If someone called you “holy” would you consider it to be a compliment? It would probably depend on two things. First, it would depend on whether another word was attached to the word holy, such as, “a holy roller” or “holier than thou” or a “Holy Joe”. In these cases the term would be considered derisive . . .a negative connotation. And secondly it would depend on the person’s definition of holiness. In the mind of many, “holy” means; narrow-minded, uptight, judgmental, detached, Victorian and other negative words. In this case being called holy would not be a compliment. But if you were called holy in the Biblical sense, it would be a great compliment . . . one we might be very uncomfortable with.
Of all the attributes of God . . . holiness is the one that seems to take center stage. Most of you know that in the Hebrew language to repeat a word is to emphasize it. For example if you said a stone was big it would mean one thing. If you said the stone was big big . . . you would mean it was a really big stone. If it was big, big, big, it would mean that it was a gigantic boulder.
In Isaiah 6 and in Revelation 4 the angels declare that God is “holy, holy, holy”. This is the only attribute of God that is emphasized in this way. God is never called “Love, love, love,” or “mercy, mercy, mercy”. Therefore, if we want to know God we must understand the idea of God’s holiness.
R.C. Sproul gives us a simple way to remember the definition of holiness,
The first prayer I learned as a child was the simple table grace: “God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for this food.” The two virtues assigned to God in this prayer, greatness and goodness, may be captured by the one biblical word, holy. [Essential Truths p. 47]
So, there are two ideas to holiness. The first is the idea of greatness. One of the meanings of holiness is the idea of being “set apart”. God is apart from us . . . He is in a class by Himself. “There is a profound difference between Him and those He has created. When the Bible speaks of holy objects or holy people or holy time, it refers to things that have been set apart, consecrated, or made different by the touch of God upon them. It was the nearness of the divine that made the ordinary suddenly extraordinary and the common, uncommon.” [Sproul ibid.] Holiness means that God is transcendent (or unique and superior) in His greatness.
The second aspect of holiness (and the one we generally think of first) is the idea of purity. God is good. He does what is right and never does what is wrong. God is unstained by, and uncompromising with sin. God does not “bend a little” when it comes to wrong-doing. God always acts in a righteous manner because His nature is holiness. He is both great and good.
A CASE STUDY IN HOLINESS
The best way to understand Holiness is to look at a case study in Isaiah 6:1-8. The setting is sometime after the death of King Uzziah. Most of Uzziah’s story can be found in 2 Chronicles 26. He was for the most part a successful King. We do know that Isaiah ministered during part of Uzziah’s reign but we don’t know what kind of relationship they had. We can only speculate on what Isaiah’s state of mind was when he received the vision recorded in chapter 6. Perhaps Isaiah was concerned what would happen next in Israel. Maybe the vision had nothing to do with Uzziah at all.
Anyway, Isaiah has a vision. And there are several things that happen in this vision. The first thing we notice is GOD’S GREATNESS.
I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
Notice the details of Isaiah’s vision: God was on the throne. Uzziah may have died, but God was still on the throne. The throne was high and exalted which means that it is greater and exceeded all other thrones. The train (just the train) of His robe filled the temple. I don’t know why it is but when a bride walks down an aisle her dress often has a long “train”. Some of you remember the wedding of Diana and Prince Charles. Diana’s train was so long that there were people there to carry the train of her dress! Why? It is a symbol of royalty. The train of God filled the entire temple! His royalty far surpasses anything we have known or can imagine.
At his side were angels. Their job was to give glory to the Lord. We know that these angels were beings that were without sin. They were pure, yet, with their six wings they cover their face and feet. The symbols of their creatureliness are covered in the presence of the magnificent God! We make a mistake when we imagine that God’s goodness is simply higher than that of the best human. It is in a class all of it’s own. Even the best people are flawed people! God’s purity makes the sinless angel’s blush and seek cover.
The angels praise the Lord with the “three times holy”. They declare that He is supremely holy. The shaking of the doorposts simply adds to the sense of awesomeness and power. These images are designed to point us to a majesty in God that should provoke reverence and awe.
