“You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own” (Lev. 20:26).
Like all the chapters that came before it, Leviticus 20 continues the divine call to holiness, focusing on issues having to do with sexual immorality (much like Lev. 18). After beginning by addressing issues of spiritual adultery (sacrificing children to Molech, consulting mediums), chapter 20 specifies relationships in which it is not appropriate for people to engage in sexual relations. This discussion ends with God’s call to Israel to avoid the immoral practices of the Canaanites, those who do the very things prohibited early in the chapter.
Then, once again, there is a clear call to holiness, one that echoes what we have heard earlier in Leviticus (for example, 11:45): “You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy.” The main reason God’s people are to be set apart from the sinful masses is that they are to be like God. But Leviticus 20:26 adds something further, something not mentioned previously in this book. The Lord says, “I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own.” The Hebrew reads literally, “I have set you apart from the people to be for me.”
Thus, God’s people are to be holy, not only because in this way they imitate God, and not only because God commands it, but also because they are to have a deep relationship with God. They are to abstain from sexual immorality not only because it’s wrong, but also because sin, sexual and otherwise, puts up a barrier between people and God.
We find a similar perspective on sexual sin, holiness, and relationship with God in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6, the apostle Paul confronts the problem of men visiting prostitutes, something common in their culture but contrary to God’s intentions for sexuality. In this context, Paul writes: “Run from sexual sin! … Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:18-20).
What helps us avoid sexual sin? Not only God’s commandments, but also the realization that we have been set apart for relationship with God and for participation in his redemptive purposes. When we understand that our own bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that our bodies are for God, then we will find the reason and motivation to live as holy people. Our holiness enables us to enjoy an intimate relationship with God, and this relationship inspires us to live as holy people who are in the world but not of it.