Alfred Place Baptist Church

The Holiness of God (1)

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. 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. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
Isaiah 6:1-4

This is one of the outstanding Old Testament visions of the grandeur of the Saviour. John writes in his gospel about it and tells us that what Isaiah was recording was “Jesus’ glory and spoke about him” (Jn. 12:41).The word ‘glory’ in the Old Testament derives from the idea of ‘weight’. God’s glory is a reminder to us of the weightiness of the Almighty, of the divine grandeur with which we are dealing.

Now I think that the primary emphasis of this particular chapter is given to us in the opening verse where we are told that the prophet saw the Lord “high and exalted”. He is elevated, and perhaps the root idea in holiness, conceived biblically, is the idea of separation, that the Lord is cut off. It is fundamentally a distance metaphor emphasising that there is a vast gulf, a veritable chasm, between ourselves and God. There is discontinuity of being between the uncreated, infinite Creator and his creatures. There is no way that by ourselves we can get from where we are to where God is.

And it isn’t simply a quantitative discontinuity, as if God were simply immeasurably  bigger and vaster. It is a qualitative difference. He is different in the very structures of his nature. God is high and exalted. God is other. God is separate. God is cut off. No matter the intimacy we attain to, even in reconciliation, there must always be, by definition, distance between creatures and the Creator, as there is between what is finite and the infinite, between the immutable and the changeable. It exists, as we see in this vision of Isaiah’s, even between the seraphs and the Lord. They call out to one another about God’s holiness. They repeat the word ‘Holy’ three times. That is rare in the Bible. To repeat a word like ‘verily’ twice is more common, but to mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to a superlative degree; it is to attach to it a super-importance. “Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 8:13) is the most solemn warning of danger. But this is the only instance in the Bible where a perfection of God is elevated to the third degree. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or that he is mercy, mercy, mercy, but seraphs say that he is holy, holy, holy and the building shakes with the divine Amen – as in Acts four after the prayer of the church their building was shaken.

So God is holy with an uncreated holiness, and so there has to be separation. It existed in paradise before the fall of man between Adam and God his Maker, and it exists in heaven between the glorified church and Almighty God. They cast whatever crowns they have at his feet. Why, even in the man Christ Jesus in Gethsemane and his holy Father we see Christ kneeling in reverential and adoring and fearful submission before him whose deity is to Jesus of Nazareth a constant source of wonder, incomprehensible and impenetrable.

The great primary thing here in Isaiah’s encounter with God, is that the Lord is high and exalted. We meet the separateness, the cut-offness, the otherness of God, the qualitative difference between ourselves and our Creator Saviour. He is wholly other; he is quite beyond the sphere of the commonplace, the usual, the accessible, the familiar, the manageable. He is a different kind of being from any other being we have known, or that we have had any experience of. He is uncanny; he is eerie, he gives you gooseflesh. So let us ask today what is the content of this otherness?  In what respect, and for what reasons do we propose a difference of this kind?

  1. THERE IS THE MYSTERIOUSNESS OF GOD.

There is the incomprehensibleness of the deity, the God who hides himself, the God who is impenetrable, the God who by man’s mere intellect the creature can never analyse, the God whom we can never comfortably categorise or classify because of his mysteriousness, mysterious at the point of his self-existence. He is utterly self-sufficient; he does not derive anything from anyone outside himself. He is not of any other; he is not dependent on any life force, or on some life support system apart from himself. He simply is. So when we have read and grasped the entire Scripture, and when we have experienced his power and grace at work in redemption, and seen him save and change, yet even then we are compelled to cry out, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and power of God. How unsearchable his judgments, and his ways past finding out.” O how can I whose native sphere is dark, whose mind is dim, understand and comprehend God? Our little finite brains that would fit into a small saucepan are set before the immeasurable and infinite God. Here is a God who defies all categories, and challenges all comparisons. He is like nothing at all and no one else. He transcends our imagination. What can he be possibly like? Ezekiel doesn’t help us that much when he describes the seraphs on wheels and then says, “Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him” (Ez. 1:26-28). There is this terrifying unfamiliarity in the things God reveals about himself to his prophets.

