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Message 17, Holy, Holy, Holy:

Ultimately, only a comprehensive and biblical view of the light of God’s holiness can rescue us from the darkness. As we recognize who God is, we will recognize who we are and what we have become, and the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge to revive in His people a renewed zeal for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and a boldness to proclaim that although human beings are great sinners, there is a greater Savior who can rescue us through the gospel. Dr. R.C. Sproul calls us back to a right view of our holy God that prompts us to repent of our sins and trust continually in His forgiveness through Christ.

Message Transcript

Thank you. I’d like to read a passage of Scripture that is a passage from which I’ve probably preached more sermons than any other passage, from the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, beginning in verse 1.

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. And above him stood the Seraphim. Each had six wings, with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet and with two he flew. And one called to another ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory,’ and the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of Him who called.

And the house was filled with smoke. And I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am lost, for 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.’

And then one of the Seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am, send me.’”

Let’s pray. Our Father and our God, we have such a infinitesimal understanding of who you are. Our knowledge of thee is a simple drop in a vast, cosmic ocean, and we look to the day when we will see you face to face. And then we will experience what Isaiah tasted here in this account. And we pray now in this hour that by your Spirit you would speak through this word, not only to our minds but to our souls. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

It was the eighth century BC when the people of Israel suffered a major national crisis. For many it was seen to be catastrophic in scope because it was the year that their king had died. The King’s name was Uzziah, and if we would look at the roll call of the kings of the north and of the south in the Old Testament, well we see that most of them exhibit the character of a rogues’ gallery.

Only a handful of the monarchs that ruled under the law of God were themselves godly. Once you get past David, Hezekiah and a couple of others, you find very little to be happy about in their reigns. But certainly in the top five kings that ruled over the people of God would be included Uzziah.

Was anointed as king as the age of 16 years old, and he reigned for 52 years. Imagine having the same monarch or ruler for that length of time. And his reign was distinguished by his godliness initially and by the innovations that he brought to the land, expanding the borders and building the infrastructure of the nation to a prosperity rivaled only by David or Solomon.

But like a Shakespearean tragic hero his final days were marked with shame and disgrace. When he saw to arrogate to himself the role that God had given not to the kings, but to the priests. And for that God struck him with leprosy and he lived his final days out in ignominy. But still the people remembered the halcyon days of Uzziah.

And when he passed it was a time of national grief. Now, we don’t know whether the king had already died before Isaiah had this experience, that’s the presumption, but the text doesn’t tell us that. He simply mentions that it was that same year that Uzziah died that Isaiah had a vision that changed Isaiah forever, and all who would come under the influence of his prophetic ministry.

And so he writes of his call to being a prophet here in chapter six, where he says, “In that year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord.” And notice the word ‘Lord’ there in your text. If you look carefully you will notice that the word ‘Lord’ here is spelled capital L, little o, little r, little d, whereas in the rest of this text the word Lord is spelled capital L, capital O, capital R, capital D. Same word in English, two distinct spellings or printings.

Well, what the translator is trying to do for us is to hint that though the same word in English is used in this text in two different ways, the word ‘Lord,’ there are two different Hebrew words behind them.

When we see capital L, capital O, capital R, capital D, the translator is telling us that this is a reference to the sacred name of God, ‘Yahweh,’ ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ But when you see capital L, little o, little r, little d, usually in the Hebrew text it’s ‘Adon’ or ‘Adonai,’ which is not the name of God, but is a title for God. And that title means ‘Sovereign One.’ You’ll find it throughout the Bible, in the Psalms particularly, “The LORD, Yahweh, said to my Lord, Adonai, sit thou at my right hand.” O, LORD (Yahweh), our Lord (Adonai), how excellent is your name in all of the earth!

So the ‘Adonai’ is the title that is given supremely for God, it’s the title that in Greek is then applied to Jesus in the Greek word ‘Kurios,’ who when we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying He is Sovereign. He’s our King. And so do you see the irony here?

The earthly king is gone, he’s dead, and Isaiah has the vision of Adonai, the King supreme over the people. And his posture in the vision is described by Isaiah this way. He sees Adonai sitting upon a throne. The New Testament leads us to believe that what Isaiah is seeing here is not a theophany but a Christophany, an early Old Testament vision of Jesus as Lord.

And so He sees Adonai, or the Lord, seated upon a throne, high, lifted up in a posture of exaltation. And we read “The train of his robe filled the temple.” We were reminiscing recently that when Vesta and I were in elementary school together they had the first Transatlantic television broadcast from Europe to the United States, and because of that event our school let us out early so that we could go home and watch this event on television.

And the event was the coronation of Princess Elizabeth to being Queen Elizabeth, who’s still alive and still on the throne of England.

