HOLINESS, THE IMPOSSIBLE DISCIPLINE
Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.
19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.
20 The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exod. 19:17-20 ESV)
18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off
19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exod. 20:18-19 ESV)
We cannot begin to understand God until we seek to understand God as Holy. When we understand what holiness means, we will be like the people in Exodus 20 who experience the absolute terror of a holy God. Moses prepared the people to meet God at Mount Sinai. The preparation was according to the instructions of God himself. Yet, they feared that they might die. And they asked Moses that he would be the mediator between God and the people because they were in such fear in the presence of God’s holiness.
The Nature of a Holy God
Holiness is central to the core nature of God. The holiness of God cuts across all other attributes. Holiness is the expression of the essential nature of God’s being. While God first reveals himself as “I Am,” He next reveals Himself as “I Am Holy.” God declares that his name is holy. In the Bible, one’s name reflects the essential nature of the person. The word “Holy” becomes synonymous with Yahweh.
The word for holy in the Hebrew Bible is Qadesh. Often the word is said to indicate something that is separate or set apart. It is, but that is not an adequate definition. Holiness signifies the object of awe. In the case of God, it is the essence of his being and includes God’s transcendence, His perfection, His glory, His separation from man, His purity and righteousness. But it also includes His power, love and goodness.
God’s holiness is strange to us and unfamiliar. When we encounter the holy it produces in us a sense of awe or dread. We are undone by the presence of holiness. The Bible often speaks about the “fear of the Lord” as a righteous attribute for God’s people. Recall Isaiah’s experience of the Holy in Isaiah chapter six. He found himself in God’s presence and he cried, “Woe is me, for I am ruined. Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isa 6) The physical presence of God brought great judgment on Isaiah. Isaiah felt a sense of dread because he was unclean, he was a sinner in the presence of God. God cleansed him by touching his lips a burning coal from the altar and made him holy before Him. Only then did he feel that he could stand in God’s presence.
I think we would be remiss if we forgot that Isaiah was a believer. He trusted God. Like Abraham, before him, he believed, and it was accorded to him as righteousness. Yet the presence of God caused an immediate crisis in the extreme. To worship God from a distance is one thing, but to be in his glorious presence is another thing all together. It is a deadly matter for those who are unprotected by God himself.
Rudolf Otto called holiness the “Mysterium Tremedum,” the tremendous mystery. He used words like awesome, terrible, overpowering energy, wholly other, a mystery, all to describe holiness. The experience of the holy is beyond our experience and understanding. Holiness engulfs us and causes irrational fear. With all these words we still do not comprehend the holiness of God.
I think that human words fail us when we try to understand God as holy. Yet, He is our God and Creator. And by His hands all things are established. So, we must make the understanding of holiness central to our thinking, even with only a modicum of understanding and, if we are wise, a lot of fear.
Maybe the poet and hymn writers of the past have had more success than theologians in describing the nature of God. Robert Grant, the hymn writer, wrote the following verses in Oh, Worship The king:
Oh, worship the King, all glorious above.
Oh, gratefully sing his power and his love;
Our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.
Oh, tell of his might; oh, sing of his grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.
God is described using imagery from the Bible. He is the Ancient of Days. He controls nature and uses the storm like a chariot. God is clothed in light and his presence is like thunder and lightening. It is an awesome sight and experience.
God’s description of himself in Job 38-39 is humbling to Job, who only moments before decided he could complain and contend with God. As the wholly Other, He is holy, His holiness is expressed by His command and control of nature. And even the suffering of Job, as powerful and deep as it is, has no merit in God’s court.
I am sure that Paul’s language inspired the words of the hymn. “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” (1 Tim. 6:15-16 ESV)
In the Book of Revelation, God is described as sitting on the throne as light the color of emerald and red and He was surrounded by light. John heard the voice of God as peals of thunder that went out as commands to heaven and the world.
When we think about God, we need to see and understand that He is like no other. His is totally separate from all of creation. God is transcendent above all the universe. His being is frightening and causes irrational fear in His presence because of our finite nature and because of our sin.
