Isaiah 6: 1 - 8
Are you a holy person? Most of us have mixed feelings. Very few of us would use the word holy to describe ourselves. We’re comfortable using words like loving, trustworthy or joyful. The word “holy” has negative connotations, even to Christians. We’re not sure what it means so we feel uncomfortable applying it to ourselves. Yet God said, “Be holy, as I am holy.” Before we can understand what it means to be holy, we must understand what it means to say that God is holy. In many ways holiness is God’s central attribute. “Holiness is that which makes God, God.”
Holiness is the only attribute of God mentions in triplicate. Twice the Bible tells us that God is holy, holy, holy (Isaiah 6: 3, Revelation 4: 8). The Bible never says that God is love, love, love or mercy, mercy, mercy. But it does say that he is holy, holy, holy.
Holiness is the most difficult attribute of God to define because it deals with the essence of God’s character. Defining holiness is like defining God! It can’t be done completely. We can describe holiness and find illustrations of it, but we can’t define it entirely. This is what makes God, God! The word means “to be set apart.” A thing is holy if it is set apart for a special use. Applied to God, holiness is that that sets him apart from his creation. Many verses speak of God being “on high,” “reigning,” “in his holy temple,” “sitting on the throne.” These verses all picture God as separate from creation and reigning over it.
Holy Bible, Holy Land, Holy Angels
We can say that anything is “holy” that is “set apart” for God. We call the Bible the Holy Bible - it is the Word of God. We call Israel the Holy Land - it is the land he chose for his own people. The angels are holy angels - they belong to God. The Sabbath is holy - God set it apart for himself. When Moses stood before the burning bush, he was told to take off his shoes because he was standing on “holy ground" - ground that God had set apart for himself.
Second important meaning of the word: “Utterly pure, separated from sin.” God hates sin, that he cannot sin nor will he tempt others to sin. God is so pure that he cannot tolerate sin in any form in his presence. One day he will destroy sin forever. That leads to an important implication: holiness and sin cannot co-exist.
1. Three Case Studies
3 episodes where mortal men encountered a holy God.
A. Isaiah 6
First from the life of the prophet Isaiah. It takes place early in his ministry, “in the year King Uzziah died.” Important - Uzziah was one of the best kings Judah ever had. He had a heart for God unlike many of his predecessors and successors. When he died, the nation was plunged into turmoil. A golden age in Israel’s history was drawing to a close. Would the people continue to walk with God or would they return to idolatry? In that fateful moment, Isaiah came face to face with the living God. We can summarise his experience with 4 words:
i. Majesty v. 1, 2 ii. Worship v. 3, 4 iii. Confession v. 5 iv. Cleansing v. 6, 7
Of all the things we might say about this magnificent passage, let’s concentrate on 1 central truth: When Isaiah saw the Lord, he also saw himself! He cried out, “Woe is me!” Until then, Isaiah didn’t look so bad. He was far more moral than his contemporaries. Compared to them, he looked clean; compared to God, he looked filthy.
Whenever we see God for who he is, we will then see ourselves for who we really are. Holiness leads to confession and repentance. If you haven’t cried out, “I am a man of unclean lips” lately, it may simply indicate that you’ve not seen the King lately.
What happened to Isaiah happens to anyone who catches a glimpse of God. The closer you come to God, the more you will recognise your own sinfulness. It’s like taking a white shirt that you’ve worn for a year and placing it next to a brand-new one. Suddenly it doesn’t look white any more, it looks dingy grey. All that seems so pure in me is dirty when seen in the blinding light of God’s character.
Holy, Holy, Holy, though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see.
Only thou art Holy, there is none beside thee.
Perfect in power, in love and purity.
Someone has said that the first principle of usefulness is to understand that you are not worthy to be used. That’s what happened to Isaiah. He saw himself when he saw the Lord, and that seeing led to confession, repentance and cleansing.
B. Exodus 3
Let’s go back 700 years, to the hot sand of the Sinai desert. Moses is about to meet God for the first time. While he is tending sheep, an extraordinary event takes place: A bush begins to burn but it is not consumed. Fascinated, he walks closer to investigate. That’s when he hears the voice of God – v. 4, 5. “Moses, do you remember how I revealed myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You’ve heard those stories all your life. I am the same God who talked with them. Just as I used them to accomplish great things, I have a big job for you. Are you ready to listen to what I have to say?” I think I would have done exactly what Moses did – v. 6.
God told Moses to take off his shoes to remind him of the infinite distance between God and man. He can come only so close, and no closer. Our response to God’s holiness: Deep respect for who God is. I agree that in Christ Jesus we have been invited to come boldly into God’s presence. This is what Hebrews is all about. We’re no longer kept at arm’s length but are welcomed into the Throne Room (Hebrews 4: 14 - 16). But the same book warns us not to take God lightly, but to worship him acceptably with “reverence and awe for our ’God is a consuming fire’” (12: 29). Some Christians have mistaken access with informality and substituted flippancy for familiarity. Yes, we are to call God Father - but that means treating him with the respect he deserves.
