“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)
Life can be so very mundane, can’t it. Even before lockdown, with all the variety of people we could see, and places we could go, things could still feel so samey, that it would be easy to dismiss any notion that our lives carry significance. Since lockdown has flattened even those mundane lives out to fewer places and far fewer people, perhaps we could be forgiven for wondering if we really carry any significance at all.
That’s one of the reasons I have been reflecting in recent posts on various features of God’s glory. His independence, unchanging nature, goodness, love, and so forth. Each one of these humbles us by bringing us face-to-face with a glory that is far beyond us, and yet as God moves towards us in glory, our lives find the significance we crave. The surprise is to find that we are significant because of another, not because of who we are ourselves.
So, in this final post reflecting on this humbling, ennobling glory, let’s ask an impossible question(!): What’s the most central feature of this humbling glory?
I say it’s an impossible question, because God’s glory can’t really be classified like that. God is everything he is at full volume all the time, so there are no ‘central features.’
Even so, if pushed, I suspect many of us would instinctively choose love. But what might the angels might choose? I wonder if we get close to an answer when we hear them sing:
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
In both Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 we catch a glimpse of that endless song being sung by the highest of angels in glorious praise.
But what do they mean? What does it mean to say that God is holy?
Those of us who have grown up in church and heard good children’s ministry definitions will probably have a couple of things in mind. Holiness is God’s ‘separateness’ or ‘purity’ isn’t it? But, as Don Carson regularly points out, that doesn’t quite seem to do justice to the angels’ praise. Are they really singing in glorious wonder, ‘separate, separate, separate…’ or ‘moral, moral, moral is the Lord God Almighty’?!
There is something far more wonderful in this word. ‘Holy’ is almost the closest thing we have to an adjective to describe God in all his ‘God-ness.’ After all, how can we describe the indescribable? I suppose we could list all the wonders of what makes him God; his power, love, mercy, knowledge, love, grace, justice, wisdom and so on… or perhaps we could reach for this word: he is holy.
God’s holiness is the beauty of all his glory-features in their fullness. ‘Purity’ comes because each feature of glory is totally unpolluted: His love is beautiful as holy love, his mercy as holy mercy, his power as holy power, and so on.
When the Bible uses ‘holy’ as an adjective like this, there is a sense in which it can’t be applied to any other thing in all creation. There is a very real sense in which only God is Holy. Which is where ‘separateness’ or ‘otherness’ does come in. It isn’t that ‘holy’ specifically translates as ‘other,’ it’s that God’s holiness is what makes him so other in comparison to us.
In other words, God’s holiness is the distinction between God as creator and everything else, all of creation, boiled down into one word. It’s the ultimate reason for which God is to be worshipped, and also the ultimate reason for our humility before him. He is God and we are not. “There is no one holy like the Lord” (1 Sam 2:2).
That’s what John sees and hears in Revelation 4. It’s an astonishing chapter: the central throne, symbolising the Holy One’s supreme rule; thunder and lightning showing his infinite power; a rainbow recalling holy grace and faithfulness; precious jewels pointing to utter purity. John sees all this encircling that throne along with awe-inspiring angelic beings, and an unbridgeable sea. The Holy, Holy, Holy One is not a God in and out of whose presence we simply wonder.
He is a God worthy of humble adoration and praise: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.”
But as the Bible expands and explores the theme of God’s holiness, another astonishing theme shines through. Although completely distinct from his creation, God has chosen to relate to his creatures, and particularly to his people, in a way which causes them to reflect and receive his holiness.
As the Old Testament unfolds, we find that things and people can be described as holy, particularly when they come into close proximity with God and his presence, symbolised in the temple. The priests and their temple-garments are specially set-apart as holy, the Levites and their temple utensils are also holy, though perhaps in a less overt way. The people of Israel themselves are a special people set apart for God to be ‘a holy nation.’ Wonderfully, God makes a way for people to be made holy for himself.
It might be that we have become so used to this idea that we take it for granted. We hear God’s declaration that he is holy, and then his call that his people should ‘be holy, for I am holy’ and think little of it, other than to feel a nagging challenge to the way we live.
But if we pause to wrap our heads and hearts around this, it should blow our minds. At times in the past Christians have made the tragic mistake of turning the call to holiness into some austere call to an upright life of joyless moral purity. We picture stiff backed, black frocked ministers crying despair at the excesses of the world and warning people towards holiness and away from the gates of hell.
Instead, if we remember that in the first place, only God is holy, that God’s holiness points to his total ‘otherness’ in glory, then we might hear a glorious invitation to enjoy something breathtakingly wonderful. When God calls us to be holy on the grounds that he is holy, he is calling us to join him in wonderful relationship. Our uncreated creator who exists on the other side of that unbridgeable distinction, calls creatures like us to himself. That’s amazing!
It becomes even more mind-blowing when we consider just how God has done this. The unapproachable holiness of God was made visible and even accessible in Jesus. John can even identify that ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ glory that Isaiah saw as the glory he saw in Jesus (John 12:41).
And where did Jesus make God’s holiness most visible? Astonishingly all the beauty of God’s holiness—the beauty of God’s beauty itself—is most clearly seen in the ugliness of the cross. As God’s holy justice is poured out on the head of Jesus, his holy love acts with holy mercy and holy grace to purchase people from every nation, tribe and language, so to make them holy.
As we come to Christ crucified, we are given this holiness because we are given Jesus himself. The very holiness of God is made flesh and then gifted to us so that we might be called into a Spirit-enabled life of holiness, in rapturous worship.
There is a humbling significance here. Trusting in Jesus, we find ourselves invited to relate to the only Holy One, and so our lives are caught up in the praise that rings through all creation. Even when everyday blurs into the next in Covid-lockdown, our lives themselves harmonise with those angelic voices: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’
Onwards, to His glory!