God Protects us from His Holiness
God, in his grace, shields us from his holiness. We know God indirectly. People of old would hear from God through the Prophets or see God in his mighty acts. We know God through the Bible. Only rarely do we know God directly. Such an experience is uncomfortable at best, frightening and even deadly. The common theme of the Bible is “who can see the face of God and live?” Yet, God has made it possible for us to know Him through His Word and through the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit.
Moses wanted to see the glory, the holiness of God. The text reveals so much about the pure nature of God. Even His goodness is dangerous to us:
18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”
19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
21 And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock,
22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.
23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen. (Exod. 33:18-23 ESV)
Called to be a Holy People
The holiness of God holds precise demands for his people. Everything reflects the holiness of God. The Tabernacle and later the Temple were arrayed to remind the People of God of his holiness. Central to the temple and tabernacle is the area called the Holy of Holies. It was the place where God met the High Priest on the Day of Atonement to cleanse the people of their sins. The continual presence of the Holy of Holies reminds both the priests and the people that God is the Holy Other, the one who cannot be approached without cleansing and preparation.
We cannot be nonchalant and flippant about the holy nature of God. There is a passage that may not be familiar to many regarding handling holy things that represent God. The Ark of God had been taken by the enemies of Israel. Because of the bad things that happened while they possessed it, they sent it back to Israel. The journey took several stages. On the final stage, an incident took place that reminded the priests that they had been careless in handling holy things. The Ark was supposed to be covered in porpoise skin and carried by long polls that passed through rings in the Ark that were designed for transport. They had forgotten how to handle things that represent God.
“And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.” (2 Sam. 6:6-7 ESV)
We are shocked by this. Uzzah was simply trying to protect the Ark. But everything about this was wrong from being uncovered to carrying it on a cart. The account reminds us that God’s holiness is dangerous and fearful. We must approach holiness in the manner that God commands and not how we think it should be done. We can be grateful that God shields us by his grace.
Those few people like Isaiah, Abraham, and Jeremiah, were completely undone and forever changed by God’s holiness. Yet, God expresses his grace to us by limiting his revelation of himself. In this life we are not prepared and equipped to be in the raw, unfettered presence of the Holy.
We also need to remember that God does not change. The God of the Old Testament is the same God we find in the New Testament. There are those who like to think that somehow God in the New Testament is milder that in the Old testament. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, they have pared the claws if the Lion of Judah. Yet what we think does not change the reality of God. He is still holy. The Second Person of the Trinity became flesh and blood so that he might get close to us. Flesh and blood covered His holiness. He was mistreated by those around him. We see holy restraint in God as he is beaten and marched to Golgotha and nailed to a cross. These things did not happen because Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity was any less holy or any less God. These things happened because God in His grace restrained His holiness, his anger and wrath, and directed them to himself for our sake. God’s holiness was focused on our redemption.
We can never redeem ourselves. How can we please a holy God? What about us thinks that we are in some small way acceptable to God? Our arrogance is all the more insane when we understand that the grace of God, the Love of God restrains him from our utter destruction. Rather, it is poured into our salvation. Our holy God took on our sin as our substitute so that we might be set free from death and destruction that is the consequence of our unholy state of being.
The Demand to Be Holy as God is Holy
God calls us to be His people. When God established the covenant with Israel, His command to them was to be holy. “For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11:45 NAU) It was common for Israel to be called a holy people. The apostle Peter applied this command to the church, to those who come to Christ. “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:15-16 ESV) We who are redeemed are holy!
The command to be holy is overwhelming and it seems impossible. It is something that we do not take seriously. Our contemporary practices are pasteurized and detuned so that God is turned into something meek and mild just like us. God is therapeutic. He makes us feel good about ourselves. We think that God is about our happy emotions. We feel excited about elements of worship that are emotion laden, but it is false worship if it causes us to forget the awe and fear as the overwhelming power of the Wholly Other brings us into his presence. No worship leader brings us into the presence of God. Those are just words used to manipulate our emotions. Either the holy God is present, or He is not, but we cannot conjure Him up by our practices. And if God is not present with us in worship, then we need to ask why? Nothing about our Christian faith can be real if it does not begin with the understanding that God is holy.
