In Here I Stand, Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther, he tells of how Luther, as a young monk, was to lead in his first Communion. Luther was terrified. He said:
“At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.”
Unfortunately, not many people have that kind of attitude towards God. I say unfortunately because the change in attitude is NOT for the better. People talk about God, and address God, and seemingly approach God, as though it were nothing at all; when the fact is that our God is indeed a holy and awesome God!
The God of the Bible is a Holy God. In Isaiah 6, the prophet is given a vision of God in the temple, and three times the angels cried out that God is holy. Let us read this passage together, and then look at what it means that God is holy, and how should we respond to that fact.
I. The Doctrine of the Holiness of God
Isaiah 6:3 says that the seraphim called out to one another saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” This is perhaps the most awesome vision of God revealed in scripture:
“The train of His robe filled the temple” – I had never really noticed this before: His train FILLED the temple – that means it covered the entire floor of the temple – so there was no room for anyone to stand there! (Charles Spurgeon in his sermon, “A View of God’s Glory” postulates that the train represents those things which we may see of God’s glory.) That is why it says the “seraphim STOOD ABOVE Him” – this is the same Hebrew word that describes the stars as standing in space, and the earth in the sky; they were hovering; flying — for they would not dare tread on the train of His holy robe!
In fact, in what is to me one of the most intriguing and applicable portions of this description, it says that the seraphim each have six wings – we usually envision angels with TWO wings, but here it says that these have six. And notice what it says they DO with them: “With two he covered his face; with two he covered his feet; and with two he flew.” What an insightful and revealing description! Each of the duties of the seraphim says something to us about our response to the holiness of God – we will address this momentarily.
Then :3 says that one called out to another saying, “holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The word “holy” here is the Hebrew word “kadosh”. It means to be “separate, pure, set apart.”
The thrice-repeated “holy”, as many of you know, is significant. The number three in the Bible expresses perfect development, and unity. It saying that God has perfect holiness – AND as it is also the number of the perfectly developed, and yet unified Triune God, it is also an Old Testament foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity: the Father is holy, the Son is holy, the Spirit is holy; the Three-in-One are holy; perfectly holy, “holy, holy, holy”!
And this goes on forever! “One calls out to another” doesn’t mean that it just happened once, but is a description of how it went on and on and on, unbroken. (Keil & Delitzsch, Isaiah p.125) We see this same thing in Revelation 4:8, where it says that in heaven, “Day and night they do not cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.’” Day and night in heaven, they NEVER stop singing this song, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”
Thus the holiness of God is emphasized in scripture like no other quality is. R.C. Sproul is often quoted from his book The Holiness of God as saying:
“Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that he is holy, holy, holy that the whole earth is full of His glory.”
So God’s holiness is emphasized as no other quality of His is. It is obviously of utmost importance. What then, does it mean that God is holy? It basically means two things: that He is morally perfect, and that He is absolutely unique and set apart from us.
A. He is morally perfect
That God is holy that He personally has no sin or corruption or evil Him whatsoever.
Psalm 100 famously says: “For the Lord is good”. Last week we saw that God is the absolute sovereign, ruler, King of the universe. That is an awesome thing. But in the doctrine of His holiness we see that God is not “only” great – He is also GOOD!
Psalm 119:68 “You are good, and do good.”
Habakkuk 1:13 “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor.”
Luke 18:19 “No one is good but God alone.”
James 1:13 says: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “ I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.”
I John 1:5 says: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”
This is a foundational Christian doctrine: God is not only great, God is also GOOD! We can be thankful for that. Not only is God all-powerful, but He is GOOD in His omnipotence! He is not like the petty Greek and Hindi gods, who had flaws and moral failures. The God of the Bible is holy. He is not tainted with sin. This is why I cannot carry the doctrine of God’s sovereignty so far as to say that He decreed evil. I believe that God in His sovereignty has decreed that we will have real choices that have consequences – but He has not decreed evil. God is a holy God. There is no stain or blemish is in His perfect righteousness. This goodness also gives us confidence that He is indeed working all things together for good as Romans 8:28 declares — and we can trust what He is doing with our lives –for He Himself is absolutely good!
