The Holiness of God
Tim Temple


We will be looking at a number of passages, but the one that we will look at first is Exodus, chapter 15. A couple of weeks ago, we began a study of God and the people who know their God, and today we want to think about a very special subject in that regard, and that is the holiness of God . Why is that most people are afraid to talk about God? We tell jokes about Him, we speak generally about Him, but people are basically afraid to really talk about God. Some people are even afraid to think very seriously about God. Even among Christians, His own children, there is sometimes an awkwardness or an uncertainty about what God is really like and our specific relationship to Him. Part of that is because, as we saw last week, He is wholly other , or to use the technical term that we learned last week, He is transcendent . He is above us in every way. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. Part of it, I think, is because in many ways we just haven't taken the time or maybe we haven't had the opportunity to find out what He has told us about Himself.

It's amazing to me the amount of information that God has given to us in His Word about Himself. As I have been studying this the last several weeks, there is much more material about God and who He is in the Scripture than I had realized. Of all the things that are difficult for us to understand about God, about becoming people who know their God, I think the hardest is the subject which we want to talk about today, and that is the holiness of God.

One of the reasons that it is hard for us to understand the holiness of God, I think, is that for most of us holiness is the area in which we are most unlike God. Therefore, it is hard for us to even imagine what pure, transcendent holiness would be like; but the Bible gives us a description of that holiness in Isaiah, chapter 6, verses 1-4:

Isaiah 6

1In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.
2Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.
3And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
4And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

Isaiah had a vision of God in the year that King Uzziah died. That was a very significant year for Isaiah. He said, “I saw the LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up.” And he said that he was in that transcendent place of being, far above us in terms of likeness to us. He was high and lifted up. He had a majestic train that filled the temple like a king's robe. It was so expansive that it curled around the throne and filled up the whole room. He was surrounded by angels—seraphim they were called—and each of those angels had wings. With two of those wings they covered their faces, symbolizing the fact that God is pure and too holy even to be looked upon with the naked eye. With two more of their wings they covered their feet, symbolizing that He is too holy for us to come casually walking up to. With two other wings they flew, and as they flew they encircled the throne of God, constantly calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts,” as an audible reminder to anyone who might see that scene of the great, perfect holiness of God.

Defining Righteousness

If we think about those verses, it might give us a glimmer of the holiness of God. It is important for us to think from time to time about His majesty, His holiness. Perhaps a definition of the word holiness would also be helpful. Webster's dictionary describes holiness as “the intrinsic, transcendent purity of a divine being, the standard of righteousness.” From what we know about the Scripture, taking the consensus of various references in Scripture to God, we could add to that definition another phrase, to which the whole universe must conform . So our whole definition would be “the innate, transcendent purity of the divine being to which the whole universe must conform, a standard of righteousness,” a standard of righteousness to which the whole universe must conform.

God doesn't conform to any standard established by others. He is the standard. Listen to me today. If you have a problem with God, who He is, what He is doing, what He requires of us, any of those kinds of things, then the problem is yours, because God is the one who sets the standard. If there is any changing that is going to be done, it is going to have to be on your part. Actually, some atheists say that there couldn't be a God since there is so much evil in the world. They look around at all of the problems, all of the failures of mankind, the wickedness in the world, and they say, How could there be a God who would allow these kinds of things to go on. Who could allow this much evil to take place?”

Actually, however, the opposite is true. The very presence of evil in the world today proves there is a God, because we really wouldn't even know anything was evil if we didn't have a holy standard by which to compare it. How could we say that people are doing something that is wrong? What would we base that on? It is because we have the standard of the holy, righteous God who has revealed Himself to us, that we can say some action, some thought, is wrong. He is the standard by which all goodness and all righteousness is measured.

As we think about the holiness of God today, we want to consider three aspects of it. First, I want us to think about the centrality of His holiness. Then we will think about the separateness of His holiness, and the third aspect will be the sinlessness of that holiness, particularly how that relates to us.

The Centrality of God's Holiness

First, let's think about the centrality of God's holiness. In Exodus, chapter 15, the holiness of God is revealed to us. In this passage we find that the holiness of God is His central attribute. It is the thing that most clearly characterizes God and who He is. One of the clearest statements of that is here in Exodus, chapter 15. The background of this passage is that this is the song that Moses and the Israelites sang after they were delivered from their slavery in Egypt. After God had miraculously rolled back the waters of the Red Sea and they had come across on dry land, they gathered on the other side and they sang the song that is recorded for us here in Exodus, chapter 15. It would not hurt us to learn this song. We don't know the tune, but we could learn the words, because in Revelation, chapter 15, verse 3, it says that we will be singing the song of Moses. I am not sure it is this song, because Moses also wrote some of the Psalms and so it may be those, but it is a possibility that we will sing this song in Heaven. We will sing some song in Heaven that Moses wrote.

