As always, this is me processing, not preaching.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah used many adjectives to describe God. The most interesting example, I think, is found in chapter six of his book of prophecies. He describes a moment when he saw God on His throne and heard the six-winged seraphims nearby shouting to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory” (verse 3).
Why is this so interesting? Well it honestly didn’t mean much to me either until recently when I started reading RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God. Grammatical emphasis in the ancient Hebrew language was not given by words like “very” or “really.” Emphasis was added simply by repetition. To repeat something three times was to say that it was as extreme as it gets. To put that into perspective, nowhere in scripture is something repeated a fourth time. That idea is extremely meaningful in this specific context because the word “holy” already denotes something that is set apart and high above our own standards.
The plot thickened when I learned that nowhere in scripture is God referred to as “just, just, just” or “merciful, merciful, merciful” or even “love, love, love.” Nowhere else in scripture is a characteristic of God repeated three times. God certainly is just and merciful and full of love. He’s the author and patent holder of each characteristic. But there’s one thing that God is MORE than anything else: holy.
Isaiah witnessed for himself that God is first and foremost holy. He was impacted so dramatically by this holiness that upon seeing God, he was instantly made aware of every impure, sinful word he’d ever spoken. Isaiah, easily the most faithful, respected and righteous man in all of Israel at the time, realized just how guilty he was because suddenly his slightly off-white nature was being compared to the original white… the brightest white there is. His response when he saw God on His throne was to fearfully scream out like he was having a heart attack, saying that he was going to (or needed to) die because he was not worthy of being in such a holy presence.
Did you catch that? Isaiah’s response wasn’t to coo comfortably and be lulled to sleep in God’s loving embrace. It wasn’t to feel completely at peace with who he was. It was complete and utter fear that he was going to be killed on the spot simply because of how insanely, incomprehensibly holy God really is.
Peter’s response to Jesus in chapter five of Luke’s gospel was similar to Isaiah’s. This was when Jesus directed Peter to cast his nets out one more time, which resulted in the catch of a lifetime for Peter. When Jesus came along, Peter was still cleaning up from a long and painfully unsuccessful night of fishing. He was likely a little cranky and tired (I would be, at least). But Peter was willing to give it one last shot to appease Jesus. He went out into deep water and let out his nets. (Never mind that Peter was a professional fisherman while Jesus was a carpenter. Peter may have had to set aside a good amount of pride to listen to Jesus’ request, especially so soon after a full night of disappointment.)
But here’s the kicker: when Peter’s nets came up so full that they threatened to sink his and even another boat that came to help pull in the massive catch, Peter’s response was not, “Wow, thanks! You’re a really awesome and friendly guy whom I’d love to follow around and eventually get killed for believing in!” Peter actually rejects Jesus out of complete fear. He said, “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” (verse 8). Sproul made a great point in his book by noticing that most of us want to be increasingly closer to God so that we can theoretically enjoy a buddy-buddy relationship with Him. But we don’t realize that if we were allowed to get as close as we think we want to be, our first reaction would likely be like Isaiah’s or Peter’s. We would immediately wish there was more distance between ourselves and God because He’s that holy… that pure… that overwhelming. And we’re just not.
To each his own, and I refuse to judge or condemn, but it’s important to understand that this is the same God some of us treat as our casual friend or comfortable neighbor. For that matter, it’s the same God that most of us completely ignore. To me, it seems like our prayers should be slightly more like the tax collector in the temple who beat his chest and begged for forgiveness, and a little less like the Pharisee next to him who was so comfortable, arrogant, and clueless in God’s presence (see Luke 18:9-14). That doesn’t mean I think we should respond like Martin Luther, who was known for spending six hours a day in confession because he was so miserably disheartened by his unworthiness to serve our holy, holy, holy God. But maybe we should let our hearts dwell a bit more on the fact that we really are unworthy to approach God at all, despite that He has graciously granted us permission to do so.
We might want to keep in mind that the temple curtain, which separated the common man from God’s presence entirely, was ripped from top to bottom only because of Jesus submitting Himself for a sacrifice that none of us were able to make (Mathew 27:51). It is only through Jesus’ invitation that we are given personal access to God (Matthew 11:27). Maybe we should stop approaching Him as though we have a right to be there or as though we somehow belong in His holy presence. There should still be a level of reverence and fearful appreciation in our demeanor because we know it’s out of sheer mercy that such Holiness would withstand such a guilty, sinful heart.
We may be justified through Jesus’ sacrifice, but that does not give us reason to suddenly feel entitled to God’s favor… to arrogantly ask without first praising Him… to selfishly complain before humbly asking for His forgiveness. We may be justified, and our access to God is truly worth celebrating, but we must always remember who He is and who we are in comparison.