In the Throne Room

The God of Holiness and Hope

The Gospel Coalition 2012 National Women’s Conference | Orlando

On June 1, 1973, Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon, heard the gospel from Tom Phillips, while Watergate exploded in the press. That night “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). Several years later the former White House hatchet man repented of a woefully inadequate view of God. He was in a very dry season. A friend suggested to Colson that he watch a video cassette lecture series by R.C. Sproul on the holiness of God. Here’s what Colson writes in his book Loving God:

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. (15)

The same things happened to Job:

He was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. (Job 1:1)

What more did he need? But after great suffering, and great wrestlings with God, the Lord appeared to him:

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. . . . (Job 40:8–14)

In the end, Job, like Colson, comes 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)

And it happened to Isaiah. After God appeared to him in Isaiah 6:1–4 he says in verse 5:

And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

This has happened to many of us. It happened to me between my 22nd and 25th year. A new understanding of the holy God. A taste for the majesty of God. May the Lord do it for you from Isaiah 6. Or if you already have this taste, may the Lord satisfy your soul with this vision more deeply than ever before. 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 the train of his robe 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. (Isaiah 6:1–4)

Seven glimpses of God I see in these four verses, at least seven.

Glimpse #1: God Is Alive

First, he is alive. In the year that king Uzziah died. Uzziah is dead, but God lives on. "From everlasting to everlasting, you are God" (Psalm 90:2). God was the living God when this universe came 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 the living God ten trillion ages from now when all the puny potshots against his reality will have sunk into oblivion like BBs at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

“God is and always has been and will always be the living God.”

“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. But there is no turnover in the Trinity. He never had a beginning and therefore depends on nothing for his existence. He always has been and always will be alive.

Glimpse #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 by inattention. 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 wrote in Reformed Journal some years ago:

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 does. He is the Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the Chief Executive. After him, no appeal.

Glimpse #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). And this omnipotent authority of the living God is a refuge full of joy and power for those who keep his covenant.

Glimpse #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.

I used to read Ranger Rick. I recall 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!

Glimpse #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 — those four jets that fly in formation — 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: 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. He is continually revered.

Glimpse #6: God Is Holy

Sixth, God is holy. “And one called to another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!’” Language is pushing its limits of usefulness here. The effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy means God is God.

“The fullness of God’s splendor shows itself in a thousand ways.”

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? His holiness is his utterly unique divine, transcendent, pure essence, which in his uniqueness has infinite value. 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 supreme 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. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).

Glimpse #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.

Majesty and Misery Mingled

Now, what does this have to do with Jesus Christ incarnate as the God-man and crucified and risen from the dead at the center of history? The gospel of John makes the connections for us more clearly than anyone, in John 12. And I will put it in a very brief statement. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah presents God as high and holy and majestic and authoritative and sovereign and resplendent, and God says in verse 10 that this message will harden the people. They do not want such a God. But the chapter ends with a reference to a stump of faithfulness that remains, and Isaiah speaks of a “holy seed” (verse 13).

In Isaiah 53, that seed is described as the suffering servant who had “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:2–3). Just the opposite of the picture of God in Isaiah 6.

But Isaiah 53:1 says they rejected that message as well: “Who has believed what he has heard from us?” (Isaiah 53:1). These are the very two texts that John quotes in reference to the rejection of Jesus in John 12:38 and 40. Why? John tells us in Isaiah 12:41, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). Isaiah saw the glory of Christ.

In other words, Jesus was the fulfillment of both the majesty of Isaiah 6 and the misery of Isaiah 53. And that, John says, is why he was rejected. He came to his own and his own did not receive him. Why? Because Jesus was the glory of Isaiah 6 and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. John says so in John 12:41, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.”

“When God shows himself to be holy, what we see is glory.”

We beheld his glory, glory of the only Son from the Father full of grace and truth and that glory was the unprecedented mingling of the majesty of Isaiah 6 and the misery of Isaiah 53. And why was this incomparable Christ rejected? John gives the answer in John 12:43, “The people loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”

And because they loved human glory more than divine glory they rejected Jesus — the embodiment of the glory of God, both in his greatness as God and his lowliness as the suffering servant. But all this was part of God’s design. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. His rejection was the plan. Because his death for sinners was the plan.

Does he then abandon his people Israel because they rejected him? No. That too is part of the plan. “A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way, all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25–26).

Or as Romans 11:31 says, “So Israel too has been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you Gentiles they also may now receive mercy” (Romans 11:31). Nothing has been wasted. There were no detours on the way to this great salvation of all God’s elect.

And when Paul stands back and looks at the whole plan, he worships:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36)

Here is our God.