Secular or Sacred: What Makes Something Sacred?

Biblical Theology for Wednesday, 14 January 2015

How can we know when a place is sacred or not?  It matters a lot to God.  Consider what he told Moses in Exodus 3:

Then [Yahweh] said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Moses_2_burning_bushDo we have such “holy ground” today?  Maybe the church sanctuary?  Near the bush, Moses even had to take off his shoes.  The implication was, if he did not comply, God was going to bring the pain.  How about today?

The word translated “holy” in Exodus 3 is a common and simple Hebrew noun, קֹ֖דֶשׁ (“ko-thesh”).  It is used most often in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and the prophetic literature.  That is, it is used most often in books that explain what God’s people were supposed to be (Ex-Nu) and in those books that declared God’s people to be utter failures at being what they were supposed to be (prophetic literature).  This is highly instructive, and we’ll get to that in a bit.

What does it mean to be “sacred”?

I have heard four different ideas of sacred space in our Western setting.

1. A place where shared loss or suffering—hardship—occurred
2. A place we connect with what is bigger than ourselves
3. A place we connect with the supernatural
4. Wherever God is present

Let’s take each of these in turn.

“A place where hardship occurred…”

Think of Ground Zero and the 9-11 memorial, Gettysburg or Normandy.  For Americans, these are sacred places and “hallowed ground zero, 9/11, Tribute in Lightground”.  Why?  Because blood was shed and great horrors endured for the achievement of a supposedly great goal.

Coupled with American Civil Religion—the idea that America isn’t just exceptional because of her fundamental, politically genius Constitution but because of some kind of God-ordained unique status—this idea of “sacred/holy ground” isn’t just dangerous, it’s idolatrous.  Any pastor who confuses biblical holiness with American battlefields ought to be ashamed.

Moreover, we love our sports, don’t we?  Yet we treat them with the same idolatrous notions of “holy space” and “sacred ground” as we do our battlefields.  In my own city, I recently wondered aloud what would happen to a fan of Ole Miss who snuck into the Mississippi State stadium and painted the Rebel logo at the 50 yard-line.  You would think WW3 was starting by the reactions I got.  Sports?  Really?  Sacred?

“…a place to connect with what transcends us.”

This is hard to quantify.  What exactly is meant when people think like this?  Is the Grand Canyon holy—sacred?  Are the California redwoods?  For some, yes.  Perhaps the hard-core environmentalists.

Carl Sagan made the Great Confession that captured imaginations the world over: we are starstuff—we are the children of stars, creatures of the cosmos and knowing our connection to the universe.

For such people—and I was one, once—the observatory is the new sanctuary, collapsing space and time into an endless present where imagination and science merge together into an ecstatic out of body experience.  In such places and moments, you can sit and stare for hours, never realizing how stiff your muscles have become until another voice interrupts concentration.

I suppose for others, a Lady GaGa concert has the same effect.

This is the same mentality that makes a memorial of a location, like Teddy Roosevelt’s house, that triggers sentimentalism, that leads us to revere and hold sacred its existence because it connects us to that which transcends us: history.

“…a place where we connect with the supernatural.”

This can be just about any place, anyone, or any thing.

  • Church/Building gets me closer to God
  • Sex gets me closer to God
  • I get me closer to God
  • I am God
  • Nature gets me closer to God
  • The fishin’ hole gets me closer to God


Fill in whatever you want; you’ve probably heard others talk about “meeting God” or such.  I wonder, did they?  Do they really want to meet the Almighty?  Is this God’s modus operandi


So What is Sacred?

The burning bush was sacred not because of anything it was, but because of who was there.  It was only a bush.  It became a bridge between Heaven and Earth when Yahweh descended upon it.  Only his presence transforms the profane into the sacred, and only his condescension sets apart the ordinary for the extraordinary.

The Garden within Eden was holy because there Yahweh walked.  Once sin entered, the Holy cast out the profane.  We were exiled because sinners do not dwell among the Sacred and Holy One, which makes his promise to “be your God, and you will be my people” all the more stupendous because it is immediately a promise for the Holy One to dwell among us having dealt with the problem of sin.  It’s not a promise that we’d again have to remove our shoes, but that God himself would wear them for us.  Paul implies part of being made in Eden in the “image of God” was being made in holiness, “…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).  The commands throughout the Old Testament to “be holy,” echoed by Peter in his letters, confirm that God wants his people to be like they were made to be (cf. Lev 20:26 and 1 Pet 1:16).

The bush, as mentioned, was only sacred and holy because of the presence of the Holy One.  The Tabernacle and Ark were holy because it was where God dwelt.  On this point, it is worth remembering these structures could not contain the Almighty (Acts 17:24), yet God himself chose to put his presence uniquely there (cf. Psalm 132)

Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah;
    we found it in the fields of Jaar.
“Let us go to his dwelling place;
    let us worship at his footstool!”

Arise, O Lord, and go to your resting place,
    you and the ark of your might.

Is there anything sacred any more?

Church sanctuaries, contrary to whatever any member of those churches believes, are not sacred places. God isn’t doing locations and buildings anymore.  He’s doing something far greater in accordance with a promise he made to the prophets even while those prophets were surrounded by people still looking at the buildings:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.   And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ez 36:25-27).

What makes a place or person holy and sacred?  The presence of God.  What does God swear to make holy?  His people.  How? By sending his Spirit to dwell within them.  What is the proof this has occurred?  Obedience, from the heart, out of genuine joy.  We move, then, from a holy status to a holy living.

Now that is not what I am used to seeing from Christians, and it is not what I’m used to hearing.  Instead, we’re used to hearing about what we will get from God instead of what we give to God: we hear about the success God will give us, not the worship we will give him.  We major on the minors and dismiss calls to holy living as legalism.  Ironically, such holy-living dissenters appeal to the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives as to why they do not need to worry about holy living when, in fact, the Spirit is given in order that we may be holy and sacred, pursuing obedience to God’s commands!  So, Paul says to a people who knew a thing or two about unholy living:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

…Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple (1 Cor 3:1-9, 16-17).


“Holy” no more.

What makes something sacred?  For Christians, it is the presence of their Lord.  In former times, this presence was local (confined here, not there), temporary (came and went).  Now, however, we have the Spirit in full measure, universally accessible by faith, and permanently dwelling—Paul calls it “sealing”—within his people.  Moreover, when that future Day of days comes to us and all is put back right, we have the promise of another joining of Heaven and Earth such that there is no distinction between our dwelling places and God’s, for, as the prophet Habbakuk says, which Revelation echoes in 21-22, God’s presence will fill all, turning the whole New Creation sacred:

The earth will be filled with the glory of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea….

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.



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