On June 1, 1973, Charles Colson visited his friend Tom Phillips, while Watergate exploded in the press. He was baffled and shocked at Phillips’s explanation that he had “accepted Jesus Christ.” But he saw that Tom was at peace and he wasn’t. When Colson left the house, he couldn’t get his keys in the ignition he was crying so hard. He says,
That night I was confronted with my own sin — not just Watergate’s dirty tricks, but the sin deep within me, the hidden evil that lives in every human heart. It was painful and I could not escape. I cried out to God and found myself drawn irresistibly into his waiting arms. That was the night I gave my life to Jesus Christ and began the greatest adventure of my life. (Loving God, 247)
Charles Colson’s New Understanding of God
That story has been told hundreds of times in the last ten years. We love to hear it. But far too many of us settle for that story in our own lives and the life of our church. But not Charles Colson. Not only was the White House hatchet man willing to cry in 1973, he was also willing to repent several years later of a woefully inadequate view of God. It was during a period of unusual spiritual dryness. (If you are in one, take heart! More saints than you realize have had life-changing encounters with God right in the midst of the desert.) A friend suggested to Colson that he watch a videocassette lecture series by R.C. Sproul on the holiness of God. Here’s what Colson writes in Loving God (14–15):
All I knew about Sproul was that he was a theologian, so I wasn’t enthusiastic. After all, I reasoned, theology was for people who had time to study, locked in ivory towers far from the battlefield of human need. However, at my friend’s urging I finally agreed to watch Sproul’s series.
By the end of the sixth lecture I was on my knees, deep in prayer, in awe of God’s absolute holiness. It was a life-changing experience as I gained a completely new understanding of the holy God I believe in and worship.
My spiritual drought ended, but this taste for the majesty of God only made me thirst for more of him.
In 1973 Colson had seen enough of God and himself to know his desperate need of God, and had been driven “irresistibly” (as he says) into God’s arms. But then several years later something else wonderful happened. A theologian spoke on the holiness of God and Charles Colson says that he fell to his knees and “gained a completely new understanding of the holy God.” From that point on he had what he calls a “taste for the majesty of God.” Have you seen enough of God’s holiness to have an insatiable taste for his majesty?
Job Sees God Anew
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Job was a believer, a deeply devout and prayerful man. Surely he knew God as he ought. Surely he had a “taste for the majesty of God.” But then came the pain and misery of his spiritual and physical desert. And in the midst of Job’s darkness God spoke in his majesty to Job:
Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? Deck yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor . . . Look on everyone that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked where they stand . . . Then will I also acknowledge to you, that your own right hand can give you the victory . . . Who then is he that can stand before me? Who has given to me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine. (Job 40:8–14; 41:10–11)
In the end Job responds, like Colson, to a “completely new understanding of the Holy God.” He says,
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know . . . I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:3–6)
Perseverance and Hope in Pursuing the Holy God
Can that happen at Bethlehem? It can and it is. If I saw no signs of it, I would be hard pressed to continue even though I know perseverance is the key to revival. A. J. Gordon wrote in his book, The Holy Spirit in Missions:
It was seven years before Carey baptized his first convert in India; it was seven years before Judson won his first disciple in Burma; Morrison toiled seven years before the first Chinaman was brought to Christ; Moffat declared that he waited seven years to see the first evident moving of the Holy Spirit upon the Bechuanas of Africa; Henry Richards wrought seven years on the Congo before the first convert was gained at Banza Manteka.
“Perseverance, prayer, and labor, are key to revival, but so is expectation and hope.”
Perseverance, prayer, and labor, are key to revival, but so is expectation and hope. And God has given me signs of hope that the experience of Isaiah and Job and Charles Colson can happen here if we continue to go hard after the holy God. For example, one of our members wrote me a letter a week ago, which said the ministry here has
taken me soaring far past what I formerly perceived as mountaintops, to a grander, greater, bigger, more glorious picture of the God on high than I had ever imagined . . . My view of God becomes larger and larger and out of his omnipotent magnificence flows everything, all-sufficiency. In the ten months I have been at Bethlehem there has been a wonderful revival in my heart and the flame burns brighter and more surely than it ever has.
Revival happens when we see God majestic in holiness, and when we see ourselves as disobedient dust. Brokenness, repentance, unspeakable joy of forgiveness, a “taste for the magnificence of God,” a hunger for his holiness — to see it more and to live it more: that’s revival. And it comes from seeing God.
