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The Holiness of God

Introduction

Many people attend church on Easter Sunday for the first or second time of the year (they also come at Christmas). There seems to be something positive, something encouraging and hopeful about Easter. There is the emphasis on the resurrection of Christ and the hope of resurrection for all men, although, for the unbeliever, this hope is ill-founded.

The crucifixion of Christ began as a festive celebration, appearing to be a victory for His opponents and a stunning defeat for Christ. But as events leading to the death of our Lord took place, all of this changed. The crowds were terrified by what they saw, and they left shaken:

48 And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, [began] to return, beating their breasts (Luke 23:46-48).

After our Lord had risen from the dead and ascended to the Father, the disciples began to proclaim Him as the promised Messiah and risen Lord (see Acts 2:22-36; 3:11-26). This caused great consternation for those who thought they had silenced Him once for all (see Acts 4:1-2).

For the Christian, the resurrection of our Lord from the grave is a comforting truth, which should also inspire reverence and awe, for the resurrection of Christ from the dead is proof of His holiness. But this same resurrection should instill a different kind of fear in the hearts of those who have rejected Him, for when He returns to this earth He will do so to defeat His enemies. If they truly understand its implications, the resurrection of our Lord should not comfort the unbeliever. It can, however, motivate unbelievers to repent and turn to Him for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life, even as it did for thousands on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:37-42).

As we study the attribute of the holiness of God and the Son of God (not forgetting the Holy Spirit of God), let us consider the response which this truth should produce in our lives as we seek to worship and serve Him.

The Importance
of the Holiness of God

As we approach the subject of the holiness of God, let us be mindful of the importance of this divine attribute. R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6:

“The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”21

Holiness Defined

The term “holy” is often understood in its contemporary usage rather than its true meaning in the Scriptures. For this reason, our study must begin by reviewing several dimensions of the definition of holiness.

(1) To be holy is to be distinct, separate, in a class by oneself. As Sproul puts it:

The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word that meant, ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase ‘a cut above something.’ When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is ‘a cut above the rest.’22

This means that the one who is holy is uniquely holy, with no rivals or competition.

“When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be ‘other,’ to be different in a special way. The same basic meaning is used when the word holy is applied to earthly things.”23

The Scriptures put it this way:

11 “Who is like Thee among the gods, O LORD? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11). 2 “There is no one holy like the LORD, Indeed, there is no one besides Thee, Nor is there any rock like our God (1 Samuel 2:2).

8 There is no one like Thee among the gods, O Lord; Nor are there any works like Thine. 9 All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord; And they shall glorify Thy name. 10 For Thou art great and doest wondrous deeds; Thou alone art God (Psalms 86:8-10; see also Psalm 99:1-3; Isaiah 40:25; 57:15).

(2) To be holy is to be morally pure.

When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. They are to reflect purity as well as simple apartness. Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it. But the point we must remember is that the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity. It includes purity but is much more than that. It is purity and transcendence. It is a transcendent purity.24

3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? and who may stand in His holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, And has not sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive a blessing from the LORD And righteousness from the God of his salvation (Psalms 24:3-5).

3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD Of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3-5).

13a [Thine] eyes are too pure to approve evil, And Thou canst not look on wickedness [with favor] (Habakkuk 1:13a).

(3) For God to be holy is for Him to be holy in relation to every aspect of His nature and character.

When we use the word holy to describe God, we face another problem. We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes. We say that God is a spirit, that He knows everything, that He is loving, just, merciful, gracious, and so on. The tendency is to add the idea of the holy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for his deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that His love is holy love, his justice is holy justice, his mercy is holy mercy, his knowledge is holy knowledge, his spirit is holy spirit.25

How Important Is Holiness?

The holiness of God is not merely a theological subject fit for scholars with the interest and stamina to pursue it. Indeed, the holiness of God is a matter of great importance to every living soul. The Christian should be especially concerned with the holiness of God. Several incidents in the Old and New Testaments underscore the importance of holiness to the believer. These examples are but a few of the accounts in Scripture dealing with God’s holiness and its impact on saints.

