Lecture 6, The Holiness of Christ:

The attribute of holiness is not limited to God the Father, but also is seen in the Holy Spirit and in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the earthly ministry of our Lord we can see most graphically His holiness and mankind’s reaction to holiness. Both those who followed Him and those who opposed Him reacted in fear to His holiness. The aim of this lesson is to confront you with the holiness of Christ, in the hope that you will experience peace with God through the righteousness of Christ.

Message Transcript

I spoke with a gentleman the other day who had delivered a message on a college campus. In the midst of his address he was heckled by hostile students. He was talking about Christ, and in the midst of his speech, somebody hollered out, “Who cares?” He went on to explain to me that the audience was hostile, and that more and more it seems there is a growing hostility in our nation toward the Christian faith and a growing sense of militancy from pro-Christian and anti-Christian forces.

On some occasions I think the unbelievers in this country are deeply afraid that militant Christians are going to try to force religious adherences through law, and justifiably so. I try to remind my brothers and sisters that the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States protects the non-Christian as much as it protects the Christian. We need to be very, very careful about that. But there is often this sense of anguish and hostility directed against Christians—against ministers, theologians, televangelists, and so on.

In the midst of all of that, what I find exceedingly rare is someone who will publicly criticize the integrity of Jesus. I think, for example, of a comment George Bernard Shaw once made where he was being critical of Jesus. He was not a Christian and said that there were times when Jesus did not behave as a Christian. I thought there was some irony in that. When Shaw wanted to criticize Jesus, he could think of no higher moral standard by which to criticize Him than the standard of Christ Himself. When I find pockets of real hostility directed against me, against the church, or against the history of Christian influence, there is still a kind of restraint about Jesus.

Of all the human beings who have ever lived, I doubt there’s ever been a person who has engendered more universal respect for His integrity than Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, the world is so complimentary about Jesus, the question I am left with is, “Why was He killed?”

If He was such a wonderful person, so loving and kind and compassionate, ministering to all kinds of sick people and outcasts; if He was a sort of a Mother Theresa of His own generation and then some, then why was He killed? Not only was He executed, but the masses were clamoring for His blood. What was it about Jesus of Nazareth that enflamed people’s passions either for Him or against Him? 

Sleeping through the Storm

I’d like to read a passage from Mark’s gospel that I think begins to get at this particular question. In the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel, beginning at verse thirty-five we read this: “Now that day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. And a furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. And Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion” (Mark 4:35–38).

You get the picture. This was taking place on the Sea of Galilee, which is a rather anomalous topographical phenomenon in Palestine because of the wind tunnel that exists between the desert in Trans-Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. In this geographical situation this wind tunnel is aimed at the Sea of Galilee, and storms of violent proportion can arise without any warning whatsoever on that lake. In fact, I was over there a couple of years ago and took an excursion cruise across the Sea of Galilee. They had the most modern nautical equipment and the contemporary sailors were telling us that they still lived in mortal fear of the rare storms that occur over there even now.

The disciples were seasoned fishermen. They had been out on that lake a thousand times, but one of these violent tempests breaks out in the middle of the night and the waves are in gigantic proportions. The wind is howling. At every second the boat is in imminent danger of capsizing and killing the fishermen. All the while Jesus is sleeping in the boat.

I hate people like that. I’ve been on airplanes where the stewardesses were screaming in panic, where the plane was dropping a thousand feet at a time in violent turbulence, and the guy next to me was sound asleep. I wanted to shake him and say: “What are you, a Calvinist or something? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you realize that we’re about ready to crash at any moment?” These people who have this calm, tranquil spirit sleep through anything. This was Jesus, sound asleep in the back of the boat.

Afraid of the Storm

The Bible says something fascinating here. It says that the disciples were afraid. There is nothing particularly fascinating about that alone, but I want to apply that to something.

When I was teaching at the seminary in Philadelphia years ago, I taught a course on academic atheism. The students were required to read the primary sources—the writings of the most articulate atheists of Western history. I made the students read the objections of David Hume and John Stuart Mill. I made the students read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Feuerbach. I made the students read the critique that Karl Marx gave against Christian theism, along with Walter Kaufmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. In these readings we found that the atheists, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were trying to answer a particular question. They essentially said: “We know that there is no God, but there is a problem that still vexes us. In spite of the fact that we’re convinced there is no God, why is it that mankind seems to be incurably homo religiosus?” That is, “Why is it that everywhere we go we find people devoting themselves to the pursuit of religion?” 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair answered that question by saying that the masses are simply given to superstition. She said that they’re not thinking critically about this thing, so we just need to educate people further. But people like Freud, Marx, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche wanted a sounder explanation.

