The Holiness of Christ

Desiring God 2007 Conference for Pastors

The Holiness of God

Lots of people think what you said is not a matter of vocabulary so much as speech pathology. There are a couple of corrections I have to make after that introduction, though. I can’t let it slide. I don’t remember what I said at that conference about that guy that put that flash bulb in my face, and I said, “If you do it again . . .” I was very concerned because I told people that if that thing causes a reaction of my optic nerve, I’m afraid it will make me an Arminian. There’s a conspiracy among semi-pelagianism to keep bombarding me with that thing since their arguments won’t work.

I’m also glad you were paying such close attention to my vocabulary, but you missed one. I didn’t say that Jesus never uttered a dolores word. He frequently uttered dolores words. He walked the Via Dolorosa as the last mile for his execution, and he was indeed a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. What I said — I hope I said — was that our Lord never uttered a desultory word, unlike the present speaker.

This morning I’d like to speak of the trauma of holiness in the holiness of Christ, and I’d like to use, as our text today, a portion from the Gospel according to Saint Mark from the fourth chapter beginning at verse 35 and reading through verse 41. This is Mark 4:35–41. Again, if you don’t mind, I would ask you to stand for the reading of the word of God. This practice has its origins, as you know, in the reading of the Law from that wooden platform that we had reference to a little bit earlier. We were told to bring the Book, so here’s the Book:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

This is the word of God about the Son of God.

The Meaning of Holiness

If you do an examination of the term holy in its biblical usage you will see that the word is multi-nuanced, but there are two primary references or meanings assigned to that word holy. The secondary meaning of the term has to do with moral purity. Now, we’ve heard already today a magnificent treatment of that dimension of the concept of the holy. When God says, “Be holy, even as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), he’s asking us to mirror and reflect not his transcendent majesty so much as his purity. But the primary reference of the word holy in Scripture has to do not so much with his moral perfection, but first of all with his transcendent majesty, his otherness — that sense in which God differs from his creation, and that sense in which he is over and above all things.

Now, the church had a crisis in the 19th century with the strong influence of European liberal theology riding the waves of the philosophical influence of GF Hegel and his idealistic philosophy called dialectical idealism, in which the distinction between God and nature was in danger of being completely obscured. What happened in 19th century theology was an increasing trend towards reducing our understanding of God to pure imminentism. That is, that sense in which God is near, that sense in which he is basically part and parcel of the created realm, again, at times crossing the boundary line into sheer pantheism. You know that at the turn of the century in Europe, there were some students of the movement called liberalism and disciples of Friedrich Schleiermacher. If you want to know how you spell Schleiermacher, you go to your keyboard and you write capital S–c–h and then sneeze.

Some of his disciples reacted negatively to that trend of 19th century thought. Three of them in particular were Paul Althaus, Emil Brunner, and perhaps most importantly Karl Barth, along with the early Rudolf Bultmann and the German theological sociologist Rudolph Otto. They were so concerned with the eclipse of the majesty of God and his singular transcendence in 19th century theology that they sought to bring a correction to it. Unfortunately, like often happens in the case of heresy, the correction of the heresy causes the corrector to fall off the other side of the horse. So zealous were these dialectical, neo-orthodox theologians to recover the transcendence of God that they created a language of transcendence that has been devastating to contemporary theology.

Their favorite term to describe God was to say that God was not only other, not only transcendent, but that he is wholly other — not holy other, but wholly other — the Latin for which was totaliter aliter. It rhymes and it means “totally other”. The German way of expressing it was ganz anders, which means “completely or fully different”.

The Mysterium Tremendum

Now again, that was a zeal that drove them to protect the majesty of God, but in the process they rendered God completely unknowable, and they unwittingly opened the door for the death of God theology and the crisis brought by linguistic philosophy that challenged the very meaningfulness of any kind of language of God at all. Because think of it for one second. If God is utterly dissimilar from us, completely, totally and wholly other from us, how could he possibly communicate anything to us? There would be no point of contact, no possibility of divine revelation.

Well, that we could pursue further on another occasion, but at least they got this much right, that when you’re dealing with God’s holiness, you’re dealing with a being who is supremely and radically different from us. He is not totally different, that was their error, but they certainly understood that God in his transcendence, in his self-existent eternal being, differs from all creatures who are finite, dependent, and temporal.