Notice the first part of the song here in chapter 15. There are several anthropomorphisms that we talked about last week. Remember, anthropomorphisms are human terms that God uses to describe Himself to help us understand who and what He is. Verse 6 says, “Your right hand, Oh Lord, is become glorious in power;” and in verse 8, it says, “With a blast of your nostrils, the waters were gathered together.” As we talked about in our last lesson, God doesn't have hands, and God doesn't have nostrils, but He has the abilities to do things which humans can only do with their hands and their nostrils or any other parts of our bodies. God is not limited to human hands or human eyes, or any parts of the body, but He communicates Himself in that limited way to us, so we will have some idea of that which we cannot really understand about God and what He does.

The Uniqueness of God's Holiness

The verse that I want us to particularly zero in on is verse 11:

Exodus 15

11Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?

The uniqueness of God's holiness is stated in the last half of the verse. “Who is like you, glorious in holiness?” Do you see that? Glorious or majestic in holiness. There is no one else who is like Him. Moses says here in this song that if you want to understand the majesty, the glory, the distinctiveness of God, you have to understand His holiness. You can't really understand who God is and how we are to relate to Him if you don't understand His holiness. The holiness of God is the aspect of Him that puts all of the other aspects in their proper perspective.

He is all-powerful, but thank God that that power is only exercised in the context of His holiness. We all know examples of powerful people who have exercised their power for great wickedness. What about a divine being who had all-power, but was not holy? Have you ever thought about that? Think about the terror our lives would envelop if God were not a holy God, since He is an all-powerful God, since He is all-knowing. But that knowledge is always used only in the context of His holiness.

He is a God of complete love, as we talked about at the Lord's Table. But that love has no hint of perversion or selfishness or twistedness. It is love in the context of total holiness and goodness and purity. We will see before we are through that even the wrath of God, for which God is so famous in some quarters, is linked with His holiness. Because He is a holy God, He is also a God of wrath against sin and wickedness.

In Isaiah, chapter 6, we saw that the angels around the throne of God cry out, “Holy, holy, holy.” Do you remember that? It is interesting to notice that nowhere in the Bible do we find God referred to as truth, truth, truth , even though He is the essence of truth. Nowhere do we find Him referred to as love, love, love , even though, as we have already talked about, that is the source of all the love that exists. We don't find Him referred to in this way with any of His other attributes, but holiness is His central defining characteristic. Everything else revolves around that. That is why that of all of the other attributes of God, holiness alone is repeated three times over several places in the Bible. God even calls Himself by that name. Throughout the Old and the New Testament, He is referred to in various places as “The Holy One.” Sometimes it is “The Holy One of Israel.” That makes the calling of any human being, Your holiness , or Holy Father , or some term like that, complete mockery of God. It's blasphemy to refer to somebody who is not God as Holy Father or Your Holiness .

In Psalm 89, verse 35, God said, “I have sworn by My holiness.” Why would God swear by His holiness? Because that is His central attribute. That is the highest, that is the summary of the attributes of God. God's holiness is central to understanding who He is and what He is. If you want to understand God, meditate on His holiness. Look for Scriptures in the Bible that talk about the holiness of God, because that is the thing around which everything else revolves.

Separation Between Man and God

However, there is a second thing to recognize about His holiness, and that is the separation that it brings. God's holiness separates Him from His creation. I have mentioned this verse before, but I want to remind you again of Habakkuk, chapter 1, verse 13:

Habakkuk 1

13Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity…

Since the Scripture says repeatedly that all human beings are sinful, this is a very serious thing for us to know. This means that God is separate and distinct from us, because of our sin. In Romans, chapter 3, verse 23, it says:

Romans 3

23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

Since that is true, there is no use in arguing about degrees of sin or degrees of holiness. All of us as human beings, no matter how good some of us may be and how bad others of us may be, have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Unfortunately, however, I think that many people are like the naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Near the end of his life, Thoreau was urged to make his peace with God, and he answered, “I didn't know that we had ever quarreled.” You know, there are a lot of people in the world today who don't realize that there is any separation between themselves and God, people who are sinful creatures, people who in some cases live in the practice of sin and talk about God as though they had some kind of relationship with Him. Listen: The holiness of God separates us as sinful human beings from that pure, righteous, holy God. There is a separation between us and God.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute. I came to church to be comforted. I came to church to be cheered up, and now you tell me there is a separation between me and God.” Well, as you might have guessed, I'm not through yet. There is more to be said. Basically, yes, that is true. The holiness of God separates Him from anyone who has ever done a single sin, because God is of purer eyes than to behold sin. Because of His holiness, He cannot look upon our iniquity. As I said earlier in a little different context, if the relationship between us and God is ever going to change, we're going to have to go through some change. We will see before we are through that God makes that possible, but God doesn't have to adapt to our standards. God doesn't have to worry about the skeptics who wonder if there is a God because of all the evil in the world. God is the standard. If there is going to be any changing it is going to have to be on our part.