Moses and the Holiness of God
(Numbers 20:1-13; 27:12-14)

1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there. 2 And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! 4 Why then have you brought the LORD’S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? 5 And why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to them; 7 and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.” 9 So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13 Those [were] the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them (Numbers 20:1-14).

12 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go up to this mountain of Abarim, and see the land which I have given to the sons of Israel. 13 And when you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was; 14 for in the wilderness of Zin, during the strife of the congregation, you rebelled against My command to treat Me as holy before their eyes at the water.” (These are the waters of Meribah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.) (Numbers 27:12-14).

Moses had good reason to be angry with the Israelites. They were indeed a “stiff-necked people,” even as God Himself had said (see Exodus 33:5). The Israelites arrived at Kadesh, a place whose name meant “holy.” There, Miriam died and was buried. At Kadesh, there was no water for the people to drink. The people were hostile and a mob contended with Moses and Aaron wishing they were dead, or even better, that Moses and Aaron were. They protested they had not been “led” as much as “mis-led” by Moses to a land far from what they were promised. That there was now no water here was the final straw.

Moses and Aaron went to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and there the glory of the Lord appeared to them. God then commanded Moses to take his rod and speak to the rock, from which water would flow for the people. Moses was furious with the people as he gathered them before the rock, the “spiritual rock” Paul later identifies as Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 10:4). Instead of merely speaking to the rock as commanded, in his anger, Moses struck the rock twice. The consequences were indeed severe.

Who has not lost his or her temper and done worse than striking a rock with a stick? Yet this act was so serious in God’s sight that He forbade Moses to enter into the land of promise. Moses never saw the land to which he came so close. Why? God told him, and he recorded it for us: “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.…” (Numbers 20:12). And by dealing severely with Moses for his transgression, God is said to have “proved Himself holy among them” (verse 13).

In a moment of anger, Moses sinned, and for this sin he was kept from entering the land of promise. The act was striking the rock. But it was much more than this. Striking the rock was an act of disobedience, of failing to follow God’s instructions. Even more, it was identified by God as an act of unbelief:

12 “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (verse 12).

I always thought Moses sinned merely by striking the rock which somehow, like the burning bush of years earlier (see Exodus 3), was a manifestation of the presence of God. The root sin was irreverence, and that irreverence was the cause of Moses’ disobedience26 and his striking the rock. Moses’ anger with the people overcame his fear of God. His fear of God should have overcome his anger with the Israelites. God took Moses’ irreverence most seriously.

Uzzah and the Holiness of God:
(2 Samuel 6:1-11)

1 Now David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned [above] the cherubim. 3 And they placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart. 4 So they brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Ahio was walking ahead of the ark. 5 Meanwhile, David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD with all kinds of [instruments made of] fir wood, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals. 6 But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset [it.] 7 And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God. 8 And David became angry because of the LORD’S outburst against Uzzah, and that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. 9 So David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” 10 And David was unwilling to move the ark of the LORD into the city of David with him; but David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 11 Thus the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household (2 Samuel 6:1-11).

The Philistines had captured the ark of God and sought to keep it as a trophy of their victory. It soon became evident the ark was the source of much suffering to them. They passed it about and finally determined to be rid of it by sending it back to Israel. They transported it in a way the Philistine priests and diviners recommended. They put a guilt offering of gold in the ark and placed it on a newly-made cart drawn by two cows just separated from their calves (see 1 Samuel 6).

If the Philistines could not stand in the presence of the Holy God of Israel, neither could the people of Beth-shemesh where the ark arrived:

19 And He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. 20 And the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall He go up from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back the ark of the LORD; come down and take it up to you” (1 Samuel 6:19-21).

