It’s All About God!
Part 2: A God who is Holy
ILL: Just inside the door of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., in an alcove, is an arrangement called “The Throne of the Third Heaven.” There are 180 pieces in the arrangement—from tables to chairs to small decorative items—all pulled together by James Hampton, a quiet, virtually unknown janitor from the D.C. area. Hampton wanted to depict God’s throne room.
This extraordinary collection was found in his garage after he died in 1964. No one knew he had been working on it for over 20 years. All these pieces were made from cast-off items—old furniture, gold and aluminum foil from store displays, bottles, cigarette boxes, rolls of kitchen foil, used light bulbs, cardboard, insulation board, construction paper, desk blotters, and sheets of transparent plastic—all precariously held together with glue, tape, tacks, and pins.
On a bulletin board in his garage he had copied this verse from Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” He believed people needed a vision of God’s glory, so he set out, singlehandedly, to give it to them.
I like two things about this. First, I like that he made something holy out of common stuff—that’s what God does. He takes ordinary people like you and me and makes us holy.
Second, I like that he wanted to give people a vision of God’s glory, because that’s what we need. Today, we’re going to talk about a God who is holy, and I hope, like James Hampton, to give you a vision of God’s glory.
Offering and announcements:
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Introduction: God is utterly unique: He is perfectly righteous and good.
It’s all about God. Creation is all about God; history is all about God, life is all about God; you are all about God. You are not your own; you were bought at a price! You are to live your one and only life for God, not yourself. It’s all about God.
If it’s all about God, then it’s supremely important that we know God and think about God correctly. This is theology; theology is not a dry and esoteric subject; it is all about God, therefore it is all about life. It is very practical. If we think incorrectly about God, all of life gets messed up because it’s all about God.
A. W. Tozer put it this way:
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us… Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.” The Knowledge of the Holy, pg. 1.
The gravest question is always God Himself, and what we conceive God to be like. What is God like?
Here is the problem: how can we know God? How can we know what God is like? The answer: God must reveal Himself to us. We can only know what God is like if God lets us know Him, if God tells us what He is like. This is known as revelation.
ILL: Let me show you what I mean. (Pull up a volunteer.) This is Dennis. Tell me about Dennis. What is he like? How many of you have no idea who Dennis is or what he is like? So if you were to tell me about Dennis, you would just be guessing, and you would probably be wrong. How could you know who Dennis really is and what He is like? By observation: by spending lots of time with him and watching what he does and hearing what he says. And by revelation: Dennis would have to tell you about himself. You won’t know his thoughts, his values, his story, his feelings unless he tells you.
Who knows Dennis? How do you know him? By observation and revelation. This is how we know one another.
If one of you describes Dennis as a 500-pound sumo wrestler, and another one of you describes him as a 95-pound gymnast, we know something. One of you could be right and the other wrong; or you could both be wrong; but you can’t both be right. In this case, looking at Dennis, we know that you are both wrong!
We can describe Dennis’ appearance from observation; but we can only describe Dennis’ thoughts by revelation. Does Dennis like pizza or liver and onions? Is Dennis happy or sad or nervous? Does Dennis love God? We will only know these things if Dennis tells us; otherwise we are simply guessing.
This happens all the time. People guess; they describe a God they don’t know, a God whose self-revelation they have ignored. Their description of God is what they want God to be like. “I think God is…” But apart from God’s self-revelation, your opinion is worthless. It would be like you telling me what you think about Dennis when you’ve never met him!
It is all about God. Therefore the gravest question before us is “what is God like?” And the only way to answer that correctly is to know what God has revealed about Himself. To discover that, we turn to Jesus and to the Scripture. God’s self-revelation is supremely in Christ, and in the Scripture.
For the next few weeks, we are going to look at some of what God says about Himself. First, God says that He is holy.
1. God is holy: unique and different; righteous and good.
What do you think of when you hear the word “holy”? We usually think of something sacred, religious, spiritual, consecrated, special. We read the holy Bible, we sprinkle babies with holy water, a graveyard or memorial may be holy ground, later today we’ll take holy communion, Mother Teresa was a holy person.