Illustrations of Separation

There are many illustrations of that in the Scripture. I have mentioned Habakkuk. He was a prophet who wrote a tiny book of prophecy in the Old Testament, but in that book, which is a very rich book about personal relationship with God, Habakkuk saw the holiness of God like Isaiah did. When God revealed His holiness to Habakkuk, Habakkuk said:

Habakkuk 3

16When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble…

If you have some concept of the holiness of God, you realize as Habakkuk did that rottenness is in our bones, and we tremble to think about the day of trouble, the day of God's judgment.

Job, who is more famous than Habakkuk, had a revelation of the holiness of God. When he had that revelation he said in Job, chapter 40, verse 4:

Job 40

4Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.

Then later on as he contemplated that vision that he had had of the holiness of God, he said, “I repent in sackcloth and ashes.”

As Isaiah contemplated that vision of God's holiness that he had had, He said, “Woe is me, for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips.” In fact, it is interesting to notice that the word that is translated undone there in Isaiah, chapter 6, is a word in the Hebrew that literally means “coming apart at the seams.” Isaiah saw God in His holiness and he said, “Now that I see God as He is and I see myself as I am, I'm coming apart at the seams.” That is the impact that the holiness of God ought to have on us, if we can really come to understand it. If you and I can somehow get a glimpse of the holiness of God, it will affect the way that we live. The purpose of coming to understand something about God is to have Him bring our lives into conformity to Him. And so if we can get an understanding of that, it ought to affect the way that we see ourselves and the way that we ought to live.

I believe that most of us don't take the Christian life seriously enough, partly because we don't understand the holiness of God. It is amazing to me what you and I will do to please people whom we think are important—our boss, our employer, some official, some important, famous person. In many cases we will go to great lengths to try to impress those people and try to please them, but we seem to think that the holy, majestic, glorious God of the universe can be trifled with and dealt with at our convenience.

The Gulf Between Holiness and Sin

We have talked about the centrality of God's holiness and the separateness that is involved in it, but there is a third subject that is brought up by that holiness, and that is its relationship to sin . The Bible speaks very clearly of the fact that there is a great gulf between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of men. We have talked about that a bit already. Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. There is some technical debate about whether that is a parable or whether it is really a story. I think it is a story that really happened, and Jesus was just telling the story and reminding His hearers of the story.

You remember how in this life the rich man had everything he could ever want and Lazarus, the poor man, had nothing. He literally ate the scraps from the rich man's table. But the rich man was not a believer in God and the poor man was, and Jesus revealed something that we would never know from the human standpoint. Both of these men died, and that is the last we would know of these men, but Jesus went on to reveal that Lazarus went to Heaven—technically to Abraham's bosom, but for practical understanding, he went to Heaven. The rich man went to the place of torment or Hell, and in Hell the rich man lifted up his eyes and he cried out, “Can you let Lazarus come and just drop some water on the tip of my tongue? I am tormented in this flame.” I suppose he figured that after all the scraps he had given to Lazarus, Lazarus could come and give him just a little bit of what was left over from his place. You remember Father Abraham was the go-between in that conversation, and Father Abraham said, “There is a great gulf fixed so that you cannot come here, and he cannot go there.”

Listen, my friends, there is a great gulf between God's holiness and our sinfulness, and that is going to be true throughout eternity unless we take advantage of what God has provided. The Bible speaks very clearly about the fact that because there is that sin in juxtaposition to His holiness, God will have to deal with sin before His whole program is over with. The sinfulness of man and the holiness of God are completely incompatible, and therefore, the Bible speaks very clearly about the fact that God will have to judge sin. For example, II Thessalonians, chapter 1, beginning in verse 6, says this:

II Thessalonians 1

6Seeing it is a righteous thing with God [notice, it is a righteous thing with God] to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you [the you there is Christians that Paul was writing to.]
7And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,
8In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:
9Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;

You think God is not a God of wrath? You think God is not a God of judgment? This is the inspired Word of God. The day is coming when He is going to deal in wrath and judgment and punishment to those who do not know Him. Look at the terms used here: tribulation in verse 6, flaming fire and taking vengeance in verse 8, punished with everlasting destruction in verse 9. Yet, as I pointed out, verse 6 clearly says that all of this is a righteous thing.