The men of Kiriath-jearim came and took the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab and consecrated Abinadab’s son, Eleazar, to keep the ark, where it remained for some 20 years (1 Samuel 7:1-2). Finally, David, accompanied by 30,000 Israelites, went to Kiriath-jearim to bring the ark to Jerusalem.

The ark was a symbol of the presence of God, a most holy object (see 2 Samuel 6:2) which was to be hidden in the holiest place in the tabernacle, the “holy of holies.” According to God’s instructions, it was to be transported by the Kohathites who carried it by holding onto poles inserted through its attached rings (see Exodus 25:10-22; Numbers 4:1-20). No one was to look into the ark, or they would die.

The day the ark was transported to Jerusalem was a great and happy moment. But they had forgotten how holy this ark was, because it was the place where God’s presence was to abide. Rather than transporting the ark as instructed in the law, the ark was placed on a new ox cart. It was a most jubilant procession as the ark made its way home. What a happy time. But when the oxen stumbled, and it looked as though the cart might be overturned and hurled to the ground, Uzzah reached out to steady the ark. Instantly, he was struck dead by God.

David’s first response was frustration and anger with God. Why had God been so harsh with Uzzah? David seems to have forgotten God’s instructions in the Law about how the ark was to be transported. He also seems to have forgotten how many had previously died when due reverence for the presence of God associated with the ark was not shown. God had spoiled their celebration, and David was miffed. Only upon reflection did David realize the gravity of the error. And concerning Uzzah, God struck him dead because of his irreverence (2 Samuel 6:7).

Irreverence is a dangerous malady. Even when our motives are sincere and we are actively involved in the worship of God, we must constantly be mindful of the holiness of God and maintain a reverence for Him manifested by our obedience to His instructions and commands.

Isaiah and the Holiness of God
(Isaiah 6:1-10)

1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD Of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said,

“Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 And he touched my mouth [with it] and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” 9 And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed” (Isaiah 6:1-10).

The death of Uzziah seems to have spelled the end of an era, a golden era, for Judah. The “good times” were over; the “hard times” were about to commence as verses 9 and 10 indicate. Isaiah’s ministry is commencing from a human point of view at the very worst possible time. His ministry was not going to be regarded a success (as if many of the prophets of old were successful). He was in for a chilly reception. He and his message would be spurned. What did Isaiah need to give him the proper perspective and endurance to persevere in such hard times? The answer: a vision of the holiness of God.

This is precisely what God gave to Isaiah—a dramatic revelation of His holiness. He saw the Lord sitting enthroned, lofty and exalted. The angels who stood above Him were magnificent, and they called out to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (verse 3). The earth quaked, and the temple was filled with smoke. It was as dramatic a vision of God and His holiness as one could wish to see.

Isaiah’s response is far from what we hear today from many who claim to teach biblical truth. He was not impressed with his “significance.” His “self-esteem” was not enhanced. Just the opposite took place. His vision of the holiness of God caused Isaiah to lament his utter sinfulness. If God was holy, Isaiah saw he was not. Isaiah confessed his own unholiness and that of his people.

What is most significant is that Isaiah sees his sinfulness (and his people’s) evidenced by their “lips.” Isaiah confessed he was “a man of unclean lips” and that he lived among a people with the same malady. How was Isaiah able to be so focused about his sin that he saw it evidencing itself in his speech? Other texts in Scripture say a great deal about the tongue and the way sin is evident in our speech (see, for example, many of the Proverbs, also Matthew 12:32-37; Romans 3:10-14; James 3:1-12).

Notice that if the curse Isaiah recognized was directed toward his lips, so was the cure. One of the seraphim touched Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal, symbolically cleansing him and his mouth. What is God attempting to accomplish in Isaiah’s life by this vision? I believe God wanted Isaiah to understand that the vision of His holiness was to have a great impact on what he said and how he said it.

