Lecture 5, The Meaning of Holiness:

What effect should the holiness of God have upon the life of the believer? Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness had a profoundly humbling effect upon him. Does it do the same for us today? How can a greater understanding of the infinite holiness of God create in our hearts a deeper reverence toward God? What impact should the holiness of God have upon our everyday lives? In this session we will begin to explore some of the more practical applications in our own lives that should flow out of a greater awareness of the holiness of God.

Message Transcript

We’re now about to begin the fifth session in our study on the holiness of God. What is ironic about this, and perhaps even maddening to you, is that all the way up until this point in our study I have not begun to define the meaning of the word holy. I’ve used it and tried to stress the importance of it. We’ve seen the traumatic influence it communicates, and how it relates to justice and to the potential insanity of a man like Martin Luther. But what exactly does the Bible mean by the word holy

That Which Is Different

I notice in our own language and vocabulary, the term holy seems to be used among us, particularly among Christians, as a synonym for moral purity or righteousness. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it may be a little bit misleading. In the Scriptures, there is one primary meaning and one secondary meaning of the term holy. The secondary meaning is that which refers to personal righteousness and purity. However, the primary meaning of the word is “separate,” or, if you will, theological apartheid. That which is holy is that which is other—that which is different from something else.

When the Bible speaks about God’s holiness, the primary thrust of those statements is to refer to God’s transcendence, to His magnificence, to that sense in which God is higher and superior to anything there is in the creaturely realm. Again, the simplest way to discuss this is to say that which is holy is that which is different.

Look through your Bible sometime and see how the term holy is used as an adjective. Not only is God described as holy, but we also hear about the Holy Spirit and the Holy One of Israel. We hear about holy ground, holy vessels, and holy moments. In fact, anthropologists and sociologists have studied human experience and noticed that all people have some sense of holy time and holy space.

Think back to your childhood, to that special place where you wanted to go when your life was troubled. Maybe it was your room, or a little cozy section in the woods, or in the lawn under your favorite tree. Whenever you were depressed, distressed, or your parents hollered at you, and you wanted to go grab the kitty-cat and go sit and cry, you went to a certain place. That place took on special significance to you.

Every year there’s one special day in your life, your birthday, when you celebrate a moment in time that has a special importance to you. And during the course of the year, we as people celebrate what we call holidays. Now holiday means a “holy day.” It’s a day that is different from the ordinary days. It’s special. It’s set apart for a particular kind of remembrance.

Sacred space, sacred time, and sacred things are all a part of our lives.

A Student with a Dumb Question

I remember when I was teaching a course in seminary many years ago, where I committed the unpardonable sin of a seminary professor—I lost my temper with a student. Let me be candid with you. Sometimes students say, “I don’t want to ask a dumb question.” And I’d say: “Now look, don’t ever be embarrassed to ask me a question. The only dumb question is the one you’re really afraid to ask. Any question you have that’s important to you is important to me.” I really believed that I should take seriously any question a student raised. But every now and then, ladies and gentlemen, you really do get a dumb question. And my task as a professor is to treat the student with dignity.

Well, I had a student once that made me lose it.

I was lecturing on the Lord’s Supper, and his question was not so much a question as an expression of unbridled cynicism. He put his hand up, and I acknowledged him. He said: “What’s the big deal about bread and wine? Why do we have to do that? Why can’t we just have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Coca-Cola?” That’s when I lost it. I felt this rage flowing up out of my soul. He grated my sensitivity when he said that.

Instead of giving a polite, genteel, professorial response to him, I said, “You want to know why we don’t have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Coca-Cola at Holy Communion? Because Jesus never consecrated peanut butter and jelly or Coca-Cola.” I just wanted to kill him. Why? Because he had just profaned with his question something that was precious and holy in my experience.

But what is it that makes the bread and the wine so special? What is it that makes any moment in history so special? What is it that makes a piece of real estate holy ground? Why is it that Noah marked the spot where he landed and built an altar? Why did Abraham build an altar to God? Why is it that we are drawn to take something that is common and make it extraordinary because of its significance? It’s not because of the intrinsic value of these objects.

What makes something sacred—what makes something holy—is the touch of God upon it. When the One who is Himself other and different touches that which is ordinary, it becomes extraordinary. When He touches you, you become uncommon. The difference between the profane and the holy is the difference between the common and the uncommon, between the earthly and the heavenly.

The Mysterium Tremendum

Not too long ago I saw a study of phobias in the United States, where the ten most common phobias were listed. These are the things that people are most frightened about, like the fear of cats, the fear of crowded spaces, and the fear of death. Do you know what the number one fear, incidentally, of American people was? It was the fear of standing in front of a group and giving a talk, like I’m doing right now. It’s awful.

There is a phobia called xenophobia. Xenophobia is the fear of strangers or foreigners. We have a tendency to be frightened by people whose customs are different from ours. The supreme form of xenophobia that we have is our fear of the living God, because He is so different from us. He is high and exalted.

