By Vince Antonucci
I want to tell you about a pretty cool movie called, The Usual Suspects. The movie revolved around an unknown, unseen and mysterious man named Kaiser Sose. We don’t find out Kaiser Sose's identity until the end, but his presence is everywhere. The mere mention of his name strikes fear into the hearts of men. Dread overcomes anyone who thinks of him. To see him meant a certain death. To know of him is to fear him; to see him is to die.
Let me share with you a philosophy. It’s really more of an idea this guy named Rudolph Otto had, but it’s a pretty cool one. Otto made a case for the idea that within the human mind there is the presence of what he calls the “numinous.” It’s a sense, an inherent knowledge, that there exists in the world a vague, incomprehensible Something. Otto refers to it as the Mysterium Tremendum, the “awesome mystery,” which he said surrounds and enfolds the universe. He claimed it could never be intellectually conceived, but its presence is always felt in a kind of non-rational dread. When confronted with it, a person can only tremble and fall silent.
It’s a cool story, but even better, it’s a true story. A long time ago a man named Isaiah woke up one morning. He assumed it would just be another ordinary day, but it became the day that changed his life. It was the day God allowed Isaiah to see Him. God granted Isaiah a vision of heaven. Isaiah reported that in some sense he actually saw God sitting on His throne. Angelic beings were around God and Isaiah could hear them singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.”
What’s interesting is what Isaiah did when he saw God. He began screaming in fear and despair. He cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).
Let me share another true story. In this one Moses woke up on what he thought was an ordinary morning. But that day he saw a bush that was on fire but not burning up. He went over to take a look and he heard a voice. The voice was speaking from the bush, and identified itself as the voice of God. Then the Bible says, “At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6).
Later in that encounter, God shared his name with Moses. For the first time people knew God’s name, they knew what to call Him, but they refused to. They didn’t dare utter his name.
Why is it that when someone comes into the presence of God their reaction is fear, awe or dread?
It’s because God is holy. William Wilberforce said that God’s holiness is the “cardinal point on which the whole of Christianity turns.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I think he may be right. The word holy occurs over 600 times in the Bible. The entire book of Leviticus is dedicated to the subject of holiness. The adjective holy is the only word ever repeated in praising God in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the angelic beings in Isaiah’s glimpse of heaven sing, “Holy, holy, holy.” In the New Testament, in the book of Revelation, there’s another picture of heaven, and the heavenly beings sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, the One who was and is and is to come.” Not “Love, love, love,” not, “Grace, grace, grace,” not, “Power, power, power.” No, it’s “Holy, holy, holy.” God is holy, and God’s holiness is a big deal.
What is holiness?
The best and brightest of theologians have claimed that God’s holiness is incomprehensible and unattainable, that we cannot even imagine it. I agree. So I know I can’t adequately explain it. And we might not want to get too close to it, or we all may run away screaming about our unclean lips. But let’s at least take a far off peak at the holiness of God.
The word “holy” literally means, “to cut” or “to separate.” God is cut apart; He is separate.
God is separate in His essence. Everything and everyone else is dependent on something or someone else. God is self-existent.
I had a theology professor who said, “God does not have a belly button.” Belly buttons are funny. Some people have innies, others outties. When my wife was pregnant, she kind of lost her belly button. One day I heard her yell from the bathroom, “Aaahhh, I’m losing my belly button!” I yelled back, “Aaahhh, where did it go?!” If you ever feel really independent, pull up your shirt and look at your belly button. It’s a mark of your dependence on someone else for your existence. God alone is self-existent, self-sufficient, and self-sustaining. Only God doesn’t have a belly button. He is holy, separate, in His essence.
God is also separate in His ethics. He is holy, a cut above, morally.
God’s ethical holiness means God does not sin. The Bible says, “Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to do wrong . . . Surely God will not act wickedly” (Job 34:10-12).
Only God is perfect, and we should be thankful He is. We’ve all met a person who seems flawless, but then the truth comes out. But we will never find out that God has some hidden imperfection. He is holy.
There’s another aspect to God’s ethical holiness. Not only does God not sin, He is also separate from all sin, from anything sinful. The Bible says:
“You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with You” (Psalm 5:4).
“Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you” (Isaiah 59:2).
“Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor” (Habbakuk 1:13).
God is too pure to interact with, or even look at, anything sinful.
We need to be thankful for God’s holiness. He wouldn’t be God, and we couldn’t trust Him, if He wasn’t holy. At the same time, God’s holiness is our biggest problem. It’s why Isaiah and Moses turned away in fear when they saw God. I’m filled with gratitude for God’s holiness, and with dread. God is holy, holy, holy. We are unholy, unholy, unholy.
That’s the problem, and that’s what we’ll think through next time.