Probably none of us have ever experienced the kind of raw, fiery encounters with God that Moses, Isaiah or even the 12 disciples did. So when we ask the question, “What is the holiness of God?” we can learn much from the reactions of those men who found themselves enveloped in God’s holiness. Here’s some of what we find:
1. When Peter realizes he’s in the presence of a Holy God he plants his face on the grimy ship-deck and pleads, “Go away from me Lord, for I’m a sinful man O Lord!” (Lk. 5:8)
2. When God visited Samson’s parents in Judges 13:22 they quivered in fear, “We will surely die, for we have seen God.”
3. When God appeared to the people on Mt. Sinai, even though cloaked with smoke and darkness, the people begged Moses to speak on their behalf for fear of death.
4. When God visited Ezekiel, calling him to preach repentance to a godless people, he kept collapsing like a dead man and God kept picking him back up.
If all we knew about God’s holiness were people’s reaction to Him what might we conclude? First, we would conclude that God has a terror to his beauty which seems to evoke chronic blackouts.
Second, we would conclude that this overpowering splendor invokes personal shame, leaving people to conclude that they must escape or die. The writer of Job testifies in Job 25:4b-6 “How then can a man be just with God? (or legally righteous) … 5 “If even the moon has no brightness and the stars are not pure in His sight, 6 How much less man, that maggot, And the son of man, that worm!” What is it about the holiness of God that simultaneously fills us with awe and self-loathing?
Isaiah 6 gives us the answer. Here we see God calling this young prophet into a hard, nearly fruitless ministry. So in order to prepare Isaiah, God has to show him what he’s fighting for. So he gives him a vision of his holiness.
Isaiah 6:1-13, “In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.”
The train of the royal robe symbolized dignity and honor. Remember how long Princess Diana’s train was? Well, the train of God’s robe was filling up the temple—billowing up and over the marble pillars. We get it! He is infinitely holy!
2 “Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.’ 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.”
Rev. 4:8 says these angels never cease this antiphonal worship. From the moment of their creation one choir calls out over the throne to the other choir, back and forth shouting, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” The triune God is thrice holy and it is the sheer weight of God’s holiness which inspires these mighty angels to erupt in deafening worship. No response other than worship is appropriate. This is where Isaiah’s problem begins.
5 “Then I said, ‘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.’”
Like all the others who have found themselves in the holiness of God, Isaiah realizes he has a major problem. He is not like God. Specifically, he is not like God in cleanliness. He is has an unclean heart that results in unclean words that instigates unclean actions. As Isaiah himself confessed, “The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint.” (Is. 1:5) So how can a sinful man possibly join the angelic worship? He cannot! So he creates a song of his own—“Woe! Damnation upon me.”
At this point the cowardly gods of human imagination take flight. They cannot tolerate a God whose presence evokes such self-loathing. But there He is, towering before us in Isaiah 6.
Happily, that is not the end of the vision. When the sinner sees his wretched condition that is when God lovingly steps in to deliver.
6 “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs.”
What does this altar symbolize? Substitutionary atonement. It is God’s altar where God’s perfect lamb will one day be slaughtered for sinners. It is the altar where God’s anger for Isaiah’s sins was satisfied. It is the altar where Christ would be judged as though he lived our sinful life so that we can be saved/blessed as though we lived Christ’s sinless life.
7 “He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’”
Oh blessed day for Isaiah! He’s gone from horror and fear to jubilant praise. He’s seen his hideous reflection in the mirror of God’s holiness, confessed his deserved doom and received God’s mercy and forgiveness.
So what is holiness? It is the sum total of God’s perfections; the fact that he will never do anything other than what is totally pure and good. And when God’s creatures encounter his holiness they will see themselves for who they truly are and experience the fresh rainfall of forgiveness. A God without holiness is a God with no reference point for forgiveness.