Seven Glimpses of God in Isaiah’s Vision
Isaiah invites us to share his vision of God in Isaiah 6:1–4:
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
Seven glimpses of God I see in these four verses — at least seven.
1. God Is Alive
First, he is alive. Uzziah is dead, but God lives on. “From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (Psalm 90:2). God was the living God when this universe banged into existence. He was the living God when Socrates drank his poison. He was the living God when William Bradford governed Plymouth Colony. He was the living God in 1966 when Thomas Altizer proclaimed him dead and Time magazine put it on the front cover. And he will be living ten trillion ages from now when all the puny potshots against his reality will have sunk into oblivion like BB’s at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” There is not a single head of state in all the world who will be there in fifty years. The turnover in world leadership is one hundred percent. In a brief 110 years this planet will be populated by ten billion brand new people and all four billion of us alive today will have vanished off the earth like Uzziah. But not God. He never had a beginning and therefore depends on nothing for his existence. He always has been and always will be alive.
2. God Is Authoritative
Second, he is authoritative. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne.” No vision of heaven has ever caught a glimpse of God plowing a field, or cutting his grass or shining shoes or filling out reports or loading a truck. Heaven is not coming apart at the seams. God is never at wits’ end with his heavenly realm. He sits. And he sits on a throne. All is at peace and he has control.
The throne is his right to rule the world. We do not give God authority over our lives. He has it whether we like it or not. What utter folly it is to act as though we had any rights at all to call God into question! We need to hear now and then blunt words like those of Virginia Stem Owens who said in last month’s Reformed Journal:
Let us get this one thing straight. God can do anything he damn well pleases, including damn well. And if it pleases him to damn, then it is done, ipso facto, well. God’s activity is what it is. There isn’t anything else. Without it there would be no being, including human beings presuming to judge the Creator of everything that is.
Few things are more humbling, few things give us that sense of raw majesty, as the truth that God is utterly authoritative. He is the Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the Chief Executive. After him, no appeal.
3. God Is Omnipotent
Third, God is omnipotent. The throne of his authority is not one among many. It is high and lifted up. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up.” That God’s throne is higher than every other throne signifies God’s superior power to exercise his authority. No opposing authority can nullify the decrees of God. What he purposes, he accomplishes. “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10). “He does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand” (Daniel 4:35). To be gripped by the omnipotence (or sovereignty) of God is either marvelous because he is for us, or it is terrifying because he is against us. Indifference to his omnipotence simply means we haven’t seen it for what it is. The sovereign authority of the living God is a refuge full of joy and power for those who keep his covenant.
4. God Is Resplendent
Fourth, God is resplendent. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” You have seen pictures of brides whose dresses are gathered around them covering the steps and the platform. What would the meaning be if the train filled the aisles and covered the seats and the choir loft, woven all of one piece? That God’s robe fills the entire heavenly temple means that he is a God of incomparable splendor. The fullness of God’s splendor shows itself in a thousand ways.
“The fullness of God’s splendor shows itself in a thousand ways.”
For one little example, the January Ranger Rick has an article on species of fish who live deep in the dark sea and have their own built-in lights — some have lamps hanging from their chins, some have luminescent noses, some have beacons under their eyes. There are a thousand kinds of self-lighted fish who live deep in the ocean where none of us can see and marvel. They are spectacularly weird and beautiful. Why are they there? Why not just a dozen or so efficient streamlined models? Because God is lavish in splendor. His creative fullness spills over in excessive beauty. And if that’s the way the world is, how much more resplendent must be the Lord who thought it up and made it!
5. God Is Revered
Fifth, God is revered. “Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” No one knows what these strange six-winged creatures with feet and eyes and intelligence are. They never appear again in the Bible — at least not under the name seraphim. Given the grandeur of the scene and the power of the angelic hosts, we had best not picture chubby winged babies fluttering about the Lord’s ears. According to verse 4, when one of them speaks, the foundations of the temple shake. We would do better to think of the Blue Angels diving in formation before the presidential entourage and cracking the sound barrier just before his face. There are no puny or silly creatures in heaven. Only magnificent ones.
And the point is this: not even they can look upon the Lord nor do they feel worthy even to leave their feet exposed in his presence. Great and good as they are, untainted by human sin, they revere their Maker in great humility. An angel terrifies a man with his brilliance and power. But angels themselves hide in holy fear and reverence from the splendor of God. How much more will we shudder and quake in his presence who cannot even endure the splendor of his angels!