God is without beginning. Now everything else of which we have any knowledge or experience all had an origin, but he is the un-begun one. In this universe there is fluctuation everywhere; change and decay in all around I see. It is not so in God. He suffers no diminution in his resources. He is a God of absolute constancy. He is totally steadfast in his purposes. He suffers no loss in his intentions, and everything he is is totally relevant to the world and to each one of us. He is always relating to the world, whatever its state. We live in a state of flux, progressing or declining, all the time. Even in the new heavens and the new earth we cannot be static. There is progress, there is transformation from one degree of glory to another. But Jehovah inhabits eternity.

It’s not, at last, even accurate to say that ‘he is the cause of his own existence’ because his existence has no cause. Jehovah God simply is, what the New Testament just refers to as the ‘Being One.’ He identifies himself as “I am that I am” without origination, without dependence, without progression, without regression, without growth, without development, without change or decay. There is the mysteriousness of the incomprehensible simple being of the God who is, the God who is the Being One. So there is the mysteriousness of God. Then…

  1. THERE IS THE TRIUNE-NESS OF GOD

The God who never becomes triune but who again simply is triune. Now of course, this whole concept is unmanageable by our intellects. We have no reference point to whom we can compare God. His three-fold nature is not like water, steam and ice; it is not like the three sides of a corner, or like the three leaves of a clover, and we must guard against such constructions because they do not do justice to the different persons of the Godhead. We must also guard against imagining that first of all the divine nature existed in simple unity, and then he divided into three, as if there were some temporal, or some logical priority of the oneness over the triune-ness.

Now the great biblical trinitarian vision is of a divine nature which is necessarily, essentially, eternally and unchangeably triune, and which is also in the profoundest sense one. That is the fundamental Christian dogma, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one!” and before the church says anything of the three it speaks first of the one; “there is one God.” And yet, in that great one-ness, without detracting from it, without compromising it in any way at all we say that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, but they are not three gods; they are one God. Yet in that oneness of God there is the paradox of God with God. In the beginning the Word was already in being, the Word in that beginning was with God, and the Word was God. In terms of semantics John 1 and verse 1 is one of the simplest sentences in the human language. Yet in terms of profundity and theological perception it is the greatest of all human utterances. The Word was God, and yet the Word was with God – God with God.

We bear in mind that at last that becomes an even greater paradox on the Cross of Calvary where the Son cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou hast forsaken me?” God forsaken by God. So the three-ness in God is not simply the three-ness of three different names for the one subject. It is not three faces, three aspects, three qualities or three attributes of deity. But this is three persons, such a three-ness as one is with the other; the one loves the other, or in John’s great word is ‘toward’ the other. The Word was toward God, and such a three-ness as serves to be the norm and the model for our own Christian fellowship, that we are to be one, as the Father and Son and the Spirit are also one. We are to strive to keep the divine unity in our fellowship. So we have the mysteriousness of God’s self-existence and God’s triune-ness.

  1. THERE IS THE SHEER UNFATHOMABLNESSS OF GOD

Who can by searching find out God?” “Let’s organise an expedition to discover God. Let’s offer a billion pounds prize to the man who has searched and he has found God!” That is now how God can be known. One of the great glories of this chapter is the way it speaks to us of God revealing himself to Isaiah.  “I saw the Lord . . .” And Isaiah saw him only because the Lord disclosed and unveiled himself to the prophet. The world is totally in his hands; we are always responding to the actions of God. He has taken the initiative in revelation; he chose the time – the year King Uzziah died, and he chose the place, the Temple, and such divine decisions are always the presupposition of our knowing anything about God. We only know as much of Jehovah as he is pleased to show to us. What happens in revelation is that God tells us a little of all that he knows about himself, just a little, a lifting of the veil for a moment, just a glimpse. You must bear in mind that the measure of the divine knowledge, the grandeur of God, is not God knowing us through and through, or God’s exhaustive knowledge of the creation. The greatness of the divine knowledge is that he understands himself perfectly, that there is in him, to himself, no darkness at all. He is not a mystery to himself in any way; he knows himself exhaustively, and out of his self-understanding and his own self-awareness God reveals himself and shows himself to man.

