Holiness: How it Changes Us
Published August 21, 2023
As we introduced in the previous post, many people and churches in our world have forgotten, overlooked, and ignored the holiness of God. We outlined four disastrous consequences for failing to appreciate, love, and proclaim God’s holiness: frivolous and trivial worship, a lost Great Commission in churches, lives that are worldly and ungodly, and countless false believers who incorrectly think they know God.
Thankfully, there is a remedy to this widespread problem of forgetting God’s holiness. If we would know and love the living and holy God, we must be people who have truly encountered Him as the God who is holy.
Someone might ask, “How do I know if I’ve encountered this holy God?” Three illustrations from Scripture show us what happens when creatures encounter this holy God. In light of these illustrations, we might put our hearts to the test, to see if we have really understood and grasped that we believe in Scripture’s revelation of God as unchangeably, eternally, and perfectly holy.
The first illustration is that of Moses in Exodus 3:1-6; 33:13-34:8.
Moses encountered God perhaps more than anyone else in the Old Testament, and it’s fascinating to observe how encountering God in His perfect holiness affected Moses. When reading how God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, we see three facts about sinners encountering God in His holiness.
First, the holiness of God put distance between God and Moses. Second, God commanded Moses to show reverence for His holiness. Third, when Moses realized he had encountered God (the true and living God who is holy), he hid his face and was terrified to look at God. At this point in Moses’ relationship with the Lord, he was a believer in the God of Israel, but he also appears to know very little about sacrifice, redemption, or forgiveness. Moses’ fear in this episode of the burning bush makes perfect sense. As time goes on, however, Moses begins to learn about the compassion of this holy God, the way of salvation provided through sacrifice, and the forgiveness that comes to sinners. Consequently, Moses’ interactions with God change to reflect Moses’ greater understanding of God’s holiness in its fullness.
In Exodus 33, we observe a significant contrast. Moses has seen the mercy, forgiveness, grace, and compassion of this holy God. Now, rather than desiring to hide his face from God, he wants to know this holy God and be in the Lord’s presence.
God granted Moses’ request to see His glory as much as his sinful humanity could handle, allowing Moses to see the rear parts of His glory and declaring His name before Moses. We see, though, that Moses’ fear and reverence for God were unchanged. Moses never lost that sense of awe before the majesty of God’s infinite holiness. God’s holiness no longer terrified him as someone who wanted to run from God because he knew God had forgiven and accepted him. Nevertheless, the holiness of God still caused Moses to bow in worship, to reverence God, and to fear Him.
The church today has too much familiarity with the Holy One of Israel – a glibness, and a lack of reverence and awe. If we have truly encountered God in His majestic holiness, we will never trifle with Him. Instead, we will long for Him, love Him, adore Him; we will want to be with Him, and we will want Him to be with us – but we will never lose the sense that He is God, and we are not.
Isaiah was another man who encountered God face to face.
In Isaiah 6, we see both Isaiah (a sinful man) and holy angels encountering God. Even the angels in the presence of God – angels who never fell into sin – are overwhelmed by God’s holiness. They cover their face because of the awesomeness of God’s holiness, and they cover their feet as a sign of honor and reverence before this holy God. If such mighty angels, who have never sinned, revere and fear the Holy One of Israel, what would the response of a sinner be to His glorious holiness?
That answer is given to us in Isaiah’s response to this vision. He pronounces a curse on himself, recognizing that no matter how good he thought he was before this moment, he was accursed because of his sin in the presence of the holy God seated on the throne. Isaiah confesses that he is totally and completely defiled before a God so perfect and holy.
Isaiah’s reaction to seeing the holiness of God is similar to Moses’: fear, dread, and impending doom. This is the correct response when a sinner encounters God in His holiness and recognizes that he is fully unworthy and stands under the just penalty of death for his sin.
Once Isaiah’s sins are forgiven later in the passage, the scene’s tone completely changes. Isaiah turns from pronouncing a curse upon himself for his sinfulness to volunteering to serve the Lord. This is a total transformation: seeing the holiness of the Lord in the context of forgiveness produces holiness in the life of the sinner. Isaiah leaves the presence of the holy Lord, realizing his one aim in life moving forward is to be holy, to be obedient, and to submit himself to the will of his holy Lord.
Peter also encountered the holiness of the Lord in Luke 5.
Note that this moment of the holiness of Christ was veiled in human flesh. This was not the same level of majestic holiness Isaiah saw when he observed Christ seated on the heavenly throne with all the angels around Him. Jesus was, to all outward appearances, a normal human man; but even this glimpse of the holiness of Christ overwhelmed Peter when his Lord caused a great miracle during his fishing expedition.
Peter’s response was exactly like that of Isaiah. He told Jesus to leave because Jesus had exposed his sin. Peter knew immediately that Jesus was holy, but he was not. Peter was filled with dread, with awe, and with reverence; he bowed down at Jesus’ feet. It was here Peter became a full-time disciple of Jesus Christ. He stacked up the value of a lucrative fishing trade and the value of the holiness of Christ that called him as a disciple – and the choice was obvious.
Those comparing the narratives of Isaiah and Peter should note there is exactly zero difference between the holy God of the Old Testament and the Holy Son of God who came to seek and to save that which was lost. The holiness, response, and reverence are all the same.
Hebrews 12:18-29 perfectly encapsulates what it means for the new covenant believer to encounter our holy God. Verses 18-21 remind us of the holiness of God and what a terror it is to sinners under the Law, so that even Moses trembled at the sight! Verses 22-24 explain that we have not come to an earthly mountain, but to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. We have the blood of Christ covering us; we have a new covenant in which our sins are forgiven; and we have a mediator in Christ who brings us to God so that we might joyfully dwell in His presence forever!
Verses 28-29 of Hebrews 12 summarize the result of this glorious new covenant relationship we have with our holy God as we encounter Him. We come before our holy God with gratitude that He has provided for us a perfect High Priest, a perfect Mediator, a better covenant based on better promises, and blood that has washed away our sins. With that gratitude, we come with reverence and awe because our God is still a consuming fire.
Have we encountered the God who is holy, holy, holy – the God of Moses, the God of Isaiah, the God of Peter, the God who is a consuming fire? Have we heard through the promises in His Word that through faith in Christ He has taken away our sin through the blood of His Son, welcomed us into His holy presence, and transformed us through our encounters with His holiness? These are weighty questions we do well to ask ourselves today.