Pursuing Holiness: Part 2
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and lifted up.” Isaiah 6:1
“When I was in the temple, I saw a vision of the Lord.” And that vision profoundly changed his life forever. He had seen something of the nature and character of Yahweh he had never known before. What was that?
It can be summed up in one word, HOLY. Isaiah got a glimpse of the holiness of God. He now knows without a doubt that God is holy. Chapter 6 of Isaiah is uniquely placed after chapters 1-5 because what he sees in the temple answer the question posed in chapters 1-5: How can an unholy people become a holy people.
Last week we looked at Isaiah’s spiritual condition as he entered the temple. Because of his pride, Isaiah’s glorious king, Uzziah, had been humiliated with the contagious disease of leprosy and lived in isolation until his death. Isaiah had to come to the end of himself, to empty the throne of his heart so that the true King could take His rightful place. We talked about our need to do the same…to humble ourselves if there is to be a renewal of holiness among the people of God.
So why do we need a vision of God’s holiness if the problem is with us humans, not God? Because the source and basis for the holiness of man is bound up in the holiness of God Almighty. Listen to the words of the Apostle Peter in his first letter : But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; For it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’ (1:16 NIV) The holiness of God’s people is always determined by the holiness of God. We are the reflection of God’s holiness.
I attended a seminar last week by a renowned Old Testament scholar, Dr. John Oswalt (who, by the way, is preaching today at Hernando UMC at 10:55 am; so you if you eat breakfast quickly you can make it in time!). Oswalt, a deeply humble and gracious man, challenged me to dig deeper into the Old Testament in order to have a more complete understanding of the nature of God, of salvation, and of God’s divine purpose for the Church. He rightly argues that, without an OT understanding of the problem of humanity and God’s answer to that problem in light of God’s holiness and character, we have a limited, shallow view of our salvation and our purpose.
In the opening line of his profound book entitled, “Called to Be Holy,” Dr. Oswalt issued this provocative and insightful statement : The fate of the Christian Church in America and around the world depends upon what the Church does with the biblical doctrine of holiness. Wow! How you and I understand God’s holiness and how this understanding gets lived out in the Christian community will determine our fate.
Oswalt is not suggesting that a local church can’t survive as a congregation apart from behaving in a way that is consistent with God’s holiness. That’s too much a trivial thing. Look at mega-churches like the one led by Joel Osteen who offer an easy-believism Christianity. People flock to hear what their itching ears want to hear. Any church with a sound business model, a staff of highly skilled leaders, and a financial plan that offers sustainability and growth can thrive for many years and even appear to the American culture as “successful.”
Instead, Dr. Oswalt is suggesting something far more profound. The fate of American Christianity in the hands of a holy God is something far more serious…more eternally significant. Listen to these words of Jesus through John the Revelator to the Church in Ephesus (modern day Turkey) in Revelation 2:4-5 à 4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. Ephesus was once the center of the Christian movement. Now it is predominantly Muslim. They had forsaken the love for God that they first had and the results are catastrophic.
And without a biblical understanding of holiness that we can only find in the pages of the Old Testament, we Christians will have an insufficient understanding of NT writers like Peter when he calls the Church to “be holy as God is holy.” Oswalt contends that when we dismiss the OT as something “background” or “preliminary,” [the modern Church] has come to teach God as a sentimental, but useful grandfather figure who places no demands on us and functions primarily to answer our prayers. In direct defiance of the words of Christ in Matthew 5:48, we proudly announce… “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” [By the way, Jesus pronounced, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”]
So what is this thing called holiness? The word is used in some form at least 835 times in the OT. In its base form, for something to be holy it must be something “other” than ordinary things. In the ANE times [and really in New Age Spirituality] where people acknowledged and worshipped many gods which took the form of things in nature—animals, vegetation, planets and stars, even people—ANY thing could be considered holy. This is why God is so adamant about His holiness because He is the Creator of all those objects and so the object cannot be holy unless God calls them holy.
Holiness is NOT just one attribute of God that is distinct from God’s other attributes. Holiness is the outshining of all that is God. The holiness of God is inclusive of many divine characteristics. And as Isaiah’s vision of the holiness involved several divine characteristics, there is a parallel between those essential elements and the life of the holy people of God.
With the help of Dr. Steve Seamands, John Oswalt and likely others, we’re going to explore these divine characteristics of God and see how it translates in the way we see God and the way we seek to walk in holiness of heart and life.
1. God’s Unrivaled Majesty
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, High and exalted.” Isaiah sees God as separate from the other aspects of the Temple. God is superior (scholars use transcendent) over all creation and all that is NOT God. The Lord ALONE is the high and exalted One. This theme is found throughout the book of Isaiah. Here’s an example: “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high.” (Isaiah 2:12) “You think you’re all that and a bag of chips?” God says, “There will come a day when I will cut you down to size so you will know who really is the exalted One.”
In Isaiah’s vision, he sees no higher than the hem of God’s robe. That’s how low he was to God’s exalted position. Moses asked to see God’s glory (another way of saying his holiness). All Moses could take in was to see God leaving. In Exodus 24:9-10, when Moses and the Israelites ‘saw the God of Israel,’ all they saw was the pavement under God’s feet. Even the Seraphs when they flew around the Temple during Isaiah’s vision, they covered their faces. God is unrivaled in majesty. He is “holy other,” separate from all creation.
