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Holy, Holy, Holy – Isaiah 6

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Sermon 3 of 16 from the Our Awesome God series

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January 1997 – Would you consider it a compliment if someone called you holy? The answer is, it depends on who that someone is. After all, the word holy is used in different ways by different people. If a person is considered excessively religious, he is called a Holy Roller, or a Holy Joe, or he is said to be holier than thou. The truth is, most of us have mixed feelings about being called holy. It could be a compliment or an insult-depending on the person doing the talking.

Let me try another question. Are you a holy person? Again, most of us have mixed feelings. I imagine there are very few of us who would use the word holy to describe ourselves. We probably feel more comfortable using words like loving or trustworthy or joyful. The truth is, the word “holy” has negative connotations, even to many Christians. We’re not sure what it means so we rarely use it to describe other people. It’s often used in an insulting way so we feel vaguely uncomfortable applying it to ourselves.

Yet God said, “Be holy, as I am holy.”

Holy, Holy, Holy

Before we can understand what it means to be holy, we must understand what it means to say that God is holy. In many ways holiness is God’s central attribute. One writer actually defines it this way. “Holiness is that which makes God God.” Dr. Renald Showers calls it “the foundational truth of revelation.”

How important is it? Holiness is the only attribute of God mentioned in triplicate. Two times the Bible tells us that God is holy, holy, holy (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8). Think about that for a moment. If God says something about his character once, that’s enough to settle it. When he says it twice, that’s emphasis. But when he says it three times, that means it’s of supreme importance. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love or mercy, mercy, mercy, or justice, justice, justice. But it does say that he is holy, holy, holy.

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A Definition

Let’s begin by working toward a definition. I agree with those writers who say that holiness is the most difficult attribute to define because it deals with the essence of God’s character. Defining holiness is like defining God! It can’t be done completely. We can describe holiness and find ample illustrations of it, but we can’t define it entirely. This is what makes God God!

The word itself means “to be set apart.” A thing is holy if it is set apart for a special use. Other words you might use are words like distinctive or different. Applied to God, holiness is that characteristic that sets him apart from his creation. There are many verses that speak of God being “on high,” “reigning,” “in his holy temple,” “sitting on the throne.” These verses all picture God as separate from creation and reigning over it.

Holy Bible, Holy Land, Holy Angels
We can go a step farther and say that anything is “holy” that is “set apart” for God. That’s why we call the Bible the Holy Bible-it contains the Word of God. We call Israel the Holy Land because it is the land he chose for his own people. The angels are holy angels because they belong to God. The sabbath is holy because he set it apart for himself. And when Moses stood before the burning bush, he was told to take off his shoes because he was standing on “holy ground"-ground that God had set apart for himself.

There is a second important meaning of the word holy: “Utterly pure, separated from sin.” The Bible tells us that God hates sin, that he cannot sin nor will he tempt others to sin. God is so pure that he cannot tolerate sin in any form in his presence. One day he will destroy sin forever.

That leads to an important implication: holiness and sin cannot coexist. If you want to be holy as God is holy, you must adopt his attitude toward sin. You must abhor it as he does. If you coddle sin or excuse it or dabble in it, you cannot be holy as he is holy.

Three Case Studies

In the reminder of this message, I want us to consider what God’s holiness means for you and me. Let’s look together at three episodes where mortal men encountered a holy God. From these three stories we will glean crucial spiritual truth for ourselves.

A. Isaiah 6

Our first episode comes from the life of the prophet Isaiah. It takes place early in his ministry, “in the year King Uzziah died” (v. 1). That note is important because Uzziah was one of the best kings Judah ever had. He had a heart for God unlike many of his predecessors and successors. When he died, the nation was plunged into turmoil. A golden age in Israel’s history was drawing to a close. Would the people continue to walk with God or would they return to idolatry? In that fateful moment, Isaiah came face to face with the living God.

We can summarize his experience with four words:

Majesty 1-2

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.

Worship 3-4

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.

Confession 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.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.

Cleansing 6-7

With it he touched my mouth and said, ’’See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Of all the things we might say about this magnificent passage, let’s concentrate on one central truth: When Isaiah saw the Lord, he also saw himself! That’s why he cried out, “Woe is me!” Until then, Isaiah didn’t look so bad. Doubtless he was far more moral than his contemporaries. Compared to them, he looked clean; compared to God, he looked filthy.

So it is that whenever we see God for who he is, we will then see ourselves for who we really are. Holiness leads to confession and repentance. If you haven’t cried out, “I am a man of unclean lips lately,” it may simply indicate that you’ve not seen the King lately.

It is a simple fact that what happened to Isaiah happens to anyone who catches a glimpse of God. The closer you come to God, the more you will recognize your own sinfulness. It’s like taking a white shirt that you’ve worn for a year and placing it next to a brand-new one. Suddenly it doesn’t look white any more, it looks dingy gray.

