Summary: God is separate from all that is sinful; He is the perfect measure of goodness. He is holiness itself--the source and standard of moral absolutes. Do we have a sense of God's holiness?
Everything begins with God. He is at the center of our faith. Yet we don’t get out of bed each morning and mindlessly repeat “I believe” three times. We need to ask ourselves: “In whom do I believe?” We were made to know God. Do we? I’m not talking about seeing a vision or hearing a voice. We know God by knowing His word, in which He reveals Himself and His purpose for us, His creation. So we begin a study of God’s character, His attributes.
At an Army chapel in Germany where I served, we would begin our worship by declaring: “God is good…all the time!”…because He is holy. To be holy means to be set apart, unique. God is separate from all that is sinful; He is the perfect measure of goodness. He is holiness itself--the source and standard of moral absolutes. God’s holiness extends to all He is (His nature) and all His actions (works). God swears by His holiness (Heb 6:13/Ps 89:35) because He can swear by no greater. His infinite holiness permeates all He does. Thomas Watson stated, “Holiness is the most sparkling jewel of God’s crown; it is the name by which He is known.”
In Isaiah 6, the prophet had a vision of God in all His transcendent majesty. Before God’s exalted throne, angels declared that God is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” In Jewish thought, for something to be repeated three times, indicated its perfection. To call God “Holy, Holy, Holy” is to say that He is perfectly pure, with nothing and no one to compare Him to. “There is no one holy like the Lord,” I Samuel 2:2. Nothing could be added to God’s goodness. He is distinct, with no comparisons, no peers. So we could get out of bed and declare, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Encountering God’s holiness, Isaiah was awestruck, overwhelmed…and he fully realized his profane sinfulness. Trembling, he cried out, “Woe is me!” Isaiah felt exposed, naked under the gaze of absolute holiness. He was profoundly confronted with his moral inadequacy. R.C. Sproul writes, “For the first time in his life Isaiah understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time Isaiah understood who Isaiah was.” We may think, “Hey, I’m not so bad; I haven’t killed anyone or robbed any banks,” yet we are debased and defiled when compared to the Standard.
With God so holy and pure, how can we ever hope to be acceptable in His sight? Sin is an affront to the holiness of God. The prophet Habakkuk writes that God’s “eyes are too pure to look on evil” (1:13). Yet there is hope for us; God declares in Isaiah 57:15, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with those who are contrite and humble.” God takes us who grieve over our sinfulness and He makes us holy and acceptable. Isaiah stood trembling before the throne, lamenting “I am a man of unclean lips.” Then an angel took a burning coal and touched his lips, a symbolic act of purification and pardon. The angel assured the prophet, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (6:5-6).
When Moses encountered God at the burning bush (Exodus 3)--a turning point in his life and for the nation of Israel--he was instructed to remove his sandals, because the ground itself was made holy by the presence of God. Sandals are worn to protect our feet; to remove them makes us vulnerable. Moses had no need for them; nothing on this ground would harm him; God made the ground. To uncover the feet was a sign of humility. It reminded Moses that he was of the earth, formed by the dust of the ground.
Later Solomon wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding,” Proverbs 9:10. C.S. Lewis observed, “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets real thing, it is irresistible. “
Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the Jewish High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple. He would enter the presence of God and stand before the Ark of the Covenant. Only on that day and in that Most Holy Place would the priest utter the most sacred Name of God, represented in English as YHWH. There is a legend that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies with a scarlet rope tied to his ankle and bells affixed to his robe. Should his moral character be unacceptable, he would die before the sacred presence of God, the sound of the bells would cease, and since no one else could enter, his body would be pulled out.
I had my own sacred encounter…in 1989 I took 40 3rd Armored Division soldiers and their families to Israel. We were walking on holy ground! We visited the Mount of Olives, the Jordan River, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Jericho, Masada, but the place that stands out the most in my memory was the beautiful Garden Tomb, just below Golgotha. There stood the empty tomb with the stone rolled away, and as I stood before it, I felt like I had arrived at the Holy of Holies. I was privileged to serve Communion in the garden, and it remains a highlight of my ministry. This was a sanctified moment, and I was filled with a sense of the Holy.