Now, one of the men I mentioned, Rudolph Otto, explored the idea of the holy not only in Judeo-Christianity, but Otto expanded his examination to cultures around the world, trying to see how people in various religious environments and cultures understood what it means to be holy and how they responded to whatever sense they had of the presence of the holy. Now, I have to say, his book — though I disagree with so much of it — was nevertheless a watershed book for me. The German edition was simply called Das Heilige translated into English as The Idea of the Holy. He said, looking at all the cultures in the world, every culture, every civilization has some concept of the holy built into the fiber of their society.

As he explored this, he said people could not articulate exactly what they meant by the holy. There was a certain nebulous, mysterious aspect to it — what he called the numinous, a certain extra or a plus that was assigned to strange human experiences that would cause the hair to rise on the back of one’s neck and the knees to wobble and the lips to quiver. Otto, in this exploration, reduced the sense of the holy to two words that I’ll just explore for a moment, and then we’ll get back to the text — the terms mysterium tremendum. Again, mysterium refers to that which we do not comprehend, which is above and beyond our ability to capture in propositional terms. Yet at the same time, it produces a sense of dread, horror, and terror in it whenever we sense it and draw near to it. We remember the old spiritual Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? The verse says, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”

Quaking at the Presence of the Holy

If you go through the pages of the Old Testament and you see the manifold accounts of human encounters with the living God, you cannot catalog the responses of the human to the appearance of the supernatural, transcendent divine one, in the sense of having a response that everyone is the same. Some people, when they encounter God in the Old Testament, are reduced to tears. Others fall on their face as though dead. Some are stricken with silence while still others are reduced to terror. You could think of Balthazar on the night of his feast, looking over the faces of the crowd of his satraps and the lords of his kingdom, and seeing the disembodied hand writing upon the whitewashed wall. He saw the handwriting on the wall and we were told his knees began to quake and his structure felt liquid (Daniel 5:6).

Or you can think of Habakkuk in his watchtower demanding an answer from God, and when God appears to Habakkuk, what does he say? “I saw,” he said, “and my lip quivered and my knees shook and rottenness entered my bones” (Habakkuk 3:16). Job shook his fist in the face of God and demanded an answer from God, and when God appeared in the fullness of his majesty as El Shaddai to Job, Job said, “I saw and I placed my hand upon my mouth and I will speak no more because I am vile” (Job 40:4).

That’s the common response to the presence of the supreme alien, the one who is supremely other. We see this, dear friends, no more vividly than we see it in the reaction to the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Seeking to Justify Our Incurable Religious Bent

Now again, one last prolegomena, propaedeutic, and other words of introduction before we get to the text. Forty years ago I was teaching in seminary in Philadelphia on the campus of Temple University at a senior elective course on atheism. What I did in that course is that I required my students not to read the works of Christian apologists, but to analyze the works of the most formidable opponents of historic theism. So we had to read the enlightenment encyclopedias, including Diderot. I had my students read the atheists of the 19th century such as Karl Marx, Ludwich Feuerbach, and Sigmund Freud.

We looked also at the primary sources of Friedrich Nietzche and into the 20th century to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and of other so-called distinguished atheists such as Professor Kaufman from Princeton. In our analysis of the writings of these atheists, we saw a common form of argumentation, and it was interesting that none of these thinkers really took much time trying to argue against the existence of God. That wasn’t their question. They assumed that was all taken care of in the enlightenment where the enlightenment of the 18th century made the God hypothesis no longer necessary, and it was no longer a task that the atheists had to do to disprove the claims of theism. But their question was this: since there is no God, how do we account for the fact that mankind seems to be universally, incurably homo-religiosis? Every culture we examine is steeped in some kind of religion, some kind of worship of a transcendent being.

So the atheists of the 19th and 20th centuries were faced with that question: “Why is there religion when there’s no basis for it in reality?” They all basically came to the same conclusion, that the driving force for the creation of religion is psychological weakness and need, that creatures are afraid of things that can destroy them, and that out of their fear they create gods made in their own image.

Remember Feuerbach was the one who said, “You are what you eat.” I remember studying him and I thought, maybe he’s right, so I started to eat rich foods and instead of getting rich, I got fat. So much for Feuerbach. But perhaps the view of Marx, of Nietzsche and the rest, can be best summarized in the theories of Sigmund Freud, who sought a psychological explanation for theism. He said, “We are terrified of death and we live in a nature that’s not merely hostile, but even worse, it’s indifferent. There is no consideration of persons by tornadoes, or earthquakes, or floods, or tsunamis, or fires, or cancer, or a host of other diseases. And every second we go through this world not knowing whether today will be our last day of life. Nature is red in tooth and fang with the blood of human beings.”