They agreed that religion emerges historically out of the psychological needs of people—out of man’s human frailty. The one thing we all share is our mortality. So, Freud suggested (and Marx seconded) that every human being has a built-in fear of natural forces that threaten our very lives. He said that, historically, the first step in the evolutionary process of religion was when people began to impose the idea of a living soul inside of forces. So there was a god in the storm, a god in the earthquake, a god in the pestilence, and so on. Freud said the first step was the personalization of nature.

The theory is that there are all kinds of things out there that threaten my existence, such as cancer, fire, flood, war, or other people. But I have learned as a human being how to survive the hostility of other people, at least this far. When you come at me, and you’re gritting your teeth, or you’re angry, or you’re reaching for a gun, I’ve learned how to deal with that. If you’re angry with me I can beg you for mercy, or I can compliment you and say: “You don’t want to shoot me. I’m the president of your fan club. I love you,” and all that stuff. Or I can try to bribe you. I can say, “Look, if you’ll spare me, half my kingdom is yours.” We learn these little devices of how to short-circuit personal attacks against us.

Inventing an Opiate

The question Freud was asking was this: How does one negotiate with a hurricane or a flood? You can’t plead with a storm. You can’t bribe an earthquake. You can’t flatter cancer and make it go away. These are impersonal, non-personal forces that threaten to destroy us. So Freud said that what we do is project personal characteristics onto nature so that we can talk to the storm. Then pretty soon we sacrilize nature, that is, we talk about deities who are in or above these forces.

A simplified version of this is monotheism, where you just have to talk to one God about all of these problems. So if you worship God, honor God, pay your tithe, and send in your check, then God, who is powerful enough over the storm, will protect you from all of these problems.

You’ve seen the incidents on television ministries where the emphasis is on prosperity now, health, etc. such that “God always wills these things.” We hear this concept of “name it and claim it”—that all you have to do to experience prosperity and healing is to name it, trust in it, and believe in it, and God will deliver these things.

I was playing golf with a man here in Texas the last time I was in town. He was having a miserable time. For the first nine holes he hacked the ball all over the place. When we got on the tenth tee, he drew a line on the scorecard and said: “Okay, starting right now I’m going to begin to play golf, no more bad shots.” I said, “Okay.” Then he hit a ground ball off the tee. He went up, took out a five-iron, and shanked it into the rocks. After hocking it six more shots and still not getting on the green, he turned around to me and said, “So much for name it and claim it.” 

We certainly have an ability to project our desires and our wishes upon nature, as Freud indicated. He said that religion is this: out of our fear of nature we invent God. It’s just that simple. So God becomes a crutch or an opiate, as Marx suggested, for people who simply can’t bear to live in a hostile or indifferent universe.

The Terrifying Presence of the Holy

This episode in Scripture is important for our consideration because here we find the disciples of Jesus terrified due to an encounter with the destructive forces of nature. Their lives are in jeopardy because of the tempest arising at sea, and the Bible says they were frightened. And what do frightened people do in the midst of a crisis? They immediately go to their leader. So they came to the back of the boat, shook Jesus awake, and said, “Master, do something, or we perish!”

What did He do? He looked around and appraised the situation. And then the Lord God Incarnate, the Creator of heaven and earth, issued a verbal command, not to men but to the impersonal forces of nature. He addressed the sea and the wind, and commanded in a loud voice, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). Instantly, the cosmos responded in obedience. The sea became as glass and the wind was so still that there was not even a zephyr in the air.

The thing that grasped my attention about this narrative is the next line. What is the response of the disciples when Jesus removes the clear and present threat of nature? Does it say they throw their sou’westers in the air, rejoice, and say, “Oh, we knew you would do it”? No. The text tells us that, at that moment, they became very much afraid. Rather than having their fears assuaged and ameliorated, their fears now became intensified.

Freud didn’t understand that there is something within the human heart which we fear more than any of the impersonal forces of nature—the power and the presence of a person who is holy.

“What Manner of Man Is This?”

Now the disciples are trembling, and they ask, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41).

Do you remember in an earlier session I talked about xenophobia, the apartness of God, and the difference of God that threatens and frightens us? The disciples say, “Wait a minute, we have just now witnessed a display of a kind of humanity with which we are utterly unfamiliar.”