All that seems so pure in me is dirty when seen in the blinding light of God’s character. If I go to hear a great pianist play, I must cry out, “Woe is me!” for I see my smallness against his virtuosity. Likewise, when I see God for who he is, I can only cry out “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!”

Reginald Heber captured this perfectly when he wrote,

Holy, Holy, Holy, tho the darkness hide thee,
     Tho the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see.

Only thou art Holy-there is none beside thee.
     Perfect in power, in love and purity.

Someone has said that the first principle of usefulness is to understand that you are not worthy to be used. That’s what happened to Isaiah. He saw himself when he saw the Lord, and that seeing led to confession, repentance, and cleansing.

B. Exodus 3

In order to understand the second episode, we need to go back almost 700 years earlier, to the hot sands of the Sinai desert. There a man named Moses is about to meet God for the first time. While he is tending sheep, a most extraordinary event takes place: A bush begins to burn but it is not consumed. Fascinated by the sight, he walks closer to investigate. That’s when he hears the voice of God.

When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ìMoses! Moses!” And Moses said, ìHere I am.” ìDo not come any closer,” God said. ìTake off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (vv. 4-5).

That’s when the Lord revealed himself to Moses. Let me paraphrase what God said: “Moses, do you remember how I revealed myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You’ve heard those stories all your life. I am the same God who talked with them hundreds of years ago. Just as I used them to accomplish great things, I have a big job in mind for you. Are you ready to listen to what I have to say?”

Now I don’t know how you would respond, but I think I would do exactly what Moses did. Verse six says he hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

Matthew Henry has a good comment at this point. He says that God told Moses to take off his shoes to remind him of the infinite distance between God and man. He can come only so close, and no closer. “His conscience must be satisfied, but not his curiosity; and care must be taken that familiarity does not breed contempt.” He goes on to say that “The more we see of God the more cause we shall see to worship him with reverence and godly fear. Even the manifestations of God’s grace and covenant-love should increase our humble reverence of him.”

This, then, is our second response to God’s holiness: Deep respect for who God is. I can think of at least one objection to what I have just said. Since this event happened in the Old Testament, and since we are not under law but under grace, isn’t this whole episode rather irrelevant to us today? The answer is no. I do agree that in Christ Jesus we have been invited to come boldly into God’s presence. This is what the book of Hebrews is all about. We’re no longer kept at arm’s length but are now welcomed into the Throne Room of the universe (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16). However, that same book warns us not to take God lightly, but to worship him acceptably with “reverence and awe for our ’God is a consuming fire’” (12:29). Some Christians have mistaken access with informality and substituted flippancy for familiarity. Yes, we are to call God Father-but that means treating him with the respect he deserves.

C. 2 Samuel 6

The third episode comes from one of the strangest passages in all the Bible. Now we need to run the clock ahead by about 450 years. David has just been crowned king of Israel and has just conquered Jerusalem. All that remains for him to do is to have the Ark of the Covenant transported from the house of Abinadab to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem. The Ark had been absent from the Tabernacle for nearly 20 years. The Philistines captured it, but later gave it back to the Israelites. David wanted it back in the capital because it represented the presence of God with his people. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the holy of holies and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, indicating that the sins of the people had been atoned for through sacrificial blood.

David ordered that the Ark be taken back to Jerusalem and assembled thousands of people who joined in the great celebration. He had the Ark put on a cart pulled by a team of oxen. The two sons of Abinadab walked next to the Ark to steady it lest it fall to the ground. Now we pick up the story in verses 6-7:

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.

We need to understand several facts in order for this story to make sense. Number one, although David meant well, he did not obey the Lord’s command. Yes, God did want the Ark back in Jerusalem, but he had given specific instructions that it should be transported by priests who would carry it by means of long poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark for that very purpose. If David had followed God’s plan, the Ark would have been safe. But because he substituted his own plan, Uzzah died.

Number two, Uzzah probably also meant well. After all, if you were walking beside the Ark and it began to tip over, what would you do? You’d put your hand out and straighten it, wouldn’t you? And that would be the last thing you’d ever do. You see, Uzzah knew that no human was ever to touch the Ark of the Covenant because it was holy. Uzzah mistakenly thought that his sinful hand was somehow less sinful than the dirt of the earth. How wrong he was. God never said the dirt was sinful. It was just dirt, nothing more. Uzzah not only disobyed God, he also disrespected the Lord’s command.

David’s reaction was understandable. First, he was angry (v. 8), then he was afraid (v. 9). “If God’s going to start killing people for stuff like that, we’re all going to be dead soon.”

This story teaches us that good motives are not enough. Enthusiasm must be accompanied by obedience. It’s not enough to mean well. We’ve got to do the right thing.

