Our church’s Shorter Catechism teaches us that our God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his holiness. And that’s what we’re thinking about this evening: God’s holiness. God’s holiness is infinite, which means it is not limited in any way, but is perfect. God’s holiness is eternal, which means it is without beginning or end. He has always been holy. And God’s holiness is unchangeable, which means it does not increase or diminish. And God’s holiness is infinite, eternal and unchangeable because he is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. But what do we mean when we say that God is holy?
We mean that he is set apart. He is distinct. He is separate. That’s the basic meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for holiness. And God is set apart from everything else because he alone is God. He is the Creator who is set apart from his creation. And so, it refers to what we might call his majestic transcendence, because he is above and beyond everything else.
In the reading earlier from Isaiah 6, Uzziah, the king of Judah, had died. But while the earthly king had died, the true King, the King over all, was still on his throne in heaven. And Isaiah tells us that he was seated on a throne, which was high and lifted up. In other words, he is high and lifted up over all other things. And his robe filled the temple, which again conveys the idea of his majesty and splendour. And there were angels around him. And the angels called to one another, saying:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty….
Referring to his holiness three times like that was a way to convey just how perfect his holiness is. He isn’t just holy, or very holy, but he’s the most holy one. And when Isaiah saw the Lord like this, high and lifted up, he was immediately struck by his own sinfulness and cried out, “Woe to me!” He knew that sinners cannot come into the presence of a holy God. However, we should also note that the angels had to cover their faces with their wings to prevent them from looking at the glory of this most holy God. So, here are these angels — and remember angels are not sinners like you and me; angels are sinless beings — so, here are these sinless angels, who are standing in the presence of the Lord. But because of God’s holiness, his majestic transcendence, his separation from everything else, they could not look upon him, but they had to cover themselves.
And, of course, we see the same thing in Revelation 4. John received that vision of heaven and God was seated on his throne as in Isaiah’s vision. And from the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. And John saw four living creatures: one as like a lion, one was like an ox, one had the face of a man, one was like an eagle. And they had wings. These four creatures were angels. And what were they doing? They were saying, over and over and over again:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty….
He is the majestic one, the transcendent one, the one who is set apart, because he alone is God, the Creator, who dwells in a high and holy place, far above all that he had made.
And so, in Moses’s song, which he and the Israelites sang after crossing the Red Sea, they sang:
Who among the gods is like you O Lord? Who is like you — majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?
He’s majestic in holiness so that there is none like him. And in 1 Samuel 2, Hannah prayed to him, saying:
There is no one holy like the Lord;
there is no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
So, he is holy and there is no one like him. And in Hosea 11, the Lord said about himself:
I am God and not man —
the Holy One among you.
He is holy and he is distinct from us. Each of these verses is making the point that our God is unique. He’s not like the gods of the nations. And he’s not like a man. There is no one like him. He stands alone. He stands apart. He stands above and beyond everything else. That’s the first thing we mean, when we say that God is holy. He is set apart from everything else.
But then, when the Bible tells us that God is holy, it also means that he’s set apart from all that is evil. So, while he is separate from us because he alone is God and we are his creatures, he is also separate from us because he is morally pure, whereas we are sinners. And so, after Isaiah saw the Lord, seated on this throne, high and lifted up, with the angels declaring him to be holy, holy, holy, Isaiah was struck by his own sinfulness and cried out:
Woe to me! 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.
In view of God’s moral purity, Isaiah was afraid because he was aware of his own sinfulness; and he knew that a sinner cannot come into the presence of a holy and pure God and hope to live.
When the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai, in the days of Moses, none of them could come up the mountain, because they were sinners and God is holy. When the Lord gave them instructions about the tabernacle and how they were to pitch their tents around it, the Levites were positioned around the tabernacle to make sure that none of the people came too near, because sinners cannot come into the presence of a holy God. The Most Holy Place in the tabernacle, was separated from the rest of the tabernacle with a curtain to make clear that sinners cannot approach him. And, as the prophet Habakkuk tells us, his eyes are too pure to look upon evil and he cannot tolerate what is wrong. Or as the psalmist says:
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
And so, whereas the first meaning of holiness conveys the idea of God’s majestic transcendence and the way he is above and beyond all other things, this second meaning of holiness conveys the idea of God’s majestic purity. Because of his majestic transcendence, we feel small and insignificant. And because of his majestic purity, we feel unclean.