We also use it as an expression of surprise: holy smokes! Holy cow! Holy mackerel! Holy schmoly!
What does it mean when applied to God? What does God mean when He says He is holy?
The words “holy,” “sanctified,” “consecrated,” and “saint” all come from the same root words in Hebrew and Greek. And they mean two basic things.
First, they mean “different, unique, special, set apart.” To say that God is holy is to say that He is utterly unique; He is different from everything and everyone else. There is none like Him.
1 Samuel 2:2 There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
2 Samuel 7:22 How great you are, O Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.
Isaiah 40:25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Jeremiah 10:6–7 No one is like you, O Lord; you are great, and your name is mighty in power. 7 Who should not revere you, O King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no one like you.
There is no one like God. He is utterly unique and different from all else. He is holy.
But aren’t we made in God’s image? Aren’t we like God? Yes, we are. We are like God; and we are unlike God. We are created in God’s image, but that doesn’t mean that God is just a bigger version of me. This is the danger for us. We tend to think that God is just a bigger, better, buffed up version of ourselves.
ILL: Think of it like this.
This is a painting my daughter Amy did of Paul McCartney. It is a likeness of Paul. But is Paul different than this painting? Absolutely! They are two different things altogether: one is a thing, a painting on canvas; the other is a living human being. Completely different—but one is made “in the image” of another. The image is a true likeness, but is far, far less than the real person. Paul McCartney is not just a bigger, better version of the painting—he is something altogether different.
This is why God forbade making and worshiping images of Him—because the image is far less than the God it represents. We have reduced God to something we can manage. In our day, we don’t make a statue or painting of God; we make a mental image of God, and usually it is just a bigger, better version of ourselves. But it is far less than God.
When we say God is holy, we mean that He is different from everyone and everything else. He is in a category by Himself. There is no one like Him. We try to describe Him by using comparisons and analogies, but they all fall short; they are pitiful next to the reality, like comparing Paul McCartney to this painting. Therefore, when people tell you what they think God is like, it is always a drastic reduction: we reduce God to a pocket genie, a handy deity made in our own image, able to serve us and do what we want. It is all about us, again!
This is not the Holy God! He is utterly different and unique.
The other thing that the word “holy” came to mean is “righteous and good.” God’s character is the standard for righteousness and goodness. Thus, God is holy, perfectly righteous and good, compared with humans who are sinful.
Isaiah 5:16 But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.
Acts 3:14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.
As we’ll see later, we are called to be holy as God is holy. This is a call to live a different life, a life in conformity with God’s holy character.
So when we say that God is holy, we mean that he is unique and different; righteous and good. Listen to this:
Isaiah 6:1–8 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.” 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
This is Isaiah’s awesome vision of God. First, remember that this vision is filled with imagery that is not meant to be taken literally—it’s a vision, a picture. Notice first that God was seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. The temple was the biggest, most awe-inspiring thing that Isaiah knew—and it was filled with the train of God’s robe. Imagine if just the hem of my shirt filled this whole room—I’d be one big dude! That’s what Isaiah saw—God was huge! Awesome! God dwarfed the biggest thing Isaiah knew!
Then notice the seraphs—angelic creatures with six wings. Why six wings? They used two to fly; and two to cover their faces in the presence of a holy God, so they wouldn’t look at Him and die; and two to cover their feet, covering their uncleanness in the presence of a holy God. These amazing creatures were very aware that God was different, He was holy! And so they cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty!” To the Jews, repeating something three times indicated its perfection; so the seraphs were saying that God is perfectly holy, that there is no one like Him.
Then notice Isaiah’s response: “Uh oh!” He knew he was in trouble. He was a sinner in the presence of a holy God! “Uh oh! Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
God gave Isaiah a glimpse of Himself, of His holiness, and Isaiah was undone! This happened all through the Bible when God gave people a glimpse of Himself. When John saw his vision of Jesus in Revelation, John “fell at His feet as though dead.”
