Holy God, Holy Mission

This post is going to be a long one! But the subject is very important and I tried to do  fairly detailed research from some classic biblical theologians, such as Eichrodt, Von Rad, Mulienburg, and some more contemporary ones like Christopher Wright.

The nature of mission is determined by the nature of the God of mission. Isaiah, in his vision of the holiness and magnificence of God, immediately connects this vision with the mission of God. God, who is unapproachable in his holiness, communicates love and concern toward mankind. It seems paradoxical but the holy God is also the God of compassion and love. The ‘high and lifted-up’ God is also the “down-to-earth” God who stoops down to help humankind in mercy and compassion. It is difficult to comprehend, but God is holy and loving, transcendent and yet very much in touch with the world. 

Holiness is important to persecution studies because we are told that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:13 NIV). A godly life is a holy life because God is holy and the world resists His holiness and those who exhibit His character in their daily living. All that is unholy will rise up to resist and rebel against Him. Lewis and Demarest describe God’s holiness in this way:

“God transcends his creatures, not only metaphysically and epistemologically, but also morally. The Most High is morally spotless in character and action. In essence God is upright, pure and untainted with evil desires, motives, thoughts, words, or acts. God is eternally and unchangeably holy. 

Speaking of God’s absolute moral uprightness, they write:

“Free from all evil, God loves only the good and right. He values inner authenticity and takes no pleasure in hypocrisy—religious or nonreligious. God takes no pleasure in evil (Ps. 5:4) and cannot tolerate evil (Hab. 1:13). He cannot even encourage sin in any way (James 1:13-14). Desiring the transparent authenticity, God hate hypocrisy. Who, then, can stand in judgment before the Holy One who knows everything?” 

H. C. Thiessen says that “by the holiness of God we mean that He is absolutely separate from and exalted above all His creatures, and that He is equally separate from moral evil and sin.” Yet, it is from God’s holiness that emerges the great plan and mission to be reconciled to humanity, and to redeem it and perfect it. True to his holy nature, redemption and reconciliation are meant to lead to the creation of a holy people who would truly represent reflect him. God’s holiness means that there must be a conditional aspect to reconciliation. That condition is that God be allowed to purge mankind of sin and to recreate us in his image, in the image of holiness. It means that through God’s grace we are brought to the place where we can have close and deep fellowship with the holy God.

The word holy describes the “God-ness” of God, that quality or aspect of God’s being that makes God ‘God.’ It is “that which is distinctly characteristic of God and that which constitutes his nature. It is a term that reflects more than a passive characteristic; it reflects the focus of his purpose and activity: “…the holiness of God is now understood more clearly as active, less as a condition or state of being or even supernatural energy and more as an expression of his will and purpose.”

Mulienburg talks about the “force of holiness” that “is felt in every sphere of existence” and “has been called the source of all other kinds of energy.” This is not to be understood that God’s holiness is some impersonal force that permeates all creation, but that the holy God is active in creation and is the source of actual as well as spiritual power and energy. He is not a static God who governs from afar; he is intimately and actively involved in the affairs of humans, seeking to implement his holy agenda. 

As Lord over all the peoples of the earth, God desires that all humans recognize that he is the source of their life, energy, and spiritual power. He is the God of light who enlightens people to their spiritual need; his work among humankind in often subtle and discreet. “Jahweh’s action in history,” writes Von Rad, “is in general hidden, though on special occasions his doxa is made outwardly and visibly manifest.” God’s glory, though not always observable to the human eye or perception, is pervasive, as God moves upon people and nations in the course of history.

The holiness of God has not often been associated with mission. Holiness has more to do with the character of God, a descriptive attribute or related to the very essence or God-ness. Holiness in relation to God is perceived as that which separates us from God rather than that which draws humans and God closer together. Who can draw close to God in his holiness and glory and live? A holy God of righteousness and justice would have little to do with deeply flawed and sinful humankind. A holy God, it would seem, would be more interested in judgment rather than mercy and compassion. It seems unlikely that holiness would be associated with any mission to evil and rebellious humans. But, since he is a God of love as well, he has provided a way of redemption and healing that allows us to have close fellowship with a holy God. 

God began the process of reconciliation by establishing a relationship with Abraham and Israel. When he revealed himself to his chosen people, he revealed himself as a holy God. This was essential to Israel’s understanding of the kind of relationship they would have with holy God and to understand its true mission. Mulienburg comments: “Israel could confess ‘Yahweh our God is holy’ (Ps. 99:9) because Yahweh had made himself known as a holy God, spoken his holy name, required holy statutes, ordained holy times and seasons, and appointed to his service holy men whose mission it was to perform his holy will, fulfill his holy purpose, and live in holy obedience.” 