6. God Is Holy
Sixth, God is holy. “And one called to another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!’ Remember how Reepicheep, the gallant mouse, at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader sailed to the end of the world in his little coracle? Well, the word “holy” is the little boat in which we reach the world’s end in the ocean of language. The possibilities of language to carry the meaning of God eventually run out and spill over the edge of the world into a vast unknown. “Holiness” carries us to the brink, and from there on the experience of God is beyond words.
The reason I say this is that every effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy, means God is God. Let me illustrate. The root meaning of holy is probably to cut or separate. A holy thing is cut off from and separated from common (we would say secular) use. Earthly things and persons are holy as they are distinct from the world and devoted to God. So the Bible speaks of holy ground (Exodus 3:5), holy assemblies (Exodus 12:16), holy sabbaths (Exodus 16:23), a holy nation (Exodus 19:6); holy garments (Exodus 28:2), a holy city (Nehemiah 11:1), holy promises (Psalm 105:42), holy men (2 Peter 1:21) and women (1 Peter 3:5), Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15), holy hands (1 Timothy 2:8), a holy kiss (Romans 16:16), and a holy faith (Jude 20). Almost anything can become holy if it is separated from the common and devoted to God.
But notice what happens when this definition is applied to God himself. From what can you separate God to make him holy? The very god-ness of God means that he is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind. Sui generis. In a class by himself. In that sense, he is utterly holy. But then you have said no more than that he is God.
Or if the holiness of a man derives from being separated from the world and devoted to God, to whom is God devoted so as to derive his holiness? To no one but himself. It is blasphemy to say that there is a higher reality than God to which he must conform in order to be holy. God is the absolute reality beyond which is only more of God. When asked for his name in Exodus 3:14, he said, “I am who I am.” His being and his character are utterly undetermined by anything outside himself. He is not holy because he keeps the rules. He wrote the rules! God is not holy because he keeps the law. The law is holy because it reveals God. God is absolute. Everything else is derivative.
What then is his holiness? Listen to three texts. 1 Samuel 2:2: “There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee.” Isaiah 40:25: “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” Hosea 11:9: “I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst.” In the end God is holy in that he is God and not man. (Compare Leviticus 19:2 and 20:7. Note the parallel structure of Isaiah 5:16.)
He is incomparable. His holiness is his utterly unique divine essence. It determines all that he is and does and is determined by no one. His holiness is what he is as God, which no one else is or ever will be. Call it his majesty, his divinity, his greatness, his value as the pearl of great price. In the end, language runs out. In the word “holy” we have sailed to the world’s end in the utter silence of reverence and wonder and awe. There may yet be more to know of God, but that will be beyond words. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
7. God Is Glorious
But before the silence and the shaking of the foundations and the all-concealing smoke we learn a seventh final thing about God. God is glorious. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” The glory of God is the manifestation of his holiness. God’s holiness is the incomparable perfection of his divine nature; his glory is the display of that holiness. “God is glorious” means: God’s holiness has gone public. His glory is the open revelation of the secret of his holiness. In Leviticus 10:3, God says, “I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified.” When God shows himself to be holy, what we see is glory. The holiness of God is his concealed glory. The glory of God is his revealed holiness.
“The glory of God is the manifestation of his holiness.”
When the Seraphim say, “The whole earth is full of his glory,” it is because from the heights of heaven you can see the end of the world. From down here the view of the glory of God is limited. But it’s limited largely by our foolish preference for frills. To use a parable of Søren Kierkegaard, we are like people who ride our carriage at night into the country to see the glory of God. But above us, on either side of the carriage seat, burns a gas lantern. As long as our head is surrounded by this artificial light, the sky overhead is empty of glory. But if some gracious wind of the Spirit blows out our earthly lights, then in our darkness God’s heavens are filled with stars.
Someday, God will blow and turn away every competing glory and make his holiness known in awesome splendor to every humble creature. But there is no need to wait. Job, Isaiah, Charles Colson, and many of you have humbled yourselves to go hard after the Holy God and have developed a taste for his majesty. To you and all the rest who are just beginning to feel it, I hold out this promise from God, who is ever alive, authoritative, omnipotent, resplendent, revered, holy, and glorious: “You will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me (go hard after me) with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12–13).