Isaiah 6 contains one of those magnificent passages of Scripture where man gets a clear vision of God that causes one to sink to his knees in awe. From verses 1 to 4, we are told that Isaiah is given a glimpse of God on His throne in heaven, but his response to this vision in verse 5 is perhaps not what some would expect. "Woe is me!" he cries. It is not an exclamation of joy or amazement, but rather a painful lament as Isaiah sees how great a distance sets him apart from God. What is it that he saw that would cause such a response? Do not the seraphims provide the answer? "Holy, holy, holy" is their eternal proclamation. In this lesson we shall endeavor to study the holiness of God and in particular look at three facts that will help us to understand this significant attribute of our God.
I. The Importance of Holiness
The first fact that we need to affirm is that the attribute of holiness has an excellency that rises above all of His other perfections. It is not "Love, Love, Love" that the seraphims cry as some would think. No, it is His holiness that outshines His other attributes. Thus, God's holiness is something that we especially ought to examine. As further proof of the importance of His holiness, consider the following observations:
A. The Product in the Beholder
First we may observe that no other attribute produces such a fear and awe in the beholder as God's holiness. What other attribute is said to cause the seraphims to cover their face in the presence of God? Even the posts of the door were moved at the declaration of God's holiness. To add to this, consider Isaiah's reaction when he beheld the holiness of the Lord. The display of God's other attributes have never brought such an inward view to man's state. The leper was to cover his lip and cry out "unclean, unclean" (Leviticus 13:45). Now we hear Isaiah cry "I am a man of unclean lips" as he comes to the full realization of the leprous spiritual condition that set him so far apart from God's perfect standard.
B. The Prominence in Scripture
Second, we may observe the prominence that God's holiness is given in Scripture. Where can you find that any other attribute is repeated three times in praise as is "Holy, holy, holy"? Nor is this declaration confined only to the book of Isaiah. We find these angels still announcing their three-fold praise in the book of Revelation as well (Revelation 4:8). What message do we find written upon the mitre worn by the high priest (perhaps the most prominent feature of his garments)? According to Exodus 39:30, engraved on a plate of pure gold fastened high upon the mitre were the words HOLINESS TO THE LORD. During the millennial kingdom, the bells on the horses will also proclaim the message HOLINESS TO THE LORD.
God frequently refers to Himself as the Holy One. The third person in the trinity is primarily designated as the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem is called the holy city and Israel the holy people. The clothing of the high priest was called holy garments. The temple proper was divided into the holy place and the most holy place. What other attribute shares such a distinguished position in Scripture? Surely the holiness of God must be the most excellent of His attributes.
C. The Pledge of Assurance
Finally we will observe that God's holiness is used as a pledge of assurance more often than any other attribute. God swears by His name which covers all of His attributes, He swears once by His power (Isaiah 62:8), but twice He swears by His holiness (Psalm 89:35, Amos 4:2). When a person makes an oath and binds it with a pledge based upon some aspect of his nature, he will choose something in his character that will stir confidence in the fulfillment of his oath. Man often swears by his honor. In contrast, God singles out His holiness as the attribute in which man can find assurance of His promises. Surely this, too, is cause for us to believe that God counts His holiness as His most excellent perfection.
II. The Image of Holiness
When you think of holiness, what picture comes to mind? What image is presented by holiness? As the holy garments worn by the high priest were for his glory and beauty (Exodus 28:2), so the holiness of God is His glory and beauty. We may take special delight in the power or wisdom of God, but He would have us to enjoy the magnificence of His holiness.
A. His Glory
In Exodus 15, Moses records the exalting song that was sung after the victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea. In verse 11, Moses is so carried away with the greatness of God that he asks the lofty question, " Who is like unto thee, O Lord". Part of the praise that he connects with that question was that God was glorious in holiness. The seraphims said that the whole earth was full of God's glory and it was His attribute of holiness that the angels were highlighting. God's holiness is His splendor. It is the most illustrious aspect of His majesty.
