That God is holy is a basic truth found throughout Scripture. A good example is in the vision given to Isaiah of the Lord on His throne. There, before Him the seraphims cry out, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts" (Is 6.3). In a similar way John describes the throne of God in Revelation 4 and there, round about the throne, were four living creatures that "rest not day and night, saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come" (v.8). Many other Scriptures bring the same message about Gods essential character. He is holy. But what is holiness?
The first idea in holiness
There are two ideas in the word. First, there is the message that God is separate, distinct, and different. This concept is seen in picture when things, or persons, having been ceremonially cleansed and dedicated to His service are said to be holy. They are set apart, different. They are no longer for common use. The vessels to be used in the Tabernacle or in the Temple were not to be considered as ordinary vessels. They were separated for the work of God. So, too, the priests were set apart for God and were distinct from other Israelites. A similar example is given in the incense described in Exodus 30.34-38 where the people were forbidden to make a similar perfume for themselves. This perfume was "holy for the Lord".
The first and last mentions in Scripture of "holy" reinforce this concept. They relate to places. The ground by the burning bush in Exodus 3 was "holy ground" because God was there. The city in Revelation 22.19 is a "holy city" because God is there. His presence makes these places different, set apart and not to be considered as open to any who wish to approach.
From this idea that He is different, distinct, other than all His creatures, it is clear that God is not part of His creation: He is indeed distinct, outside of it all and of a different kind of being. Pantheism, where God is envisaged as permeating, and as an essentially part of creation, a major feature of much New Age teaching, is wrong. While God is able to be present in all places at all times He is not simply part of the places! Before Genesis 1.1 God already is. He is self-existent, self-contained, if indeed "contained" can be used of Him who is infinite in His being! Certainly He needs nothing and no-one. He is complete in Himself.
An understanding of this, that God is holy in His distinct separateness or "otherness" means that we realise that He can never be fully known by a mere creature. He is so different from us and greater than us that it is impossible for us even to imagine adequately what He is like. Therefore, anything we can know accurately about God is the result of His being willing to reveal Himself to us.
In a previous article we noted that in His creation we learn something of "his eternal power and Godhead" (Rom 1.20). Psalm 19.1 similarly explains that "The heavens declare the glory of God".
Psalm 19 goes on to speak of Gods further revelation of Himself in Scripture. So in Hebrews 1 we learn that God did reveal himself in speaking to "the fathers by the prophets". But the Lord Jesus, as described in John 1, is "the Word" who "was made flesh", and is the fullest expression of Gods revelation of Himself. He is the visible expression of the invisible God. "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him" (v.18). It is not surprising therefore that the Lord Jesus is often described as being holy. Gabriel explains to Mary that "that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Lk 1.35). Again demons acknowledge that "thou art the Holy One of God" (Lk 4.34), and the writer to the Hebrews (7.26) declares that He is "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners".
This does not mean we can have a complete understanding of God just because we know, in what is always a limited way, His Son. The Lord Jesus in whom "dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead" (Col 2.9) is in His essential being beyond our comprehension. No wonder men were regularly astonished by His words and his works.
In this aspect of holiness God is awe-inspiring. He provokes awe in all who contemplate Him. He is great, powerful beyond imagining, and utterly majestic. He can be worshipped but never can be fully grasped or understood. Job came to understand this. In ch.31 of the book he cries, "Oh that one would hear me! Behold my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me" (v.35). But after God answers him and challenges him with a series of unanswerable questions, Job exclaims, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (42.5,6).
The second idea in holiness
This is that of absolute purity, justice, and righteousness. The reaction of the prophet to the vision in the Temple was to lament his uncleanness in the presence of the Holy One: "Woe is me!" (Is 6.5). Being confronted with Gods holiness made the prophet recognise his own lack of purity. The challenge from God to us as believers to "Be holy" because He is holy (1 Pet 1.16, quoting Lev 11.44) is to be pure and righteous as He is, and so relates to our conduct.
This aspect of the character of God is crucial for our understanding of Gods dealings with mankind. He might have been majestic but cruel, awe-inspiring but unjust. But His holiness means that He abhors injustice and unrighteousness. Psalm 89.35 says, "Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David". Thus it is His holiness that means He cannot lie. This is not something that He simply refrains from; rather it is His essential character, so we read of "God, that cannot lie" (Tit 1.2). Regularly the prophets spoke of His displeasure over the unjust treatment of "the fatherless and the widow" in Israel. Unjust judges who took bribes were subject to His wrath.
His abhorrence extends to every kind of iniquity and brings all guilty before God. Of course the fact that we each are born with a nature that is marred by sin following the disobedience of Adam means that all of us are under judgment.
While Scripture teaches clearly that God hates sin and is "angry with the wicked" (Ps 7.11), it is hard for us truly to appreciate His horror of sin. We would have less difficulty in appreciating the absolute justice of his fearful judgments, for example as described in the long middle section of the Revelation, if we could grasp fully His perfect holiness.
These two ideas behind "holiness" bring a challenge. I must recognise that when He justified me by faith through the blood of Christ (so that I am justified by blood as well as by faith) He made me holy in the sense that He set me apart for Himself. The word "saint" simply means one who is holy. All genuine children of God are "saints". The word does not describe an especially godly class of believer.
I am a "saint" therefore, not with the meaning that I am morally better than other believers (or, indeed, necessarily that I am more righteous in my behaviour than some unbelievers) but simply that I belong to Him. I have been set apart for Him.
Just as vessels for Temple use were "holy" so am I. I am to be for His use. However, those vessels could be put to profane use, as, for example, some were at Belshazzars Feast. So my body can be put to selfish and ungodly purposes. Those vessels in Daniels day remained Gods, and Belshazzar was held accountable for his misuse of them (Dan 5.23). We too are accountable. The challenge here then is for us to recognise that we are set apart, we belong to Him, and we must also be different in behaviour, be like Him morally.
It is useful therefore to remind ourselves that being holy in this sense is extremely practical. It is not about attending meetings, though that is important (Heb 10.25). Micah explains this well: "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?". Rather, "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (6.7,8). In so doing we will obey the injunction, "Be ye holy".
To be continued.