True worship begins when we stop and gasp at the wonder, power, and otherness of God. Worship begins when we catch of glimpse of holiness.
SECOND, WE SEE GOD’S GOODNESS AND MAN’S UNWORTHINESS. Isaiah’s response is not what we would have expected. We would have expected him to say something like, “Cooool!” or “Wow!”. But Isaiah is not impressed or wowed . . . he is “undone”.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
We see similar experiences,
Matthew 14:25, 26 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
In Matthew 17 at the Mount of Transfiguration we read, “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”
When the centurion at the cross of Christ saw the earthquake he was terrified. When the Shepherds saw the angels at the birth of Christ we know they were “sore afraid.” Anytime someone gets a glimpse of the Almighty God they are terrified. Why? Because in Exodus 33:20, God said, “no one may see me and live.” God is so good that He will destroy anything sinful or unholy.
The first response of an unholy person to the holiness of God is an acute awareness of personal sin. When the unholy confronts the holy we become very conscious of our own sinfulness. It is like we live most of our lives with some of the lights off . . . we are able to hide some of our wickedness in the dark. But when we come into the presence of God the darkness is gone. All the hidden is exposed.
Remember back to when you were a child. You may have thought you were a great athlete, or great student, or a great musician, or even a spiritual giant because you always seemed to excel over others. But somewhere along the line you found out that there were many others who were as gifted and more so. Sometimes the first months of college are very sobering because the standard has changed. And when you approach the professional ranks . . .the standard changes again. I know anytime I start feeling spiritually cocky, all I have to do is read a biography of one of the great leaders of the past. Quickly I am humbled.
If you have had an experience like that then you have just a little of an idea of how Isaiah felt. All our lives we feel we are doing pretty well because we have been comparing ourselves to each other. And when we compare myself to those around us we can always spot those who are seemingly worse than we are. However, when we compare ourselves to the standard of holiness . . . look out. At that time the walls of delusion come crumbling down.
This is why I believe that a person who has no sense of their own sinfulness has really never had a true sense of the nature of God. The person who believes that they did the right things to get saved has no awareness of how deeply stained they really are. We must be undone before we can be remade. The Holy Spirit has to awaken us to our sinfulness before we can be summoned to His grace.
Notice something else about Isaiah’s conviction. What was he most conscious of? He was most conscious of His unclean lips. Now think about that. What was Isaiah’s greatest strength? It was that he was a spokesman for God. His lips should have been the one thing that fared well in the light of God’s holiness . . . but it was His lips He saw as sinful. Even in his greatest strength he was undone when it was compared to God’s holiness.
Often I will hear people say, “Look, God can never save me . . . I’ve done too many bad things in my life.” I will often say to those people, “You are closer to salvation than many who have been raised in the church.” The reason is that they are aware of their sin. They are a step closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than the church goer who is often trusting in their goodness.
The THIRD THING WE SEE IS GOD’S PROVISION. Once Isaiah realizes his sin, notice what happens,
Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
We read this and we are prone to say, “Ouch!” The angel takes a hot coal and touched it to Isaiah’s mouth. Why? He cauterizes the sin. Perhaps you have been to the Doctor and had something cauterized. Cauterization is the process of sealing a wound or destroying abnormal or infected tissue with a heated instrument. God cauterizes Isaiah’s lips. He eliminates the impurity.
Isaiah’s guilt is taken away but it is not shrugged off. God doesn’t say, “Aw, let’s just forget it!” Instead he tells Isaiah that his sin “is atoned for”. In other words, it was paid for.
How? It was paid for in Jesus. How can that be, you ask? Isaiah lived many hundreds of years before Jesus. But the promise had been made. The plan was in place. God forgave Isaiah on the basis of what Christ was going to do hundreds of years later. Just like He is willing to forgive you and I on the basis of what He has done many hundreds of years before us.