B. He is “set apart” from all others
But the holiness of God means more than that He is just absolutely “good.” The Hebrew word “Qadosh” means to be separate. When things are described as “holy” in the Old Testament, it means that they are “set apart” for God’s special use. The temple was holy, for it was set apart for God; the lamps were holy because they weren’t to be used for any common purpose, they were set apart for God’s use, and so on. “Qadosh” or “holy” means to be “set apart” from common use.
We have a good pastor friend from our seminary days who grew up working on a farm. He said this farmer friend of his had a number of pairs of work overalls that he wore on the farm every day. But, he said, this farmer had one special pair of overalls that he only did one thing in: he wore them to church on Sunday. He never wore them to work in the field. The single, only thing he did in them was put them on, on Sunday morning, and wear them to church. You might say, in a sense, that those overalls were “holy” overalls! So all of the things in the Old Testament which are described as “holy” were “set apart” for the special use of God: the temple was holy, the priests were holy, the sacrifices were holy, the lamps and censers were holy – they were all unique, set aside for God.
But above and beyond all these things, GOD HIMSELF is holy. That means that God HIMSELF is “set apart.” He is absolutely unique. There is none like Him.
–Exodus 15:11 says: “Who is like Thee among the gods, O LORD? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?”
–Isaiah 40:25 “To whom then would you liken Me, that I should be his equal …”.
There is no one like our God. He is infinitely above and beyond everyone and everything else in the universe. He is holy. He is unapproachable by us. God told Moses in Exodus 33 that no one can see His face and live! We would be consumed in His presence. John Calvin said that if a man would be consumed in the presence of the sun, how much more so in the presence of the Creator of the sun!
So God’s holiness means that He is morally perfect and He is absolutely set apart and unique. Louis Berkhof, the theologian of a past generation, called these two qualities of God’s holiness His moral holiness, and His Majestic holiness. God is absolutely good, absolutely set apart – He is our absolutely holy God!
II. APPLICATIONS of the holiness of God
The vision of God in His holiness made a lasting impression on Isaiah – as you would imagine! Isaiah’s favorite name for God throughout the Book of Isaiah is “The Holy One of Israel” – every time he used that name, it called back again to him the majestic vision he had seen of God in His holiness. We too, need a vision of the holiness of God, which will permanently impress and impact our lives. Our response to the holiness of God should be patterned after that of the angels in Isaiah 6, and of Isaiah himself. They demonstrate for us how one rightly relates to the holiness of God in several areas:
The holiness of God has enormous applications for the way that we relate to God for our salvation. God is a holy God. When a sinner is confronted by the holiness of God, he will respond just like Isaiah did here in chapter 6: Isaiah himself fell before the Lord in humility and repentance, crying, “Woe is me, for I am undone; for 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.” His response was very similar to that of Martin Luther’s – terror in the presence of the thrice-holy God! Peter was the same way: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”.
Someone may say, “but Bro. Shawn, should we fear God like Martin Luther did? Doesn’t ‘perfect love cast out fear’?” When you really come to know Jesus as your Savior, that “craven fear” of God IS cast out; you have “boldness and confident access through faith in Him.” But the problem is, too many have never HAD had a fear of God! They never have been confronted with the reality of their sin, and how they have offended a holy God; they have skipped the conviction of sin and holiness and the terror of the holiness of the wrath of the Holy God altogether – and they are not saved! In genuine salvation, a person has a convicting confrontation like Isaiah did here in Chapter 6, where they realized that there was no hope before a holy God unless something was done for them. Then God reveals the sacrifice that He made on the altar: the sacrifice of His Son Jesus. When you receive that sacrifice, and you cling to it, as your only hope, you are saved. And yes, now you may come boldly into the presence of God, but you do it understanding that it is no “light” thing; that it is a HOLY God you are coming to, and you are ONLY able to do it through Jesus. The person who is really saved has not SKIPPED what Martin Luther, and Isaiah went through; they have experienced the very same thing. They have been confronted with the holiness of God, and know that the only reason they would not be consumed in the presence of holy God is the sacrifice of Jesus which covers them.