When you see God as He really is, it is an “uh oh moment”. You will be overwhelmed with awe. You will realize how different He is from you, that He is holy and you are a sinner. “Uh oh—woe is me!”
Is this how you think of God? When you came to church this morning, did you come thinking, “I’m in the presence of a holy God?” Or did you come just hoping for a close parking spot and a short sermon? Did you come prepared to be awe-struck by a holy God? Annie Dillard writes:
Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.
Will the ushers come with the ropes and crash helmets? This leads to my next point:
First, God is holy. Second…
2. A holy God is to be feared and worshiped.
As I said, in the Bible the universal response to seeing God was an “uh-oh moment.” People fell on their faces in fear and awe and reverence and worship.
I’m guessing that some of you are uncomfortable with that word “fear”—with the idea that a holy God is to be feared and worshiped. Worship, yes; but fear? “Isn’t God our Father? Isn’t He loving and merciful?” Yes. And isn’t He to be feared? Yes. In a few weeks, I’ll do a talk on God as our Father, which is true: God is our Father and loves us. Today I’m talking about God’s holiness, which inspires fear; this is also true. It’s not either/or; it’s both.
A mature theology, a mature understanding of God is able to embrace paradox. The Bible is filled with paradox: man is free and God is sovereign; God has chosen us and we have to believe; God is love and God is judge; we are saints and we are sinners. We get in trouble when we hold to one and reject the other; the Bible teaches both, so we have to embrace the paradox and live in the tension.
I believe that the best way to understand what it means to fear God is to understand His holiness.
Isaiah 8:13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread,
We fear God because He is holy. When we see God as holy, it’s always an “uh oh moment.” God is so great, so huge, so awesome, so different than me, that I should always feel a healthy fear in His presence.
ILL: The best example I can give is not very good because nothing compares to God—but here goes.
I love the ocean. It is where Laina and I like to go to study and pray, or relax and vacation. I love watching the ocean; I love swimming in the ocean—I’m a big wave bobber; I love walking on the beach with my wife; I love the smell of the ocean. I love the ocean.
I fear the ocean. It is so big and so powerful that I always treat it with respect. My mom and dad taught me to never turn my back on the waves. The ocean can swallow you just like that!
I love God…and I fear God. I don’t fear God because He is cruel, or capricious, or unjust, or evil—He is none of those. I fear Him because He is holy, because He is utterly unlike me and perfectly good.
We underestimate God’s goodness, justice and moral perfection. God is good—perfect goodness. He hates sin. We are so accustomed to sin that we can’t imagine how deeply God hates it. I am guilty of this. I think, “Oh, I’ve got a little problem with pride.” God hates pride; but I tolerate it. Or I think, “I’m a pretty good person.” Of course to think that, I ignore all my sin, large and small. But if I were to stand in the light of God’s perfect and holy presence for even one moment, I would, like Isaiah, cry out, “Uh oh! Woe is me!” In the light of His purity, all my sin would be unmistakable…and ugly.
God is so pure, and dwells in unapproachable light. Again, the idea is that God is far greater and better than anything we can imagine, and if we only caught a glimpse of Him, we would be undone. The fact that we can approach God time and again with a careless indifference to our own sin tells me that we are not seeing God as He really is: a holy God!
A holy God is to be feared and worshiped. Here is the paradox again. He is the one you are to fear and dread; and He is the one you are to love and worship.
Psalm 96:9 Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.
Worship…and tremble, both…because of the splendor of His holiness.
Psalm 99:3 Let them praise your great and awesome name—he is holy.
Praise God…because He is holy.
Psalm 99:5 Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy.
Exalt and worship God…because He is holy.
Psalm 103:1 Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
In Revelation 4, John describes a vision he had of God on His throne in heaven. Let’s pick it up in verse 8.
Revelation 4:8–11 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” 9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
It is a vision of unceasing worship of a holy God. Day and night, the four living creatures (who look a lot like the seraphs in Isaiah’s vision) never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” And whenever they do this—which is all the time—the 24 elders fall down before God and worship him. “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.” In John’s vision, this worship goes on forever!