That’s the third response to God’s holiness: Fear lest we should displease the Lord.

Two Practical Applications

Let’s wrap up this message with two practical applications. What will it mean if we begin to take God’s holiness seriously?

A. When we grasp God’s holiness, we will be moved to wholehearted worship!

That’s what happened to Isaiah when he saw a vision of God. That’s what happened to Job when the Lord finished his interrogation. That’s what happened to the 24 elders in heaven as they came before the throne. Holiness leads to worship.

That leads me to share some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you can worship God anywhere. In our three examples today, men worshipped in the temple, in the desert, and on the road to Jerusalem. I agree with everyone who says, “You don’t have to go to church to worship God.” That’s true, and lots of people who go to church don’t worship anyway. They come by force of habit or in order to see their friends. Worship is the last thing on their minds. You can worship anytime or anywhere as long as you catch a glimpse of God’s holiness. When you see God, you’ll worship no matter where you are.

That’s the good news. The bad news is as bad as the good news is good. Here is it. Although you can worship God anywhere, you cannot worship him halfheartedly. There is no such thing as halfhearted worship. Oh, there’s religious routine and repetitive ritual, but true worship grips the mind and heart and soul.

Recently I did an interview with an Atlanta radio station. The interviewer asked me why so many church members seem apathetic about their faith. I told him it’s because our churches are filled with people who don’t believe in God. They are theoretical Christians and practical atheists. They give lip service to God but live as if he doesn’t exist. They are apathetic because God bores them. But as Ravi Zacharias has pointed out, “When man is bored with God, even heaven does not have a better alternative.”

During the dark days of World War II, William Temple, then Archbishop of Canterbury, in a radio address to the people of England, declared, “This world can be saved from political chaos and collapse by one thing only, and that is worship.”

Does that sound preposterous? Listen to his definition of worship: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” If that is what worship really is, perhaps the Archbishop was correct. Only worship can save us. And we will never worship as long as we bored with God. And God will bore us until we get a glimpse of his holiness.

B. When God’s holiness grips us, we will respond with wholehearted obedience!
This follows naturally, doesn’t it? Let me suggest what that wholehearted obedience will look like. There will be …

  • new respect for God
  • new respect for God’s name
  • new zeal to please Him
  • new attention to the details of life
  • new fear of God’s judgment
  • new love for God’s people
  • new desire for God’s word
  • new hatred for sin
  • new humility
  • new fear of God in the congregation
  • new emphasis on the Cross of Christ
  • new desire to serve the Lord
  • new joy in worship
  • new zeal for prayer
  • new desire to tell others about the Lord
  • new reverence for life itself!

What else will happen when we once again elevate God’s holiness to its proper position?

  • Less talk about self-esteem and more talk about repentance.
  • Less concern about the White House and more concern for God’s house.
  • Fewer flippant jokes and more serious worship.
  • Less emphasis on relevance and more emphasis on faithfulness
  • Less therapy from the pulpit and more preaching of the Cross.
  • Less neglect of church discipline.
  • Less concerned about what the world thinks and more concerned about what God thinks.

Here, then, are seven benefits of holiness in the life of the believer. God’s holiness …

  • Exposes our sin.
  • Shatters our pride.
  • Awakens our conscience.
  • Redirects our will.
  • Stirs our emotions.
  • Prompts our obedience.
  • Ignites our worship.

Because God’s holiness is his central attribute, his holiness is the central issue of the Christian life. That is why 1 Peter 1:16 says, “Be holy, because I am holy.” When God’s holiness becomes a reality to us, we will never be the same again!

Distinctively Different

I began this sermon by remarking that God’s Holiness is that which makes God God! In a sense, our holiness is what makes us truly Christian. To speak of an unholy Christian is ultimately an oxymoron. Holiness is the mark of God’s children. We are to be holy because we have been made partakers of his divine nature.

Many years ago I attended Tennessee Temple University. The school had a two-word motto that it used in all its advertising. I always thought it was a good summary of what holiness is all about. Just two words: Distinctively Christian. To be holy means that in every area of your life you are so aware of God’s presence that you are distinctively Christian.

One other bit of good news and I’m done. It’s not impossible to be holy-even in this unholy world. Jesus did the hard part when he died on the Cross. The Holy Spirit lives within us. God calls you “holy” in Christ Jesus. Do you want to be holy? Then live up to what you already are! Holiness is natural for the child of God.

So let me end by asking that question again: “Would you consider it a compliment if someone called you a holy person?” Consider this. That’s the highest compliment God could ever give you.

“Holy Father, open our eyes that we might truly see You, and having seen You, to see ourselves as You see us. We pray to be holy as you are holy, and to live up to what we already are in Jesus Christ. Amen.”

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