Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Untamable Holiness of God

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. – Isaiah 6:1

From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God – Revelation 4:5

            In February of this year, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. While his death is not as dramatic for our country as Uzziah’s would have been for Israel, I still think it at least gives us a frame of reference.  A good judge died.  One who endeavored to consistently interpret the United States’ Constitution in a way he felt the fathers of our nation would have him to. In this regard Isaiah 6:1 should bring us comfort.  While a good judge in our nation has died, the Judge of all the earth is still reigning sovereignly on His holy throne. In fact, there is one English word we see repeated 3x in the verses listed above: throne. If you take all of Revelation 4, the word throne is used 14x! In Isaiah’s vision, the nation of Israel is mourning the loss of their king.  In the time of John’s visions, Christians are enduring persecution from the Roman Empire.  And yet, both are reminded that no matter what things may look like here, the King is still on His throne. Earthly magistrates come and go, but the King of all the universe reigns on high forever. The Holy King is upon His throne and you or anyone else will not unseat Him.

            Before we continue let’s unpack Isaiah’s vision just a little more. First, let’s consider the title by which He addresses God: Lord. This is the Hebrew word ‘Adonai’. This is a title rather than a name, but it’s a very important title.  God’s name ‘YHWH’ would not be read or said by the Jews. Instead, they would use the word ‘Adonai’ when reading a passage of Scripture that contained God’s covenant name (like Isaiah 6:3). Adonai literally means “master,” “sovereign,” or “lord.” In the minds of the Jews, the very name of God was closely associated with the idea of His Lordship over His people and His creation. Adonai! The One with supreme authority.  The Sovereign One! The holiness of God is untamable.  We are not sitting above it and deciding how we will use it to our advantage. Rather, it is sitting high and above us.  We cannot control it, or shape it into something advantageous for our own desires.

            Secondly, let’s consider the aspect of the train of God’s robe filling the temple. This points to His majesty. The dimensions of the train are not given, but it is enough for us to know that it filled the temple.  The same Temple that God in which God promised to meet with His people. There is no comparison between Justice Scalia, or King Uzziah, and the Judge and King of all the Universe. Earthly kings and judges may be manipulated or persuaded away from their convictions, but not YHWH. He is untamable.

            Thirdly, before we move on, let’s consider what Isaiah actually saw. We need to remember this was a vision.  But John seems clear that this vision was of the preincarnate Christ when he says “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). We may not understand the fullness of what Isaiah actually ‘saw’ but it appears that it was of the glory of Christ, the image of the invisible God.

The heart of this post is that God’s holiness is untamable. (We discussed God’s Un-Borable Holiness previously). In the garden, God gave man dominion over the earth and its creatures.  But our dominion has never, and will never be over God’s transcendent holiness.  We cannot control God’s holiness or the manifestations thereof.  Isaiah wasn’t seeking to encounter God in this way.  He wasn’t mustering up all of his ‘free-will’ to be swept up in this vision of the Holy One. God will meet with us on His terms, not ours. God has every right to manifest His holy presence to us in such a way right now that we are obliterated from earth and eternity.  God has every right to overwhelm us with His holy presence in such a way to bring revival to our church. Or, He might do so to the local church down the street.  And what would we say? “Oh, excuse me, Sovereign King, you’re not abiding by my rules.” Perish the thought! It is His Holy prerogative.  He is the Lord of hosts! His holiness is not a cute crochet project that can be stitched on a throw pillow. 

The community that I live in was devastated by an EF4 Tornado on February 5, 2008. This particular tornado tracked along a path southwest to northeast for 122 miles on the ground. Tornadoes are powerful storms that leave a horrendous trail of damage in their wake. Besides destroying homes, livestock, and killing 14 people, the Tornado also did some strange things:

[In] Clinton (Van Buren County), two people were huddled around a commode in the bathroom before the storm arrived. After the storm departed, the bathroom was gone and so was the commode...but the people were still there (and only had minor injuries). Also at Clinton, a lady had small pieces of newspaper buried in her leg...and the print could be read just under her skin. (
To be cavalier towards God’s holiness is like continuing your grilling on the back porch while you watch an F4 tornado barrel down toward your house.  We may look with amazement on the stories quoted above, but no sane person wants to actually be in the midst of a tornado. You can no more put God’s holiness in a box than you can direct and control the path of a vicious whirlwind. How many sermons have we heard (have I/we preached!?), how many devotions have we read, how many thoughts and conversations about God have we engaged in, in which the glorious holiness of God has not been properly esteemed and extolled? It is both wicked and insane to be careless toward God’s untamable holiness. You were not made to tame God’s holiness but to prize it. To glory in it.  To treasure it. To be in awe of Him.

What Scripture says of God is totally true and trustworthy, but God is not bound to act as you or I would have Him behave.  We cannot take His holiness and use it like the ‘force’ to achieve the ends we desire.  He is not bound by our man made rules, nor can we unlock His holy presence with the right combinations of Charles Finneyisms. We ought to pray for more of God, seek more of God, and plead with God for more of God in our own lives and those around us.  But we also must be resigned to let God work as He will.  In this very passage in Isaiah 6, God commissions Isaiah to a ministry that seemingly will see no fruit of repentance (Isaiah 6:8-13). This is God’s holy right. He is the LORD of hosts (Isaiah 6:3, 5)! He commands the heavenly host to do His bidding and He is even sovereign above the actions of men (cf. Acts 4:27-28). All this to say that all God does is Holy, whether it happens to be exactly what we are ‘wanting’ or not. We must joyfully resign ourselves to the wonderful truth that God’s holiness is untamable by man, angels, or the powers of evil. Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases! (Psalm 115:3).