Some time ago, I watched a video of a man who was testing out a fireproof suit he had bought. He had friend with a flamethrower, and the friend blasted him with the flamethrower, but it did not hurt him a bit – “not even a singed hair”, he said. Now, it is one thing to have protection from a consuming fire – it is another to think that you don’t NEED that protection. The Bible says “Our God is a consuming fire.” He is absolutely holy and separate from us, and if any of us were to approach Him without some kind of protective shield, we would be consumed in His holy presence. Jesus is that protection for us. The Bible says that those of us who are saved are “hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) Those who come to Jesus ask Him to save them – to cover them with His forgiveness and grace, and make them acceptable in the sight of God. But they come to God with an acute awareness of their unworthiness, of their sin. Just like a man in flameproof suit never loses sight of the fact that the only way he is not consumed is due to that suit; so the genuine Christian never loses respect for the holiness of God. He is constantly aware that if it were not for the covering of Christ, he would be consumed. But if you have never felt that sense of inadequacy that Isaiah had before God; if you have never felt that conviction, that despair that unless God did something for you, you could not be saved — it demonstrates that you have never really come to know Him. You may have an imaginary relationship with some “buddy-buddy” god of your own making — but you don’t know the thrice-holy God of Isaiah! When you truly confront the holy, holy, holy God, you will respond in humility and repentance, leading to genuine salvation.
We learn much regarding what should be our attitude of worship from the seraphim in this text. The description of them says: “Each having six wings. With two he covered his face; with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew”. This may seem like an odd picture, but what the Bible says they did with their wings is very revealing about the way that we should worship:
— “With two he covered his face”. This is the response of AWE in the presence of holy God. They can’t even gaze at His glorious holiness; it is like gazing at the sun. We should never lose that sense of awe at the glory of God; we should always in a sense “cover our faces” in His presence.
— “With two he covered his feet” – this is the response of humility and unworthiness in the presence of God. In many Eastern countries, feet are considered to be dirty – they walk through the filthy streets, often filled with all kinds of refuse. Those of us who have been on mission in India have walked through such places! The streets are covered with cow dung, and all kinds of trash; no wonder they always take their shoes off when they enter a home there! As a result – and because so many wear sandals! – feet are considered to be ignominious. You do not point your feet at someone when you sit by them – it is considered to be a rude gesture. So these angels would “cover their feet” in the presence of God; that is, they knew that they were unworthy, and treated God’s presence with the utmost respect for His person, and humility about who they were.
This is a guide for us. When we come into the presence of God, we should do so with a great sense of humility and unworthiness. NONE of us deserve to be in His presence; ALL of us should be consumed. The only reason we are not, as we have seen, is the blood of Jesus. Through Him we may come into the presence of God. But just like that man in the fireproof suit never loses his respect for the fire, and knows that the only reason he can survive it is that suit – so the true believer never loses respect for the holiness of God. He never loses a sense of his own unworthiness in the presence of His majesty. We should have that same attitude in worship that the angels had; covering their feet in the presence of holy God.
— “with two he flew” – after he had covered his face, and his feet, the angel used his wings to actively worship God: to hover in the air above the royal robe, so that he could sing his praise to the Holy, Holy, Holy One. He was active in worship – and he never ceased! Revelation says “Day and night they do not CEASE to say, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” The angels were humble, and the angels were in awe, and the angels were active in worshipping God.
