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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Saints

SAINTS (קָדﯴשׁ, H7705, and חָסִיד, H2883. The Aram. in Daniel has קַדִּ֔ישׁ, NT ἅγιοι, consecrated to God, holy, sacred, pious.) People sacred to God, members of the Jewish and Christian congregations.

The Heb. word qãdôsh basically means “separated” although the evidence for that rendering is not extensive. The word means set apart, consecrated, sacred. The root was used of ancient shrines like Kadesh-barnea and is applied to God, angels, the sanctuary, priestly functionaries, and the people of Israel. In Ugaritic it is used also of gods and priests. Because the root refers to things dedicated to deity, it is applied to the male and female prostitutes at the licentious Canaanite shrines (Deut 23:18).

The emphasis of qãdôsh is on the consecration of the subject involved rather than upon its or his moral purity. Of course, all things and people consecrated to God are ideally to be free from moral and ceremonial defilement. God Himself is the thrice-holy One (Isa 6:3).

Relatively seldom are the people of Israel called “saints.” Aaron is called a saint (Ps 106:16 KJV) as are the Nazirites (Num 6:18, tr. “holy”) and others. Psalm 89:7 mentions the assembly of the saints. Zechariah 14:5 foretells the eschatological coming of the saints with God.

The Heb. word ḥãsîd, “pious ones,” has stronger moral overtones. Related to ḥesed, “mercy,” “goodness,” it is never applied to objects used in worship, but only to people (twice to God). It usually is tr. “saint,” but is used only about thirty times. The Psalms use the term with special frequency. It is thought that in the days of the Maccabees, it became a name for a strictly orthodox party which may have become the precursors of the Pharisees.

In the NT the word hagios, when used as a noun, usually refers to members of the Christian Church. It is used once in the gospels (Matt 27:52) of the saints of the former age. The other references are in Acts and later. All believers are called “saints,” even when their character is dubiously holy. The term is applied usually to the group of Christians constituting a church, rather than to one individual Christian. “Much evil he has done to thy saints” (Acts 9:13); “to the saints that lived at Lydda” (9:32); “I not only shut up many of the saints in prison” (26:10); “the Spirit intercedes for the saints” (Rom 8:27); “contribute to the needs of the saints” (12:13); “I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints” (15:25, 26). The only instance of the use of the word “saint” in the sing. is: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:21).

There apparently are few instances in either Testament of the use of the word “saints” as referring to their saintly character. In Scripture it is almost always used with reference to the group of believers who belong to God as His own. The exceptions to this usage are: “befits the saints” (Rom 16:2); “for the equipment of the saints” (Eph 4:12); “as is fitting among saints” (Eph 5:3), where the saintly character of them is in the forefront of the apostle’s thinking.

It is easy to see how the term “saints” would inevitably take on an ethical and moral meaning. If a person belonged to Christ, he showed his Christian character by an exemplary life, and if he made notable progress in sanctification, so that his reputation as a good, moral and spiritual person became widely spread among the churches, people would begin to speak, not only of his belonging to God more than other people, but of his “saintly” character more than ordinary Christians. In that way the term would gradually be used only of such persons who were outstanding in spirituality.

That is prob. the origin of the Roman Catholic custom of restricting the usage of the term “saints” to those notable persons like the apostles and those whom the church selected and honored officially as “saints.” The fact that most Christians still have sinful characteristics, even though they are genuine Christians, would cause the church gradually to withhold the term “saints” from ordinary Christians, and apply it only to such esp. spiritual individuals. Even the restriction of the use of the term to those whom the church hierarchy selected, can be explained by the difficulty of selecting the best individuals to whom the term “saint” could be applied. There would have to be a final authority to decide such a selection, and during the lifetime of those who knew the saint personally, it would be difficult to cover up minor defects of character. That is prob. the reason why people must be dead many years before they can even be considered by the Roman church as suitable saintly material.

According to Roman Catholic theology, individuals can store up a reservoir of merit, by good deeds and blameless lives. That reservoir of such merit becomes available to other humble Christians in answer to prayers offered to the saint. Those who feel themselves particularly in need of merit would then pray to the saint for help and merit.

The worship of the saints would easily develop from such a doctrine. If a saint could really give his or her merit to any person, would not that saint be likely to give special favor to that person if he burned candles and brought special offerings to the saint? Would he or she not be more likely to give greater favors to those who brought better offerings? Gradually prayers and petitions would be offered almost exclusively to the saint, and the honor and worship which belongs to God alone would be transferred almost exclusively to the alleged saint. Because of the danger of such a situation arising, one can readily understand why God forbade all prayers and worship to anyone, but to God Himself. All so-called aids-to-worship have that danger instrinsic in them.

Among Protestants today, the word “saints” has almost totally lost its original denotation, that is, of being set aside for the exclusive ownership and use of the Triune God. Very few people in the Christian Church today would consider themselves to be “saints,” for the word today has the derivative meaning almost universally. Unfortunately the original meaning of the word “saints” has largely fallen into disuse.