There’s nothing unclean or impure in God. Instead he is perfectly pure, morally excellent, completely good. And, of course, when God the Son became one of us, he was perfectly pure. And so, the angel who announced his birth to Mary referred to him as ‘the holy one’. Pilate was convinced that he has done nothing wrong; and Pilate’s wife had a dream about him and declared him to be an ‘innocent man’. Peter referred to him as ‘the Holy and Righteous One’ in Acts 3. And the writer to the Hebrews is clear that while he was tempted like us, he was without sin.
And so, our God is holy in the sense that he is above and beyond everything else and in the sense that he is set apart from all that is evil.
And the God who is holy and who is set apart from everything else sets people and things apart for himself. In fact, the first time the word holy is used in the Bible is in reference to the Sabbath Day which God set apart from the rest of the week to be a special day of rest. God set apart the Israelites from all the other nations of the world to belong to him as his special people. And he commanded his people to gather together for a sacred or holy assembly to worship him. And we read about holy places, and the holy linen coat which the priest wore, who was himself holy to the Lord, because he was set apart from the rest of the Israelites to serve the Lord in the tabernacle. The priest used holy anointing oil and all the furniture and instruments in the tabernacle were holy because they were set apart from all ordinary use to be used in the worship of God. And the tabernacle contained the Most Holy Place, which was set apart as God’s dwelling place. Jerusalem was the holy city, because God chose it and it alone to be his city. The scriptures are the holy scriptures because the Bible alone is the word of God.
All of these things are holy because they have been set apart and consecrated to the Lord and have been placed in a special relation to him, to be used for his glory. And, of course, God’s people are called saints, or holy ones, because, by faith, we have been sprinkled with the blood of Christ and cleansed from all our sin and guilt and we have been anointed with the Holy Spirit who now lives in each one of us. And so, we have been set apart from the rest of the world to belong to Christ and to live our lives for him.
And all of these people and things which I’ve mentioned and which are holy do not become holy by themselves. We cannot make ourselves holy, because by nature we are sinners who sin against God continually. We cannot make ourselves holy, but holiness comes from the Lord. He is the one who sanctifies people and things to be used for his glory.
So, the God who is majestic in his transcendence and who is above and beyond all that he has made sets people and things apart for his glory. And the God who is majestic in moral purity works in the lives of his people to make us pure.
We call this progressive sanctification, which is defined in our church’s Shorter Catechism as a work of God’s free grace by which we are renewed throughout in the image of God and enabled more and more to die to sin and live to righteousness. Unlike justification which is an act of God’s free grace and happens in an instant, sanctification is a work which takes place over time. Indeed it is never completed in this life. And it’s a work of God’s free grace, which means we do not deserve it, but God graciously and freely works in us. And by this work in us, God renews us in his image. When we’re repairing something, we have in our mind an image of what is should be like when it’s repaired. And when God is at work in us the image he has in mind for us is to become like him. So, he works in us to enable us to die to sin and to live to righteousness. Sin is like a wicked taskmaster who is always trying to get us to do what it wants. But God enables us to put sin to death so that instead of doing what it wants, we’re able more and more to do what is right in the sight of God. And he continues to work in his people to make us holy and pure like him.
The God who is majestic in his transcendence and who is above and beyond all that he has made sets people and things apart for his glory. And the God who is majestic in moral purity works in the lives of his people to renew us in his holy image. And then, after we die, we’ll be made perfect in holiness and we’ll enter the presence of our holy God to live with him for ever. We’ll gather around his high and lifted up throne, and we’ll join with the holy angels and all of his glorified people to worship the Lord God Almighty who is holy, holy, holy, and Jesus Christ the Lamb who shed his blood to make us holy too.