknowledge their sins and ask Jesus to cleanse him. We acknowledge that when Christ was crucified, our sins past present and future, were laid on Him. By his sacrifice, by the shedding of His blood, he cleansed our sins. It says in Romans 5:8 – 11, faith is the means through which we are justified to make right with God. To make a play on the word justified, we can say just-if -i-ed never sinned. When we recognize our guilt with sorrow and ask for forgiveness, Christ’s touch makes us clean and whole. The Holy Spirit is received into us when we are cleansed by Christ.
Once we receive the Holy Spirit it does not mean relaxation from all effort to stay with God's commands.
I have to tell you a story that I found interesting. A priest having passed on was received at the pearly gates by St. Peter. He was taken to a nice little hut where he was happy; till he looked at a mansion close by and saw a New York cab driver living there. The priest was upset and asked St. Peter - - Why am I, who served the Lord every day of my life, living in a hut while that cab driver is living in a mansion? St. Peter said, “through all your sermons and teaching sessions you did not put your heart and soul into it and so your congregation slept through it. They did not gain much from it. The people who sat in the cab prayed fervently for their lives and for his till they reached their destination.” I found this story interesting because of its underlying truth. You cannot rest on your initial enthusiasm but must take an active role in your spiritual growth after sanctification even if it is at the hand of a N.Y. Cabbie.
I am going to quote from the Bible again. We do keep going back to this wonderful book for advise on how to lead our lives do we not? This time I am quoting
I John 1:8-10 and chapter 2:1 verbatim. I am not going to explain it as any explanation will be redundant.
In chapter 1, John says, “if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” In chapter 2 he says, “My dear children I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense - - -Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Spiritually we are all lepers or sinners before God. In Romans 3:23 it states all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God. We cannot come into the presence of God when we commit sinful deeds and our evil can contaminate the people around us. When we walk around denying God, being cynical, or arrogant and ignoring his commands we influence people around us.
Isaiah, in chapter 59 v. 1-2 and 78, writes in beautiful poetry; he says - -
Surely the arm of the lord is not too short to save
nor his ears too dull to hear
but your iniquities have separated you from your God
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.
In v. 7-8 he says:
Their thoughts are evil thoughts
ruin and destruction mark their ways,
the way of peace they do not know,
there is no justice in their paths
they have turned them into crooked roads,
no one who walks in them will know peace.
Acknowledging our sins, confessing our sins and humbly asking for forgiveness and putting our faith in Christ, who paid with His blood for our sins, will help us get closer to God. Let me hasten to add that constant prayer is an essential part of our life. However, that is for another talk. Just as an aside I would like to tell you what Jimmy Carter, one of our ex-Presidents and a very devout man, said about the answer to prayer. He said God answers all our prayers. Sometimes He says yes. Sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says You have got to be kidding.
To go back to the final step of the cleansing of the leper he had to present himself to the priest to be declared that he was clean, allowing him to re-enter society. Likewise, when we are sanctified by Christ we can and should openly associate with his Church, our community of God's children.
This may be the final step for sanctification but it is not the end.
When people are sanctified they are set apart by God to do special things for Him. For example, there is Moses - even though he committed murder and ran away from Egypt, God sanctified him and set him apart to lead the people of Israel. The Bible describes David as a man after God’s own heart, yet despite his many heroic displays of faith, he committed adultery with Bathsheba. David was truly a messed up person but his absolute faith, his brokenness, his total repentance, and complete obedience of God’s word made him God’s man. Ordinary people like us are called to achieve great things for God. It is up to us to acknowledge this and to strive to achieve those great heights. Take for example Albert Schweitzer, Fr. Damien or even Peter Marshall.
In 2 Thessalonian 2:13-14 it says we should always give thanks to God for you brethren beloved by the Lord because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through the sanctification by the spirit and faith in the truth.
II Peter 2:9-12 put this challenge to do God's work very clearly – He says you are the ones chosen for the high calling of priestly work chosen to be a Holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for Him, to tell others of the night and day difference he made for you from nothing to something. From rejected to accepted.
He goes on to say, don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they (the non-believers), will be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when He arrives.
Clearly, once we are sanctified, God calls us to be holy. He has clearly delineated the fact that we have to live a life of faith filled with action that will attract others to follow God. God helps us in our work if we stay in his word and prayer.
To summarize – in personal sanctification, all the rituals we go through alone will not cleanse or sanctify us We must also dedicate our spiritual lives and humbly confess our sins in order to be regenerated and born again in the Holy Spirit.
The second stage is justification through faith.
The third stage is the sanctification and the delivery from bondage of sin by the blood of Christ shed on the cross.
One thing I need to emphasize is that sanctification is not a guarantee that the Holy Spirit will stay with us for ever whatever we do. When we receive the Holy Spirit, it is to help us grow and mature spiritually. If we continue to sin and disregard God's wishes, the Holy Spirit withdraws from us. We need to walk in God's ways continuously.
The sad part is that the majority of us fall away from God but do not feel the necessity to go back to godly ways because our earthly life does not seem to be affected. We continue to work, make more money, go to parties and feel quite satisfied by life. As a token gesture to God, we go to church every week. It is only when we are faced with problems in the family or society; or have to face illness and death that we wake up to the fact that we have squandered God's gifts. We never gave back to God what was his right; all those earthly desires did not bring stability or happiness. We just paid the price to Satan and it definitely anchored us to this earth instead of being able to go to God.
Let me tell you what Mother Teresa found when she got to heaven. God greeted her and invited her to dinner. There was just the two of them. They had Tuna fish salad. The second evening they ate Tuna fish salad. The third night when Mother Theresa saw God opening another can of tuna she asked God why they were having the same food again. God very sadly asked, “is it worth cooking when there are only two of us in heaven?” Don't you think that we all need to make that effort to join God for dinner?
Let me conclude with this verse from I Thess 5:23-24
May God himself, the God of peace sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
Presented at the Syrian Orthodox Family Conference, Dallas, Texas, in July 2007
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