So Freud explained it this way. We have learned how to deal with hostile people. We have to encounter people who are mean to us or unfriendly to us, and we learn certain habits to survive them. If somebody is angry with us, we can humble ourselves before them and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Please don’t be mad.” Or we can give them gifts and say, “You don’t want to be mad at me. You don’t want to be my enemy. I’m your greatest fan.” We can flatter them, bribe them, sing their praises, and all the rest in order to escape their wrath.

Freud said the first thing we do to survive the hostility of nature is to personalize nature. We impose personality to the forces of the wind, of the storm, and of the fire. He said this is how animistic religion begins. And then, we go to a more sophisticated level when we sacralize nature by attributing a personal deity who has the power to protect us from nature. If we’re frightened of the storm, we can say, “Oh Lord, your sea is so strong and our boat is so small,” and so you ask the God of the storm to be merciful to you, and you try to bribe him with your offerings and your gifts and you begin to worship him, hoping to deflect these dangers away from you. There, said Freud, is the cause of religion. Again, in summary: religion is born out of fear of nature.

The One Who Commands the Storm

Now, enough of that. With that in view, let’s look at this text if we can. It says:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling (Mark 4:35–37).

There is this dreadful tempest that comes up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee. If you know anything about the topography of that part of the world, there’s this wind tunnel that comes off the Mediterranean where these terrible storms can arise without any warning, so that even today with modern equipment, boats that charter on the waters of the Sea of Galilee face the same kind of scary threats from these sudden tempests. In this case, these seasoned veterans of the fishing industry were in this boat that was looking like it was going to fall apart. It was taking water. The winds were so strong that the waves were going across the gunnels. And while all this is going on, Jesus is in the stern, sleeping.

I remember once flying with Jim Boice to a conference. We were seated next to each other on an airplane and we were involved in a very violent storm. The turbulence was awful, and I was holding on to my seat with white knuckles, and Jim was relaxed and he said, “Oh, see, isn’t it wonderful?” Don’t you hate people like that, when you’re on an airplane and there’s people sleeping in the middle of a storm? I said, “What’s so wonderful about this? I’m terrified.” Jim looked at me and he said, “Don’t you believe in the sovereignty of God?” And I said, “That’s why I’m terrified.”

If you compare this with Matthew’s version and Luke’s version in the Synoptic Gospels, you will see that together they say that when the storm came, the disciples were afraid, confirming Freud’s diagnosis. They were afraid of the forces of nature and they were afraid for their lives. And so they come back and they wake Jesus up. They’re scared and they’re annoyed at Jesus and they rebuke him, saying, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you see that we’re about to perish? Jesus, do something. Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” And Jesus awoke and he ignored the rebuke that he had just heard from his disciples and in turn directed a rebuke, not at them, but at the very forces of nature, when he rebuked the wind and spoke to the sea, saying, “Peace, be still.”

Now stop for a second. Can you imagine that? You’re in the midst of this tempest that is threatening to capsize the boat. You get your leader, you wake him up from his slumber, you say, “Help us,” and he starts talking to the wind, talking to the sea. Can’t you just hear Peter just about to say, “Wait a minute, Jesus. We asked you to help us do something. Get some life vests out or something, but don’t waste your time talking to the water and to the wind.” But this is the one by whom, for whom, and through whom all things were made. He is the Lord who owns the world and the fullness thereof. He is the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of creation, the Lord of the wind, and the Lord of the sea. He used his authority over the forces of nature, and he said, “Peace, be still.” Instantly, beloved, the wind stopped. There was not a zephyr in the air, and the sea was like glass.

A Greater Fear than the Forces of Nature

Now, what would you expect the reaction of the disciples to be at that point? There was imminent danger, and the clear and present danger of their destruction by the forces of nature had been removed. You would’ve thought they would’ve thrown their sou’westers into the air and said to Jesus, “Thank you Jesus.” Instead, the Bible says something remarkable, that as soon as the threat of nature disappeared, the Bible says “they became greatly afraid”. Instead of their fears being removed, or at least diminished, their fear was augmented; their fear was intensified. Now their terror was not of the natural forces of the wind in the sea, but their terror was directed at Jesus. What did they say? Again, if we compare the three Synoptic Gospels and put it all together, what they said was this: “What manner of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him? What kind of person is this?”

