One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others,
By the time I finish my song?
I was never a huge Sesame Street fan. It first aired in 1969 when I was 14-years old, so I was a little out of their target demographic by that time. But when my first child came along in 1984 it was still one of the most popular children’s programs on television. I remember sitting on the couch with my son and daughter as they watched Bert and Ernie, the Count, Big Bird and all the other Sesame Street characters teach them about numbers, letters, colors, and all kinds of other fascinating facts that every preschooler needs to know. And even now, as a 57-year old adult, I can still recall the lyrics to the catchy little ditty above. For some unknown reason it was the first thing to pop into my mind as I considered the topic of the holiness of God. But before you judge me for my shallowness, let me explain.
On the television show, the song was always sung as four images appeared on the screen. Three of the four were virtually identical in every way, while one was somehow different. It could be three small bowls and one large one, or three kids wearing baseball caps and one wearing a football helmet. I always thought they were pretty easy to figure out, but then I am a quick learner. Obviously, the object of this little exercise was to teach children to discern the differences between various objects or images – even those that look vaguely similar. So here’s where this all ties into the holiness of God. For some reason, many of us as believers have decided that God is just a slightly bigger and better version of us – like a slightly bigger bowl that happens to hold a little bit more ice cream than another one. We have somehow figured out ways to compare God to ourselves and, in doing so, we have inadvertently brought him down to our level, diminishing His nature and minimizing any differences or distinctions. In the process, we have lost sight of God’s inherent set-apartness or otherness. In fact, the basic idea conveyed by the holiness of God is His separateness or uniqueness. His holiness refers to His distinction as the Wholly Other, the one who stands apart from and above His creation. As the song goes, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.” God does not belong in the same category as man. He is not anything like us. Despite what the Greeks believed, God is not man on steroids, a toxic mix of superhero powers and all the normal human flaws and failings. And while we have been made in His image, the tendency to view God as a slightly improved version of us is both erroneous and dangerous. He is distinctively different than us – one of a kind and totally incomparable in all His qualities. Charles C. Ryrie describes the holiness of God this way: “In respect to God, holiness means not only that He is separate from all that is unclean and evil, but also that He is positively pure and thus distinct from all others” (Charles C. Ryrie, Systematic Theology). The Hebrew word holy means “separate.” It’s the same root word from which we get the words saint and sanctified. They all carry the meaning “to be separate or distinct.” God has no equal. He is without peer. The Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes states, “holiness is the quality of God that sets him utterly apart from his world, especially in terms of his purity and sanctity.”
Above and Beyond
If we’re honest, purity is the first thing that comes to our mind when we think about God’s holiness. That and the idea of sinless perfection. And while God is most certainly completely and utterly pure and entirely without sin, the idea of purity or moral perfection seems to be a secondary meaning of the term as it is used in the Bible. “The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word that means ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase, ‘a cut apart.’ Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase, ‘a cut above something’” (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God). The Scriptures put it this way: “No one is holy like the Lord! There is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2 NLT). “Who is like you among the gods, O Lord – glorious in holiness, awesome in splendor, performing great wonders?” (Exodus 15:11 NLT). No one or nothing is like God. It’s that simple.
But there’s more to God’s holiness than just separateness or set-apartness. “His holiness is also transcendent. The word transcendence literally means ‘to climb across.’ It is defined as ‘exceeding usual limits.’ To transcend is to rise above something, to go above and beyond a certain limit. When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about the sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness. The word is used to describe God’s relationship to the world. He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. He is an infinite cut above everything else” (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God).
The bottom line is that God is completely set apart from us in every way, and it is His holiness or separateness and our own sinfulness that makes Him completely unapproachable by us. Our sin separates us from God, preventing us from entering into His presence. Because He is holy, He cannot tolerate sin. Instead, His holiness demands that He judge sin justly and righteously. We stand with a huge gulf separating us from a holy God, completely incapable of bridging the gap and satisfying the just demands His holiness requires. But not only is He unapproachable, He is unknowable – unless He chooses to make Himself known. He is incomprehensible to our finite human minds. Zophar, one of the well-meaning friends of Job asked him, “Can you solve the mysteries of God? Can you discover everything about the Almighty? Such knowledge is higher than the heavens— and who are you? It is deeper than the underworld— what do you know? It is broader than the earth and wider than the sea” (Job 11:7-9 NLT). Like Job, we are totally incapable of comprehending or understanding God. To borrow a line from Winston Churchill, God is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. If we are to know Him at all, He must choose to reveal Himself to us. Paul says that what can be known about God is plain to people, “because he has made it obvious to them” (Romans 1:19 NLT). Even our capacity to enter into a personal knowledge of God through salvation is provided for us. Jesus says, “No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27 NLT). It is Jesus Christ who makes God both knowable and approachable. “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (John 1:18 NLT). This holy God who is wholly other and completely set apart from us in every way has chosen to make Himself known to us. He has provided a solution to the problem of our separation allowing us to enter into His presence and into an intimate, personal relationship with Him.
On His Terms
The holiness of God means that we can only approach Him on His terms. It’s always been that way. The book of Hebrews tells us that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). So basically, the only thing that can satisfy the just demands of a holy God is the death of the guilty party. Paul tells us, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NLT) and “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). Our sin requires a sacrifice. But Paul goes on to tell us the good news. “For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26 NLT). Jesus became our sin substitute. He took our place on the cross, taking our sin and its penalty upon Himself. God sent His own Son to die in our place, in order that we might be made right with Him, and enjoy an intimate personal relationship with a holy, righteous God. “God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:9-10 NLT).
This holy, wholly other God provided a means by which we as sinful human beings could be made right with Him. Our sinfulness and His holiness left us separated, and we were powerless to do anything about it. But again, Paul reminds us, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God” (Romans 5:6-11 NLT).
Intimate friends with a holy God. What an unbelievable reality. From separated to set apart for His use. From alienated to adopted into His family. From sinners condemned to die to sons and daughters of God. “You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13 NLT). What a wonderful reminder. The penalty has been paid. God has been satisfied. Our sins have been covered. And our eternity is secure. All thanks to our incomparable, holy God.