One of the most fascinating studies I’ve ever read, which I would commend to you for your careful attention, is a book that appeared early in the twentieth century by a German theologian who was also an anthropologist. His name was Rudolf Otto. He wrote a very little book, but a book that many theologians consider as one of the most important books of the twentieth century. The original title was called simply Das Heilige, translated into the English under the title, The Idea of the Holy.

What Otto did that I found so interesting was that he went around and examined people from different cultures—Aborigines, Europeans, different peoples—and tried to find out what they regarded as holy or sacred in their culture. Then he did studies phenomenologically to see what the normal human reactions are to the holy. After making this study, he tried to distill the essence of human experience of the holy and come up with some conclusions. He used to do this by inventing phrases to describe these things. If you would ask him, “Dr. Otto, what is the holy?” the answer he gave was that the holy is the mysterium tremendum. I have a Latin phrase for everything—mysterium tremendum.

Now what does he mean by that? He said that the experience we have of the holy is an experience of something very strange, impossible to penetrate or fathom. It is mysterious, but it is also powerful. This awesome, mysterious power provokes a sense of fear within us. Listen to how Otto describes what he calls the awful mystery: “The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with the tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience.” 

Can you relate to that? Everybody in this room has had those pregnant moments of awareness of the presence of God. They’re not part of our ordinary, daily experience. Ordinary experience, even for the most devout Christian, is basically profane. We’re not flooded every second in our soul with this acute sense of the presence of God, and yet every Christian knows what it means to have the precious moment of awareness of the presence of God. But it’s fleeting.

It Fascinates and It Terrifies

Otto continues: “It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering,” and so on. He describes the fact that not everybody responds in the same way to awareness of the holy. Some people become whirling dervishes in all kinds of flamboyant activity. Other people are moved to absolute silence and contemplation.

He detected in this study of the holy that, across the board, throughout varying civilizations, the basic response of human beings to whatever they consider to be holy is one of ambivalence, meaning that we have conflicting feelings about the holy. There is something about the holiness of God that attracts us, but there is also something that repels and frightens us. On the one hand it fascinates, and on the other it terrifies.

Have you ever wondered about the way in which we sometimes like to scare ourselves? Little kids wanting to get together and tell ghost stories—have you seen them do that? 

I remember when my son was a little boy that he wanted to sleep out in the woods behind our place in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. One of the college students said, “I’ll take you up there in the woods.” So they went up and pitched a tent, then got their sandwiches, flashlights, and canteens, and went up there about midnight. At midnight they got their bedrolls out, and my son says to the college student, “Joe, tell me a ghost story.”

So Joe started telling him about the guy who lost his liver and went around saying, “I want my liver back.” Everybody’s heard that ghost story. My son listens to this, and he’s fascinated by it. When Joe finished the story, my son looked at him and said, “Joe? You know, maybe sleeping out here tonight isn’t such a good idea.” Joe said, “That’s all right, you just go to sleep.” They were quiet for a few minutes, and my son had the opportunity to concentrate his mind on the ghost story, on the noises of the woods, and on the things that go bump in the night. He lasted about ten more minutes until they were down knocking at our back door, asking if they could come in.

Do you know that people go to Disney World in Orlando and pay money to be frightened? Isn’t that strange, that we have this dualistic attitude toward the holy?

The Inner Sanctum

I like to remember the old radio programs. Some of you with snow on the roof will remember those wonderful days of yesteryear when the Lone Ranger would come riding down the road, or when we listened to the soap operas in the afternoon. Do you remember them ladies? Young Dr. Malone, Ma Perkins, The Romance of Helen Trent, Our Gal Sunday, and Backstage Wife—Larry said to Mary, “Mary,” and Mary said to Larry, “Larry.” That’s what we listened to. Do you remember? Pepper Young’s Family was another. How many of you remember them? They were terrific.

At nighttime you had the adventure stories like Superman, and through the week we would have Cops and Robbers, Gang Busters, and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. There was a program that was particularly scary called Suspense. But the scariest program of all scary programs on the radio in the 1940’s came on Sunday night.

The lead-in to this radio program featured the sound of this creaky vault door opening in an echo chamber. It opens up, and your hair is standing on end before the thing starts. And the voiceover comes with the announcer’s baritone voice saying, “Inner Sanctum.” How many of you remember that? They didn’t even have to start the story, and everybody was scared already. What does “inner sanctum” mean? It means, literally, “within the holy.” 

The marketing geniuses of the entertainment world discovered somehow that the most terrifying thing that they could come up with for people would be to expose them to a program about the holy.

That is why we have a tendency to keep our distance—a safe distance—from the character of God, because even though we’re attracted to it on the one hand, on the other we are repelled by it. I’m going to talk in our next session about how that manifested itself concretely and specifically in the life of Jesus, where people were both drawn to Him and terrified of Him. Yet it is this element that we fear which is at the very core of the character of God. It is set forth in the New Testament for us as a priority so that we can understand it.

