One of the places I visited during my recent holiday to New Zealand was a chapel, St Faiths, in Ohinemutu near Rotorua. The interior of this chapel has been richly decorated by Maori artisans using both traditional and more modern techniques. Just beautiful!
The thing that stood out for me most was the altar: a large wooden piece of furniture situated at the front and centre of the chapel. The altar had been cordoned off from the rest of the chapel, and there was a sign which said that visitors were prohibited from entering the area around the altar. The altar itself had three Maori words written boldly across the front: TAPU, TAPU, TAPU. (You can see the altar here.)
I asked someone if tapu might mean holy. She replied “yes,” but told me that more specifically it means sacred or prohibited. Her answer got me thinking about the meaning of holiness in relation to God.
God is holy. In Isaiah 6:3 God is emphatically described as “Holy, Holy, Holy!” (cf. Rev. 4:8). In Old Testament times, access to God’s presence was limited, and even prohibited in most instances. His presence was in effect cordoned off for the majority of Israelites. The curtain of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was a physical barrier that prevented anyone, except the High Priest, from experiencing the sacred and glorious presence of God in the Most Holy Place (also known as the Holy of Holies.) Even the High Priest could only access the Most Host Place once a year, and only after undergoing an involved purification ritual (Heb. 9:7; cf Lev. 16:1-34).
The sensible custodians of St Faith’s did not want clumsy tourists disrespecting their altar which they had designated as sacred. And God did not want unclean or unsanctified people disrespecting his especially sacred presence in the Most Holy Place. So barriers were put in place to keep people out.
According to Christian theology, however, anyone who has been redeemed by Jesus is cleansed, sanctified, and holy. The apostle Paul often referred to followers of Jesus as “holy ones” (or “saints”) in his letters. Since we have now been made holy we are no longer prohibited from God’s sacred and holy presence. God has removed the barrier which separated his people from himself.
Instead of a prohibition, we have an invitation to come close to him.
Sacred altars and priestly rituals do not provide access to God’s holy presence. Jesus has provided the way (John 14:6; Eph. 2:18). The temple curtain which cordoned off the Most Holy Place was torn in two when Jesus died on the Cross. And his sacrifice, once and for all time, replaced the need for any other sacrifice or priestly mediation which might bring us closer to God.
The idea of separation is implicit in holiness but we are no longer separated from God. We have been sanctified and we have been reconciled with him (Rom 5:9-10), giving us free access into his holy presence.
My hope is that as we draw closer to God we never lose respect and reverence for the sacredness of our relationship with him who is Holy, Holy Holy!
. . . we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all . . . For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy . . . a sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary… Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings… Hebrews 10:10, 14, 18b-22a
 Photos of St Faith’s, here.
 Christians are frequently referred to as “holy ones” (hagioi), traditionally translated as “saints”, in Paul’s letters. We are set apart as children of God. There is a profound distinction between a redeemed, sanctified follower of Jesus and an unbeliever. It is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies and sets apart followers of Jesus.