C. 2 Samuel 6
Run the clock ahead 450 years. David has just been crowned king of Israel and has conquered Jerusalem. All that remains is to have the Ark of the Covenant transported from the house of Abinadab to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem. The Ark had been absent from the Tabernacle for nearly 20 years. The Philistines captured it, but later gave it back to the Israelites. David wanted it back in the capital because it represented the presence of God with his people. David ordered that the Ark be taken back to Jerusalem and assembled thousands of people who joined in the great celebration. He had the Ark put on a cart pulled by a team of oxen. The two sons of Abinadab walked next to the Ark to steady it lest it fall to the ground – v. 6, 7.
Although David meant well, he did not obey the Lord’s command. Yes, God did want the Ark back in Jerusalem, but he had given instructions that it should be transported by priests who would carry it by means of long poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark. If David had followed God’s plan, the Ark would have been safe. But because he substituted his own plan, Uzzah died.
Uzzah probably also meant well. After all, if you were walking beside the Ark and it began to tip over, what would you do? You’d put your hand out and straighten it, wouldn’t you? That would be the last thing you’d ever do. Uzzah knew that no human was ever to touch the Ark of the Covenant because it was holy. Uzzah disobeyed God and disrespected the Lord’s command.
David’s reaction was understandable. First, he was angry, then he was afraid. “If God’s going to start killing people for stuff like that, we’re all going to be dead soon.” This teaches us that good motives are not enough. Enthusiasm must be accompanied by obedience. It’s not enough to mean well. We’ve got to do the right thing. Our response to God’s holiness: Fear lest we should displease the Lord.
2. Two Practical Applications
What will it mean if we begin to take God’s holiness seriously?
A. When we grasp God’s holiness, we will be moved to wholehearted worship!
Happened to Isaiah when he saw a vision of God. Happened to Job when the Lord finished his interrogation. Happened to the 24 elders in heaven as they came before the throne. Holiness leads to worship. I give you some good news and some bad news. Good news - you can worship God anywhere. Our 3 examples - men worshipped in the temple, in the desert and on the road to Jerusalem. I agree with everyone who says, “You don’t have to go to church to worship God.” That’s true, and lots of people who go to church don’t worship anyway. They come out of habit or to see their friends. Worship is the last thing on their minds. You can worship anytime or anywhere as long as you catch a glimpse of God’s holiness. When you see God, you’ll worship no matter where you are. That’s the good news.
The bad news - although you can worship God anywhere, you cannot worship him half-heartedly. There is no such thing as half-hearted worship. There’s religious routine and repetitive ritual, but true worship grips the mind and heart and soul.
During the dark days of 2 World War, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a radio address to the people of England, declared, “This world can be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing only, and that is worship.”
Listen to his definition of worship: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” Only worship can save us. We will never worship as long as we bored with God.
B. When God’s holiness grips us, we will respond with wholehearted obedience!
This follows naturally. What will that wholehearted obedience look like? There will be …new respect for God, new respect for God’s name, new zeal to please Him, new attention to the details of life, new fear of God’s judgment, new love for God’s people, new desire for God’s word, new hatred for sin, new humility, new fear of God in the congregation, new emphasis on the Cross of Christ, new desire to serve the Lord, new joy in worship, new zeal for prayer, new desire to tell others about the Lord, new reverence for life itself!
7 benefits of holiness in the life of the believer. God’s holiness … Exposes our sin. Shatters our pride. Awakens our conscience. Redirects our will. Stirs our emotions. Prompts our obedience. Ignites our worship.
Because God’s holiness is his central attribute, his holiness is the central issue of the Christian life. That is why 1 Peter 1:16 says, “Be holy, because I am holy.” When God’s holiness becomes a reality to us, we will never be the same again!
I began by remarking that God’s Holiness is that which makes God, God! In a sense, our holiness is what makes us truly Christian. To speak of an unholy Christian is ultimately a paradox (contradiction.) Holiness is the mark of God’s children. We are to be holy because we have been made partakers of his divine nature.
To be holy means that in every area of your life you are so aware of God’s presence that you are distinctively Christian.
One other bit of good news and I’m done. It’s not impossible to be holy - even in this unholy world. Jesus did the hard part when he died on the Cross. The Holy Spirit lives within us. God calls you “holy” in Christ Jesus. Do you want to be holy? Then live up to what you already are! Holiness is natural for the child of God.
“Would you consider it a compliment if someone called you a holy person?” Consider this. That’s the highest compliment God could ever give you.
“Holy Father, open our eyes that we might truly see You, and having seen You, to see ourselves as You see us. We pray to be holy as you are holy, and to live up to what we already are in Jesus Christ. Amen.”