Essay: In the Scriptures, what is the first thing God calls holy?

The writer, editor of New Millennium and founder of the Association for Christian Development, can be reached at P.O. Box 4748, Federal Way, Wash. 98063, U.S.A., or by E-mail at The ACD is on the Web at

By Kenneth Westby

FEDERAL WAY, Wash.--Question: In the Holy Bible, what is the first thing described as being holy?

Wrong answers: holy ground, holy altar, holy vessel, holy water, holy oil, holy people, holy temple, holy mountain, holy apple.

Right answer: a day.

In the history of the world, the first thing labeled holy is a day: not just any day, but one specific day in seven, the seventh.

Isn't it surprising that a specific segment of time is the first holy object? Why would a day be the first thing to receive the quality of divine holiness? Is there not some mystery in this?

Holiness is derivative. Biblically there is only one source of holiness: God. Nothing in creation is inherently holy, but any part of it can, by God's dictate, be made holy. He can set apart or sanctify a thing--a place, a people, a time--as holy. The first mention of holy in the Bible is at the presentation of the crowning capstone to the creation week.

The climax to creation isn't some final thing God made. It is what God Himself did with His own life. The crowing glory of creation is what the Creator personally did--in full view of His creation.

"By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done" (Genesis 2:2-3, NIV throughout).

How significant is it that of all the created order--great objects in space, an earth of continents and oceans filled with living things, and man and woman--the first mention of holy is applied to God's use of specific time?

We might have expected God first to create a holy place for a holy shrine (a cathedral like St. Paul's in London or St. Peter's in Rome would have looked good in Eden) or a holy mountain or a holy rock for the holy garden. As Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, "when history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time."

There is much to be learned from beginnings and biblical first mentions: They frequently establish principles, templates or precedents for what follows. The creation account is pregnant with such pattern establishment.

If we can learn anything about God, it must come through His self-revelation. If He doesn't disclose it, we don't know it.

The Bible contains Yahweh's sovereign self-disclosure and provides our sole insight into knowing Him. Pondering His works and actions gives us knowledge of what He is like, His purposes, His judgment, His character.

Seeking God's will and obeying His instructions bring us into yet deeper, profoundly personal knowledge of Him.

Three things God did

What can we learn about God's making the seventh day holy? Yes, He "made" the Sabbath, but the story is in how He did it.

Notice the three things God did on the seventh day:

  • He rested.
  • He blessed it.
  • He made it holy.

The reason given for actions No. 2 and 3 (blessed it and made it holy) is action No. 1: "because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done."

The blessing and hallowing of the seventh day draw attention to it and imbue it with a holy purpose as a result of something special God did with the day. He rested not because He was tired--God doesn't get tired--but to set an example that pointed man in the direction He wanted him to go.

What is important in the account is what God did: He rested. The Bible is first a God-centered account of the Creator and His creation. What matters most is God: what He has done, has said, is doing. This is not an easy concept for self-centered man to receive. We have a man-centered worldview tattooed on our brains that keeps God out of our picture.

Religions feebly attempt to put God into man's picture: a noble enterprise, but it misses the point. God is the picture. What He is like, what He says, what He does and what He wants of us aren't just important, they are all important.

Imago Dei and imitatio Dei

Mankind is unique in all creation for Adam was made imago Dei, to echo the Latin of the church fathers, in the "image of God."

We are separated from all other living things by a divine mark on our kind. Human beings are sacrosanct because of the divine mark we indelibly bear.

In fact, the entire earthly creation was made for the expressed benefit of God's image-bearers who were to rule over it just as God rules over His responsibilities.

Animals, void of the divine image stamp, can have no awareness of a "holy" thing. The divine image-bearers, however, need to be concerned about what is holy. The first holy thing is still in view.

Being made in imago Dei gives us insight into our ultimate purpose: to grow up into the full likeness of our Father Creator. We are called to become a son or daughter of His majesty, mirroring the divine character and devoutly following His instructions and example.

Jesus Christ was just such a son. Jesus, as the firstborn Son of God, the Second Adam, the perfected and exact image of the heavenly Father, is our example to follow in taking on the divine nature. Jesus was and is what the human race was destined to be from the start: in "the image of God."

If we are made in the image of God it follows that we should engage our lives in an imitatio Dei, "imitation of God." If we are made like God, it follows that we should act like God: to imitate Him in every way it is possible for a human to do; to let His character become our character; His love the pattern for our love; His justice how we mete out justice; His judgment how we judge; and so on.

How do we, then, imitate the Creator's act of making the first holy thing?

Jesus engaged in imitatio Dei.

"I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does" (John 5:19-20).

Christ imitated God. What He "sees" his Father doing becomes His guide for what He does. This includes the Father's personal example as well as the instructions and commandments given from the beginning.

Did this include Christ's observance of the Sabbath? Evidently. He was so faithful to His Father in this area of worship, so consistent in His Sabbath observance, that the historian Luke records it as being habitual (see Luke 4:16).