How does that apply to us? In the Apostle Peter’s first letter, believers and followers of Jesus Christ are identified as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Wow! What a calling! Maybe you woke up today not feeling particularly special. Hear this good new that also comes with a challenge: You are a chosen people, you are holy—set apart for a special purpose. That purpose? TO DECLARE THE PRAISES OF THE ONE WHO IS ALTOGETHER HOLY, HIGH AND EXALTED, WHO CALLED YOU TO BE HIS!
How were you called? Before the foundations of the earth, God called you through his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus came to reflect the fullest expression of all that is God—his grace, forgiveness, and love—through his life, death, and resurrection, to make it possible for an unholy people to become a special possession…SO THAT we may declare His praises…SO THAT we can be salt and light to a dark and tasteless world!
Now, if we are going to be holy as God is holy, we must respond to His call. We must separate ourselves from the values and lifestyle of those around us. We’ve come to the part of my message when the many of you want to “check out.” Most of you have hung in there when we talk about the exalted God and Creator of all things. You even like to be called a special possession of God.
But when you are told that in order to be transformed by the renewing of your minds to be something holy other for the express purposes of God’s glory and use, many of us would rather just keep our easy-believeism Christianity. After all, it’s working for me, right? I don’t know; are you willing to risk eternity on it?
Repeatedly in the Old Testament, God commands his people, Israel, to separate themselves from the people of surrounding nations. No intermarrying. No worshipping their gods. Why separate? It’s bound up in the holiness of God. Even a quick glance at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 prove this point. The first 4 deal with the holiness of God :
I am the Lord Your God…no other gods but me
No graven images (which are not holy anyway)
Don’t drag My name through the mud
Apply 1/7 of your time to Rest (a holy thing) SO THAT you can walk out the other 6/7 of your time as you should
The other 6 commands have to do with how Israel (and we) are to live among ourselves in the world. Why? Because each of these commands represent the ethics of God himself. God valued the order of family; God does not take innocent life, Does not distort relationships by being unfaithful; God does not take what does not belong to Him; God does not lie; and God does not want what others have. These ethics separate God from all of the ANE gods that were worshipped at the time.
Some of you may be thinking, “Okay, but that’s all the OT stuff. What about NT?” Glad you asked. Check out what the Apostle Paul wrote in his second letter to the Church at Corinth about being separated from their culture : “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14 NAS) He says, “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord.” He quotes from Isaiah as well a Ezekiel in exhorting the Christian Church in Corinth to be holy as God is holy.
But here’s a danger in calling us to live such lives of holiness. Many will take that to mean we are live in separation, as if the separation itself it what makes us holy. If we just abstain from worldly things—smoking, drinking, cursing, TV, card playing, dancing, name your habit—then we are living a “holy” life. Not true. Self-denial and separation for the sake of being different doesn’t make you holy. Only God can do that.
So we swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme: Live like the world so as to not be seen as “holier than thou.” Be a “good ole boy” and adopt the thinking, attitudes, and behaviors of our culture. Blend in. Be P.C. Surely God won’t mind, as long as we don’t sin too big and go to church. God DOES mind. Know what else? The world can’t tell us apart from Non-Christians!
What are some areas we need to be challenged to separate ourselves from the culture around us? Let’s just mention two today. First, how about a materialistic mindset? The heart of this matter is GREED. Seamands describes it like this:
“We live in a culture that worships at the altars of consumerism. Its temples are shopping malls [I would add Amazon.com]. Its priests and priestesses are Madison Avenue executives. Its sermons are TV commercials [pop-up ads]. Its saints are people with six-figure incomes. Its annual pilgrimage is the Christmas shopping season. Its logos are designer labels.”
Like it or not, he’s hit it pretty much on the head. We need to wrestle individually and corporately with what the Bible teaches about wealth and possessions. When we do, then the Bible—NOT culture—can inform our thinking and our behavior as it relates to money.
Second, how about sex. The perversion of human sexuality takes many forms: pre-marital sex, extra-marital affairs, same sex relations, sexual misconduct and abuse, sexual discrimination, and the like. In the ANE, sexuality was not a moral issue because different gods had differing views and ethics regarding sex. In most pantheistic religions, all of creation was formed through sexual activity of the gods. And it was believed that much the blessings of the gods was brought about through religious sexual practices, perversions were rampant.
But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the One True Creator of all things is a Holy God who did not use sexual activity to create this world. Rather, God spoke everything into being. God gave the pinnacle of his creation—man and woman—the gift of sex for their benefit and to encourage his mission of multiplying and filling the earth. Therefore, God sees all these perversions as unholy. Commandment # 7 specifically addresses the issue of violation of that holy relationship. The book of Leviticus contains many references of perverse sexual practices to avoid in order to be a holy people, including same-sex relations as well as with animals.
So, again, our responsibility as a church is to examine the biblical teaching on the subject of human sexuality—not cultural activity—and adjust our thinking and behavior to the truth of God’s Word. To be separate from the culture is to live in God’s holiness. We don’t lust after another woman or a man because to do so is outside of God’s holy character. We live within the covenant of holy marriage because God ordained that marriage from Genesis 4 onward. By our living within God’s holy covenant regarding human sexuality, we might look separate from the culture….we might be called out of touch and uncaring, but we are in touch with God.
What have we been saying? One major characteristic of God’s holiness is His UNRIVALED MAJESTY. He is exalted. He is holy other…separate. And His holy “otherness” calls us to be like Him, to be in the world but not of the world. We engage the world with love and truth. We are called to be light and salt. We don’t scream at people that they are going to hell. We don’t hate people because they sin any more than we hate one another because of our sin.
Instead, we live out our lives of holiness of heart and life, seeking to reflect the character of God which is merciful, gracious, loving, self-giving, truthful, justice-seeking, and kind. “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”