B. His Beauty
Portraits of man almost always include the most beautiful feature - the face. When Scripture paints an image of God in our minds, God's holiness is drawn as the most beautiful attribute. Power is referred to as His right arm, omniscience is His eye, mercy is His bowels, eternity His duration, but His holiness is His beauty. In several passages we are instructed to worship God in the beauty of holiness (1 Chronicles 16:29, 2 Chronicles 20:21, Psalm 29:2; 96:9). The loveliness and attractiveness of God comes from the fact that He is holy! Selah.
III. The Interpretation of Holiness
We have spent some time studying about holiness but we have not yet defined it. What is holiness? From a negative standpoint, holiness is a perfect separation from all evil (Hebrews 7:26). Positively, holiness is a self-affirming purity (1 John 3:3) or God's conformance to His own excellency. It is not that God conforms to some standard, rather God is the standard (Romans 3:23). The two key words to remember with respect to holiness are separation and purity. But perhaps we would better understand what holiness is by looking at the way God explains it in Scripture.
A. Clean vs. Unclean
Perhaps if we were able to walk in the shoes of the high priest we would have a better understanding of the holiness of God. That God is holy thoroughly permeates the clothing, duties, and ceremonies of the high priest. The garments were made of linen which not only was white but would have provided coolness and comparative freedom from perspiration. In the hot clime of Egypt, this would no doubt have promoted the idea of cleanliness. Washing too was required before many of the high priest's activities. There were certain restrictions such as avoiding contact with dead bodies which would further impress one as to cleanliness. The high priest would have surely understood that he must first be cleansed from the daily stains of sin before he could enjoy the company of God.
This is clearly seen as well in the one who was appointed to let the scapegoat loose on the day of atonement; for this man was to wash himself before entering the camp. The scapegoat bore the iniquity of Israel; thus contact with this goat would picture defilement from sin, as the cleansing would picture the need for purification from sin. There were parts, too, of the ceremonial law of Moses which would have presented Israel with the association between cleanliness and holiness. For example animals were divided into clean and unclean; the latter being prohibited.
Just prior to God's visitation to the children of Israel on Mt. Sinai, they were told to wash their clothes (Exodus 19:9). The Israelites were to keep their camp clean at all times because "the LORD thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp … therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee" (Deuteronomy 23:14). In the New Testament, Paul exhorts us to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthian 7:1).
Obviously the Scripture is full of this association between cleanliness and holiness. (Perhaps this is the source of the false idea that cleanliness is next to Godliness). When we consider the contrast between clean and unclean, we find the notions of purity and separation. To be clean is to be pure from all dirt and defilement. To be unclean was to be separate from God's presence for God is holy - that is, separate from sin.
B. Flawless vs. Blemished
The selection of a sacrifice for the passover was to be a lamb without blemish. No descendant of Aaron that had a blemish could be a priest. Jesus will present to Himself a glorious church not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27). To be without blemish is to be pure from all imperfections. God clearly separates the blemished from the unblemished in order to teach a spiritual lesson: He is separate from those who are spiritually blemished with sin.
C. Light vs. Darkness
The Scripture precisely says that God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). We should not interpret this verse literally to mean that God is physically light. Instead we need to realize that this is a reference to the holiness of God. John points out that God, in being light, is pure, being totally without any darkness. As light is the absence of darkness, God is totally absent from anything that is not good. We also can see the idea of separation in the two total opposites of light and darkness. God is as far away from sin as light is from dark.
Plutarch once said that he would count himself less injured by the man that denied the existence of such a man as Plutarch, than by one who affirmed his existence but believed that he was a wicked man without virtue. To deny the holiness of God is perhaps worse than being an atheist. Perhaps second in evil to this would be to fail to notice the holiness of God. Oh Christian, turn your eyes upon the holiness of the God of Heaven and forever be enraptured by His splendor and beauty. Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory!