Jackie Hill Perry on God’s Holiness

Imagine yourself as an Israelite. Egypt and its gods are a recent memory. There are fifty days between you and the sea that divided itself in half so you could walk on dry ground. In the desert now, you’re told that in three days, you’re going to meet God. God? Yes, God. You’ve never seen His face, but you can suspect how He might be when you remember His ways. You remember the day when the water turned red and the river bled out. When all of the dust beneath your feet began to crawl. When one morning, the wind blew, bringing with it a swarm of locusts so large they covered the sun, making everything black and eating everything green. On the last night, right in the middle of it, you heard what sounded like a communal sadness. You remember how afraid you were that the sorrow down the street was on its way to your home; a traveling grief? Desperate to know if the blood on your door kept your firstborn from a sovereign death, you put your face to theirs until you felt breath. The blood worked.

Now the day has come for you and the rest of Israel to meet God for yourselves. It’s morning, and in your tent, you watch as shadows grow all around you. The sun isn’t shining as bright as it typically does, and you wonder why. As you converse with your own curiosity, what sounds like thunder reaches into the space around you. You can’t tell if it’s at the same time or not but one second after the noise, lighting scatters across the clouds like confetti on fire. There’s no rain to accompany either, but there’s a trumpet played by only God knows who that’s loud enough for you and all of Israel to know the musician isn’t human. Your hands shake. Your heart paces, back and forth. You look at your first born and remember to breathe.

You’re at the bottom of the mountain now. Close enough to see it’s wrapped in smoke. Far enough to stay alive. You follow your line of sight, past the bottom of it and the burning parts, all the way up to the top where smoke shoots out of the mountains mouth and levitates into the clouds—the very same place the invisible trumpet player must’ve been located. Clearly discontent with the initial volume of his instrument, the sound of it gets louder and louder. As it plays, you get it now. You’re realizing that you were delivered from Pharaoh in Egypt so you could meet the King in the desert. You’re recognizing the difference between this God and the others. That unlike them, creation does this God’s bidding and not the other way around. He seems to be above it and everyone. Different than Egypt’s gods who were imagined into being. Those gods imaged their makers because they too were made. They too were immoral, expecting of Egypt a righteousness easy enough for any of Eve’s children to keep. This God expects nothing less than an awful obedience from you and everything else, and you know it. The plagues sit in the back of your mind as a reminder of what kind of King you’re about to meet. One that can use rivers and bugs and reptiles and nature itself against you. Like your hands, the mountain shakes. Like your heart, it can’t get still because now, finally, in the midst of the thunder smack, the fire lit sky, and the trumpet blast, descending on the mountain in fire is God. If you didn’t know it then, you know it now, that this God, this King, is holy.

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them… Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God… Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. -Hebrews 12:18-19, 21, 28-29

Israel saw with their eyes what we’ve come to know by faith, that God is holy. To say that God is holy is to say that God is God. All of God’s ways, such as His moral purity and how it sets Him apart from all that is perverse, untrue, lawless, and unrighteous comes out of His being. No one told or taught God how to be good, that is simply who He is, and He can be no other way. As Stephen Charnock put it, “God is good as He is God; and therefore good by Himself and from himself, not by participation from another.” It is His very nature to be righteous, as in right, as in conforming to a set standard of morality, the standard being Himself. We are only good insofar as we are like God, so then, any attempt to be holy is an attempt to be like God. Simply put, the two are inseparable, holiness and God’s being that is.

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There are times when our conversations around the holiness of God make it seem as if holiness is a part or piece of God. That God moves in between attributes when deciding how to be. That one day, He chooses to be loving. Another day, He chooses to be vengeful. That if God were a sweet potato pie, holiness is one slice of it that’s set aside from the others. On one plate is holiness, on another plate is love. However, holiness is not an aspect of God; holy is who He is through and through. His attributes are never at odds with one another, nor do they switch places depending on God’s mood, they are Him. “God is his attributes. That means, all that is in God simply is God.” When God loves, it is a holy love. When God reveals Himself as judge, pouring out His cup on the deserving, He has not ceased to be loving, or holy either. In all that He is and all that He does, He is always Himself.

Even now, I hope you’re beginning to see the glory of God. I don’t mean that hypothetically either. Since holiness is essential to God, shining through all that He is and whatever He does, it means that there has never been or will ever be a time when God is not God. To say it another way, there will never come a day when God ceases to be holy; if that were possible, it would be the day He ceased to be God . Knowing that as an absolute and unmovable truth colors everything we understand about God’s ways and works.


Excerpted with permission from Holier Than Thou by Jackie Hill Perry. Copyright 2021, B&H Publishing.

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