Every time you meet a new person, your brain goes through a computer cataloging of responses. If that person is smiling, that tells you one thing. If that person is frowning, that tells you another thing. We have all these categories and catalogs we use from our experience as human beings. And we learn how to be with other people through our experience.

A few years ago there was a movement in this country for therapy, whereby everybody was supposed to strip of their clothes, literally let it all hang out, and reveal the deepest secrets of their heart. A premium was placed upon openness. Everybody said, “I want you to be vulnerable.” That movement was very short-lived because people got brutally hurt when they opened up too much.

It reminds me of the story of three ministers who came to the locker room after playing golf. They had a spontaneous session of confession of sins. One minister said: “You know, my conscience is really bothering me. I’m trying to be a pastor and to be righteous, but I have this weakness that I’ve battled with for all my life—a weakness with drink. I’m a closet drinker, and I haven’t been able to have victory.” And the other two said, “Oh boy, well we’ll really pray for you.” Then the second one said: “I have to confess that I have a struggle, too. I’m tempted with lust all the time, and I’ve been able to control my behavior, but my thoughts have not always been pure. I just don’t know how to get victory in this situation. Will you men pray for me?” And they said, “Yes.” The third one didn’t say anything, so the other two said, “Well don’t you have any temptations?” He said, “Yes.” And they said, “Well what is it?” He said, “I’m a compulsive gossip, and I can’t wait to get out of here.” So much for being vulnerable.

The reason why we’re so closed and careful not to reveal everything about ourselves to every person that comes along is that every person in this room has had a secret betrayed. You poured out your heart and soul to somebody, and they tramped all over your soul. That happens two or three times to a human being, and we learn to put some armor on, don’t we? We don’t want to be vulnerable and open, and so we use this mechanism of the computer very carefully to categorize every human being: “Is that person safe? Is that person not safe?” 

Well, the disciples saw Jesus and their computers went haywire. They said: “Wait a minute. We don’t have a category for this man. We’ve never encountered one who is so other, so different, so separate, so apart from normal humanity that He could command the sea, and the sea obeys.” In other words, what terrified the disciples was that they suddenly realized they were in the presence of the holy. And their fear was increased.

This isn’t the only time that sort of thing happens in the New Testament.

Uncomfortable with Holiness

On another occasion with the same people on the same sea, we read that the disciples had been out all night fishing, and they come back with their nets empty. Jesus approaches them and says to Peter, “How’d it go?” And Peter says, “Ah, it was a lousy night, you know, no fish.” Jesus says, “Well Peter, why don’t you take the nets and put them over on this side of the boat.” 

Now remember, Peter’s personality profile in the Bible is one that describes him as rather impetuous. Can you imagine what Peter is thinking when Jesus tells him to throw the net over this side of the boat? I can hear him, at least in his soul, saying: “Hey Jesus, you are a fantastic theologian, a religious teacher par excellence, but give me some credit for crying out loud. I’m a professional fisherman. I’ve had this net over every side of the boat there is, all night long. Are you going to try to tell me now how to fish? But you’re the master and I’m the disciple. We’ll humor Him, fellas, throw the net over the side.”

You know what happens. Every fish in the Sea of Galilee jumps in the net. So they have to bring another boat alongside. They’re about to sink because they’re so full of fish. Now what does Peter do? Remember, Peter is Jewish, and he’s a businessman. He’s not fishing for fun. He is fishing for profit. I know what I’d do if I were Peter. I would have reached in my tunic for a contract and said: “Okay Jesus, here’s the deal: full partner, fifty percent of the profits—all I want is five minutes a month. You just come down here one Saturday a month and tell me where to put these nets, and that’s all. That’s fifty percent of the profit.” That’s what I would have done, but that’s not what Peter did.

Can you believe what Peter said to Jesus? Peter looked at Jesus, and he said this, it’s astonishing: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Peter said, “Jesus, please leave, I can’t stand it.” You see what happens when One who is holy comes into our midst? Immediately we are uncomfortable. We are dreadfully aware of our unholiness, and we want that person to get as far from us as we possibly can.

Darkness in the Presence of Light

A few years ago a golf tournament was held in North Carolina, and the defending champion of this PGA tour event had been the previous year’s winner of the Golfer of the Year award. Because he was going to get this award at that year’s tournament in North Carolina and was also the defending champion of that tournament, part of the recognition was that he would play his first practice round with Billy Graham, the President of the United States, and Jack Nicklaus. It was the Golfer of the Year, Nicklaus, Billy Graham, and the President of the United States. That is a heavy foursome.

