For the past few weeks on the blog I’ve covered introductory matters in systematic theology like: the importance of theology, the way in which God reveals Himself to us, and the nature of the Bible.
To use a climbing analogy: these first few weeks have been our hike to the mountain, and today, we begin climbing our first and largest of the 7Summits of systematic theology, the doctrine of God. Here in the doctrine of God we’ll discover God’s character, and that is why this is the first of our 7Summits, because if we understand the character of God we’ll then understand every other doctrine in Scripture.
So what is God like? It seems that there are as many opinions about God as there are people on the planet, which means the answer to this question can feel largely subjective and ambiguous. Though this is the case we must always remember that when it comes down to it, it really doesn’t matter what we think God is like. God is who He is. Whether or not we agree with God concerning what He says about Himself doesn’t change anything. God is who God says He is, and that’s the end of the matter. So rather than asking ‘What is God like?’ let’s ask another question. ‘What does God say He is like?’ That is a question with a clear answer.
He is Holy
The first time God meets with Moses in Exodus at the burning bush God tells Moses in 3:5, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ The reason the ground is holy isn’t because there’s something special or unique about the ground but because God was there, and He is holy. For God to be holy means He is separate, unlike anything or anyone else, that He is utterly unique, transcendent, majestic, and His holiness compels us to worship Him.
Thus Moses was to show a reverence and respect by removing his shoes. Later when God gathers all Israel around Mt. Sinai to hear His Law He warns them in Exodus 19:23 to not come near the mountain, for the whole mountain was holy. The temple was called a holy place, and the innermost part of the temple was called the ‘most holy place’ in Exodus 26:33. This of course was the space inside the veil, and because it was the most holy place there were strict rules and regulations to follow if a priest was to enter into it. What does all this mean? If Moses couldn’t come near God in the burning bush because of God’s holiness, if Israel couldn’t come near the mountain because of God’s holiness, and if a priest had to follow very strict regulations to enter into the God’s Most Holy Place we learn that there is something treacherous (perhaps even dangerous) to man about God’s holiness.
You see, we are not holy, thus God tells us to back away. If man is to approach the holy God we must come near in awe and wonder rather than carelessly and lightly. And when we come in reverent awe and wonder we find a beautiful thing happen – God makes us holy. God’s people are called God’s ‘holy people’ in Exodus 19:6, who gather on a holy day (Exodus 16:23) in a holy assembly (Exodus 12:16) where holy sacrifices would be offered (Exodus 26:33) by a holy priest anointed with holy oil (Exodus 30:25) wearing holy garments (Exodus 31:10).
This is really, the entire point of the book of Leviticus. In Leviticus we read of regulations, rites, rituals, sacrifices, offerings, and many laws about this and that – because of one massive reality – a holy God must only be approached by a holy people. And as we move into the New Testament nothing changes. Jesus is called holy many times, and now God calls His people ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones’ who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and are members of His holy church.
The central teaching on holiness in the Bible comes from one place – Isaiah 6. Here again we see one thing clearly, God is holy. Notice the song the seraphim sang in v3 where it says, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory!” The significance of the anthem of the angels is enormous. The Jewish people had various ways to express emphasis in their literature, and they used these expressions in the Bible. We do the same today to emphasize things: we may use italics, we may put a word in all caps or bold letters to draw attention to it, or maybe even attach very intense or alarming descriptive adjectives to the word we want to emphasize to get attention. Isaiah did the same and in his culture the way to communicate something that carried with it a supreme importance was a rhetorical device called the Trisagion, or the threefold repetition. Notice how 6:3 is phrased? The seraphim cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” What does this mean? This means first what it says, that God is holy. But it means more.
When taking into account the use of the Trisagion, the use of the threefold repetition, we see something further. In all of the Scripture from Genesis – Revelation this verse is the only place where we see an attribute (or characteristic) of God written three times in a row. So God is not holy, He’s not even holy, holy; He is holy, holy, holy. Nowhere do we see the Bible say that God is sovereign, sovereign, sovereign – or love, love, love – or mercy, mercy, mercy – or righteous, righteous, righteous – or just, just, just. Nowhere in Scripture do we see an attribute of God have such importance.
Now, be aware that it is dangerous to try to pit one attribute of God against another, or to try to assemble a hierarchy of attributes so as to make one more important than others. This is an error people make all the time. In talking with others about God’s character, especially when we’re talking about His sovereignty or justice, or wrath, I hear people say, “I don’t believe that, my God is a God of love, He would never do such a thing.” I usually agree with these people and say ‘Of course, your God wouldn’t do that, because your God doesn’t exist.’ As R.C. Sproul says, “We can’t come to the Bible as if it were a cafeteria line, putting things on our plate only if they are delectable to our tastes, leaving the others we don’t like. We come to the Bible on its terms.”
So, we cannot construct a hierarchy of attributes as if one were more important than others. But if the Bible shows us that out of all the attributes of God there is one attribute of God that rises to the top in supreme importance – we must believe it. Such is the holiness of God. The use of the threefold repetition of holy, holy, holy teaches us that the one defining characteristic of God’s nature is His holiness.
What is God like? He is holy.
This is why all throughout the entire book of Isaiah, Isaiah refers to God as ‘the Holy One of Israel.’ (10:20, 12:6, 17:7, and so on) Therefore we must speak of all of God’s attributes underneath God’s holiness. His love is a holy love, His wrath is a holy wrath, His mercy is a holy mercy, His justice is a holy justice, and so on, and so on.