I find the message and meaning of Isaiah 6 much easier to understand in light of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1-3 and 2 Corinthians 2-6. Paul seems to have been accused of being dull in his speech, while others (especially the false apostles who sought a following among the Corinthians—see 2 Corinthians 11:12-33) were fascinating as they employed persuasive and entertaining techniques. But Paul was a man intent on pleasing God rather than men (2 Corinthians 2:15-16; 4:1-2). Consequently, Paul would not dilute the gospel to make it more appealing to men (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2). He spoke the truth in the simplest and clearest terms so men would be supernaturally convinced and converted, rather than persuaded by human cleverness (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

At the outset of the revelation given to the apostle John (recorded as the Book of Revelation), John saw a vision of the Lord exalted and holy. This vision preceded the command to record what he saw:

19 “Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things” (Revelation 1:19, emphasis mine).

It is no wonder then that at the end of this concluding book of the Bible we find these words underscoring the importance of preserving this record just as it was revealed:

18 I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).

Isaiah was to serve as a prophet in a day when his message would be rejected and resisted. The sinful disposition of man is to avoid pain and persecution, and thus alter, if possible, the message and method of communicating the message of Christ so men will respond more favorably. At the outset of Isaiah’s ministry, God manifested His holiness to Isaiah to motivate him to be faithful to his calling and to the message he was to be given. Isaiah never lost the vision of whom he served and whom he must both fear and please.

The glory of his ministry and his message was in the One who gave it to him—the One whom he served. Paul had a somewhat similar experience at the beginning of his ministry; at his conversion, he beheld the glory of God and never forgot it. The glory of his message and ministry sustained him even in the midst of suffering, adversity, and rejection (even by some of the saints). Paul was faithful to his calling and the message he was given to proclaim, even unto death (see 2 Corinthians 3-6).

The Holiness of Jesus Christ

The promises of the coming of Messiah in the Old Testament became increasingly specific, until it was evident that Messiah must not only be human but divine (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2). As such, He must be holy. And so, when the angel told Mary of the child to be miraculously born of her, a virgin, he said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35, emphasis mine).

Throughout the life and ministry of our Lord on the earth, it became increasingly clear this was no ordinary man; indeed, He was more than a prophet and more than a mere man. This was the Son of God. Even the demons had to acknowledge Him as the”Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The things Jesus said and did marked Him out as One who stood head and shoulders above any other (merely human) being. Peter was a professional fisherman, but when he obeyed the instructions of the Lord Jesus, the results were awesome. Peter’s response was appropriate:

8 When Simon Peter saw [that,] he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8).

When Jesus healed the demon-possessed dumb man, the multitudes marveled, saying,

33 “Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33).

When Jesus told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven and then proceeded to heal him, the people could not escape the implications:

5 And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 But there were some of the scribes sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7 Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Arise, and take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all; so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this” (Mark 2:5-12).

When the man born blind was healed by Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were most reluctant to admit that such a miracle had taken place. The blind man could “see” the implications of what had happened, and he pressed them on his interrogators:

30 The man answered and said to them, “Well, here is an amazing thing, that you do not know where He is from, and [yet] He opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing, and does His will, He hears him. 32 Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, He could do nothing” (John 9:30-33).

The miracles and signs performed during Jesus’ earthly ministry pointed to His holiness, as did the events surrounding His death. The supernatural darkness for three hours and the rending of the veil of the temple (Luke 23:44-45), along with other factors, caused the crowds to go away shaken by what they saw and heard (Luke 23:46-48). One of the criminals crucified beside Jesus gave testimony to His innocence in his last moments of life and asked Jesus to remember him when He entered into His kingdom (Luke 23:36-43). One of the soldiers at the foot of the cross also gave testimony to the uniqueness (shall we say “holiness”?) of Jesus:

47 Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he [began] praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47).

50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up [His] spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, 52 and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:50-54).

The words spoken tauntingly by the crowds when Jesus was hanging on the cross have even more impact after His resurrection:

42 “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. 43 HE TRUSTS IN GOD; LET HIM DELIVER [Him] now, IF HE TAKES PLEASURE IN HIM; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:42-43, emphasis mine).