So they went out on the course and played this practice round. When they came in, a friend of mine was there. He went up to this golfer and said, “Hey, what was it like playing with Billy Graham, Jack, and the President of the United States?” This golfer was furious, and he responded in anger: “I hated it! I didn’t need to have Billy Graham shoving religion down my throat for eighteen holes of golf.” And he stormed off in a huff and went over to the practice tee. He took his driver, and he just started pounding one ball after another in fury, releasing all of his anger. So my friend went over and calmly sat and watched him until the bucket of balls disappeared. When the golfer came up, my friend said, “Gee, Billy really came on strong, huh?” And the golfer said: “No, no. Actually, Billy never said a word about religion. I just had a bad day.”

The Bible says that the wicked flee when no man pursues (Prov. 28:1). Martin Luther said that it is the experience of the unbeliever to tremble at the rustling of a leaf. Here was a man who spent this time with Billy Graham, who is one of the most gracious human beings you will ever meet. And Billy Graham didn’t say a word about Christianity, yet this person was feeling uncomfortable.

When I’m playing golf on the golf course, and I hook up to a strange group, I know that inevitably the question’s going to be, “What do you do?” All I have to do to destroy the fun that  people are having on the golf course is to tell them, “I’m a minister.” So I fudge. “Well I’m a writer,” I say. “Well what do you write about,” they’ll ask. “Oh, lots of stuff.” Or, “I’m in the insurance business,” or whatever. Not because I’m ashamed of being what I am, but I don’t want to ruin their day. Because as soon as I tell them I’m a minister, they start moving away and giving all these apologies for their language. People are uncomfortable in our presence, not because we’re holy, but because we represent the One who is.

It’s interesting to me that the most vehement enemies Jesus had in His lifetime were the Pharisees, who were devoted to righteousness. They were the self-righteous ones. And the people who were the most comfortable with Jesus were the outcast sinners, because they had no illusions about their own righteousness. But for those who took pride in their moral purity, when Jesus came, He exposed their unholy character. When the light comes, the darkness cannot stand in its presence.

Invited to Access the Holy

When Peter said to Jesus, “Please leave,” Jesus wouldn’t leave. To Peter’s everlasting joy, Jesus didn’t take Him up on the invitation. Instead He said: “Peter, come here. You come unto me. You’re burdened. You’re heavy-laden. I’m going to give you peace.” You see, the worst secret to keep in the whole world—it’s well-kept, but it’s a horrible thing that it has been kept—is that we are invited to come into the presence of a holy God.

Sartre said in his writings that the last thing he ever wanted to do was be submitted to the unremitting gaze of a holy God. Yet David, after he was subjected to the scrutiny of God, said to God, “Oh Lord, search me and know me” (Ps. 139:23).

The secret the Christian carries around with him is the knowledge that the one place where we can really be vulnerable, the one place where we can be comfortable, the one place where we can be naked without fear, is in the presence of Christ. We must come to understand that even though we have this built-in antipathy and fear toward the Holy One, and even though we recognize we are unholy, in Christ we are welcome. The first fruits, the Apostle tells us, of a person’s justification are there two things: peace with God and access into His presence.

Get It Settled

I’m sure there are people in this room right now, and who will be watching this series, who have no peace with God, and who are still saying with Peter, “Please leave, Jesus, you make me uncomfortable.” I beg you, if you’ve been listening to this series on the character of God, to consider a couple things. There is no possible escape, ever, from the holiness of God. You are going to have to deal with it now or at some point.

So I plead with you right now to get it settled. Understand there is a righteousness that God has provided for you in Christ that is not your own righteousness. It’s an alien righteousness. It’s a foreign righteousness. It is the righteousness of Christ that is freely offered to you if you will submit to the lordship of Christ. All that He has and all He has done becomes yours. The worst storms of divine wrath you could imagine are silenced forever, and God declares peace. You will have the experience of Isaiah when he knew the word of God, which said, “Behold, your guilt is taken away” (Isa. 6:7).

To be a Christian is to be forgiven. The essence of the Christian faith is grace. The essence of the Christian ethic is not arrogance, but gratitude. And forgive us, if you are an unbeliever, if we have presented ourselves to you as self-righteous, because I guarantee you that there are no Christians in this room who are righteous in and of themselves.

Get it settled, now and forever.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.