Do you realize how we pigeonhole people in the categories of our mind? We do that for our own safety. You walk down the sidewalk of New York City and your eyes are always watching ahead of the people approaching. You’re thinking, “Are they dangerous? Are they friendly? Are they smiling? Are they scowling?” We’re making instantaneous judgments and evaluations of every person that we encounter who’s a stranger. Friend or foe, we ask, and we use a lifetime of practice of body language to try to answer that question that we may be safe. We divide people into categories — species and genus. For the first time in their lives, the disciples met a person for whom they had no category. They realized they were in the presence of one who was sui generis, in a class by himself, whose otherness was so alien that they were terrified.

A few years ago, one of the newspapers that I read listed the top 10 phobias that afflict American people. Do you know what the number one phobia in America is? You hear about agoraphobia (the fear of the open marketplace) and arachnophobia (the fear of spiders), and hydrophobia and claustrophobia. There are all these different phobias, right? Do you know what the number one phobia is? It’s speaking in front of a group of people, and that’s what we do. We have to be nuts. It’s scary business.

I’m speaking to you and I’m concentrating in my mind. My mind is fixated on the content of this passage and what I want to communicate to you, while some people are sitting out there looking at me like I’m a monkey in the zoo, thinking, “Why does he wear his hair that way? Who chose that tie?” Somebody came up to me at the break and said, “I heard that Pittsburgh accent.” What in the world are we listening to? No wonder people are scared of death to speak in public. But one of the phobias in the top 10 is xenophobia.

It’s why white people are afraid of black people, or black people afraid of oriental people. People look at the oriental people and they say, “Inscrutable. We don’t understand them. Their culture is different. It’s foreign from us.” So xenophobia is the fear of foreigners, the fear of strangers. What was experienced in that boat that night was xenophobia with a vengeance, because a mysterious stranger appeared on this planet who was indeed an alien to all things human and that the heart of his alien character, dear friends, was that he was holy. What the disciples experienced in the boat that night was the holiness of Jesus and with it the corresponding terror.

Representing Holiness

Several years ago, a golfer from Ohio, not Jack Niklaus, won the award of Golfer of the Year in the PGA Tour. The following year he received that award at a tournament in the Kemper Open and he was the defending champion. Because he was the recipient of the award and the defending champion of that particular event, in the Pro Am before the event officially started this man was paired with the following three men in his foursome; Jack Niklaus, the president of the United States, and Billy Graham. It was the golfer of the year, plus Niklaus, plus the president, plus Billy Graham.

Now, since he had won the year before, our golfer was having a miserable follow up year. His game was terrible. So he went out to enjoy this honor of playing with Niklaus, the president, and Billy Graham, and when he came off the 18th Green, a friend of mine who at the time was on the PGA Tour, went up to him and he said, “Hey, what was it like playing with the president and Billy Graham?” And filled with disgust, the pro said, “I don’t need to go out on the golf course and have Billy Graham shove religion down my throat.” He stormed off to the practice range, grabbed his driver out of the bag, and just started beating drives until finally he cooled off. My friend sat there and watched him, knowing not to say anything till he was finished. He walked up to him, he said, “Did Billy really come on strong?” The guy’s head sunk to his chest and he said, “No, no. Billy didn’t say a word about religion. I just had a bad round.”

Now, why in the world would a guy come off the golf course and say, “Billy Graham tried to shove religion down my throat,” when Billy Graham didn’t say a mumbling word about it? Do you know why? Billy didn’t have to say a word. Billy represented to this man all that is holy. Without saying a single word, he accused Billy Graham of being “holier than thou” and all the rest. That’s the human response.

Some of you come from a Dutch background. I remember when we were in Holland and we were engaged in social conversation, if suddenly, unexpectedly, a lull occurred in the conversation and there was an awkward silence that would last for more than a few seconds, inevitably that silence would be broken by somebody using an expression I didn’t know the meaning of. I said, “What’s that all about?” They said, “We have this expression that conversation ends whenever the minister shows up.” There is this aversion built into the hearts of sinful people of anything holy.

The Draft of Fishes

If we see it here on the Sea of Galilee, we see it equally as clear on another occasion that the Bible records. It is often called “the draft of fishes.” You know the story. The disciples had been out on the sea all night fishing, and they come back, their nets are empty, and there’s Jesus. He speaks to them and says, “Why don’t you throw your nets over that side of the boat?” Can you get inside of Peter’s mind here for a second? Impetuous Peter. The Bible doesn’t record that he said anything to Jesus, but I can hear him saying, “Hey, look, Jesus, you’re the rabbi, you’re the theologian. When we want to know about the theological truths, we come to you, but don’t try to tell us how to fish. We’ve been fishing for years on this lake and we’ve been out here all night and we’ve had the nets on this side of the boat and on that side of the boat. There’s nothing happening.”