But I’ll never forget the pomp and circumstance that we witnessed on that Transatlantic video broadcast when the Princess in her beauty, and she was a beautiful princess, came into Westminster Abbey, and as the procession followed down the center isle she was attired in this magnificent gown, and she had this train trailing behind her. And there were several pages necessary to walk behind the princess carrying her train, lest it become soiled in the ground. Probably the most magnificent garment I’ve ever seen in my life.

Well, in the ancient world the status of monarchs was often communicated by the beauty of their robes, what it was made of, whether it was ermine, chinchilla or mink or whatever. And also in terms of the size of the robe would indicate the degree of grandeur that was associated with the monarch. Isaiah looks and he sees this king high and holy, lifted up, and the train of His robe fills the temple.

So the king is on the throne, and he’s wearing His robe, and the robe is furling down over the side of the throne and going out into the space of the temple, filling every square inch of the place. This is a supernatural gown, a supernatural train of the Supremely exalted Lord.

And then we read it at that above him stood the Seraphim, angels, that these angels in terms of their anatomy had six wings. Now, you know when God creates creatures He designs them for their habitat so that they may flourish in the environment in which they live. Fish are given scales and fins and gills, because their habitat is in the water. Birds of the air have extra light bones and skeletal structures with feathers and wings, because their habitat is the sky and the air.

And so when God designed the anatomy of the Seraphim He designed them that — with a nature that would be suitable for their environment. They didn’t give them just two wings like He would for a bird. He would give to the Seraph six wings because their environment, their habitat required it.

And so Isaiah tells us about these Seraphim with two wings they covered their eyes. Why? Because their environment is the immediate presence of God, where the refulgence of His glory, the brightness of His person was so magnified, so intense that to be in the immediate presence of God required that you shield your eyes. Even in our own world today on this earth if there is an eclipse of the sun we are warned by the news media not to ever try to look directly into the sun, because if we do we can do permanent damage to our eyes.

When Paul went to Damascus and Christ appeared to him in His glory, we are told by Luke that it was brighter than the noon day sun. The glory of God is so intense that even the angels need to be equipped to shield their eyes from the blinding, blazing glory of His presence. Two more appendages, two more wings we are told to cover his feet. Why? Because the angels, though they are heavenly and not of the earth, nevertheless are creatures. And when we describe our humanness we talk about our being made from the dust and having feet of clay.

When Moses was attracted to this bush in the Midianite wilderness that was burning but was not consumed and he approached near to this theophany, the word came out of the burning bush saying, “Moses, Moses, take off your shoes from off your feet, for the ground on which you’re standing is holy ground.” What made it holy? Certainly it wasn’t the presence of Moses, but it was the presence of God. And so Moses had to watch his feet.

Well, if the ground in that brief, parse land in the desert of Midian was holy, how much more holy is heaven itself where the Seraphim dwell, covering their eyes with two wings, covering their creatureliness in the presence of God with two more wings, and then with two we are told almost as a postscript, they did fly.

But when you look at this text, dear ones, it’s not the anatomy of the Seraphim that is so significant, as it is their message. For we read in the text that one Seraph called to another, singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” So you see this heavenly choir in antiphonal response. One Seraph here, another Seraph over there, and they’re singing back and forth “Holy, holy, holy.” That’s their song because they’re in the presence of God.

Now, there’s something significant here in the song of the Seraphim that we in our context of speaking English, or whatever other languages may be represented here, Spanish or Portuguese, or Dutch — I heard there was some people here from Netherlands. Is that right? Huh?

In any case, we in our language if we want to communicate something that we are saying or writing and give emphasis to it, we have all kinds of little literary techniques that we use. We’ll use italics, bold print, underlining, brackets, endless exclamation points — which is the worst crutch of a writer — but in any case when we want to say, “Listen carefully, this is really important,” we have ways to express emphasis.

Well, the Jews had their various devices, literary devices to communicate emphasis as well, and in addition to the ones I’ve just mentioned that we use commonly they had another one, and that was the use of repetition where you would say the same thing twice.

And when you said it twice you were saying, “This is really important.” You know, when we agree with what the preacher’s saying, or at the end of our prayers we will end it by saying ‘Amen.’ Jesus said amen before He preached, but not only did He say “Amen, I say unto you,” He would say “Amen, amen.” Amen, amen. Truly, truly I say to you. When you read the sacred Scriptures and you see that repetition of the word truly or amen by Jesus, you need to listen up. It’s like you hear over the loudspeaker, “Now hear this. This is the captain speaking.” And so, when Jesus gives you the double dose of truly or amen, he’s saying “This is really important.”