I think C.S. Lewis’s description of Aslan is quite fitting here:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
            It’s time the church recovers this view of God. Perhaps, it’s time for you to recover this view of God. A God of untamable holiness. A God who isn’t safe, but is good.  Many in our day have wrongly boiled the gospel down to ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’ While this is not the essence of the gospel, I do actually hold that this maxim is true. God does love His children, and He does have a wonderful plan for our lives. It’s just that His plan for your life may be like that of Polycarp in 155 A.D. who at the age of 86 was burnt at the stake for the glory of God’s name. Or maybe like that of Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson who lost children on the mission field and endured 17 months of harsh prison life in Burma because of his zeal for Christ. From a worldly perspective we wouldn’t define these things as wonderful, but from a Christian perspective let us say ‘Yes and amen’ as we fall on our face and sing ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory!’ We cannot tame His holiness but this ought not to be our desire, for He is God and we are not. He has not permitted us to consider Him in any way we think is fitting, but has revealed Himself to us in His Word. He is not waiting for us to speak blessings into our lives. Sometimes we have differentiated between holiness and happiness, and I completely understand that dichotomy, and at times those distinctions are helpful. But, let us consider the great truth today that God’s design for our lives is that we would be happy in His holiness (Psalm 1). We let our fleshly desires dictate happiness instead of conforming ourselves to the Word. Ad fontes! Look to Scripture as our source for knowing who God is.  Too often the songs we sing in church, the lifestyles we live, the type of sermons we prefer, what we treasure…reveal that we serve a tamable god.  A god in our own image. A god who never disagrees with us in what we think is good and right and just.  A god who makes exceptions for our sins.  A god we can control.  The problem of course with this god is that he is a figment of our own imagination and has no power to rescue us from the righteous wrath of the God of untamable holiness.

            God’s untamable holiness is not mean to ‘scare’ us into thinking God is unappeasable.  We just can’t pacify Him on our terms. The wording of Revelation 4:5 with the flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, is reminiscent of the manifestations of God to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-18). I think the case can be made that while the people of Israel rightly feared God in this instance, they were ultimately looking to the wrong mediator for their hope.  In Exodus 20:18-19 Moses tells us “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” As I discussed previously, there is an element of ‘woe’ that should develop within people when they consider the holiness of God.  But, because of the gospel, we should not be left in a state of hopelessness.  Ultimately, the people of Israel wanted to deal with Moses and not God because they were afraid. That fear led them to deal with God the best way they could think of which was to distance themselves from Him through Moses. But the purpose of God’s revelation to the children of Israel at Sinai was so that they would not sin, and thus be able to walk joyfully in His presence all of their days (Exodus 20:20). Of course, we understand that while the Law commands us not to sin, it doesn’t fix within us the desire we have for sin.  Even though the Law tells us not to sin, people still do because that’s what they most want. However, as we look at the various aspects of God’s holiness, the goal is not run away from God, but to run to Him on His terms.  And His terms are presented to us in the Gospel. Moses is not the mediator we need.  Indeed, Paul tells us “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). We can either distance ourselves from God through Moses, or draw near to God through Christ by faith. In Christ, the holy wrath of God has been propitiated. If we were to consider the full ramifications of the term ‘propitiation’ it would require more than a simple blog post! Suffice it to say for today, that Jesus is the wrath satisfying sacrifice. And in Christ we find the freedom, power, and joy for serving God as He commands us. God will manifest Himself to whom He will.  He will draw whom He will.  He will save whom He will save.  But man isn’t called to discern these secret acts.  Man is called to repent and believe the gospel.  Look to the Son and live!  Look to the Son and be in awe of the God of untamable holiness. Turn away from your sin and paltry views of God, and turn to Christ in faith. God’s righteous wrath has been satisfied in the propitiatory work of His Son (see 1 John 4:10). To consider God’s untamable holiness should ultimately drive us to Christ. On what merit will you stand before Him? If it is your own you will be overwhelmed and eternally undone by His untamable holiness. It must be the merit of Christ alone. God’s holiness hasn’t been tamed, but the terms of maintaining His untamable holiness have been met in Jesus. Through the sacrifice of the Son we are called to come to God in faith. Are you in awe today? Are you resolved to stop trying to bend God to your desires, but ask Him to bend your heart to His?

The holiness of God is beyond what many often contemplate if they even meditate on God at all. Both Isaiah and John saw a vision of God that glorifies His Sovereign holiness. I think these are the types of visions pastors need to cast for churches. The visions already laid out for us in Scripture of a God of untamable holiness. He will not be managed by or bow to the frivolous whims of His creation. This is the God that parishioners ought to hunger for, and not be satisfied unless He is preached as glorious as these visions we see in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. Holy, holy, holy is He.

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