I am fascinated by that little word “now.” They defied Jesus to come down from the cross immediately, thus avoiding death. If He would do this, they said, then they would believe in Him. How much more awesome is His rising from the dead! Which was the greater act, to come down from the cross, or to rise up from the grave? Jesus did the greater, and some did believe.

The implications of this resurrection are emphatically spelled out by the apostles as recorded in the Book of Acts, whether by Peter or by Paul:

23 This [Man], delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put [Him] to death. 24 And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25 For David says of Him, ‘I WAS ALWAYS BEHOLDING THE LORD IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, THAT I MAY NOT BE SHAKEN. 26 THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL ABIDE IN HOPE. BECAUSE THOU WILT NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY’ (Acts 2:23-27, emphasis mine).

32 “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, 33 that God has fulfilled this [promise] to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘THOU ART MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE.’ 34 [And as for the fact] that He raised Him up from the dead, no more to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: ‘I WILL GIVE YOU THE HOLY [and] SURE [blessings] OF DAVID.’ 35 Therefore He also says in another [Psalm,] ‘THOU WILT NOT ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY’” (Acts 13:32-35).

Peter and Paul not only proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 16:10, they also proclaimed Him to be the “Holy One” of God, whom God would not allow to undergo decay because He was holy. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead not only vindicates Jesus’ claim to be Israel’s Messiah, it demonstrates Him to be the promised “Holy One” of God. The resurrection is the seal of approval on the holiness of Jesus Christ.

All too often we find ourselves thinking of Jesus now as He once was when He walked on this earth during His three-year public ministry. In truth, His resurrection from the dead changed Him so that He no longer possesses a merely earthly body but now is glorified by His transformed body. His glory and holiness are no longer veiled, so that the description of Jesus in the Book of Revelation is the description of Him as He now is and forever will be. The John who once walked with our Lord and even reclined on his breast (see John 13:23) now falls before Him as a dead man, overcome by His holiness and glory:

12 And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; 13 and in the middle of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His breast with a golden girdle. 14 And His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire; 15 and His feet [were] like burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace, and His voice [was] like the sound of many waters. 16 And in His right hand He held seven stars; and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength. 17 And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. 19 Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things” (Revelation 1:12-19).

The Holiness of God and the Church
(Acts 5:1-16; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

The story of Ananias and Sapphira is a familiar one to Christians. In the early days of the church, there was a great concern for the poor. When needs arose, saints would sell some of their possessions and lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles for them to distribute (see Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37). Ananias and Sapphira did likewise, but with a divided heart and in a deceptive way. They sold a piece of property but kept back a part of the proceeds for themselves. They gave the remainder of the money to the apostles as though it were the whole amount. When their sin was exposed to Peter, he confronted them, and both of them died. Great fear came upon the entire church, not to mention the rest of the community.

I have always concentrated on the fact that this couple lied, which they did. But in the context of studying the holiness of God, two additional details seem of more import than I had previously thought. First, these two lied to the Holy Spirit. Their deception was an offense to God’s holiness. It was also an act which could have had a leavening effect on the church itself (see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-7). Just as the generosity of Barnabas encouraged others to give in the same way, the half-hearted, deceptive act of Ananias and his wife could have adversely affected others in the church by encouraging them to do likewise. Remember that it is now the church that is the dwelling place of God upon the earth. God is holy, and thus His church must be holy as well. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was an affront to the holiness of God in His church.

Further, Luke includes a comment on the effect the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira had on the church and the community. A great fear came upon the whole church and on all who heard of this (Acts 5:11, 13). Unbelievers were prompted by their fear to keep their distance from the church, and the saints were motivated to keep their distance from the world (as far as its sins are concerned).

Fear is the response of men to the holiness of God. Thus, the sin of Ananias and his wife was a sin of irreverence, a sin against God’s holiness. But the outbreak of divine holiness which brought about the death of this couple also brought fear on those who heard of this incident.

