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9 February 2020

The Holiness of God

Back in Tasmania growing up, I used to love swimming in the summer. In rivers and fresh-water quarries, it gave me an enduring glimpse into the glory and goodness of God revealed in his creation. Generally, I preferred fresh-water, but there were also some great salt-water locations. One of those locations was Boat Harbour on the North-West Coast of Tassie. The beach was beautiful, and the water a vivid turquoise blue.

Anyway, one summer’s day I was swimming at Boat Harbour with my brothers. We were trying out a new location – a kind of canal that was part of a reef. We got our wetsuits on, snorkels and flippers, and dove in. Under the water, it was another world. There was life in the crevices of that canal, so many things to see and explore. There’s one experience from that day, however, that stands out to me more than anything else. At one point in the swim, I swam to the edge of the canal and drifted out a little into the open ocean. When you’re diving deep, and you emerge into the ocean like that, its vastness is already both awe-inspiring and a little intimidating. You look out into the blue, and it appears endless. The expanse extends in front of you, beneath you, and to either side of you.

Now as I hung suspended there taking in the sight, there was a moment when something emerged out of the blue before me, and it was big. My breath, had I been breathing, would have caught in my throat, as for a split second I was confronted with something utterly unknown. I say unknown because, through the blue haze, my eyes did not immediately recognize the shape of the creature. A powerful surge of fear and adrenaline instantly filled my veins, and my mind began to race. What was it? For a split second time froze, and I simply could not get my head around what I was seeing. It was a bizarre experience, the adrenaline combined with the strangeness of seeing something so utterly alien made it feel as though reality itself was warping before my eyes. Within half a second more, my brain kicked back into motion. As I tried to make sense of what I was looking at, the first thing that came to mind was: “shark?” That was terrifying. Within another half second, however, I quickly recognized that what I was looking at was a great and majestic manta ray.

Somewhat relieved, and yet still wary and slightly fearful, I turned quickly and retreated to the safety of the canal, my limbs feeling shaky. The big ray turned just as quickly and disappeared into the blue again. He moved with such ease and grace! Normally, I felt very at home in the water, but as I watched this magnificent creature, I felt a clumsy intruder in his domain. What a wondrous God we serve who makes manta rays!

Now why am I telling you this story? The main reason is that I want to draw your attention to that split second that I talked about. That moment where reality itself seemed to warp before my eyes as I was confronted, or at least so it seemed in that moment, by something altogether “other.” I’m telling you this story because that experience provides a powerful insight into the concept of the holiness of God. Allow me to explain what I mean.

As most commentators will recognize, the Hebrew word “holy” originally means to be set apart, or to be separated. God’s holiness thus refers to his separation from all that exists. In simple language, God’s holiness is his transcendence. With this in mind, let’s try for a definition of holiness generally, then of God’s holiness specifically. Holiness is a divinely imparted quality of separation, whereby a thing is made distinct and separate from all other things. God’s holiness, then, is his innate and divine separation from all created things, by which he infinitely transcends all else that exists.

When it comes to the character of God, he has many attributes. His righteousness, his justice, his majesty, his glory, his beauty, his power, his wisdom, and many more besides. His holiness, however, is less an attribute than it is a state of being. It is the crowning description of his existence, it is the throne of his glory. No other quality of his being is honoured with a threefold honorific. Nowhere in Scripture is he described as “Righteous! Righteous! Righteous!” or: “Gracious! Gracious! Gracious!” No, it is: “Holy! Holy! Holy!” The term is even employed in the very name of the third person of the Godhead: the Holy Spirit. No other attribute is afforded so lofty an honour!

As the prophet Isaiah entered the throne room of heaven in Isaiah 6, and he saw the Lord seated upon his throne in all his glory and holiness, the earth shook beneath him and smoke filled the Temple. Perhaps my momentary experience with that manta ray captures some small shard of what Isaiah experienced that day. To begin to perceive God’s holiness is to be confronted with the reality of God’s transcendent “otherness.” In Psalm 51:21, the Lord rebukes his people for thinking that he was like themselves. But, while we bear his image on a creaturely level, nontheless his ways and nature are infinitely beyond us. His ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts (Is 55:8). So then to experience the holiness of God is to begin to perceive these things, and it is then to be ruined and undone before him. As Isaiah beheld God’s glorious holiness, such was his experience: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is 6:5). The question for us then is this: do I have any sort of parallel in my own experience? Have I been undone by a glimpse of the Almighty in all his transcendent holiness?

Our worship with God’s people, as well as our general state of mind in all of life, should be overshadowed by an experiential awareness of our Holy God. How could we possibly then speak of him in glib, uninterested terms? As though we were speaking of a trip down to the grocery store! How could our attention possibly be distracted or apathetic as we worshipped him? If we had even a small perception of his holiness, we would be transfixed, awestruck, fearful, thankful, and filled with wonder in our worship. Our eyes would widen at every moment as creation itself unfolded his glory to our eyes.

Much has been said about worship in the church today. Much has been debated, much has been changed. Many a church has embraced new styles and practices, many a church has clung to traditions and old ways. I am convinced, however, that if we were but to behold for a second the thrice holy God in all his glory, all our mouths would be shut, and we would fall on our faces before him. All thought of the worship wars would disappear in an instant. Our hearts would bow low before the King, and our praises would be loud as our very beings resonated with worship and awe and wonder at his majesty! We would weep to think of the price that our Saviour paid to purchase but a moment of worship in the presence of God. We would be overjoyed that he was willing to pay that price for such wretches as we! The true solution to the worship wars is much less the pursuit of correct theology (though that is important), and it is certainly not the pursuit of “putting on” something that will attract people to come. The true need for the church in worship is for us to behold the Lord our God by faith in all his transcendent holiness.

In closing, how can I apply such a weighty truth to you? How can my poor words even begin to convey the subject of which I speak? How can I offer you a “take-home” application? I cannot. As my impoverished eyes catch the barest glimpse of his holiness, I am left speechless. As I offer this meditation to you now, my prayer is that the Lord will plant a seed in your heart, and that you too will have been captivated – if only in a small way – by the awesome and majestic holiness of our God. It is my prayer that we will gaze upon him who died to save us, and that we too will then cry: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is filled with his glory!”

Amen.   Soli Deo Gloria.