What Would You Say in the Presence of God?

“Holy cow.”

“Holy smokes.”

“Holy moley.”

That’s the context most of us are most familiar with for the word “holy.” The three expressions above are pretty tame, but “holy” certainly has some more offensive stuff following it in its cultural expressions. In our world at large, people have taken on the characteristic expression of Robin, Batman’s companion, in the TV serials: “Holy fate worse than death, Batman!”

In the church, we fare a little better. As Christ-followers, the word “holy” comes to mind pretty readily when we think about God, and it should.

Holiness is a good place to start when considering just who God is.

If you take a look at Isaiah 6, you find that beginning to understand holiness is the beginning of learning about God. “Holy” is the cry that even now is ringing in the heavens to describe God. That’s what Isaiah encountered as he was taken up in a vision and saw the Lord:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above him; each one has 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; his glory fills the whole earth’” (Isa. 6:1–3).

Can you imagine the scene? Let’s not miss the significance that Isaiah “saw the Lord.” That, in and of itself, is pretty amazing, since Isaiah and his people firmly believed it was impossible to see the Lord and live. Even Moses, who we would have to acknowledge was a guy on pretty intimate terms with God, only saw the backside of the Lord as he passed by. But here was Isaiah, taken into the very throne room, face-to-face with the Almighty.

And the creatures attending to God in the throne room had a very distinct call. Their words echoed through the halls of eternity, “Holy, holy, holy.”

They said it three times, and in so doing, they weren’t just trying to write the first words of the hymn that we still sing in churches today. In Hebrew, the number three is significant for it bears the connotation of completeness. Of wholeness. The number three signifies that which is real and perfect; three is the number of the divine.

The Trinity exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When God appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18, He did so as three strangers. There are three parts to the classic divine blessing of Numbers 6. “Three” means important; it means complete.

By calling God “holy” three times, the seraphim were pointing to the absolutely essential and foundational nature of God’s holiness. They didn’t chant “loving, loving, loving” or even “glorious, glorious, glorious.” They opted for holy, and therefore we must recognize that to understand a bit of who God is we must start here with this characteristic.

To be “holy” is to be separate. Other. Apart. When we describe God as holy, the word sums up everything that makes God who he is and sets him apart from us. Furthermore, because this is more than just a characteristic of God but rather a summation of all his characteristics, his holiness filters down into everything else we say about him.

His love is a holy love. His justice is a holy justice. His wrath is a holy wrath. God’s holiness reminds us that God is completely and perfectly pure, without spot or blemish. That’s part of what John got at when He described God as light with no darkness in him at all. He’s not partly light just as he’s not partly holy. God is wholly “other” than we are.

This is why the angels, even now, are calling, “Holy, holy, holy.” It is to remind us, in part, just who it is that we’re dealing with.

Is it possible that, in an overchurched, overmarketed, and oversaturated Christian subculture that we have become too familiar with the holy? Are we too comfortable with things we were never meant to be comfortable with?

Because of his essential quality of separateness, God cannot tolerate sin (Habakkuk 1:13). To do so would tarnish the very essence of His being. We would do well to consider how we approach the presence of the Lord. Let’s be careful and take heed of the advice found in Ecclesiastes 5:1–2:

“Guard your step when you go to the house of God. Better to draw near in obedience than to offer the sacrifice as fools do, for they are ignorant and do wrong. Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”

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This article originally appeared on thinke.org and is reposted here by permission.

Michael Kelley
Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is director of Discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources and the author of Growing Down: Unlearning the Patterns of Adulthood that Keep Us from Jesus.