So here is the encounter; the prophet sees the Lord, but he does not see him in the glory of naked deity, but apparently in a human form. He wears a robe with a long train and it fills the temple. So he sees the Lord, but he sees him in a form that God took at that particular moment, for example he might appear in the form of an angel, or a warrior, or a burning bush, or a fellow traveler on a road. Those two processes must always go together, there is the revelation, the unveiling and yet there is some veil, there is the robe – in this divine disclosure – is an accommodation on God’s part to us, to our feeble capacities, like it was when God put Moses in the cleft of a rock and he saw some part of Jehovah, a back part of him, as it were. That was all that Moses could endure. No man can see God and live. It is put in a marvellous apostrophe of John Wesley where he says, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” God is showing himself, but God is veiling himself. At every point where God reveals himself then there is always the veiling, there is the accommodation to our limitations and frailties. Now the greatest paradox of all is that the light of the self-disclosure of God shone most clearly on Golgotha in the body of our Lord hanging on the cross, in that place where his visage was more marred than any man’s. They hardly recognised him as Jesus. That is surely the veiling of God at its most intense, and yet it is precisely in the darkness that the light shines most clearly, and the heart and depth and glory of God is revealed as nowhere else. You hear it in the great cry, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I have heard it said of Isaac Newton that someone once complemented him towards the end of his life on the vastness, extensiveness and accuracy of his scientific knowledge, and his reply was, “I feel like a small boy gathering pebbles on the shores of a boundless ocean.” I suppose there is one human mind which today, somewhere, most fully has come to see the glory of God, more than any other, but whoever that person might be then let’s be assured that he or she sees only the minutest proportions of God.

You must bear in mind that there is the great pilgrimage on which every Christian sets out, and we are there to “follow on to know the Lord.” But that great assignment can never be completed in our lifetime, and in the last analysis it simply can never be completed . . . never . . . never. It is life eternal to keep on getting to know him, the only true God.  So we have first of all God in his otherness because of his mysteriousness as the self-existent and triune and unfathomable God.

  1. THERE IS THE OMNIPOTENCE OF GOD

In other words, there is his sheer might. Isaiah sees him as “high and exalted.” He is God most high. In other words his supremacy is final; his supremacy is ultimate; his supremacy is unchallengeable; his supremacy is the last reference point of all existences. His is non-responsive; he answers to no one. When an Emperor cries out to him, “What doest thou?” the Lord is under no obligation to answer. He replies to no one. He can do with everything and upon everything and for everything whatever he pleases, because he made all things, and he has sovereign dominion over everything, as a potter has over the clay.

There is the absolute finality of his will. John on Patmos said, “From his face the earth and the heaven fled away.” We have an utter and absolute obligation to him, and that is unlike the obligation we have to everything else. We cannot evade his requirements and live. There is no court of appeal against his providence. His ‘ought’ binds us unconditionally and categorically.

We ourselves have power as, say, parents, as bosses, as teachers, as elders and we are conscious that other people have power. But here in God is a different kind of power. It is an eternal power, different in its sheer magnitude. Out of nothing he creates this universe in all its immense vastness and complexity. He designs and creates the galaxy, the atom, the brain, the eye. Now, power at that level is not simply one attribute among many other perfections in the deity. Omnipotence is a core element. I claim that it is a divine core element for this reason, that many of the great names for God are redolent in the first instance with power, especially and fundamentally the Old Testament names, El, Elohim, Adonai, Yahweh. In fact in the New Testament ‘power’ (dunamis) is itself a name for God, Jesus once told us that we will see the Son of Man ‘sitting at the right hand of the power.’ Job says, “He breaketh me with a tempest and will not suffer me to take my breath. If we speak of strength, lo! he is strong.”

