start by turning straight to the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah 6:1-4 In
the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,
high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.
Let's start by turning straight to the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah 6:1-4 In
the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,
high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.
So Isaiah sees this incredible vision of God sitting in his heavenly temple. It's so realistic that it was almost as if he was actually there. A vision like that has an enormous effect on people. We might think how wonderfully inspiring it would be if we were to have such vision. However, thinking back to the examples recorded in the Bible where people actually have had some vision or experience of the presence of God, in practice it often tends to be a rather terrifying experience for the people involved. You think of the reaction of the Israelites to the presence of God on Mount Sinai. The apostle Paul had a vision of God in heaven, where he wrote in II Corinthians 12 that he saw things that it was not possible for him to utter. And in the Book of Revelation, in chapter 1, when the apostle John saw a vision of Christ in glory, he fell at his feet as if dead. It's that overpowering.
Isaiah is no different. In verse 5, you can see by his reaction that he basically panics. I mean, he just loses it.
Isaiah 6:5 (NKJV) So I said: "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because 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."
I rather like the way the New Living Translation translates verse 5, (and you've got to read this in the right way):
Isaiah 6:5 (NLT) Then I said, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”
This verse in the New Living Translation does rather reminds me of the television comedy from years ago called “Dads Army” set in the time of the Second World War. They had a character in that – a rather gloomy Scotsman - who, whenever things started to go just slightly wrong, would say something like (and I apologise to any Scots reading this) - “Aye, we're doomed, we're all doomed!!” Of course, in the TV show, the joke was of course they never actually were doomed, he just thought they were!
Well, in this case Isaiah thinks he has good reason for saying this. There he is in heaven's temple in the presence of God himself, which was awesome and terrifying in its own right. On top of that he is confronted with some frightening and powerful angelic beings. Perhaps I should mention that the word “seraphim” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to burn”. Now, in the Old Testament, burning is most commonly associated with destruction of some kind, perhaps a city being burnt to the ground, or maybe a sacrifice or offering being consumed by fire. This is not the nice cosy, “sit by the fire and make yourself warm” type of fire. Don’t be in any doubt, these creatures, subject of course to God’s command, could destroy you in the blink of an eye. Isaiah probably thinks that his last moment has come.
Because what the presence of God has definitely impressed on Isaiah is that God is utterly and completely holy – and that he is not .
At this point if we had no other information about God - if we had nothing else to go on apart from this passage – we could shut the book and say just like Isaiah “look, it's all over, it's not worth thinking about it any more. God is holy, we are not. And there is no way we as sinful human beings can have anything at all to do with a holy God who is separated from sinful human beings by an unbridgeable gulf”.
But, as we can see from the next two verses, God has other ideas.
Isaiah 6:6-7 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged."
Personally, I think this is a wonderful example of how God can encourage us in whatever circumstances. Here is Isaiah, terrified because of the presence of God, the fiery angelic beings which surround Him, and because of his own sinfulness. And what does God do? He reassures him that he accepts him, and he cleanses him using these terrifying creatures by means of a fiery coal which ordinarily would be expected to burn or even destroy him.
And notice one other thing. When Isaiah admits he is sinful, God does not contradict him. God allows Isaiah into his presence in spite of the fact that he is sinful. We can feel that we have got to make ourselves “good enough” to be “worthy” to come into God's presence. The problem with this idea is that when we realise we've committed some sin, too often we feel that we can't face God. We, like Isaiah, are afraid to come before him in prayer, or maybe even come to church because we are afraid he just won't admit us into his presence. Well, he didn't take that approach with Isaiah. God allows him into his presence first, and then cleanses him of his sin afterwards . Interesting that. Instead, once Isaiah sees and admits his sin, God deals with it.
But, having dealt with the problem, then what happens? I suppose God could have said, “well, you’re OK now, you can go back down to earth. But, by the way, if you want to keep yourself pure, be careful not go anywhere near these dreadful people you've apparently been associating with, otherwise you’ll need cleansing again and I might not be so enthusiastic the next time”.
Instead, what he does is give him a job to do.
Isa 6:8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."
Personally, I think there’s an element of humour here. Picture the scene in God's heavenly temple. There is God, surrounded by his angelic beings. And there is Isaiah, the sole human being around – no other human beings in God’s heavenly temple that particular day! Suddenly, God announces right out of the blue that he's got a job available. “Anybody want to be a prophet?” “Do I have any volunteers?” Interesting how God always respects our right to choose. He doesn’t force Isaiah to take the job, although I suspect that one of the purposes of the whole experience has been to soften him up so he’s not likely to refuse! Anyway, Isaiah puts his hand up, and the job's his.
So, what does it actually involve?
Isa 6:9-12 And He said, "Go, and tell this people: 'Keep on hearing,
but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.'
"Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And
shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart, And return and be healed."
God gives Isaiah a message to deliver. Having cleansed him, he then tells him to go right back to the very same people who Isaiah himself has described as being filthy, and to deliver God’s message. He doesn't promise him success – quite the reverse – but he does make him his instrument to deliver a message.
So here's the point: God has given Isaiah a vision of his holiness, so that he can cleanse him and commission him to deliver a message to his people. Far from Isaiah being told to keep himself separate, he is told to go and bring God's message to the people of Isaiah's own nation, who are about as unholy as they can possibly be.
Sorry to have spent so long on this particular passage of scripture, but I think makes an important point in a very powerful way.
We are now going to turn forward to the New Testament to look at a few passages about Christ.
Luke 1:30-31 Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.
Skipping down to verse 34.
Luk 1:34-35 Then Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.
The first thing we notice is that Christ right back before he was even born was called holy by the angel who brought the announcement of his birth to Mary.
Moving on, early in Christ’s ministry we see another reference to Christ’s holiness:
Mark 1:21-26. Then
they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered
the synagogue and taught
Isn’t it ironic that the unclean spirits recognised Jesus for who he was, but not the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the other Jewish leaders!
Christ was called the Holy One of God – the visible earthly manifestation of God’s holiness. But, I ask the question: how did Christ’s holiness determine the way he related to people?
We know that he attracted large crowds during his ministry, because he had to make a point of withdrawing himself from them from time to time in order to spend more time with God. But he did not shun human contact – he was with other people to such an extent that the Pharisees called him in Matthew 11:19 ...”a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”.
In fact, in the New Testament we see a number of examples of Christ associating with some rather “interesting” people.
Luke 7: 36-38 Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee's house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping…
Now you might wonder how this particular lady got into the house, as given the Pharisees’ belief in strict observance of the law and physical separateness I think we can deduce that she hasn’t been invited. However, commentators think that the meal would have actually taken place outdoors in a kind of courtyard, not actually under the roof of the house itself. In the culture of the time, although it may seem a little strange to us today, that gave a certain right for the public to access what we might think of today as a private space.
Anyway, the woman38 …stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, "This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner."
I think the word “sinner” is a bit of a euphemism here – I suspect the Pharisee has a specific kind of sin in mind, probably prostitution. Notice the phrase “touching Him”. In the Old Covenant it was possible under some circumstances for people or things to be defiled merely by being touched by some thing or some person who were themselves defiled. The Pharisee himself would never have allowed himself to be touched by the woman.
40 And Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon,
I have something to say
to you." So he said, "Teacher, say it."
You can see by the Pharisee’s lack of welcome for Jesus that his interest in him was only formal and technical. He basically wanted to find out whether Jesus really was a prophet (in his perceptions). The Pharisee had no interest in the woman whatsoever, except insofar as she enabled him to draw conclusions about Jesus. The Pharisee’s focus was on separating himself from sinners, not on saving them. Compare that with Jesus’ approach. He saw what the Pharisee did not, that the woman by her own actions had shown that she had a repentant heart and needed forgiveness and acceptance.
I say to you, her sins, which
many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is
loves little." 48
He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."
Christ was not very much interested in what Zacchaeus had been , but in what with God’s grace he could become . And he saw in Zacchaeus already a repentant heart – backing up by promises of action.
As followers of Christ, we have of course been made holy ourselves in the sight of God. I’ll just mention a couple of scriptures.
4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,
1 Cor 1:1-2
It might be helpful to point something out here. Unfortunately, the group of words in Greek that mean holy, or holiness, or something similar [the basic Greek word is hagios ] can be translated in a variety of different ways in English. And we’ve got two examples here. In verse 2 “to those who are sanctified” means to those who have been “made holy”. We would have to say “holified” in English if such a word existed. Called to be “saints” means those people who have been made holy and as such, dedicated to God. So if you ever do your own study of holiness, bear in mind that what are basically the same words in Greek can be translated into English in number of different ways.
Now, as saints, we model our behaviour on Christ himself. Did Christ instruct his followers to stay away from other people? Absolutely not. Before Christ ascended to heaven He commanded his disciples in
Now the first Christians were of course almost entirely Jews and they brought some of their Jewish views about holiness with them into the Christian church You can hardly do much better than look at the example of the apostle Peter.
Let's turn to Acts 10
Now in verses 10-16 Peter sees a vision of all kinds of animals, and hears a voice from heaven telling him to kill and eat them. Now, some of these animals were clearly creatures that, as a Jew, Peter would never eat, or probably even touch if he could avoid it. And he tells God accordingly. But the voice says
Act 10: 15 …"What God has cleansed you must not call common."
While Peter is thinking about that one, emissaries from a gentile called Cornelius arrive (v.17) to whom Peter is persuaded to pay a visit.