Walter Eichrodt wrote that “this makes the personal nature of God, as he has revealed himself to Israel, the focus of all the statements about holiness.” So holiness is more than a characteristic or attribute or a moral standard; it is essentially the nature of God. God’s holiness is personal. Eichrodt writes: “The uniqueness of the Old Testament definition of holiness lies not in its elevated moral standard, but in the personal quality of the God to which it refers. With the knowledge of the holy, Israel was also granted knowledge of the divine Thou, a concrete personal will seeking to enlist the life of the nations in its service.”

In order to understand the true nature of the holiness of God, we must view it from various perspectives. Each vantage point will reveal a particular aspect of the nature of God’s holiness and how this relates to God’s mission to the world. Mulienburg relates God’s holiness to his jealousy, the desire to have his people to exclusively worship him. He does not allow for rivals because, in reality, to worship someone or something other than the true God is exalts the creature rather than the Creator. God does not intend to be a passively injured or sulking deity, but God is, as is mentioned in Deuteronomy 4:24, “a consuming fire, a jealous God” (NIV). Mulienburg explains: “the drive of the divine pathos is intimately involved with his jealousy, and expresses the vitality and urgency of his holy activity.”

Gerhard Von Rad draws God’s holiness and jealousy closer together. He sees zeal and jealousy as almost synonymous. “Zeal and holiness,” he says, “are in fact only differently shaded expressions of one and the same characteristic of Jahweh.” He points out that holiness and jealousy are brought into their closest proximity in Joshua 24:19 where Joshua says of God that “He is a holy God; he is a jealous God.”(NIV) God’s jealous zeal, categorically different than human jealousy, is an expression of his holy zeal. It is his holiness that prompts and initiates action to bring an adulterous people back into a proper relationship with him. Indian theologian Ken R. Gnanakan relates God’s jealousy to his gracious offer of salvation to all persons: “The heart of missiology is essentially a revelation of the heart of God–he wants all creation to be exclusively his, and so jealousy or zealously does God feel about this that he provides for the salvation of all men”

There is an aspect of God’s holy nature that demands justice and punishment for sin and wrongdoing, but holiness in not exclusively righteous judgment. “Holiness means judgment and death,” writes Mulienburg, “yet the Holy One consecrates men to his service, equips them with holy powers, in wrath remembers mercy, and calls men to life in his presence.”

As the Holy One, God terrifies with his fearful punishments and by this assures that men will bow in awe before his majesty. Commenting on Isaiah 11:3-5 and11:9, Eichrodt discusses the concept of righteousness when he connects God’s intervention on behalf of his people “with the profoundly serious reality of the judgment which must threaten the people so favored.” Intertwined in this message of judgment is the very clear statement that God is the God of all the nations of the earth. Israel can escape the “annihilating judgment determined for the whole earth” if they remain united in faith and ruled by the covenant law.” It is through judgment that the Holy God can be known and worshipped as the Lord of the whole world. Isaiah 5:16 affirms this by these words: “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy god will show himself holy by his righteousness” (NIV).

Such statements by the prophets should have helped Israel to correctly understand the nature of her election. It was an election to responsibility not to privilege. The Holiness Code of Leviticus 19, the standard of holiness for God’s chosen people and all those who affiliated with Israel. God clearly articulated his expectations with the hope that his people would conform to his will and be clear witnesses to the nations. Their failure would cause a miscommunication of the real nature of God to the nations. By becoming an obedient covenant nation, which meant to be in harmony with God’s will and method for reaching the nations, Israel should have been kept free from the “egotistical limitations of national self-interest.” God’s intention was that they look beyond their own national self-interest and seek to be his people and serve his interests.

Christopher Wright also throws light on the identity and task of Israel by saying that their role is to be a priesthood and their task is to be holy in the midst of the nations, so that the nations would be able to observe the character of God. To be holy meant to be “fundamentally different” and that difference was in all personal and social realms. Their distinctive ethic would be something that God would use to draw the nations to himself. “Israel,” writes Terrence E. Fretheim, “is called to be holy, merciful, and just, as God is (Lev. 19:1; Deut. 10:12-22)” Fretheim reminds us that to be holy not only means being separated from other people but also to be separated for a specific purpose. Wright comments further about Israel’s distinctiveness and the sacrificial system. “Holiness and cleanness were the precondition of the presence of God.” The sacrificial system was intended to make Israel ready for Yahweh to live among them. It would signal to the nations what was required to have God’s presence in their nations.