When Jesus (the sinless Son of God) died on the cross, He paid for our sin. God’s justice is satisfied (sin is punished) and He is also able to extend mercy (on the basis of Christ’s substitution). The reason we are called children of God is not because we are good . . . but because we are forgiven. We are forgiven not because we were among the best of the class but because Christ died for our sin.
After Isaiah sees God’s majesty, is confronted with His sin, finds forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ we read . . .
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
WE SEE GOD’S SUMMONS. The Lord is now looking for a messenger. Isaiah, who has been transformed by grace and made alive by the mercy of God, volunteers for service. Sproul points out that Isaiah doesn’t say, “Here I am” . . . that would be to identify his position. Instead he says, “Here am I”. He offers Himself as a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) if you will.
Isaiah is now willing to serve not out of obligation but out of gratitude and out of a desire to exalt God’s glory. Isaiah wants the world to know the greatness of God. He’s not concerned about promoting his school of prophets, or his system of financial management, or his course on public speaking. Isaiah is concerned with one thing . . . to honor the one who is most worthy of honor.
A CALL TO HOLINESS
This leads us to the third area in our study. In the Bible we are told that we are to “be holy as God is holy”.
Lev. 11:44-45 I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. [a command repeated 4 times in Leviticus]
Jesus echoes this command in Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Now when we hear this command to be holy we do one of two things. We either a) brush it off as impossible. Or, we have an image similar to John White,
Have you ever gone fishing in a polluted river and hauled out an old shoe, a tea kettle, or a rusty can? I get a similar sort of catch if I cast as a bait the word holiness into the murky depths of my mind. To my dismay I come up with such associations as:
frequent cold baths
hours of prayer
wild rocky deserts
getting up at 4 A.M.
[The Fight p.179]
But that is not what God is calling us to. He is calling us to a Christlike living. We are to be set aside for the service of the Lord. The person who is living the life of holiness will be humbly aware of their forgiveness and yet diligent in seeking to eliminate any trace of sin from their lives. They will be people who are constantly saying, “Here am I Lord,” use me and lead me as you deem best.
Chuck Colson says it well, “Holiness is the everyday business of every Christian. It evidences itself in the decisions we make and the things we do, hour by hour, day by day.” [Loving God p. 131]
The person who has begun to understand God’s holiness is a person who is changed. The idea of an unchanged Christian is a contradiction in terms. If you are not pursuing holiness, there is a good chance you are not a child of God . . . no matter how long you have been in the church. Don’t take my word for it, take Paul’s,
[Eph 5:1-7] Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
If we are going to be true followers we must be serious about our pursuit of personal holiness.
Though our study and pursuit of holiness must never end, this sermon needs to come to a conclusion. So let me make several final observations.
First, it should be obvious, that there is no better way to use our time than to use it for God’s glory. There is nothing better. There is no one greater than the Lord. He is our life, our hope, our joy. To run after and serve anything other than the Lord is foolishness. Look at your own heart and turn away from the trivial pursuits that so often occupy our energy.
Second, we need to take personal holiness seriously. We spend a good deal of our lives trifling with sin. I know I find myself compromising with the unholy all the time. We push God off to the side when we feel He is getting in the way of our enjoyment or of our “entertainment”. Look, I know that taking holiness seriously means significant change in our lives. And like you . . . I resist it. However, if we understand God’s mercy and grace at all, if we have any sense of God’s holiness (which is becoming more and more rare) we will want to purge all that is profane from our lives. It is time to do a personal inventory and to make changes,
- in your entertainment
- your use of your time
- the way you spend your money
- the way you talk
- the way you do your job
- the way you treat others
- the way you worship
Finally, we need to stop comparing ourselves to others and start measuring ourselves by the correct standard. When we measure our lives by God’s standards we see ourselves truly. Yes, it often hurts. And facing the truth is painful. We must accept responsibility for our own behavior. But the amazing thing about the gospel is that it tells us that because of what Christ has done on our behalf, if we admit our sin and turn to Him for mercy . . . we will find it. Our Holy God will cover us with the righteousness or goodness of Christ.
Indeed, God is great and He is good. Let us devote the rest of our lives to giving Him thanks.