Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from Today’s New International Version (TNIV), Zondervan Publishing Company.
Holiness. That one word inspires a host of images in the minds of Christians. For some, it may evoke the mental picture of a disciple cloistered in a monastery praying the Psalms. For others, however, the word may recall legalistic preaching that stresses the “don’ts” of a particular theological paradigm but not much else.
Grammatically, the Hebrew word for holiness and closely related words are qâdash (kaw-dash) or qôdesh (ko’-desh). The sense of the words conveys the idea of being clean or being pronounced clean. In addition, qôdesh speaks to the idea of consecrating a thing or a place. The Greek words paint a similar picture with more nuances. The primary word for holiness is hagios (hag-ee-os) and means “sacred, pure, morally blameless.”
Inherent in all the definitions and explanations about the holiness of God are the purity, the ethereal righteous “otherhood” of God that shocks, awes, repels, and draws. However, do not think that God can be defined by one particular attribute. My only purpose for this essay is to convey one major point: the holiness of God can change our lives. What some reduce to a mere theological abstract fit only for the shelf can actually transform our lives and our churches so that we can influence the world for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Part I: Holiness and the Glory of God
Holiness has a great deal to do with reflecting and declaring the glory of God. In fact, his holiness is one of the attributes that sets him apart from false gods. Exodus 15:11 asks one of the great rhetorical questions in all of Scripture: “Who among the gods is like you, LORD? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (TNIV) The holiness of God declares his royalty and kingship. There is something about God that stirs up the hearts of his people to worship him as king. Think of the most awe-inspiring monarchy to grace the stage of human history and still that crown could not match the splendor and matchless glory of Almighty God.
Let us not also forget that God’s holiness, his otherness, matters to him. Psalm 89:35 underscores that the trustworthiness of God’s word to us is connected to his holiness as he “swears” by it. Moreover, the very name of God is holy. Remember in Exodus 20:7 where God forbids his name to be taken in vain? What lies at the heart of that command? To misuse God’s name is to profane the character of God. In Hebrew culture, names were more than something you wrote on a birth certificate. Rather, the name of a person reflected that person’s prophetic destiny and character. To assail their name was to assail who they were. To profane the name of God and render it an empty, useless thing is to profane his holiness. We fail to see the otherhood of God, missing him altogether.
We cannot miss the connection between God’s character and his holiness. Moses learned this the hard way when he struck the rock twice instead of speaking to the rock as the LORD commanded (Num. 20:6-12). God’s response was pointed:
48 On that same day the LORD told Moses,
49 “Go up into the Abarim Range to Mount Nebo
in Moab, across from Jericho, and view Canaan,
the land I am giving the Israelites as their own
possession. 50 There on the mountain that you
have climbed you will die and be gathered to
your people, just as your brother Aaron died on
Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.
51 This is because both of you broke faith with me
in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of
Meribah Kadesh in the Desert of Zin and because
you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites.
52 Therefore, you will see the land only from
a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving
to the people of Israel” (Deut. 32:48-52, emphasis mine)
The character of God would not be challenged even by his faithful servant. Moses had disobeyed a commandment from God before the people and would, therefore, not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. Was God too harsh or was he keen on solidifying the seriousness of his call to Israel to obey him in all things as Moses would later warn them in Deuteronomy 32:46-47? I believe the answer is the latter. A holy God cannot ignore sin and to ignore Moses’ would set a horrible precedent for a people who had already impugned the character and name of God with their rebellion.
So how does the holiness of God in relation to his glory transform us?
Before the holiness of God can transform our lives, we must first collide with it head on and “heart” on that changes our course forever. The story of Isaiah bears upon this point. Isaiah was a man with connections. His cousin Uzziah had been the king of Judah before his death and Isaiah was probably a member of an important family in town. But while worshiping in the temple, Isaiah had an encounter with God that changed him forever. He encountered the glory of the Lord in a heavenly vision:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the
Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted,
and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above
him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two
wings they covered their faces, with two they
covered their feet, and with two they were flying.
3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory. (Isa. 6:1-3)
The glory of God brings a hush over the mutterings of the human heart. Isaiah was overcome with the intoxicating, divine otherhood of God. Even the angels, keepers of the throne of God, could not help but cry in exultation “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (emphasis mine).
While some are content to have “encounters” with a holy God, God himself longs for a people to live in, abide in—not merely encounter. As God confronts us with his holiness, we worship him with a surrendered heart first. We bow and worship before him just as Solomon and the priests did when the glory of the Lord was so thick, so palpable that nothing the quench that holy, precious fire (1 Kin. 8:10-11).
What happens when we are confronted with the holiness of God?