Sermon series: Holy God, Holy People
I love music. It is a gift from God that captures and carries that which cannot be adequately expressed by words alone. "Music," said Plato, "gives wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything." Music sets forth what is important to us, what moves us, what changes us, what we long for. So do you know what the first recorded song in the Bible is about? I will give you a hint: the last song recorded in the Bible is about the same thing.
The first song in Scripture appears in Ex. 15; the last song can be found in Rev. 15. And both have as their shared focus the holiness of God. After God demolished any notion that Egypt's false gods were anything other than the projections of the men who worshipped them; after God delivered over 1 million Israeli slaves from the grip of Egypt through 10 awesome plagues and a parted Red Sea, Moses led the whole nation in a song celebrating God's holiness. One verse captures the gist of the entire song: "Lord, who is like You among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, revered with praises, performing wonders?"
When the 90-year old Apostle John was granted by God to look into the future, he saw a moment when the final outpouring of the wrath of God was about to take place. Gathered in heaven were those whose faith and allegiance to God in defiance of the rule of AntiChrist had cost them their lives. And John tells us that "they sang the song of God's servant Moses, and the song of the Lamb: Great and awe-inspiring are Your works, Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are Your ways, King of the Nations. Lord, who will not fear and glorify Your name? Because You alone are holy, because all the nations will come and worship before You, because Your righteous acts have been revealed." (Rev. 15:3-4)
In between Ex. 15 and Rev. 15, God's holiness comes up over and over again. Holy is used more often as a prefix to God's name than any other adjective. Two men in Scripture who were permitted to see into the throne room of heaven and write about it; both reported hearing one continuous refrain, spoken day and night: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty." (Isaiah 6:3; Rev. 4:8) This is the only thing said about God in this fashion. No other attribute of His is repeated three times.
This morning, I come to present to you truths about God that are so mysterious, so disquieting, and so awesome that it makes me tremble. If you dare to come with me in these next few moments, you will understand why righteous Job would say to God, "I had heard rumors about You, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I take back [my words] and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:5-6)
If you turn aside from other distractions and draw near to the common things God sets on fire by His presence, you will understand why Moses feared to get too close and took the sandals off his feet before the bush that burned with God's presence. (Exodus 3:5)
If you will look intently at this truth about God, you will join Isaiah, a man of God who studied and thought about and proclaimed God's holiness for years before having a personal encounter with this holy God, and was left saying, " 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 Hosts." (Isaiah 6:5) Let's ask a question in this day when God is the subject of stand-up comedians and bumper stickers:
I. What does it mean to say 'God is holy'?
There are basically two strands of meaning for the word holy:
A. To be holy is to be distinct, separate, unique
The basic meaning of holy in the Bible is to cut away or to separate. R. C. Sproul suggests that this word conveys the same idea we express when we find a garment or a golf club or some piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has superior excellence, and we might say that it is "a cut above the rest." (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God [Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985], p. 40)
So when we say God is holy, we're not talking about one characteristic out of many about God; we're talking about the character of God Himself. Holiness, when applied to God, means that He is utterly unique, incomparable, matchless, without parallel and without peer. In Isaiah 40:25, God Himself issues the challenge: "Who will you compare Me to, or who is My equal?" asks the Holy One." And we must answer, "There is no comparison." God is not just a super-sized version of you or me. He is transcendently separate, in a class by Himself. He is subject to nothing. He answers to no one. This is who our Holy God is.
When Hannah rejoiced in God for answering her prayer for a son, she prayed, " There is no one holy like the Lord. There is no one besides You! And there is no rock like our God." (1 Sam. 2:2).
David's confidence in God was fortified by considering His holiness: "Lord, there is no one like You among the gods, and there are no works like Yours. All the nations You have made will come and bow down before You, Lord, and will honor Your name. For You are great and perform wonders; You alone are God.." (Ps. 86:8-10)
Even the name God gave to His mighty archangel Michael testifies to this truth. The name is translated, "Who is like God?"
Here's the first strand of meaning in the Bible about the holiness of God: He is not like anything or anyone we can come up with. He is above us. He is beyond us. He is so different and so rare that no one in the Bible, regardless of how devout or learned, failed to crumble in fear and humility and repentance when they caught a glimpse of this holy God. When God met with Habakkuk the prophet, he described his reaction like this: "I heard, and I trembled within; my lips quivered at the sound. Rottenness entered my bones; I trembled where I stood . . . " (Hab. 3:16) He was shattered by what he saw. When we see Him as He is, it traumatizes us because we immediately see ourselves for who we really are, and the incongruence is overwhelming.