God’s holiness will not allow us to live unholy lives. I wonder if today’s church is so impotent because we refuse to conform to the holiness of God? God withdraws from us when we refuse to be a holy people. When we read Isaiah, we find that God withdraws his Spirit from Israel because they refuse to repent and be holy as God commanded them. In Ezekiel 5, God had reached his limit to the arrogance and sin of Judah that he became their enemy and withdrew from them. The rejection of God by the people of God is a terrible thing. Over time, deliberately sinning against God’s holiness, demands judgement.
These are sobering thoughts. What does it mean to be holy as God is holy? Obviously, we are not like God. God is infinite in all his being, in all his attributes. We are very limited in our being. And when we read about Abraham we understand that he was a righteous man, but he was not a perfect man. Holiness is not perfection. Perfection is something that comes to us when the age has ended, and we are glorified, that is, we will be made perfect so that we will stand before the face of God.
For us to be holy is an analogical statement, a correspondence that is only partially similar to God. We are more like the tiny moon compared to the giant sun and we can only reflect a pale light instead of shining brilliantly like the sun. We can do this, in part, because we are made in the Image of God. God gave us qualities that reflect our creator and that allows us to relate to God. It was by God’s command that we were created in his image, a distinction that is held by no other creature. “So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27 ESV) Our relationship to God is always the greater to the lessor and it is always initiated by God. While there is in us, what has been described as a God-shaped void, we cannot find Him. The very nature of God prevents us from discovering God. God comes to us. Our knowledge of God is always an act of revelation.
We are not perfect, nonetheless, we are called to separate ourselves from the world. The basic meaning of holy is to be separate. We must make every effort to live rightly and justly. The New Testament instructs us how live an ethical and moral life. In fact, Paul has a section of how we are to treat each other in all of his writings and it reflects the second table of the Law and how those who are loved by God should treat others.
The most holy object that we ever encounter besides God, is a fellow believer. Holiness requires us to be in the world but not of it. Holiness requires us to treat each other with love in the same way God has loved us. Our holy character must extend to how we treat the poorest in our society. The way we treat the least among us has very grave consequences:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ (Matt. 25:41-44 ESV)
So, the frustrating question is, how do we live holy lives as we are commanded? The only way we can live this way is if we are enabled to do so. Paul announces a mysterious relationship between God and the believer, “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27 ESV) In Galatians 2: 20, Paul describes his relationship with God, and we must assume our relationship with God as well, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20 NAU)
In the eyes of God, the old man ceases to exist. We may not feel differently about ourselves, though I think we do, to God our old person has died, and we are new creatures in Christ, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ . . .” (2 Cor. 5:17-18 NAU) This is a matter of status before God, but it is also a matter of reality for the believer. We are the “Temple of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit lives in us. Christ is in us.
Our capacity to live a holy life is not in our native ability but in the fact that our Holy God lives in us and causes us to live in Him. Our resource is God himself. The grace that God extended to Abraham and the Old Testament saints, the same grace that caused God to become flesh and live with us and die for us and rise from the grave, still abides with us in our everyday living.
We live holy lives by being in communion with God daily and by resting in him. God equips us to live a holy life. He is at work in us making us a holy people. This is called the doctrine of sanctification. Sanctification is progressive. We grow in holiness and we have setbacks. We walk forward, and we stumble and fall. We are not made perfect and we often fail. Abraham is lifted up as the model of a person of faith, yet he failed from time to time and God still used him and blessed him.
We orient ourselves toward holiness by prayer and by practicing the presence of God in our daily lives. Practicing the presence of God means that in our every waking moment we are aware that we belong to him and that we live our lives by His Spirit in us. And any time we turn away from that relationship, it leads to failure and disaster.
Christians are to live in a holy relationship with each other. There are none who are greater than the other. All are redeemed by God:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8 ESV)
We are called to be like Christ and humble ourselves before each other, no arrogance, no superior attitude, no belittling another who is redeemed of God. We love each other as Christ has loved us. He is our example and our goal.
God is holy, what a powerful, mind numbing concept! But when Christ redeems us, we too become holy. Let us strive to live by and through the Holy Spirit and live as holy people.