Paul, when he wrote to the Galatians who were threatened by a false gospel said to you — said to them, “If anybody preaches you to any other gospel than that which you have received, let him be anathema. Let him be damned.” Again, I say to you, if anyone preaches any other gospel, even if it’s an angel from heaven, take that angel by the seat of his ethereal pants and throw him out of the church. Let him be anathema; cursed or damned.

He repeated it, said it twice. But only in the rarest of circumstances do you see this Hebraic device elevated to the third degree, to the superlative degree.

The Bible doesn’t say that God is Holy. It doesn’t even say that God is holy, holy, but that He is holy, holy, holy. Scripture doesn’t say that he’s love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy or wrath, wrath, wrath, but that he’s holy, holy, holy; exalting this character of God to the supreme degree. This is the song of the angels, adding to it that the whole earth is full of his glory.

Calvin said we go through this world and this life like moving through a magnificent theater, but we wear blindfolds. And those blindfolds are put on intentionally because every square inch of this planet is screaming of the creator and of his glory. But we hide our faces from it. Nothing threatens us more than the holiness of God.
When Jesus performed his miracles, when He filled the boats with fish so that the boats were going to sink, what was Peter’s response? “Depart from me, Lord, for I am sinful.”

Peter was saying, please leave, Jesus. I can’t stand it. The same thing that when He stilled the storm out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, when the boat was going to be capsized and Jesus spoke to nature. The Lord of nature, the creator of the Sea of Galilee commanded to sea to be still, and instantly not a ripple on the water, not a zephyr in the air.

And you would expect that the disciples would throw their sou’westers in the air and say, “Thank you, Jesus.” No. Instead, they said, “What kind of man is this that even the sea and the winds obey him?” He’s sui-generis. He’s in a class by Himself. We don’t have a category to fit Him in. We’re seeing his glory and tremble.

Not only were the angels moved by the presence of God, but the inanimate, unliving foundations of the thresholds themselves of the temple shook at the voice of Him who called. Even the wood was moved by the presence of God. And the house was filled with smoke. Smoke billowing perhaps from the altars of sacrifice, or smokes billowing from the pillar of smoke, from the God who is an all-consuming fire. And this is what Isaiah experienced. This is what he saw.

And when he entered into this experience he entered in as a man who probably had a wonderful self-image, not lacking in self-esteem or in confidence. But when he saw the holiness of God he began to cry and he says, “Woe is me.” Again, a Hebraism. He is using a particular literary form, the form of a divine oracle. When God would come and proclaim blessedness and prosperity to his people, He would use the oracle of wheel by saying “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” or as we will see in a few moments, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah.”

And the total antithesis to the blessing in Israel was the curse of God. We know the Hebrew benediction, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenances upon you and give you peace.”

That’s the highest hope of the Old Testament Jew, that in this world we cannot see God and live, but the prayer for the future is that we would receive the supreme blessing, the beatific vision, the vision of God Himself where we will see Him as He is, and when we will look into his face and He will lift the light of his countenance upon us and give us his peace.

But this wasn’t a time of blessing for Isaiah. Here we find a prophet doing something unheard of. Instead of announcing God’s curse upon the sinful nations who were in rebellion against Him, Isaiah pronounces the curse of God upon Himself. “Woe is me.” I like the old translation, “For I am undone.” I’m coming apart at the seams.

I’m experiencing psychological, theological and spiritual disintegration. “Woe is me. For I am undone. My mouth is dirty. I’m a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. For mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD,” capital L, capital O, capital R-D, “of hosts.”

Here’s what happens in that moment. For the first time in his life Isaiah understood who God is. And the same moment that he understood who God was, was the same moment that the first time in his life he understood who Isaiah was. Like every other mortal we flatter ourselves in terms of treating ourselves and describing ourselves as only demi-gods, slightly lower than God Himself. We hide our eyes from our own sin.

And being children of the darkness we prefer the darkness rather than the light. We talk about people who have been converted as those who have seen the light. Isaiah saw the light with vengeance.

I was noticing out there in the foyer or whatever it is, we have this great big sign with the motto of the Reformation, “Post tenebras lux,” and all morning I’ve been watching people standing in line with their cameras to take pictures of this display with the Latin phrase “After darkness light.” I thought for a minute I was at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, that this place has now become sacred ground out here with that sign. But that’s what this conference is focusing on: after darkness, light.

Now, in the messages which we have heard, which have been stirring calls to godliness in this conference, really singularly excellent, and on more than two occasions we’ve had references to Matthew 16 to the Caesarea Philippi confession of Simon Peter.

When Dr. Nichols first spoke about that event where Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” and they gave their answers, and then He pointed the question to them, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter said of course “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And an oracle immediately came from the lips of Jesus where He pronounced the divine benediction on this disciple. “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah.”

