From “Woe is Me” to “I Belong Here”

What do we mean when we say God is “holy?” We are familiar with the word – we use it as an exclamation in phrases like, “Holy cow!” or “Holy moly!” or worse. So we use it frequently enough. We are familiar with the word; perhaps even too familiar. Perhaps we have become far too comfortable with a God who is holy.

The basic meaning of holy is one of separateness. Sacredness. Something that is not common or like other things. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in a place where you clearly do not belong. Maybe it’s a fancy restaurant where you’re the only one wearing t-shirt and flip flops. Or maybe it’s in the middle of a very serious conversation you walked in on your parents having. Whatever the case, you get this sense all of a sudden that you are in a place that is too serious for you. And it’s uncomfortable. 

The holiness of God reminds us just how separate and sacred God is. He is not meant to be treated trivially, and those who do so do so at their own risk. This is part of what the prophet Isaiah discovered.

If you take a look at Isaiah 6, for example, you find that beginning to understand holiness is the beginning of learning about God. “Holy” is the cry that even now is ringing in the heavens to describe God. That’s what Isaiah encountered as he was taken up in a vision and saw the Lord:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and His robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above Him; each one has six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth’” (Isaiah 6:1-3).

By calling God “holy” three times, the seraphim were pointing to the absolutely essential and foundational nature of God’s holiness. They didn’t chant “loving, loving, loving” or even “glorious, glorious, glorious.” They opted for holy, and therefore we must recognize that to understand a bit of who God is we must start here with this characteristic.

To be “holy” is to be separate. Other. Apart. When we describe God as holy, the word sums up everything that makes God who He is and sets Him apart from us. Furthermore, because this is more than just a characteristic of God but rather a summation of all His characteristics, His holiness filters down into everything else we say about Him.

His love is a holy love. His justice is a holy justice. His wrath is a holy wrath. God’s holiness reminds us that God is completely and perfectly pure, without spot or blemish. That’s part of what John got at when He described God as light with no darkness in Him at all. He’s not partly light just as He’s not partly holy. God is wholly “other” than we are.

Finding himself in the throne of God, in His holy presence, Isaiah did not dance around. He didn’t have a party. He was undone:

The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke. Then I said: “Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Armies.”

Isaiah, the man of God, was terrified, and why? It’s because the holiness of God suddenly brought into focus his own uncleanness and sin. When you truly come into the presence of God, you know that you don’t belong there, just as Isaiah did. But in this moment of terror, of fear, from God’s prophet, we see a shadow of the gospel.

Isaiah could not clean himself up. He could not make himself holy and acceptable. He could do nothing about his condition. God would have to do something for him that he could not do for himself, and that’s exactly what we see happening:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said:

Now that this has touched your lips,
your iniquity is removed
and your sin is atoned for.

This is a shadow of the gospel. Isaiah should have been dead because he was sinful, and he had come into a place in which sin cannot be. But God took the initiative and made him clean. 

This is the only way by which you can be made clean. This is the only way you can stand before the throne of God. And for us, the coal from the altar is the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross, Jesus is punished for your sin, and you are given credit for His sacrifice.

The gospel grants us glorious access to the presence of God. The dividing barrier of sin has been torn down by the cross, and as a result, the children of God are welcome into His presence. And as such, we should come – even boldly – into that presence. This is what the Bible tells us to do:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need (Heb. 4:14-17).

Think of that for a moment. Because of the righteousness of Christ given to us, we can come – not timidly, not shakingly, not apprehensively – but boldly into God’s presence. We can come boldly because we know what we will find there. We will find compassion. Sympathy. Understanding. And mercy.

When it comes to the presence of God, the gospel moves us from “Woe is me!” to “I belong here.”

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