The Holiness of God
This summer, we are looking at 12 core doctrines of the Christian faith. Now that word doctrine might be scary for some of you on the surface, and sounds like something you would study in a seminary, or something only people with a phd could understand – I mean it does have the word “doc” in it.
And I’m happy to inform you that, no, you do not need a degree to talk about or understand doctrine. That word simply means “belief.” So we could say we are studying 12 core beliefs and we would mean the same thing. You do not need a college degree to believe.
But here’s why we’re doing this – It is my experience that very often in the church, Christianity is presented as a new set of facts to believe, rather than the good news of a life-saving, affection-transforming, soul-rescuing heart surgery. And as a result, Christianity stays mostly intellectual. It’s in the mind. Can you sort out the facts? Can you communicate clearly what it means to follow Jesus? When someone asks the catechism question, do you know the right answer?
If you’re like me, you grew up knowing the right answers to all the questions. But where things got a little bit more cloudy is that if someone spent 6 weeks living with you, working with you, driving in the car with you, at the gym with you who say you believe these doctrines to be true, and then six weeks living with an atheist who doesn’t believe any of it, how much difference would they actually see between my life and his?
Last year sometime, I came across a book by Paul Tripp, who is one of my favorite authors, that he had just released which covers important doctrines of the faith, coupled with the transformation that comes as a result of that doctrine. So we are unashamedly using this book to create a series this summer that aims to bridge the gap between what we SAY we believe, and how we ACTUALLY live. So lets pray and dive in. PRAY
So let me begin by asking you this question: What does it mean to say that God is holy? What are we talking about when we talk about his “holiness”?
First of all, the word holy comes from the Hebrew word qadowsh, which means, “to cut.” So to be holy means to be cut off, separate from everything else. When we use the word holy to speak of God, we mean he is in a class of his own, with no equal or comparison.
Exodus 15:11 – Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
1 Samuel 2:2 – There is none holy like the Lord; for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.
Isaiah 45: 21-22– There is no other God but me, a righteous God and Savior; there is no one except me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.
Second, to be holy means to be completely pure, all the time and in every way possible. One of the ways God is in a category all of his own is that he is perfectly right and pure in every single thing he does. Everything he speaks, desires, plans, and thinks is perfectly pure all the time.
If you took all of God’s attributes, his perfection, his wonder, his majesty, his worth and added it all up, the sum total is what we call his holiness. He is never anything but perfectly and completely holy. So that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about God’s holiness. And here in Isaiah 6, that Andrew read for us, we get a tiny peek through the keyhole into the throne room of Yahweh our God.
Isaiah 6:1-4 In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
Uzziah became king of Judah when he was 16 years old. He was a great king for quite a while, honoring God, doing good for the kingdom. He was an inventor, even, creating machines of warfare that catapulted large stones and shot arrows from the corners of the walls around Jerusalem. He was famous all over the world, and God wondrously helped him – until Uzziah became proud (2 Chronicles 26). He was so proud that he entered the temple of God, and decided he didn’t need a priest to intercede for him at the altar of incense… he would do it himself.
All 80 priests, plus the high priest, who were serving in Jerusalem came barging into the temple to stop him, and instead of repenting for his sin, Uzziah became furiously angry that they would dare stop him. And to humble him, instantly the Lord struck him with leprosy, and Uzziah spent the rest of his life in quarantine while his son fulfilled the kingly duties.
Instead of Uzziah leading such a nation out of their pride and getting them off the path to destruction, he, too, gives in to sin. It seems as though Israel’s hope is lost (cf, Mathis).
Here, in the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah sees God. This part of the robe filling the temple doesn’t mean much to us because we don’t have a monarchy in the US. But A king or queens robe says something about their authority and their rule, and the more costly it is, the more it reflects the magnitude of their reign.
When Queen Elizabeth was coronated in 1953, the clothing she wore that day contained symbols of all of the territories under her rule – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and more (www.royal.uk/coronation). The train of Queen Elizabeth’s robe was impressive, but as Isaiah 40:15 says, the nations are a drop in a bucket compared to the majesty of Yahweh. God’s glory, the weight of this perfection and purity can’t be measured in inches or gallons or pounds or miles – as the next verse says: His glory fills the earth.
To reflect this glory, the hem of his robe fills the temple. There is nowhere that his robe doesn’t touch, not a single corner of the temple that isn’t covered by the train of his robe. There is not a single leaf or blade of grass, a speck of dust, a molecule of air, or a drop of water, where God is not in full and complete authority. Isaiah doesn’t even see the whole robe. He’s only seeing the hem, and it fills the temple.
Seraphim (heavenly beings) were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
This heavenly creature, the seraphim, was designed to serve in the unfiltered, unveiled holiness of Yahweh, and one set of wings is specifically to cover its face from the blinding, piercing, all-consuming glory that fills the entire earth. Even the creatures designed specifically to serve in the presence of God can’t take in the holiness, the purity, the majesty of God - even as they sing about it and shout about to each other, they cover their faces.