And then He gives the reason for the blessing. ‘You’re blessed, Simon, because what you have just expressed and what you have just confessed is not something that you can learn from flesh and blood. Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’

And Dr. Nichols at that point made reference to a sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards in North Hampton, Massachusetts in the year 1734, which was the first sermon that Edwards preached that his congregation urged him to publish. Preached seven years before his more famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

But is a sermon from North Hampton that has been read again, and again, and again, and again and is one of my all-time favorite sermons of Edwards in which he gave this exposition of Matthew 16. And Dr. Nichols told you that the title of the sermon originally, at least the shorter version was this, “The Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul.”

And following that was what is called in New England and American history — “the Great Awakening,” where person after person after person was awakened by God the Holy Spirit. And that awakening by God the Holy Spirit moved them from darkness into light by the divine and supernatural light, not the light of an incandescent bulb, not the light of a candle, not the light of the sun or the light of the moon. Those are natural lights. This light that brings awakening is supernatural and it is divine. Immediately imparted to the soul.

You know, every single day without fail, I pray for awakening for Saint Andrews where I pastor, for the church in America, and for the church around the world because a new darkness has fallen over the landscape of the countries where we live. And that huge shadow has in many ways covered the church, and we are returning to our natural state which is the darkness.

We hate, by nature, we hate the light and we love the darkness because our deeds are evil. We want to live in a state of hiddenness before God, even though the glory of God fills the earth. We flee from it, we hide from it, and prefer the shadows where we’re safe over the light that exposes us and cause us to say “Woe is me.”

But Isaiah in his misery, crying about his filthy mouth, was driven to repentance that had a price tag to it. God dealt with that filthy mouth. He directed the angel to go to the altar and to take a burning coal, a hot coal, with a tong from the altar and bring it over and put it on the lips — one of the most sensitive part of the human body — of his prophet that is trembling beneath Him.

Not to torture him, not to destroy him, not to punish him, but to cauterize his lips, to cleanse them, to heal them. And then while his lips are sizzling in the flesh he hears the voice of Adonai, “Whom shall we send? Who will go for us?”

And notice Isaiah doesn’t say, “Here I am over here,” indicating his location. It’s not “Here I am,” but “Here am I, send me.” That’s how people respond when their lips have been cleansed by a Holy God. That’s how people respond when a divine and supernatural life has invaded their souls and quickened them from spiritual death to spiritual life.

Now, when Edwards is preaching that sermon on Matthew 16 he tries to expand on the significance of that divine and supernatural light, what it brings into the life of a person. What is it that the Holy Spirit does when He visited us with this supernatural, immediate light from God?

He says the first thing that regeneration does, or the quickening, or the visitation of the Holy Spirit does is to show us the truth of the Word of God. Sinclair talked about Christ in the Upper Room praying his intercessory prayer for his disciples, “Sanctify them by thy word. Thy word is truth.” And when the Word is proclaimed the Spirit will take it and use it to pierce your heart and to pierce your soul, so that now you say, “I see it. I get it.”

Just watched during the break an interview between Oprah and Rob Bell who first denied hell and is now saying that the Bible is a 2,000 year old bunch of letters that are irrelevant today. And Oprah said to him, “When is the church going to get it?” Then they interviewed R.C. Jr.

Basically what he was saying is when are you going to get it, Oprah. The Bible is not an irrelevant book from 2,000 years ago, but it is the breathing, living Word of Almighty God, and when you are visited by that divine and supernatural light your eyes are opened. And you come out of the darkness and you see the light of the Word of God that lights every man that comes into the world. And you see it in its truthfulness.

But Edwards went beyond that and he said the divine and supernatural light is not something that simply convinces you of truth. But it shows you two other things about the truth and about God. This supernatural — immediate, supernatural work upon the Holy — of the Holy Spirit upon your soul shows you the beauty of the truth. We’re not just convinced intellectually and cognitively, say “Oh yeah, that’s a truthful proposition.”

No. That truth overwhelms us with its beauty. Every word that comes forth from the mouth of God, even those words that drive us to say, “Woe is me,” are words filled with beauty because they come to us from the author of beauty.

And then he goes even further in his analysis of this divine and supernatural light when he says not only does the Spirit immediately awaken us to the truth of God and of his Word, and the beauty of God and of his Word, but he says it persuades us of the glory of God, coming from the Hebrew that means weightiness, substance, that which is magnificent, majestic, high and lifted up. Out of the darkness light, the light of truth, the light of beauty and the light of the glory of God, who is holy, holy, holy.

Let’s pray. Thank you, oh Lord, that you opened the veil of heaven to Isaiah, that he could see you in your unveiled splendor, which sight drove him to his knees and drives us to our knees, that he may heal our filthy mouths and visit our souls with the divine and supernatural light. Thank you for that. In Jesus, who is our Lord, our Adonai, our Sovereign One, Amen.