Now I emphasise that perfection in power (in connection with God’s holiness) for this reason, that one of the things that the sense of deity burns into the consciousness of man (and above all into the heart of the sinner) is the awareness of his total vulnerability as he stands near to God. We are told, “The things that are made – the cosmos and the universe – speak of his eternal power.” In other words power adequate to create the universe and its vastness, power adequate to sustain it, power adequate to destroy it, and power, maybe above all, adequate to consummate it – “the elements will melt with fervent heat” as God by his fiat will pull the structures of the universe apart atom by atom, and molecule by molecule,

He that can dash whole worlds to death
And make them when He please;
He speaks, and that almighty breath
Fulfils His great decrees.                                  
(Isaac Watts)

And I in my creatureliness and sin know how little of that power it would take to destroy me. So some of that awareness makes Isaiah cry out, “I am undone.”

There is no way that you or I can afford in the name of a more contemporary or accessible kind of Christianity, to outgrow that sense of the grandeur of Almighty God. This God is the Power; this God is the Fear of Jacob, and fearing this God is the beginning of wisdom. “It is a fearful thing to all into the hands of the living God.” That may happen not only to those who live in the rejection and repudiation of Christ.  It may also happen in the divine correction and chastisement to the members of God’s own family. That’s why we should impress upon ourselves that we may not trifle, because  “our God”, our God is no less than a consuming fire. The otherness of the divine power  – it is not like other powers. It is the Creator of all other powers; it is the source of all other powers, of all the energy in the universe. God is the ultimate energy and power of this vast cosmos in its overwhelmingness and its awesomeness. “I saw the Lord high and exalted;” and so he is different in his mysteriousness, his triune-ness, his unfathomableness, and in his power. Then there is one more component to his holiness.

5. THERE IS THE INTEGRITY OF GOD.

 I am referring to his purity, that in that holiness there is an instinctive and instantaneous recoil from all that is pathetic, and that is anomalous, or might have adhering to it the filth of sin. He is of purer eyes than to behold evil. We will probably take a second look at it, not him. He is not fascinated by evil. The angels have to cover their eyes from a sight of his awful purity. They even cover their feet – as Moses was told at the burning bush to take the sandals off his feet for the ground on which he was standing was holy ground. Let me know the reality of that with total solemnity. God condones nothing, even in his forgiveness. God condones nothing. There is forgiveness, yes, that he may be feared. Now it can be edifying to go through the many biblical illustrations of the reality of that tremendous fact. How intense and how painful is it to have that purity fall upon you. Men walk in darkness. Men are darkness, men love darkness and then they meet their God unprepared.  Their sins are set before him; their lives are set before him; their secret acts in the light of his holiness.

What does the Flood say to us? What does Sodom and Gomorrah say? What is the message of all those corpses that the Old Testament church left in the wilderness between Egypt and Jericho in the land of promise? It is the great message that we have in the valley of Achor, how God deals with the rejection and violation of his own will. It is a message of the Babylonian Exile of the church – those people trifled with idols, they trifled with God, they trifled with marriage, they trifled with God’s law, and what they are exposed to then is the divine reaction, after years of longsuffering, and the execution of the vengeance of God.

You can’t come to this God any way you feel like. You can’t come to him even by meditation, and by morality, and by consecration, and by self-denial, and by five times of prayer a day, and by tears, and by a month of fasting. Only by the Lord Jesus Christ can you approach this God. He is the door. He is the way, him alone, because this God is unapproachable outside of Christ. You see it in the Old Testament. How did men come to God with their confessions? By a priest; that was the only way, and only at appointed times, and in an appointed place, and above all through blood, through death, through sacrifice. There is the most elaborate protocol set out, and it is jealously guarded and there are terrifying consequences if it’s defiled.

