Hagios: The Main Kind of Holy

Word of the Week

April 2, 2023


Hagios: The Main Kind of Holy


But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior, because it is written: ‘YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.”

1 Peter 1:15-16 NASB20


It’s a standard line in movies and TV:  the parent says, “I just want my son/daughter to be happy.”

Can you imagine a scene where the mom announces, “I just want my son to be holy”?

No, that’s not on the moral radar these days.  But biblically, it would make lots of sense.  The Scriptures do promise blessings for those who know God, but happiness is a by-product, not the central goal. Holiness holds a higher priority in God’s eyes.  It is at the core of God’s attributes, and His aim is to bring us to ever-deepening holiness.

People, however, have strange ideas about holiness.  The Pharisees thought they were holy because they refused to eat lunch with a Gentile. Some people figure they’re holy if they don’t smoke, drink, or chew.

Is that all there is to it?

Last week we studied a not-so-common Greek word for “holy.” This time we are returning to get acquainted with the standard word for holiness.  It appears well over 200 times in the New Testament, so it’s the one you will usually encounter.

Our word for the week is hagios (HAH-gee-awss).  It is almost always translated as “holy” and it comes partnered with a matching noun that means “holiness”

What does it mean?

The ancient Greeks had a certain concept of holiness.  They spent most of their days working or relaxing, eating and sleeping.  But they believed in an unseen realm populated by the gods like Zeus or Apollo.  These deities existed on a higher level, and it was important to treat them with respect, offering sacrifices and participating in ceremonies at their temples.  Anything connected with the worship of their gods was considered “holy.”

This involved at least two concepts.  First, it referred to things that were set apart or dedicated to the gods.  A sacred place was one used exclusively for the worship of the gods.  Second, it involved behavior that was morally acceptable.

The picture comes into sharper focus when we come to the Scriptures because we move from disreputable deities to the one true, living God.  Consider three observations about the meaning of “holy” in the New Testament.

  1. God is absolutely holy.

The Bible repeatedly describes God as holy.  In Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne, the seraphim cried “Holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3).  God the Father is holy (John 17:11).  Jesus, God’s Son, is called the “holy Servant” (Acts 4:27).  And there are constant references to the Holy Spirit.

God is the very definition of holiness – absolutely pure and righteous.  He cannot do wrong, and His majesty is infinite.  He possesses every possible perfection without limits.

  1. Things are holy when they are set apart for Him.

Hagios describes things and places that are set apart from normal use and dedicated exclusively to God.  The tabernacle was holy because the presence of God was focused there (Hebrews 9:2).  The temple had the same status as a place reserved for God’s worship (Acts 6:13).  Even the city of Jerusalem was called the “holy city” because it was the place chosen by God (Matthew 4:5).  Zechariah even predicts a future day when horse bells will be inscribed, “Holy to the LORD” and the pots, altar, and bowls of Jerusalem will be sacred to the LORD of hosts (Zechariah 14:20-21).

To use a homely parallel, we all know of families who have a set of “good china” that is stored most of the time and used only when guests have come for dinner.  Those plates are not for common use; they are reserved for a special occasion.  Similarly, something was hagios when it was used exclusively for the worship of God.

  1. People are holy when they are set apart for Him and set apart from sin.

We cannot match God’s absolute holiness, but there is a kind of holiness that He desires from His people. First, we are holy when we are dedicated to him.  No, we don’t have to drop the demands of daily life, but there is a sense in which God asks us to be wholly given to Him for His purposes and His glory.  Second, we are holy when we are separated from sin.  His purity leaves no room for evil, and heaven is going to be a place where no sin exists.  Our eternal home, after all, is going to be the “holy city, new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2.

Some translations render hagios as “saint.” This can be confusing because of the Roman Catholic doctrine of saints as especially righteous people.  The New Testament, however, uses the title for all believers in God’s family.  If you have placed your faith in Christ, you are a “saint” or “holy one” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Colossians 1:26).

So in one sense, every Christian is holy because we have been set apart as members of God’s family.  We are destined for maximum holiness In eternity.  And, as 1 Peter urges us, we are to increasingly be hagios in our attitudes and behavior.  Holiness in practice paves the way for fellowship with a holy God.


Study Hint:

You will notice that we used several Old Testament verses in our discussion.  To get a comprehensive understanding of hagios, it is important to go back to the Old Testament.  The Hebrew word for “holy” is qadosh, which occurs over 100 times and is usually translated by hagios in the Greek Old Testament.  One of the key themes of the Old Testament is the holiness of God; the New Testament builds on that foundation.  You can even see the connection when a New Testament writer quotes an Old Testament passage about holiness.  1 Peter 1:16 is a good example.



Q:  I heard one Christian leader define grace as the desire and power to do God’s will.  I always thought that grace meant God’s unmerited favor.  What’s going on?

A:  It is probably best to use the concept of unmerited favor as the overall definition of grace.  It’s based on the Greek word charis, which deserves a full word study.  However, there are some passages that use the word to describe the help that God provides for Christians as they seek to obey Him – it’s one of the things that He gives us even when we don’t deserve it.  Passages to consider include 1 Corinthians 15:10; 2 Corinthians 8:12; 12:9; Hebrews 4:16.  There are, of course, many other verses where it is used to tell us that God provides salvation as a free gift.


Coming Up

Easter is coming!  It’s the season when we celebrate the resurrection and the promise of eternal life.  So next week, we’re going to compare two Greek words for life.


©Ezra Project 2023

4 Responses

  1. I am so thankful for this study. I studied Greek for four semesters more than forty years ago. Through the passing of time i have forgotten some of the things I learned. I need these reminders. Keep up the great work you are doing and may our Great God bless all your endeavors.

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