Question: where does it say in the Old Testament that it is “unlawful for a Jew to keep company or go to one of another nation? Answer: nowhere. It is true there were some prohibitions including, for example, marriage. But the Jewish interpreters had distorted and extended these to refer to relations with gentiles of any kind whatsoever. And Peter still seems to have been influenced by these interpretations.
But more importantly, why did the Jews think this? I would suggest because of a false view of holiness. If you believe that coming into contact with other people is going to contaminate you, it's not a great surprise if you tend to keep yourself to yourself.
Such a view of holiness was completely incompatible with the gospel. The Jews could never have obeyed Christ's command to preach the gospel unto all the world because, of necessity, obedience to such a command requires contact with unbelievers.
Now, of course, as Christians we could never be hold such views ourselves - or could we? It’s true that there is a natural tendency for people to associate with those like them - “birds of a feather flock together”. But beyond that, there has been a tendency in some Christian traditions for people to build walls around themselves to exclude people they perceive as being less holy than them – even to the extent of excluding other Christians.
I am not saying that personal holiness doesn’t matter. The Bible makes that very clear.
So, holiness is not just for God, holiness is for us . But, some times we misunderstand what holiness means in practice.
II Cor 6:14-18
Now, I’ve heard it suggested that this passage means that Christians should as far as possible avoid associating with non-Christians.
Well, I have a job. My boss, as far as I know is an unbeliever. I do what he says - he doesn’t do what I say! Question: Am I “unequally yoked” together with him in the way Paul describes? Should I therefore leave my job and “come out from among” all these unbelievers that I am associating with every day during the working week? If it means that, I don’t think many of us who are employed or who once were employed would ever have had jobs.
I think it should be fairly obvious that Paul is talking about the pagan idolatrous religious system of the day. It was not good for new Christians (and most Christians were fairly new in that particular era) to be visiting the pagan temples they had only recently left, lest they be lured back into their previous lifestyles.
It is true that sometimes holiness can necessitate physical separation. Paul said to the Corinthians
in 1 Cor 6:18 “ Flee fornication”. I don’t think that he was speaking entirely metaphorically here. Perhaps you can remember the example of Joseph in Genesis 39 who when he was approached by Potiphar’s wife with an improper suggestion, thought that it was a rather good idea to be somewhere else at that particular moment.
However, of itself, physical separation won’t make and keep you holy any more than it made the Pharisees holy.
For Christians, we have to view such things in the whole context of Christ’s instructions and example to his followers. It is quite clear from what Christ said that he expected Christians to have an effect on other people, and you can’t do that if you stay away from them.
If we turn to the Sermon on the Mount we can easily see this.
Matt 5:13-16 (NKJV)
Now there is more than one way you can read this verse. Christ could be saying that if the salt loses its flavour it would be good for nothing and would have to be thrown out. But, think of it another way: what is the purpose of salt? The obvious use today is to impart flavour to a meal. But, before the development of refrigeration, probably salt’s most important role was as a preservative, at a time when there were few preservatives available. Looked at this way, if the salt were to lose its flavour what would be good for nothing would also be the meal itself .
But how does salt actually have its effect on a meal? The answer is that it has to be in contact with it. If, say, the meal is over here, and I sprinkle the salt over there [somewhere different] the salt cannot have its effect on the meal. It is simply not possible for Christians to have any effect on this world if we cut ourselves off from it.
Christ gives us another metaphor in verses 14 -16.
"You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill
cannot be hidden.
Too many Christians do the very thing that Christ said not to do - which is to hide their light where non-Christians can’t see it! In the past, I very much tended to be like that. In America, the market research organisation headed by George Barna carries out opinion surveys among Christian churches. I can’t remember the exact reference, but I do remember hearing about one survey where he reported that, on average, new Christians tend to stop associating with most or all of their non-Christian friends within the first nine months of becoming a Christian.
Once upon a time brethren, we were out in the world. For some of us I suspect that that was quite a few years ago. Even if we grew up with Christian parents, the time came when we had to make our own decision about becoming a Christian. But, whatever our particular circumstances were, we all have this in common. We benefited from someone else’s desire to reach out with the message of the gospel.
Whoever they were, they realised that it was their responsibility to vacate their comfort zone and put themselves to time, trouble, persecution, whatever it took, to follow Christ’s command - not “suggestion” - to reach out to a sad and lost world with the gospel. If they had not done so, where would those of us who are Christians be right now?
Many of the people who took on this task are no longer with us so, of necessity, it has now been handed on to us. We may not want the task, but circumstances mean that we simply cannot avoid it. So we as Christians have to ask ourselves the question: do we really care about the people of the world, in the same way that those who went before us once cared about us? Does God expect us to care about them? I think that as individuals it does no harm at all for us to think about these things.
Let’s be about our Father’s business.