Demonstration of Holiness

Romans, chapter 1, speaks of the same kind of thing:

Romans 1

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 29, in talking about God's judgment of sin, says:

Hebrews 12

29For our God is a consuming fire.

In the New Testament it says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” Not was a consuming fire. In the Old Testament that was true, and even in this day after the Cross, God is a consuming fire. We are so used to the holiness of God that sometimes when we read statements like these, we wonder how a holy God could do those kinds of things—flaming fire, vengeance, and all those kinds of things. Actually this is completely consistent with His holiness. Remember what Habakkuk said: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil.”

In Exodus, chapter 19, God was giving His people the Ten Commandments and the many other laws that rotate around those; and while Moses was on the mount receiving the Law, it says that when God came to the mountain to give Moses the Law, the mountain shook. God had not even said anything at this point. Just His presence made the mountain shake. Then before He began giving the law, God said, “Go down and warn the people lest they break through to the LORD and gaze and many of them perish.” That tells us that God is so holy that if the people even try to look at Him, they will die. When the holiness of God is openly demonstrated, even the mountains shake. You know, if the mountains shake in the presence of the holiness of God, why don't we quiver at the thought of God? Why don't we hold Him in awe? Why are we not reverential toward a holy God like that? Because we have forgotten who He is. Because we take the holiness of God very, very lightly.

A Gateway of Access

If we were to end our discussion of the holiness of God at this point, we would have to say that it is a dreadful and terrifying subject, wouldn't we? But thankfully there is something else about the relationship between sin and the holiness of God, and that is the wonderful truth that in the place of that great gulf between God's holiness and man's sinfulness, which Jesus quoted Abraham referring to, God has built a gateway of access to His throne. In place of that great gulf, God has built a gateway of access to His holiness.

Back in Genesis, chapter 3, we see the record of the first separation between God and man. You remember that Adam and Eve sinned, and before that time God had been coming down and walking and talking with Adam and Eve in the garden and having fellowship with them every day. When they sinned, Adam and Eve somehow knew that they could no longer have that fellowship with God. Genesis, chapter 3, tells us that they hid themselves, but He goes on to say, and this is a wonderful thing to notice, that God came looking for them. They had hidden from Him, but He came looking for them. Incidentally, that is an important basic, fundamental truth. It was God who sought to restore fellowship with them, not the other way around. Adam and Eve didn't get busy trying to figure out some way they could get back in touch with God; God took the initiative. Praise His name for that!

Even though God came looking for them, God didn't overlook their sin. Do you remember what He did? He took an animal and killed the animal and took the skin from the animal and made clothes for Adam and Eve so that they could stand in the presence of God. I don't know whether you have ever thought about it or not, but what had that animal done? That animal hadn't eaten of the fruit. That animal hadn't participated in their sin. It was an innocent, sinless animal that God killed. It is one of those things that skeptics ask questions about, but it is one of those things we have to say that if it was the holy, righteous God who did that, then it is not our place to question it.

Innocent Suffering for the Guilty

He established a principle there, and that is the principle of an innocent creature paying for the sins of a guilty creature. The wonderful thing is that God practiced that principle on Himself years later. As time progressed God developed that principle into the complicated sacrificial worship system of the Old Testament where innocent animals had to be slain and their blood shed for the covering of the sins of guilty human beings. That whole system was designed to teach that principle of innocent suffering for the guilty and that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. You see, without the holiness of God, we don't understand that kind of thing. But the holiness of God demanded that sin be paid for, and because God is transcendent and wholly other than us, we can't fully understand why the innocent should have to pay for the guilty, but that is the way God set it up. The whole system comes down to its fulfillment in the death of Jesus Christ as payment for our sins.

John the Baptist, who was sent to announce who Jesus was, said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus himself said, in John, chapter 10, verse 11:

John 10

11I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

And Paul, explaining the whole thing to the Corinthians, said in II Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 21:

II Corinthians 5

21For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

Paul later wrote to the Ephesians about that same subject, and speaking of Jesus Christ, he said in Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 17-18:

Ephesians 2

17And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.
18For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

Jesus Christ preached peace to the Jews who knew a whole lot about God, but he also preached peace to the Gentiles who really didn't know anything about God. We might transliterate that in our society today to say that Jesus Christ came and preached to the very wicked sinners and to the very righteous people, so, as Paul said to the Ephesians, “We both can have access by one Spirit unto the Father.”

