It’s not that divine holiness is bad; rather, it is so intensely good that no impurity can withstand it. Seeing a burning bush strangely unconsumed by its fire, Moses went to investigate – and God spoke out of the bush: ‘Take your sandals off your feet, for the place you stand is holy ground.’ Moses did so, covering his face in fear as God told him not to come nearer. Such was the intensity of God’s holiness.
In Israel’s tabernacle and temple, there was a room called ‘The Most Holy Place,’ where God placed His presence. Because God was holy, His people Israel had to be pure. ‘You shall be holy; for I am holy’ was God’s command (Leviticus 11:44). Their holiness was both moral and ritual.
To be ritually pure, they would have to separate themselves from all sources of defilement, such as death, disease, dead bodies, and certain bodily fluids. Such things, while not sinful, made them ritually impure and unfit for God’s presence.
The book of Leviticus is filled with instruction on how recognize and avoid ritual impurity. Following God’s laws allowed them to enjoy His presence again after being in contact with impurity. The problem was, no matter how hard they tried to stay pure (holy), morally or ritually they could not.
The Lord on a Throne
Some time between 740 and 680 BC, Isaiah had a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne. The seraphim cried to one another saying: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of host; The whole earth is full of His glory!’ (Isaiah 6:2-3). Witnessing this scene, Isaiah was immediately aware of his own sinfulness and cried out, ‘woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5). Then one of the seraphim flew with a live coal from the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips, saying, ‘your iniquity is taken away, and your sin atoned for. Instead of Isaiah fitting himself for God’s presence, God moved in grace to deal with his sins. God alone can give unclean people a right standing in His sight.
By the end of the Old Testament, the prophets were stressing that holiness was not just outward but inward purity. This development paralleled their understanding of God’s holiness. He was morally perfect in His being: ‘You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness’ (Habakkuk 1:13). He was also holy in all His actions, both in judgment and in redemption. To the unclean God’s holiness was like a destroying fire (Isaiah 10:16-17), while to the faithful remnant it was truth and life (Isaiah 10:20-21).
The Lord in the Manger
Just before Christ was born, the angel told Mary that He was the ‘holy child’ and would be called the ‘Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). Matthew quotes Isaiah: ‘they shall call his name Immanuel, which means “God with us”’ (Matthew 1:23). Joseph was told that ‘He will save His people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). God’s holiness was seen in His action of redemption, for ‘the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world’ (1 John 4:14).
The Lord as a Man
As ‘God manifest in the flesh’ (1 Timothy 3:16), Christ perfectly displayed the glory of God. With a word or touch from the hand of Jesus, the dead came to life and the sick were healed. When a woman with a hemorrhage touched him, she was immediately cleansed. People born blind were given their sight, lepers were cleansed, and the lame given strength to walk. All His words were gracious and people said, ‘no one ever spoke like this man’. Unlike others, Jesus was not made impure by touching impurity; rather, His purity flowed out to the impure. He was like the burning coal that touched Isaiah’s lips.
Jesus was the ‘holy one of God’ (John 6:69), absolute in perfection, God manifest in the flesh. Mankind was separated from God by sin. On the cross, the innocent ‘holy one of God’ suffered in the place of the unholy. ‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18). ‘Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify [make holy] the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate’ (Hebrews 13:12).
His purity flowed out to the impure. He was like the burning coal that touched Isaiah’s lips.