Brothers and sisters, there's a lot of religious technicians out there today whose goal is to make you feel comfortable with God at almost any level. They want you to feel like God is someone we can hang out with, confide in, and call on when the going gets tough, regardless of your relationship with Him or what kind of life you're leading. Last week, I heard a prominent pastor refer to God as Jesus' "Old Man."
Contrast that trivializing, bumper sticker, next-door neighbor view of God to what God Himself said to Israel in Ps. 50:21-22: " . . . you thought I was just like you. But I will rebuke you and lay out the case before you. 'Understand this, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no rescuer.'!" It is a dangerous thing to forget that God is holy. We trifle with the living God to our own peril. He is not our Buddy. "Our God is a consuming fire," friends (Heb. 12:29). Let the mystery of Who He is strike you today. He will not fit into our neat theological formulations. He cannot be defined in finite minds. That's part of what it means to say He is holy.
A secondary strand of meaning has a distinctly moral focus:
B. To be holy is to be absolutely pure
Holiness is being set apart from anything impure in order to be completely given over to what God says is pure. When you apply this meaning to God, His holiness points to what 1 John 1:5 says: "there is absolutely no darkness at all." James tells us that "God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn't tempt anyone." (James 1:13). Habakkuk 1:13 adds that God's eyes "are too pure to look on evil, and [He] cannot tolerate wrongdoing." In a word, God is perfect, without sin, flawless.
So blazing is God's purity that the sinless seraphim who serve Him in heaven cover their faces with their wings (Is. 6:2). Job 4:18 declares, "God puts no trust in His servants and He charges His angels with error . . . ." Stephen Charnock was right when he said, "As there is no darkness in His understanding, so there is no spot in His will; as His mind is possessed with all truth, so there is no deviation in His will from it. He loves all truth and goodness; He hates all falsity and evil." (Stephen Charnock, quoted by David Hall, online at http://www.apocalypsesoon.org/xfile-35.html)
With the concepts of purpose and purity in God established, how does that relate to us? The leap from those heights is terrible to consider.
The reflex of His holiness against sin is unmistakable, which raises up the final point:
C. Only holy people can see God
"Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness - without it no one will see the Lord." (Heb. 12:14) Holy people see the holy God. Unholy people will never lay eyes on Him. "Your iniquities have built barriers between you and your God, and your sins have made Him hide [His] face from you so that He does not listen." (Isaiah 59:2).
So what hope have I? Because fundamentally, essentially, by nature and by choice, I am a sinner! "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not set his mind on what is false, and who has not sworn deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation." (Ps. 24:3-5)
But my hands aren't clean. And my heart is not pure. Sometimes I offer up my time and energy to be entertained by things I know are based on lies. I will never climb to the holy heights where God dwells!
I Peter 1:14-16 makes it even more blunt: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance 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."
But my life is not holy. My days are riddled with sin. My heart is attracted to sin. My mind tends to justify sin. I am so bent toward sin and its ways that Jeremiah tells me that I struggle just to identify in myself: "The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick - who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)
I am a living contradiction to His holy character. I see that, but there's something far more dangerous and true: He sees that too. Psalms 90:8-9: "You have set our unjust ways before You, our secret sins in the light of Your presence. For all our days ebb away under Your wrath; we end our years like a sigh." Heb. 4:13 echoes this: "No creature is hidden from Him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account."
I'm caught red-handed. So are you! Our sin not only makes us totally incompatible with a thrice-holy God, it makes us guilty of treason. We have broken His law, defied His commands, fallen short of His glory, trespassed in forbidden territory, and missed the bulls- eye of perfection required by a holy God.
So with Eliphaz we ask, "Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?" (Job 4:17, ESV) How can a holy God who must judge sin keep His integrity while pronouncing guilty sinners "Not guilty"? I Peter 3:18 has the answer: "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm."
What His holiness demanded His grace provided in Jesus Christ our Lord. He stepped took the white hot heat of God's eternal and holy revulsion at sin in the single act at Calvary, so that all who put their hope there will be put to shame. My sin is put on Christ; His holiness clothes me. I stand before God in a righteousness that is not my own, forgiven, accepted, granted sonship with all its privileges.
Let me close with this one question: What difference does God's holiness make in my life?
A. Saving holiness
Do you have the holiness of God working for you in Christ, or is His holiness set against you? Have you fled to Christ, deliberately, personally trusting that what He did on the cross is your only hope of being right with God? Or are you still carrying your sin and an appointment with the fierce wrath of God?
B. Serving holiness
What is the evidence in your daily life that the Holy Spirit of God indwells you? Does your behavior, your choices, your habits, your language show that you are, in the language of I Peter 2:9, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light"?