A related text is found in 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul rebukes and admonishes the church because of the misconduct of some at the Lord’s Table. The church remembered the Lord by having communion as a part of a meal, just as we see the last supper (the Passover) described in the Gospels. Some were able to bring much food and drink to this potluck dinner while others could bring little or nothing. Some had the luxury of coming early, while others had to come later. Those who brought much and came early did not wish to wait or to share with the rest, so they over-indulged. In the process, some became drunk and disorderly so that the celebration of the Lord’s death was shameful, resembling the heathen celebrations of their pagan neighbors in Corinth.

Paul rebuked the Corinthians, not for partaking of the communion in an unworthy state but for partaking of it in an unworthy manner. “Unworthily” in the King James Version is rendered “in an unworthy manner” in the NASB. Both are an accurate representation of the adverb employed in the original text—not an adjective. Most Christians suppose Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for partaking of the bread and the cup as those who are “unworthy” (adjective) of it, rather than realizing he is forbidding the partaking of the bread and the cup in a manner that is unbefitting—“unworthily” (an adverb). No one is ever worthy of the body and blood of our Lord, but we can remember it in a fashion which is worthy and appropriate.

Paul further says that when the Corinthians eat the bread and drink the cup “unworthily,” they are guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27), and in so doing they do not “judge the body rightly” (verse 29). He goes on to explain that this kind of conduct at the Lord’s table has brought about the sickness of some and the death of others (verse 30).

As I understand Paul’s words, the sin of the Corinthians at the Lord’s Supper was irreverence. The body of our Lord—His physical body and blood—are holy. He was a sinless sacrifice dying in our place. The body of our Lord is also the church, and it too is to be holy. By conducting themselves in a drunk and disorderly manner at the Lord’s Supper, the church showed a disregard for Christ’s physical body and His spiritual body, the church. This irreverence so offended God He struck some with illness and others with death. Irreverence in worship is both a failure to grasp God’s holiness and an affront to His holiness. Irreverence is a sin of great magnitude with dreadful consequences. The holiness of God requires us to take our worship seriously and not to participate frivolously. This does not mean our worship must be joyless, solemn and somber. It simply means we must regard God’s presence seriously and be very cautious about offending His presence by our irreverence.

The Holiness of God
and Contemporary Christianity

The holiness of God is not simply a doctrine to which we give assent. Rather, the doctrine of the holiness of God should guide and govern our lives.

(1) The holiness of God should guide and govern our thinking on “God’s acceptance.”

I often hear Christians use the expression “unconditional acceptance.” It seems this term is first applied to God and then to the saints. “God unconditionally accepts us,” they reason, “and so we must accept others unconditionally.” My difficulty is that this is not a biblical expression. Perhaps even worse, it does not appear to be a biblical concept. God does not “accept us regardless” of what we do. Look at the nation Israel. Because of their persistent sin, God said they were no longer His people (see Hosea 1). God did not accept Cain or his offering (Genesis 4:5). God accepts us only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ so that even Christians are not unconditionally accepted, regardless of their attitudes and actions. The holiness of God indicates God does not accept what is not holy. In reality, all God accepts from us is that which He produces in and through us. To speak too glibly about unconditional acceptance appears to encourage careless and disobedient living.

The church cannot “accept” those who profess to be Christians but live like pagans (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). We must discipline and remove those who refuse to live like Christians. The church is to be holy, and this means purging out the “leaven” from its midst. Let those who emphasize unconditional acceptance ponder these words:

14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. 16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth’” (Revelation 3:14-16).

(2) The doctrine of the holiness of God needs to considered when we speak of accountability.

The concept of “accountability” has, in my opinion, been imported from the secular world. I am not entirely opposed to accountability, except that the church sometimes speaks more of accountability to men than of accountability to God. Let us not forget to whom we must give account:

36 “And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).

