A Personal, Initially Painful, but Ultimately Pleasing Encounter with the Holiness of God (1)1
One of the more surprising texts in the Gospel of John comes on the heels of the apostle’s explanation for why so many people denied and defied Jesus. In order to account for this rejection of the Messiah, John appeals to the words of Isaiah 6:1-10, where God himself had declared that although they in one sense “see”, yet in another they are blind. In one sense they “hear”, yet in another they are deaf. It then that John makes this remarkable declaration:
“Isaiah said these things because he [Isaiah] saw his [Jesus Christ’s] glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41).
The experience of Isaiah that John mentions here is described in Isaiah 6, and to that we now turn our attention. Look with me at the text John has in mind:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:1-10).
If you asked most Christians, “whose glory did Isaiah see?” or “who is the Lord of hosts whose glory fills the earth, before whom the seraphim bow in adoration?” they would say: “That’s easy. It is God the Father. It is Yahweh, God of Israel.” But John tells us in John 12:41 that it was the glory of Jesus Christ, or better still the glory of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God!
Do you not feel the weight of what unbelief and hard-hearted defiance of Jesus Christ mean? Can you now understand why rejection of Jesus is so severe and deserving of eternal condemnation? It is because Jesus is the glory of God in human flesh! Jesus is the Lord whose glory, said Isaiah, fills the earth. Rejecting Jesus is no small thing. It is the most serious and consequential sin anyone can commit.
I’m going to devote several articles over the next couple of weeks to examining and unpacking this remarkable event portrayed for us in Isaiah 6, all with a view to shining a light on the unapproachable light of the glory of the Son of God. We begin by taking note of the meaning of “holiness” as Isaiah “saw” it.
The word “holiness” means different things to different people. Have you ever considered how frequently and flippantly we use the word holy? We say holy Moses, holy cow, holy moly, holy mackerel, holy Toledo, holy smoke, and holy roller, just to mention a few. It should come as no surprise to us that people are singularly unimpressed when the Bible talks about God as being holy.
So, what does it mean to say that God is holy? Most people think of moral rectitude or righteousness or goodness, and that is certainly true. To be holy is to be characterized by purity and blamelessness and integrity, both in terms of one's essence and one's activity. In this sense, God's holiness and his righteousness are somewhat synonymous. He is described in the OT as “of purer eyes than to see evil” and “too pure to behold evil.” The prophet Habakkuk said he “cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:13). But this is only a secondary way in which God is said to be holy. We need to understand the primary thrust of the word.
God is regularly identified in Scripture as “the Holy One” (see Job 6:10; Isa. 40:25; 43:15; Ezek. 39:7; Hosea 11:9; Hab. 1:12; 3:3). He is also called “the Holy One of Israel” in 2 Kings 19:22; Isa. 1:4; 43:3 (a total of 25x in Isaiah alone); Jer. 50:29; 51:5; and elsewhere. In Isaiah 57:15 God is described as “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isa. 57:15). God's holiness is often associated with his majesty, sovereignty, and awesome power (Ex. 15:11-12; 19:10-25; Is. 6:1-4).
Holiness is so much the essence of who God is that Amos speaks of him as swearing “by his holiness” (4:2). This is simply another way of saying that “the Lord God has sworn by himself” (6:8). In fact, God's name is qualified by the adjective “holy” in the OT more often than all other qualities or attributes combined!
The root meaning of the Hebrew noun “holiness” (qodes) and the adjective “holy” (qados) comes from a word that means “to cut” or “to separate.” The Greek equivalent is hagios and its derivatives. The point is that God is separate from everyone and everything else. He alone is Creator. He is altogether and wholly other, both in his character and his deeds. He is transcendently different from and greater than all his creatures in every conceivable respect. To put it in common terms, God is in a class all by himself!
We often speak of something that is outstanding or has superior excellence as being “a cut above” the rest. That is what God is, to an infinite degree. Holiness, then, is not primarily a reference to moral or ethical purity. It is a reference to transcendence. So, where does the concept of purity come from? R. C. Sproul explains:
“We are so accustomed to equating holiness with purity or ethical perfection that we look for the idea when the word holy appears. When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. They are to reflect purity as well as simply apartness. Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it. But the point we must remember is that the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity. It includes purity but is much more than that. It is purity and transcendence. It is a transcendent purity” (Holiness of God, 57).
Holiness, then, is that in virtue of which God alone is God alone. Holiness is moral majesty.
There is an interesting paradox in the title for God, “Holy One of Israel.” The words “Holy One” point to God's otherness, his “set-apartness”, so to speak. As we shall see, to be holy is to be transcendently above the creation. Yet, he is the Holy One “of Israel”! The Holy One has given himself to an unholy people. They are his people and he is their God. Although transcendent and lofty, he is also immanent and loving. His eternal distinctiveness as God does not prohibit or inhibit him from drawing near in grace and mercy to those with whom he is in covenant relationship. Let’s go back for a moment to Isaiah 57 and look at the entirety of v. 15,
“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15).
We hear that God is “high and lifted up” while we are low and cast down. We hear that God “inhabits eternity” and we are but creatures of time and decay and death. We hear this and we conclude that there is no way we could ever have a relationship with this God. He is too high and we are too low. He is eternal and we are temporal. He is righteous and we are sinful. But that is when God himself declares, “Yes, I am infinitely and immeasurably above and beyond you, but I have chosen in grace, mercy, and love to dwell with those who are contrite and humble and lowly, and I do so in order to revive and restore your hearts!” Does it sound too good to be true. Here it is again in Isaiah 66,
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? . . . But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:1-2).
To be continued . . .