Peter doesn’t do that. I think he says to the disciples, “He is the Lord. Humor him.” So they throw the net over the side of the boat, and you know what happened. Every fish in the sea of Galilee jumped in the net. So the first net was filled, then another net was filled, and the capacity of the nets is so great that they’re ready to sink the fishing boat. Now think for a moment and imagine that you’re Peter. What would you do in a case like that? You’re Jewish and you’re in the fishing business. If I’m Peter, I say, “Look, Jesus, I’ll tell you what; do I have a deal for you. Here’s what I’m saying. Just once a month, you come here and you do this shtick and you have 50 percent of the business. The rest of the month, we could just hang out repairing our nets, waiting for the next time for you to come.”

You would think that’s what an astute businessman would’ve done. Quite to the contrary. What did Peter do? This is incredible what Peter does. When Jesus fills those nets with fishes, Peter looks at him and he says, “Depart from me. Please leave, for I’m a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Jesus didn’t give a sermon on repentance, he just told these guys to throw the net on the other side of the boat. But the same one who could command the wind and the sea now commands the fish within the sea. The same response is there — absolute terror — because in the presence of the holy, Peter was only conscious of his sinfulness. The thing that Freud failed to understand, as creative as we may be to invent a religion to protect us from our natural fear, is this: why would we ever invent a God whose character is far more terrifying than the natural powers may be?

Yes, we invent gods, and these gods that we invent, as we heard earlier, are idols. One of the reasons why we make idols for ourselves is because they’re deaf and they’re dumb, they are common and they are not holy. Listen to unbelievers talk about Jesus. Sure, some are critical, but for the most part, they have nice things to say about Jesus. They say, “Great teacher. Compassionate man. Terrific humanitarian.” They have so many good things to say about Jesus from the safe vantage point of 2,000 years removed that you have to ask the question — the question is begged — why did his contemporaries kill him?

The Light Shines in the Darkness

One theologian said Jesus was not crucified because he said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow,” but because he said, “Consider the thieves, how they steal.” The world could not tolerate the holy one of Israel. Edwards made the observation that if God were to make his life vulnerable to human beings, the life of God would not be safe for one minute. The history of the earthly ministry of Jesus bears that out. Who was it who hated him the most? It was the ones whom the public deemed as being holy. But their holiness was counterfeit, and nothing exposes the counterfeit faster than the genuine, than the authentic. The first people to recognize Jesus behind the cloak of his humanity were the demons from hell. When Jesus appeared, they screamed, “What do you have to do with us, oh holy one of Israel?” The demons trembled when he drew near.

Now, in closing, those of you who are in positions of Christian leadership where you preach and where you teach, what kind of Jesus do you preach? I have a friend who has her PhD in psychology and she came to me on one occasion. She was so angry at her minister. I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that my minister is doing everything in his power to conceal the nature of God from the people.” Because we don’t want a holy God. We don’t want a holy Jesus. We want a safe Jesus. We want a blessed Jesus, meek and mild, but not one who commands the storm, not one who is a stranger. There’s something wrong there. There’s something wrong when we seek to defang and declaw the holy one of Israel to accommodate an unholy people.

People don’t need that. They need to see Jesus as the New Testament sets him forth, in the fullness of his glory, in the fullness of the radiant holiness, in the majesty of his power, in the authority of his command, because nothing less will do for a dying world than a redeemer who is altogether holy. We don’t know what Christianity is until in our desire for God and in our love for God, we love and worship and praise him not because of the benefits he bestows upon us, though for those things we of course should be grateful, but that we begin to love him for what he is.

At this point in my life, I don’t need an unholy God. There’s enough unholiness in me, and I have to say this quickly. People say to me, “Why do you seem preoccupied and obsessed with the holiness of God? You must really be a holy man.” The assumption is that only holy people really care about a holy God. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I love the holiness of God and the holiness of Christ because they’re my only hope for my unholiness. I know that if I tried to escape that aspect of the being of God enough, his Son, there would be no end to my wickedness, no restraint to my sin. But we can’t just love and adore him because he is holy, but we have to see, what somebody already referenced to, the loveliness, the sweetness, and the excellency of the holy one of Israel.

(@RCSproul) (1939–2017) founded and chaired Ligonier Ministries, pastored Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, and authored more than one hundred books.