17 Obey your leaders, and submit [to them]; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17, emphasis mine; see also 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

12 So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God (Romans 14:12).

4 And in [all] this, they are surprised that you do not run with [them] into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign [you]; 5 but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:4-5).

(3) The holiness of God should govern our thinking about self-esteem.

I was struck by this statement made by a psychologist at the beginning of this century, which is so different from what we are now being told:

“This reverence has been significantly defined by the psychologist William McDougall as ‘the religious emotion par excellence; few merely human powers are capable of exciting reverence, this blend of wonder, fear, gratitude, and negative self-feeling.”27

Why do we speak (at best) of finding our self-esteem in Christ when Isaiah’s encounter with the holiness of God caused him to say,

5 “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5)?

I fear our whole orientation is wrong, and we come to Christ to feel better about ourselves rather than falling before Him in humility and awe at His holiness. Our hearts should be filled with gratitude and praise for the grace He has bestowed on us. It is the self-righteous who stand upright before God confident in who they are, not the saints who are confident in who He is (see Luke 9-14).

“Hence that dread and amazement with which as Scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God.… Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”28

(4) The holiness of God should caution us about what we accept and practice from the contemporary “church growth” movement.

The contemporary church growth movement is to be commended in some respects.29 It seems, however, that in its attempt to evangelize the “seekers” by being “seeker-friendly,” it fails to take the holiness of God seriously enough. I will mention just a few of my concerns. How can a church focus its principle service (Sunday morning) on evangelism when its principle tasks seem to be otherwise, as outlined in Acts 2:42 (namely the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer)? Put differently, how can the church focus on evangelism in its gathering when its principle tasks appear to be worship and edification? Further, how can one invite the unbeliever to participate in worship as an unbeliever? The Bible teaches there are no “seekers” as such (Romans 3:10-12). Those who will be saved are those who are chosen, whose hearts the Holy Spirit will quicken, whose minds He will enlighten. Those who are dead in their sins, He makes alive (Ephesians 2:1-7).

No one whom God has chosen and in whom the Spirit is at work can fail to come to Him, so why the need to woo the lost to come to church? Those who were being saved joined the church in the Book of Acts, and those who were not kept their distance. With all this emphasis on church growth, there seems to be little attention given to church reduction by discipline and little devotion to proclaiming and practicing the holiness of God. When God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead, unbelievers did not flock to church, but all came to fear God and rightly so. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the holiness of God must not be ignored. God’s holiness will drive some away, but it will drive the elect to the cross.

As I study Isaiah 6 and 2 Corinthians 2-7 among other texts, I find that Isaiah and Paul both had a deep awareness of the holiness of God. This knowledge caused them to be God-pleasers rather than man-pleasers (see Galatians 1:10). Paul would not water down his message nor employ methods inappropriate to the gospel and irreverent in regard to the holiness of God. Men chosen of God and saved by God do not need saving by marketing methods. The church that has a grasp of the holiness of God will proclaim, practice, and protect a pure gospel.

(5) A grasp of the holiness of God should change our attitude and conduct in worship.

In the Old Testament, worship was closely regulated. In the New Testament, more freedom seems to be given in worship. The priesthood of a few in the Old Testament has become the priesthood of all believers in the New. But Acts 5 and 1 Corinthians 5 and 11 strongly warn us about worship that fails to take the holiness of God seriously enough. Irreverence is a most serious offense, as we can see from both the Old and New Testaments. And worship is one area where irreverence is a constant concern. I am distressed by those who, in the enthusiasm and excitement of their worship, transgress very clear instructions to the church regarding worship. One case in point is the biblical teaching on the role women can play in the church meeting. Also, Uzzah seems to have been both sincere and zealous in his role in bringing the ark of God to Jerusalem, yet God struck him dead for his irreverence. Moses was kept from the land of promise because of his irreverence and his failure to obey God precisely as he had been instructed. This leads to the next observation.