Holy Is His Name

I asked my students at the seminary a simple question from the Bible. I said: “Everybody is aware of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer can be divided up according to literary categories from the formal address, to the petitions, to the closing.” And I asked my students, “What is the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer?”

Do you know it? Do you know what the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer is? Remember the scene: the disciples have observed Jesus in His astonishing power. They notice this link between His power and His devotion to prayer. So they come to Him and say, “Jesus, teach us how to pray.” He says: “Okay, I’ll teach you how to pray. When you pray, I want you to pray like this: Our Father, who art in heaven.” Then what? “Hallowed be Thy name” (Matt. 6:9).

Now here’s the question. Is “hallowed be Thy name” part of the formal address, or is it the first petition? If it were part of the formal address, Jesus would have said, “When you pray say this: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed is Your name.” But that’s not what He said. He said, “When you pray, the first thing I want you to pray for when you get on your knees is that the name of God would be treated as sacred, as holy.” Repeatedly the Bible says of God, “Holy is His name.” 

Another little quiz I have with my students goes like this: “In this day and age in the United States of America, we’ve had such a flood and proliferation of legislation in the land that nobody can keep up with all the new laws being added to the law books every year. Suppose somebody came along and said: ‘Hey, we’re going to start all over again. We’re going to throw out all the lawyers, all the laws, even the Constitution, and start fresh. Your job is to write the new Constitution. Your job is to write the new Bill of Rights, and the game plan is that all future laws in this nation’s history will be judged by their conformity to ten laws that you draw up.’ You only have ten laws to put down on the books. What ten would you write?”

How many of you would waste one of your ten by making a law against coveting? How many of you would include in your top ten a law that children ought to respect and obey their parents? Most of you would probably include a law prohibiting murder and theft, but would anybody use up one of their top ten laws by saying that it’s an absolute law of the land that no one ever, ever, ever takes the name of God in vain? Ladies and gentlemen, when God wrote a constitution for a national government, that made His top ten. Isn’t that incredible?

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

A few years ago, I read an astonishing article in Time magazine about an incident that took place in Maryland. A truck driver had been arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct. When the police officers came to arrest him, this truck driver was so abusive that the officers were furious. By the time they got the guy to the station house they wanted to throw the book at him. So they got him up before the magistrate, and they talked about all of the unkind things that this truck driver said about the policemen on the way down.

Now, for the misdemeanor of disorderly conduct, the severest penalty that the magistrate could impose was a $100 fine and thirty days in jail. But he wanted to nail this guy, to throw the book at him. So he resurrected an antiquated law that had never been repealed and was still on the books in the statutes of Maryland that prohibited public blasphemy. The penalty for public blasphemy had been another thirty days in jail and another $100 fine. So the judge imposed upon the truck driver a $200 fine and sixty days in jail. This made Time magazine’s editorial because the editor was outraged that, in this day and age, somebody could suffer the cruel and unusual punishment of paying a $100 fine and spend thirty days in jail for “merely” publicly blaspheming the holy name of God.

We’ve come a long way. Twenty-two years ago the word virgin was not permitted on television because it was too provocative and suggestive. Censorship has changed so much in our day that movies may freely use erotic, scatological, and blasphemous language, and that’s okay. Still, there are rules and regulations for broadcast television that prohibit the use of certain prurient and obscene sexual language. But it is still permitted on the television set to use the name of God as a common curse word.

What God Will Not Tolerate

Jesus essentially said: “You know what I want you to pray for? I want you to pray that my Father’s name would be regarded as holy. Then I want you to say, ‘Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth even as it is in heaven.’ So what I want my people to be praying for is that my reign, my sovereignty, my authority as King will be honored and recognized in this world. Pray that people will do my will on this planet, even as the angels in heaven right now obey my will.” 

Jesus doesn’t say so, but I’m convinced there’s a logical progression here. I don’t think that the Kingdom of God will ever come on this earth, or that the will of God will ever be done on this earth, until or unless the name of God is revered by His people. How is it possible for people to honor a king, and at the same time desecrate His name? 

It’s not like the Jewish people had some name fetish, or that they believed there was some magic associated with the utterance of the word. But they understood, as God understood, that if we have a cavalier, casual attitude toward the name of God, that reveals more about our deepest attitude toward the God of the name than anything else we say.

Let me tell it like it is. If you use the name of God as a common curse word, you are, at root, a profane person. You have no respect for the holiness of God, and I urge you to think before you let that word pass over your lips again in a frivolous manner. God will not tolerate the desecration of His name. He put it in the top ten. Jesus says that you would pray that the name of God would be holy—that it would be treated as different, as special, as extraordinary, as exalted—because He is different, special, and exalted.

When we are called to be holy, we are called to be different. We are called to bear witness to the style that one finds in God, a style driven by the second meaning of holiness, which is righteousness. When God says, “Be holy for I am holy,” He is saying: “Be different from the normal standards of this world. I want you to express and show what righteousness is in this land.” This is the task of the Christian—to mirror and reflect the character of God to a dying world.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.