Jesus' imitation of God was precise and total.

"For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say" (John 12:49).

Not only did He follow God's commands, He followed His intent, His Spirit, His heart. The "how" in Jesus' "how to say it" is just as important as the "what to say." Jesus said, "I always do what pleases him" (John 8:29).

Mankind's first opportunity to imitate God

Just as God separated Adam and Eve from the rest of creation by making them in imago Dei, He separated the seventh day from the other days of the week by a divine action. He rested. The verb "to rest" is sabat (Hebrew), meaning "to stop, cease." The noun form is sabbat, from which we get our word Sabbath. The seventh day came to be named by what Yahweh did on the first one: He stopped His work and rested in peace with His image-bearers.

God is the divine Exemplar for humankind, and He manifested Himself in refraining from work and in resting. He rested from His work for the purpose of having peaceful fellowship with those He had just made in His image. He was celebrating His creation with His family. This is why He blessed this time and made it holy: the first holy thing.

Our human parents were alive at the moment God took this deliberate action. They saw it. By witnessing God resting, they experienced mankind's first opportunity to imitate Him. Having just been made in God's image only hours before, man could take his first step to imitate his Maker, to validate, as it were, His created design.

That first Sabbath, I believe, went well. It was celebrated as all Sabbaths should be celebrated: in joyful fellowship with God. Consider the picture: God and His son and daughter at peace, without sin, in an absolutely beautiful paradise. There was a lot to be happy about on the first holy day.

That first Sabbath, as biblical canon develops, becomes the template for the Kingdom of God and the plan of God: man and God in fellowship in a paradiselike world, at rest without the slaveries and miseries of sin.

We don't know how long it took for Adam and Eve--and their newfound serpentine exemplar--to mess up the harmony, but it probably happened by the next Sabbath. The next picture we have of God is His arrival near sundown (perhaps at the beginning of the second Sabbath) walking on His way to fellowship with His beloved children.

This time the picture has changed. Some time after the first Sabbath Adam and his wife ceased any imitation of God, set aside His example and disobeyed His instructions. This Sabbath they didn't want fellowship; they wanted to hide.

The first holy thing

Adam's behavior didn't alter mankind's one purpose, one calling: to imitate God. But it did illustrate the difference between God and man. God is holy. Holiness is defined by God. Holiness is the nature of God. For us to imitate God, we must take on his holiness.

Peter, the apostle of Christ, expresses it clearly: "But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy'" (1 Peter 2:15).

This is not a new concept, as is evident from Peter's quote from the Holiness Code in Leviticus. It has been God's intent from the beginning.

Mankind must respond to his Creator, either in obedience or opposition. Human history since Eden is largely a sad chronicle of opposition to God's example and instructions, including His example of resting on the seventh day. The holiness of God is shunned. The holy things of God are ignored or even desecrated.

The first holy thing of God given to man was a special day--the seventh--made holy by God's blessing and example. His holy presence permeated the day. His example and teaching would, if followed, lead His children to become holy as He is holy.

Here we discover the purpose of the Sabbath: to fellowship with and worship our Creator and learn from His Word the path to becoming like Him. To do this we must cease, rest, pause from all other activities, important though they may be; for none can equal this divine appointment.

The written creation account that has come down to us must have been prepared by God Himself since no human witnesses existed until the sixth day (it is doubtful that Adam was taking notes thereafter).

The first chapters of Genesis are the most magnificently, weighty and elegantly crafted portion of all Scripture. The words are weighed and fit with a godly precision. This is the most important record of what God did in the beginning. It is true history. Not by accident, the Sabbath event caps creation. At some later time its account was given to men to preserve and copy.

Yahweh is the one who gives the rhythm and step of the creation week. He is the one who designs time, inhabits eternity and establishes the seventh day for a special purpose. He began what is the ever-present rhythm of sunset and sunrise and of six working days followed by a seventh (Sabbath) rest day.

These were deliberate actions of the Creator to indicate the Sabbath's universality, giving clear evidence that every human being who lives with sunsets and sunrises--Jew and gentile--is to engage in imitatio Dei, "imitation of God," by resting as God rested.

Moving Godward

Man and the Sabbath were created by God at almost the same time. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:28), and we can see that by the very order of creation: Man was made first, then, a few hours later, the Sabbath.

The Creator enjoins the Sabbath upon all humanity in two ways: by His own example and by His direct command through Moses. The former has by far the greater appeal and authority, especially for those engaged in imitatio Dei.

The sixth day was man's beginning. The seventh day was the beginning of God's spiritual work of making man holy as He is holy.

The beauty of the Sabbath is that by participating in God's rest we can enjoy the divine gift of freedom from the labors of human existence and thus acknowledge God as our Creator. If we share His rest now, we can look forward to sharing His rest forever. The goodness and genius of God lead us in one direction: Godward (see Romans 2:4).

The first holy thing, the Sabbath, is the Creator's gift to move us Godward: toward becoming holy as He is holy.

"Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).

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