The Holiness of God
By Heath Jarrett
When Isaiah saw a vision of heaven, he beheld the splendor of God and heard the six-winged seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is 6:3, see also Rev 4:8).
The scene was as terrifying as it was glorious. At the pronouncement, heaven’s throne room shook and smoke filled the house. The sight of this holy King dropped Isaiah into a panic (Is 6:5).
The repetition of “holy” in the angel’s proclamation emphasizes this essential aspect of God’s character: God is completely different from everyone and everything else. God is in a category all by himself.
While it is common to define holiness as moral perfection, its meaning is more nuanced. “[T]he word signifies everything about God that sets him apart from us and makes him an object of awe, adoration, and dread to us. It covers all aspects of his transcendent greatness and moral perfection and thus is an attribute of all his attributes, pointing to the “Godness” of God at every point” (J.I. Packer).
At its root, holiness points to being “set apart,” distinguished. The opposite of holy is common, trivial, routine. God is the furthest away from common as it gets.
An argument from the lesser to the greater may help here. The Sabbath day was “holy” because it was set apart from the rest of the week for a sacred function (Ex 20:8). The tabernacle along with all of its furnishings were called “holy” because they were to be used for exclusive purposes of sacrifice and worship (Ex 40:9). Then, there was the innermost chamber of the tabernacle, a place where only the high priest entered once a year. It was considered the “most holy” place, the holy of holies (Ex 26:33).
And then there is God. The one whom angels worship as “holy, holy, holy.” Three times holy, God is lauded for his completely incomparable nature, he is distinguished from all else.
Just as Isaiah had his guilt taken away (Is 6:7), we too need to be saved from our sin so that we can walk with God “since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44). And the only way to approach God who is holy is by having our sin atoned for by Jesus, the King whom Isaiah saw (John 12:38–41).