The response of the angels should challenge every one of us to examine the way that we are worshipping God. Let me ask you something: if someone were to publish an account of YOU at worship, what would they describe? Someone humbled; someone expressing awe; someone active in expressing praise to God? Surely the angels of heaven must look down on our worship services and cry out: “What are you doing? You are standing there like bumps on a log and you are supposed to be in the presence of Holy God?!” No wonder He has written “Ichabod” over most of our houses of worship. No wonder His glory has departed. He will not be so insulted by what we call “worship” but which looks more like a college student snoozing in a boring class than it does the worship of the seraphim in heaven. No, it is true, we do not visibly “see” the glory of God manifest here like the seraphim do in heaven. But we are to worship by faith. By faith we are to “see” Him who is unseen – and as we do, we should worship like these angels: in humility, awe, and active worship.
C. Personal Holiness:
This text goes on to describe how Isaiah had his lips cleansed by the coal taken from the altar. The person who encounters holy God will respond with personal holiness. All through scripture, holiness is to be the response of the people to Holy God. In Leviticus 11:44, God commands His people: “I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” These same words, and words like just like them, are repeated over and over again in both the Old and New Testaments: “Be ye holy, for I am holy”. Over and over, God commands that our response to His holiness is be to be holy ourselves.
This is where so many Christians today are making a serious mistake. They think they can have a close relationship with God, while making NO effort to live a holy life. The Bible makes it clear: our God is a HOLY God. If you want an intimate relationship with God, you MUST cleanse your life from sin. Psalm 24 says: “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” That Psalm says if you want to stand in God’s holy place and fellowship with Him, you have to clean your hands and purify your heart!
— If it doesn’t seem like God is answering your prayers, don’t be surprised, if you are living a compromised life. Psalm 66:18 says: “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” If you want God to hear your prayers, you need to cleanse your heart from sin: from lust, from anger, from bitterness and unforgiveness, from every evil thing. For our God is a holy God!
— If it doesn’t seem like God is using you and blessing your ministry, don’t be surprised, if you are not making an effort to be holy. II Timothy 2:21 says “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.” If you want to be used by Holy God for His kingdom’s holy work, you must be holy yourself!
— If it doesn’t seem like God is close to you, don’t be surprised, if you have allowed sin to run unabated in your life. Habakkuk 1:13 says: “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor.” God will not draw close to you in fellowship while you engage in habits and activities and attitudes which are unholy. Our God is a holy God. We saw that I John 1:5 said that “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” That passage goes on to say, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another …”. If you want to walk with God, the Bible says, you must walk in the light. If God is going to work in our lives, and in His church, we must be holy.
I believe that this is what God is doing in the lives of many people in His churches today. God’s goals for us are to know Him, and to be useful for His kingdom. But we can do NEITHER if we are not holy. How are we going to be more holy? Unfortunately, most of us will not become more holy until difficulties and pressures come into our lives. We don’t get serious about God until those things happen – it is a sad truth. So God does what He has to: He allows difficulties to come to us, and as a result, we begin to purify ourselves and seek Him – and He works in our lives and churches in a greater way. God is working in this world; and He is in the business of purifying His church, so that we can know Him, and be a part of what He is doing in these last days. But we must become serious about holiness for that to happen.
In Joshua 3:5, Joshua and the people of Israel were again on the verge of entering the Promised Land. But before they crossed the Jordan River, Joshua gathered the people and said to them: “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” He shared with them the promise that God was about to do great things — but before He would, they had to become serious about personal holiness. I believe these words are applicable to us today. God is at work in our world, and in our church. There are some great things on the horizon. But if we want to be a part of what God is doing, we must consecrate ourselves. We have to get serious about holiness; we must cleanse our lives from every known sin. We have to consecrate ourselves today — that tomorrow He might do wonders among us. But make no mistake – without holiness, you cannot know Him; you cannot be useful to Him. Holiness is a prerequisite — for our God is a Holy God!