And one called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Armies; his glory fills the whole earth. The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.
Back when Jodi and I did photography for a living, we were photographing a couple out in Arches National Park in Utah. Had a great time, the arches are amazing. We were there in the park until the sun went down and had to make our way back to the car in the dark.
Now I can tell you “it was dark” and that means something different to each one of you. But it wasn’t just dark. It was dark, dark. Let me help you a little more. It was dark, dark, dark.
Now we’re all on the same page, aren’t we? It was a kind of darkness that I didn’t know existed; the kind of darkness you feel. To say God is holy is one thing. But this seraphim wants the other creatures around and those of us peeking in the keyhole to be on the same page – God is not just holy: He is holy, holy - holy.
RC Sproul continues, “There is no other description of God that is raised to the third degree anywhere in scripture. He is never described as mercy, mercy, mercy. He’s never described as love, love, love or justice, justice, justice, or wrath, wrath, wrath. He is holy, holy, holy. This is a dimension of God that consumes his very essence. Every good thing ever created has existed because on the throne of the universe sits one who is holy in every way, all of the time; perfectly pure and right in everything he says and does and thinks and plans and creates and orders.
It is a category of perfection and purity that is to the hundredth power of anything we’ve seen or experienced. And the prophet Isaiah wasn’t just peeking in the keyhole like we are – he was invited inside that room. And when his eyes opened to this scene, this unveiled holy, holy, holiness of God wasn’t just something he observed – it was something he felt. Even the foundations of the doorposts in the throne room – Inanimate, lifeless, unintelligible objects of creation, the doorposts of the temple shook at the announcement of God’s holiness.
And the very second he saw God for who God is, Isaiah also saw Isaiah for who he is. Instantly he was overwhelmed by the perfection and purity of God, and overwhelmed by his guiltiness.
Isaiah 6:5 Woe is me for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Armies.
You remember back in our Luke series, Jesus unleashes on the Pharisees using this same word “woe.” It’s not one we use anymore, but in the Old Testament, the prophets used this word to describe a desperate, dangerous, situation – one where God’s judgment is close at hand. Woe is the opposite of blessed.
This piercing holiness, the blinding purity of God, is so penetrating that Isaiah, the prophet of God, after announcing woes and judgment to the people of God in chapters 1-5, now announces judgment on himself. He encountered God’s holiness and he is undone. Ruined. Coming apart. He’s an active and faithful prophet of God, and he pronounces judgment on himself: WOE TO ME!
Why? Because 1 Peter 1:14-15 tells us what a God this holy requires: But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy.
Isaiah wasn’t the only one to act like this in God’s presence: When Job encountered the living God, he said, “I despise myself and I melt, I am dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). When Ezekiel saw God, he fell facedown on the ground; and when it was over, he sat stunned for seven straight days. When the prophet Daniel saw God’s throne room, he was deeply distressed and terrified (Dan 7:15); The prophet Habakkuk saw the holiness of God, and he said “I trembled within; my lips quivered at the sound. Rottenness entered my bones; I trembled where I stood” (Hab 3:16).
This is why I think we have to be very, very careful reading books or watching movies about people who went to heaven and came back to tell the story of what they saw. Unless that story of seeing the glorified Jesus includes some element of terror, it’s not biblical – they are just snake oil salesmen.
But before we throw stones at them – if Isaiah’s response is how people in scripture acted when they saw God’s glory; How in the world can we, his people made in his image, be so unmoved or bored or apathetic with his holiness?” (Sproul)
I would suggest that it’s because our natural inclination is to present ourselves well to others for their approval and hide ourselves from God because we know we don’t measure up. We have been hardwired in our very DNA to know that the closer we get to the holiness of God the more and more our clothes start to come off until we are undone, exposed, and naked before his holiness. And it’s there we are most aware of our guiltiness; it’s there we realize that our sins are not simply mistakes we regret – our sins are willful and active refusal to acknowledge the holiness of God, and we are guilty in his presence.
When Israel’s King David raped Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed so he could marry her and cover up her pregnancy, he wrote in Psalm 51: Be gracious to me, God… wash away my guilt, cleanse me from my sin. Against you – you alone – I have sinned, and done this evil in your sight. You are right to pass judgment on me.
Obviously he had sinned against her, against her husband, against her family, etc. Sin is definitely horizontal. But the sinfulness of sin is the vertical; Every sin ignores the holiness of God and is rebellion against his standard. And the tragedy of our day as Paul Tripp points out in the book, is that our culture has completely walked away from holy.
Every day, in the vast amount of media we consume, from radio to television to Netflix to social media to news – none of it has a category for the holy, holy, holiness of God. Do you think the writers of the Bachelor or Stranger Things or Star Trek or Marvel or Disney or Survivor or even Hallmark movies – your instagram or Snapchat content– in they way they portray love and marriage and sex and singleness and coming of age and justice and revenge and happiness and how we define success and strength and glory – does any of it have even a whiff of the holiness of God? Hardly.