Seeing the holiness of God as connected only with judgment is to see it incorrectly. The judgment of God does not cancel out his compassion and mercy. And the Law, which seems to be such a formidable enemy to sinful humanity, is, if understood correctly, is a gift of God’s grace: “The extensive social legislation of the law of Moses not only has in view the welfare of the people of Israel, but also reflects the gracious nature of its Author.” Nels Ferré, in his book The Christian Understanding of God, says that “holiness is God’s love in action against sin either negatively to judge and convict us of sin or positively to cleanse our hearts by faith….”

It is difficult for us to see God’s holiness and God’s grace together, fully integrated and unified into one divine Personality. Yet, this is how God has revealed himself to us. Karl Barth describes the character of God as “gracious, merciful and patient in such a way–because he loves in freedom—that he is also holy, righteous and wise—again both in himself and in all his works.” It seems paradoxical to us, but Barth points out that God’s righteousness can co-exist with his mercy without destroying the unity of God. 

It is because of his love that God is merciful and gracious. But God’s love does not cancel out his holiness; it helps define it. Barth further explains that God’s love is distinct from every other kind of love because it is holy. As a holy God who reaches out to mankind to create fellowship out of love and compassion, he nevertheless remains Lord. “The holiness of God consists in the unity of his judgment with his grace. God is holy because his grace judges and his judgment is gracious.”

The mission of God originates in God’s holiness, understood within the framework and context of his love. God’s holiness is an expression of his love. “Holiness,” writes Nels Ferré, “belongs to the eternal nature of God and is an intrinsic and irreplaceable element of God’s love.” Holiness and love belong together and “constitute the essential being of God.”

At the very least, God’s holiness requires that he be worshipped as the only one and true God. We are not able to please God and become holy in our own strength; it is through the grace and power given to us by God that we are enabled to become children of God and then instruments of God’s grace and love in the world. The holy and gracious God is the God of salvation, “the divine redeemer who demonstrates his power in his marvelous acts, as the Holy One.” God desires that all creation become holy.

The holiness of God and his people becomes a significant factor in the missionary enterprise and a strong foundational element in building a theology of mission. Ken Gnanakan writes that “the concept of holiness becomes highly significant to the development of a theology of mission, promising the restoration of the holy relationship between the creator and creation.” The great devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, points directly to the purpose of God’s mission when he writes that “God has one destined end for mankind, viz. holiness. His one aim is the production of saints.” And to this end we are also committed if we are involved in God’s mission to the nations. 

As we read biblical passages relating to God’s ultimate goal of a new heaven and a new earth, we realize how comprehensive God’s holy plan and purpose is. In reference to Numbers 19:21, Von Rad comments that the passage speaks to the 

“…hitherto existing limitation of Jahweh’s holiness to a special cultic sphere as something temporary, which will be followed by the ultimate universalism. This idea falls in line with the oracle of one of the post-exilic prophets that “in that day the posts in the houses and the bells on the horses harness will be as holy as the sacred vessels in the temple (Zech. xiv.20f), which means that the whole realm of the secular will be taken up into Jahweh’s holiness. When that happens, Jahweh’s holiness will have attained its utmost goal.”

God’s ultimate goal is to reconcile, redeem, and restore all creation to a new and holy relationship with himself. The new heaven and new earth will be filled with God’s glory. It is his glory and holiness that is to be proclaimed to the nations in the interim period between now and the consummation of all things on the day of the Lord.

God’s primary method of reaching the world, of establishing his kingdom and rule is to work through a community of holy people will both represent him and witness to the nations concerning him. This is the role given to Israel and subsequently to the church. The important thing is that God desires his representative to reflect his holy character, not because we are somehow related to him, like the utensils in the Temple, but that he actually changes us spiritually to be like him. We do not become gods, but we should be godly.

The holiness that is imparted to the church is meant to be manifested in the world. Oswald Chambers writes that “holiness is not only what God gives us, but what I manifest that God has given me.” It is holy love that flows from God’s people to the world in the same manner that it has flowed from God. “Holiness is wholesome life in God poured out…into the lives of those around us.” There is no way of escaping the fact that holiness has a moral dimension. “Holiness which is required of the people because of the holy nature of Yahweh implies moral purity.” God’s holy people are expected to fulfill God’s moral expectations. Otherwise we would bring dishonor to his Name. “If holiness is wholehearted love to God and men, it must be morally structured.” His people are to be holy in more that name only; they are to live out a holy ethic before the watching nations of the world. And, it is this ‘living out the holiness ethic’ which is in reality a godly ethic that represents God before the world creates the situation where persecution can rise up. Those who dwell in darkness and resist the light are going to resist those whose lives shine forth the glory of God’s holiness.

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