9 Worship the LORD in holy attire [or, in the splendor of holiness]; Tremble before Him, all the earth (Psalms 96:9).

(6) The appropriate response to the holiness of God is fear (reverence), and the outworking of fear is obedience.

As I look at the Scriptures that speak of the holiness of God and the fear it should produce in the hearts of men, I find a very strong correlation between fear (or reverence) and obedience. For example, the wife is to respect (literally fear) her husband in Ephesians 5:33. The submission of the wife to her husband most often is expressed by her obedience to him (see 1 Peter 3:5-6). Fear or reverence leads to obedience. The same correlation is seen in 1 Peter 2:13-25 and Romans 13:1-7 with respect to citizens and governing authorities and slaves and their masters.

The fear of the Lord is the result of grasping His holiness. So too it is the source of much that is good. Fear is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). It causes us to hate and to avoid evil (8:13; 16:6). It is also the basis for strong confidence (14:26). It is a fountain of life (14:27). The holiness of God is the root of many wonderful fruits, springing forth from a heart which has come to reverence God as the Holy One.

(7) The holiness of God is the basis and the compelling necessity for our sanctification.

The holiness of God is the reason we too are commanded to live holy lives:

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts [which were yours] in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all [your] behavior; 16 because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” 17 And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay [upon earth]; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, [the blood] of Christ (1 Peter 1:14-19).

Because God is holy, we who are His people must be holy too. Holiness is our calling (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 8:29; 1 Thessalonians 4:3). We must practice and proclaim His excellencies to the world (1 Peter 2:9), and prominent among God’s excellencies is His holiness.

(8) The holiness of God makes the gospel a glorious necessity.

As I think of the holiness of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (not to exclude the Holy Spirit), I am all the more awe-struck by the cross of Calvary. I have often thought of the agony of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemene. Usually, I think of His agony in terms of His horror at the thought of enduring the wrath of the Father, the wrath we deserve. But this study of the holiness of God has impressed me with the revulsion which a holy God has toward sin—toward our sin. And yet, despising sin as a holy God must, the Lord Jesus took all the sins of the world upon Himself as He went to Calvary. Jesus was not only agonizing over the wrath of the Father, He was agonizing over the sin He would bear on our behalf. What a wonderful Savior!

From my understanding of church history, revivals have been closely associated with a renewed and enhanced awareness of the holiness of God, accompanied with a heightened conviction of personal sin. If the holiness of God accomplishes in our lives what it did in the lives of those men like Isaiah whom we read of in the Bible, we will become increasingly aware of the depth of our own sin and our desperate need for forgiveness. Without holiness, we cannot enter into God’s heaven. In His holiness, God made a provision for our sins. By His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and thereby made it possible for us to partake of His holiness. When we acknowledge our sin, our unrighteousness, and trust in Christ’s death on our behalf, we are born again. Our sins are forgiven. Our unholiness is cleansed. We become a child of God.

Easter Sunday is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It can be a time when you come to life from the dead as well, if you but place your trust in Him.

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly [places], in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-7).


21 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985), p. 40.

22 Ibid., p. 54

23 Ibid., p. 55.

24 Ibid., p. 57.

25 Ibid., p. 57.

26 The relationship between fear (or reverence) and obedience is indicated in the New Testament as well as the Old. In 1 Peter 1, Peter calls upon the saints to live in fear of God (1:17). In chapter 2, fear (reverence or respect) is the root of obedience to kings, to cruel slave masters, and obedience to harsh husbands (3:1-6; see also Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:33). Irreverence is the root of disobedience.

27 William McDougall, An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Methuen, 1908), p. 132, cited by Kenneth Prior, The Way of Holiness (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, rev. ed., 1982), p. 20.

28 John Calvin, as cited by R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, p. 68.

29 See Os Guiness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), pp. 21-24, for some of the positive contributions of the movement. The rest of the book deals with its critical deficiencies.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)