So, it would make sense that when the church saturates itself with media that has no category for God’s holiness, that the gap between what we say we believe and how we actually live begins to grow.
I’m not saying media or movies are the problem. Hiding is the problem. Because the more we hide, the more we are able to minimize or deny the seriousness and verticalness of sin. Because we hide, we all are fairly content to settle for being good or okay (I’m a good person; hey I’m not perfect; to err is human).
When we did the 360 Assessment last month, we asked four questions of the people in town – if we would have added a fifth question to that survey – are you perfect? Not a single person would have said yes. Again quoting RC Sproul, he said “not one person in a thousand would say they are perfect, but not one person in a thousand understands the seriousness of not being [holy].”
God’s standard for our lives is not “good” or “okay.” His standard is “Holy like he is holy.” The seriousness of not meeting God’s standards is that we stand under his wrath; destined for a well-deserved eternal judgment.
But I want you to see this, that meanwhile, with the heavenly creatures declaring God’s holy, holy, holiness, and the foundations of the temple shaking, and smoke filling the room as God’s holiness pierces Isaiah and he is on the floor just waiting to die, how does God respond to Isaiah?
- Does God say, THAT’S RIGHT, SINNER! Who’s laughing now, huh? How do you like me now!?!? Stay there in the dirt, you miserable creep.
- Does God say, “Come on Isaiah, quit groveling and carrying on. You have a self-esteem problem. You need therapy.”
- Does God say – dude, dude, you’re overreacting. It’s okay, man. It’s all good. Don’t worry about it. Let it go, brother.
He doesn’t do any of those things. Instead Yahweh calls one of the heavenly creatures to action.
Isaiah 6:6 - Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said: Now that this has touched your lips, your iniquity is removed and your sin is atoned for.
That part of Isaiah that was so unclean, God purified in an act of marvelous saving and redeeming grace. Grace doesn’t eliminate the holiness of God in the slightest. God acted toward Isaiah in a way completely in character with his holiness. Grace isn’t saying, it’s okay, don’t worry about it. Grace is saying, “it’s atoned for.”
What Isaiah got to see was a glimpse of God’s future grace, where one day he wouldn’t just send an bizarre-looking heavenly creature to touch our lips with a hot coal – he sent his own eternal heavenly Son Jesus, perfectly holy and righteous himself, to be an acceptable sacrifice in our place, rescuing us from wrath of God, rescuing us from the eternal judgment we deserved!
- Jesus’ perfect life is applied to you, not so that you can go through life with a higher self-esteem, but his perfect life is applied to you so that you meet the standard of being holy as he is holy!
- Jesus’ death is applied to you so that God’s wrath isn’t poured out on your head!
- Jesus’ resurrection is applied to you, not so that you can be a better version of yourself, but so that if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation altogether, being made more and more like Christ!
- Jesus’ Holy Spirit is given to you so that you actually have the ability to respond to the gospel.
The angel touched Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal, and said his sin was atoned for. The apostle John wrote in his gospel, in John 12:41, that it was actually the glorified, resurrected, name above all names JESUS that Isaiah saw that day. The King of kings, the Lord of lords.
Yes our world is filled with trouble. Yes there is uncertainty about what the future holds. Yes there are kings who come and go in our day who are disappointing in their rule, or they are wonderful but eventually leave office and/or die. Yes gas prices are high, inflation is crazy, and we don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we can be 100% certain that there is a King on his throne in heaven whose glory fills the earth – and he has done the very thing necessary to cleanse us, to wash us, to restore us back to God.
In this scene we’ve been talking about, Isaiah has seen the Lord exalted. He’s been made aware of his own sin. His sin has been forgiven and atoned for by the grace of Yahweh. Now here’s what happens next in this scene:
Isaiah 6:8 - Then I heard the voice of the Lord asking: Who should I send? Who will go for us? I said – Here am I. Send me.
Gospel repentance is when our sorrow and despair over our own sin is met with the overwhelming grace of God. The scorching holiness of God and the scandal of grace changes “woe is me” into “send me.” It’s there in the dust we are met by the marvelous saving grace of Jesus, which stands us to our feet as we are brought from death to life, made new by the power of the Spirit, and we can’t help but say “Here am I.” Don’t even know what the assignment is yet. Don’t care. I’m yours.
Can you imagine what the Church would look like if that was our posture? Lord Jesus, make it so. Let me send you off with these words from 2 Corinthians
For we are the temple of the living God, as God said: I will dwell and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore…do not touch any unclean thing and I will welcome you. And I will be a Father to you, and you will be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.
So then, dear friends, since we have these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from every impurity of the flesh and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
May he accomplish this in us this week and every week to come until our Lord returns.
David Mathis, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/holy-holy-holy
Paul David Tripp, Do You Believe? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021)
RC Sproul, The Importance of Holiness: The Holiness of God with RC Sproul, https://youtu.be/eIGAjoqBhhU
RC Sproul, The Trauma of Holiness: The Holiness of God with RC Sproul, https://youtu.be/vLhykZY3v3U