Jesus Christ came to preach peace to those who were near. Even you who have lived a pretty good life need access to God, because as good as your life may be, it doesn't measure up to the holiness of God.

There may be someone here who has thought before, and maybe you are thinking, “That is well and good. My life is so bad I could never have access to God.” But the Scripture specifically says He came to preach that access to those who were afar off also. The holiness of God is an awesome subject, but God himself made it possible for the worst of us to have access to Him through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. The holiness of God exacted a terrible, terrible price for the payment that was required by your sins and by mine. That was the death of the second person of the Trinity, God Himself, Jesus Christ. That's how holy God is. Not only can He not trifle with sin, but only God himself could pay for sin, and because that is the only thing that could be done, God did that.

Our Holiness

There is one final aspect of the holiness of God that must be dealt with before we leave the subject. That is the subject of our holiness. Probably the least favorite verse in the Bible is one that is repeated four times in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament. Turn with me to I Peter, chapter 1. We will begin reading with verse 15 to get the proper context:

I Peter 1

15But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation;
16Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
17And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear:
18Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers;
19But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:

How can we be holy as God is holy? Romans, chapter 6, verse 22, says that having been set free from sin by the payment of Christ for our sins, one of the results of that is holiness. Because Christ died for our sins, one of the things God gives us is holiness. But how can that come out in our lives? It seems like such an impossible commandment. However, Peter is explaining how that can be. The first step that we can take toward being holy is in the middle of I Peter, chapter 1, verse 17. Notice what it says: “Call on the Father.” Have you ever stopped to simply ask God to give you a holy life? Call on the Father. Tell Him how hard it is to think in terms of living a holy life, and ask Him to give you the strength and the guidance to be holy as He has told us to do.

The second step is in verse 18, and going on into verse 19. It says, “Remember what your salvation cost. Knowing that you are not redeemed by corruptible things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” It is funny to see silver and gold referred to as corruptible things , isn't it? That is not the way that we think about silver and gold, but God says that in comparison to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, silver and gold are corruptible. So if you want to try to live up to God's holiness, if you want to try to have holiness in your life—not so you can be a child of God, but because you are a child of God—not only do you call upon Him to enable you to do that, but also remember what your salvation cost.

Notice, then, that Peter characterizes that in the last part of verse 17, as “passing the time of your sojourn here in fear.” As we remember the cost of our salvation, we are to live in fear; not fear of what God will do—that has already been taken care of. We know what God did about sin. He paid for it. So we don't live our lives in fear of what God might do about our sin; we live our lives, rather, in awe of what He did do about sin. We fear that after He has done all that, you or I might disappoint Him. We are used to that kind of thinking already. We don't want to disappoint the people that we love. We don't want to disappoint our husband or wife or our parents. We don't want to disappoint those who are in authority over us. We don't want to disappoint the boss or the teacher.

We understand that kind of concept of being afraid, not of what somebody will do, but the fact that we might disappoint them or fail them in some way. That is what Peter is saying. Think about the price of your salvation and live in fear of disappointing the One who paid that price. Sometimes fear of what that other person will think is the only thing that keeps us from doing something wrong, isn't it? Why shouldn't that be true on an eternal, bigger scale for our love of God?

As we conclude, let me ask you one final question: How do you feel about the holiness of God today? I hope you feel like Job. I hope in your own words you say, “Behold, I am vile. What shall I answer you? I lay my hand over my mouth. I repent in sackcloth and ashes.” As you think about the holiness of God, maybe you will be like Habakkuk: “My lips quiver at the voice. Rottenness entered my bones.” Or perhaps you are like Isaiah when he confronted the holiness of God: “Woe is me, for I am undone.” That text goes on to say that when Isaiah felt that way—I'm sure it's true of the other men, but the Scripture tells us specifically that it was true of Isaiah—he responded properly. When he said, “I am falling apart,” then and only then he was able to hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then Isaiah was able to say, “Here am I. Send me.”


Are you wondering what God wants you to do? Are you wondering perhaps why you feel that you can't hear God's voice? Are you wondering why you are so distant from God or He is so distant from you? It may be that you are really not coming to grips with the holiness of God. When we see the holiness of God, we are able to see ourselves and our lack of holiness, and it causes us to cry out to God for forgiveness. When we cry out to God for forgiveness, He opens the gateway of access to Himself for salvation if you have never trusted Him as Savior, or for restored fellowship if we already know Him as our Savior. You see, the result of holiness is the ability to hear the Lord when He speaks and to be willing to go wherever He might send us.

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