You say, “Ah, that is the Old Testament.” Of course, but it was Jesus’ glory that Isaiah was seeing in our text, and the protocol of access has not disappeared in the New Testament. You can’t take for granted the right to come to God. Some alone are given the right to be called the sons of God, some believing people, some receiving-Christ people, some repentant people, some justified people, and only because they have a great High Priest. He is the advocate, the mediator, the only way to God, only through his broken humanity and the rent veil of his own flesh. We know it in the New Testament church in the judgments threatened on some of the seven churches of Asia Minor, “I will spew you out of my mouth” he says to one defiant congregation. We see it in the instance of Ananias and Sapphira. That is a very solemn illustration of this great principle, because not only is this in the New Testament but it reminds us of the distinctive privilege of the Christian church to have the indwelling of God, the presence of God, the tabernacle of God with men.

Now we today invoke that presence – “Lord let us know your presence with us we beseech you,” and we rejoice in that. We might say to God, “If you will not go with us don’t take us any further.” And of course that presence is the most tremendous privilege, but if we see it in the exclusive terms of blessing, then again we are trifling. The very lesson presented in the instance of Ananias and Sapphira is that if it is true that God is in the midst of the church, then believers must watch how they conduct themselves. That man and woman lied to the Holy Spirit. Maybe they too had joined in prayer meetings for the divine presence. If we have the divine presence then we must watch how we conduct ourselves.

The whole significance of the tabernacle and the temple for the Old Testament church was precisely the same – that if God were amongst them then they had to be particularly careful in the way that they conducted themselves, and the tabernacle was designed to eliminate every impropriety and everything that might disturb the divine guest. God regulated every aspect of the life of the Old Testament church, and we cannot afford to imagine that in the New Testament things were different. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit. Our very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit; “Glorify God in your bodies.” He condones nothing. The message of Calvary itself, above all, is that when his Son stands before him, bearing the guilt of the world, then the divine reaction is anathema. The Christ himself, as the bearer of imputed sin, that beloved Son of God, becomes anathema to God, and that Christ is dismissed, like the scapegoat, into a land where no man dwells, bearing the sin of his people. So that divine holiness maybe the foundational element in the God’s glory, that great perfection of holiness, the divine mysteriousness, the divine power and the divine integrity that condones nothing.

6. THERE IS THE GRACE OF GOD.

Sometimes men contrast God’s grace with his holiness. No! People who think like that are near to thinking they may take God’s grace for granted, that they can always rely on it being there. That is totally improper. Our God is wholly other and totally unlike other gods, and how is he unlike them? You ask the Old Testament and Micah answers, “Who is a God like thee who pardons iniquity, and passes by the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?” God is unlike all other gods by the fact of his amazing grace. But God is unlike all of us men by the sheer scale of his grace. When you forgive someone who has offended you then that is nothing compared to what God forgives. When you give generously to another then that is nothing compared to what God gave. What extravagance to his grace! He spared not his own Son but freely gave him up for us!

And what we do when we gather and magnify the name of the Lord and raise him up is nothing compared to his extraordinary grace that exalts us, as it’s said, “from the guttermost to the uttermost” from the depths of evil behaviour, torturing the followers of God, to being raised up as an apostle. That is the otherness of God, the otherness of his heart, the otherness of his pity. It confounds all our expectations. It lavishes on us the glory of his grace. It even fills us with all the fulness of himself.

You see grace so simply but so movingly in an old man running and running down a country lane because he’s caught a glimpse of a boy he loves with a love that will never let him go, and the stupid boy is coming back. The prodigal is returning home, and the father has waited and prayed for this day, and now he’s so fearful that at the last minute, within sight of the little house on the hill, he will chicken out, and turn back, and the father runs for him, and he gets to him and wraps his arms around him and kisses him and he’ll never let go of him again. There is no grace in any other god like the grace of the high and holy one who inhabits eternity, and I cannot understand how everyone of you does not fall before this God in wonder and love, and take him as your God today as he is offered to you in the gospel. How can you let him go? Yes, and how can we escape of we neglect so great salvation?

10th May 2014     GEOFF THOMAS

* R.C. Sproul’s book on The Holiness of God  (Tyndale) is, I believe, the best book he has written. I have consulted and taken from it, but most of all I have purloined wholesale an old sermon of Don Macleod enlarging and developing it into two sermons, finding his approach very helpful. My thanks.