Imagine a person so awesome that you never stopped feeling awestruck around them. You never took them granted.
ILL: My wife is awesome, but sometimes I take her for granted. I am used to her beauty, so I don’t stop and stare like I used to. I am used to her selfless service for others, so I don’t always notice it.
We do the same thing to God. We get used to Him and take Him for granted; we lose our sense of awe and wonder.
We live just south of town on a hillside, so we have a view. I love our view! But I can get used to it and take it for granted. “Another gorgeous sunset…cool.”
We do the same thing to God. We lose our sense of wonder.
But that doesn’t happen in heaven where people see Him as He really is, in the splendor of His holiness. There, face-to-face, we never lose our sense of awe; there, we worship all the time; not because we have to, but because we want to; we are moved by His holiness.
Imagine a person so awesome that you never stopped feeling awestruck around them: this is God. Can you see why Tozer said that the gravest question is always God Himself, and what we conceive God to be like?
Have you lost the wonder? Let’s ask God to give us a fresh vision of Him, to see Him as He really is.
God is holy.
A holy God is to be feared and worshiped.
3. God has made you holy in Christ.
God is holy. And He calls you to be holy too.
1 Peter 1:15–16 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Be holy in all you do, because God is holy. What does that mean? It means we live a holy life, a different life, for God and not for ourselves.
When I was growing up, there were Christians who measured holiness by avoiding certain actions. If you were holy, you didn’t drink, smoke, play cards (unless it was Rook), go to dances, or go to movies (unless they were cheesy Christian flicks). Some of them added that girls didn’t wear make up or jewelry, wore long dresses and had long hair; and guys didn’t have long hair. This was holiness. They aimed way too low.
Holiness is not just avoiding the obvious sins. It is avoiding all sin! More importantly, it is being close to God, close to a holy God, and this closeness changes you and makes you holy. Let me explain.
God is holy. The Bible speaks of other things being holy too: there are holy people, holy places, holy days and holy things. But here is the important thing to know: none of these are holy in and of themselves like God is. God is intrinsically holy; it is who he is. Everything else is holy only because of its relation to God. Things and people became holy due to their contact or closeness with God.
For example, God told Moses at the burning bush, “Take off your shoes, Moses; you are on holy ground.” What made the ground holy? God was there, meeting Moses. It was an ordinary bush surrounded by ordinary dirt that became holy when God showed up.
God takes ordinary things and makes them holy.
Another example: in a few minutes, we’re going to take communion, the Lord’s Supper. Jesus took ordinary bread and wine and made it holy, special, different. “This is my body; this is my blood; remember me.” The bread and wine are ordinary until Jesus makes them holy.
God takes ordinary things and makes them holy.
Another example: God called me when I was 13 years old; I was an ordinary 8th grade boy interested in sports, girls and having fun. There was nothing holy about me—until God called me. He called me into His family; He made me His own. I belonged to Him; I became holy.
God takes ordinary things and makes them holy.
This is what it means to be a saint. The words “saint” and “holy” are from the same root, meaning, “set apart, different”. If you are a Christian, you are a saint; you are a holy person. Why? Because of your relation to God. He made you holy. You aren’t holy because of your efforts or goodness; you are holy because God took an ordinary person and made you His own; He made you holy, set apart for Himself, different.
1 Corinthians 1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:
God has sanctified you in Christ—that means He made you holy in Christ. He called you to be holy, to be different, to live your life for Him and not for yourself. It’s all about God—a holy God who calls you to be holy because you are His.
God has made you holy…so be holy, because He is holy. Live your life like a person who has seen the holy God and can never be the same again!
We’re going to take communion—ordinary bread and wine made holy by Jesus. He said, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.” On the cross, a holy God took on our sin and paid for it with His life. He did this to make you holy.
So we’re going to take the next few minutes to worship a holy God, humbly repent of our sins, and thank God for His mercy. I’m going to ask you to do something a little crazy. Let’s take off our shoes, like Moses did, to remind us that we’re on holy ground, that God is here to meet us as worship and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.