What is holiness?

Holiness is “the state or quality of being holy.” Now we have to ask what “holy” means.

Most people would say that “holy” means more than “good” or even “righteous.” We can do good and virtuous things without being “holy.”

In Zechariah the word “holy” is qodesh, which means “set apart for a special purpose.” Certain objects in Bible history were “holy,” such as the sacred vessels of the temple that were set apart for a certain use. The golden bowls and spoons in the temple were to function only in the rites of sacrifice and prayer, for they were tokens of the Atonement (Exod. 25:29). Any bowl or spoon would do, but the Lord set these implements apart to ensure that no one would ever employ them for an everyday or corrupt purpose.

Likewise, a “good” person differs from a “holy” person in this respect: When the Lord singles us out for a certain mission and we perform that mission, we become “holy.”

When we are set apart to a calling, we become “holy” (on condition, of course, that we “magnify” the calling, or carry it out with real intent).

In Biblical language, the words for “consecration” (qadash) and “holiness” (qodesh) are synonyms. For example, in Genesis 2:3 the Lord “consecrated (qadash) the seventh day” for a purpose—“to rest from our labors and pay our devotions to the Most High” (D&C 59:10). So the Sabbath became a “holy day.”

We do not become holy except by covenant, an agreement between persons to fulfill certain purposes. When we take on a covenant, we “consecrate” ourselves to achieve a specific aim, and every covenant is accompanied by a token or tokens that symbolize that covenant.

For example, Zechariah sees a vision of the high priest Joshua “standing before the angel of the Lord “clothed with filthy garments.” The Lord said, “Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment. . . . So they set a faire mitre [cap] upon his head, and clothed him with garments” (Zech. 3:1-5).

The filthy garments represent sin and the clean garments the cleansing power of the Atonement of Christ. Beyond this, the cap and robe make Joshua “holy” because they are tokens of a covenant: “If thou wilt keep my charge, then thou wilt also judge my house, and shalt also keep my courts, and I will give thee places to walk among those that stand by” (Zech. 3:7).

This covenant is clearer in the NIV: “If you will walk in obedience to me and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these [angels] standing here.”

The Lord gives Joshua a mission: To govern the temple. The tokens of the covenant are the garments of the high priest. The reward for fulfilling his mission is to have a place among the angels—in other words, eternal life.

Another token of Joshua’s mission was the anointing. He and Zerubbabel, the governor-prince of Jerusalem after the Exile, were “two anointed ones” tasked to restore the shattered temple and the pure oil to light the menorah in the Holy Place (Zech. 4).

When we are set apart for a task (made holy), the Lord gives us an enabling blessing. The anointing confers a blessing—that we will have the strength and discernment to carry out our mission. In short, the anointing represents the Lord’s promise that He will uphold us in our efforts to serve His purposes.

The Messiah was Himself the “Anointed One.” Zechariah reveals many deeply significant tokens symbolize His covenant to bear our sins and sorrows .When Christ returns, He will be recognized by the tokens of His “infinite and eternal sacrifice”—“they shall look upon me whom they have pierced. . . . And one shall say, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends” (Zech. 12:10; 13:6).

In a sense, Joshua the high priest stands for the Savior. His name in Hebrew is Yeshua ben Yotsedek—“Jesus, son of the Righteousness of Jehovah.” The filthy garments represent the “iniquity of us all” which He throws off, and His white robe and crown are His glory. As with Joshua, Jesus is our “Great High Priest who has ascended into heaven” to minister for us (Heb. 4:14).

Like Jesus, Joshua, and Zerubbabel, we each have a specific mission to fulfill. These missions are as individual as we are. But every individual calling serves a greater mission—the gathering of Israel.

Because of their iniquity, the Lord “scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem” (Zech. 1:19). The corrupt “shepherds of Israel”—sinful priests—are struck down, “and the sheep shall be scattered” (Zech. 13:7). “I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven, saith the Lord” (Zech. 2:6). “I will sow them among the people” (Zech. 10:9).

Nevertheless, He promised to gather His sheep once more: “I will hiss for them [whistle for them like a shepherd], and gather them; for I have redeemed them; and they shall increase. . . . They shall remember me in far countries; and they shall live with their children, and turn again” (Zech. 10:8-9). “And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people” (Zech. 2:11).

This is the mission for which the Latter-day Saints are set apart today: To gather Israel and join the nations to the family of God. Every calling in the Church serves this greater mission, whether Prophet or Primary pianist. When we accept the covenants of the Lord we are set apart—we become holy—and we consecrate everything we do, everything we possess, and everything we are to that mission.

President Russell M. Nelson has said, “The Lord is hastening His work to gather Israel. That gathering is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance” (“Hope of Israel,” Worldwide Youth Devotional, June 3, 2018).

But the gathering of Israel is not an end in itself—it serves an even holier purpose. The object of gathering the people of God is “to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 307). Building and working in the temple is the holiest work of all, and, having been “set apart” as His people, we can be made holy by that work.

Too often we let other priorities interfere with that work, just as the returning Israelites did after the Exile. For fifteen years they built themselves “ceiled houses” (i.e., nicely paneled with cedar), put in crops, planted vineyards, shopped for clothes, and got nice jobs. Meanwhile, the temple sat in ruins. (By contrast, over a fifteen-year period, the Prophet Joseph Smith planned dozens of temples and built two.)

Of course, none of their efforts to create a thriving economy worked out too well: “Consider your ways,” the Lord said: “Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages put it in a bag with holes” (Haggai 1:4-5). Their economy faltered because their priorities were wrong.

“Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the house,” the prophet Haggai said. It took a few more warnings, but eventually the people “came and did work in the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Haggai 1:14). And “from this day will I bless you,” the Lord said (Haggai 2:19).

The center and focus of our lives should be the work of salvation in the temple. The Lord knows we need food, clothing, and shelter; but if the center and focus of our lives is the economy, we will fall short even economically.

The Lord will bless us with what we need if we put His work first. At home, at school, at our jobs—our lives should be devoted to sustaining His work. That’s why Zechariah said of Zion, “There shall be upon the bells of the horses, Holiness unto the Lord. . . . and every pot shall be holiness unto the Lord” (Zech. 14:20-21). As a holy people, we devote foremost to His service everything we do and everything we have.

Most people picture a “holy man” as a bearded recluse sitting on top of a mountain waiting to dispense wisdom—a funny but false picture. A holy person is one set apart for a special, sacred purpose. If we devote our whole souls to performing well our role in building the kingdom, we are “holy.”