This article is largely the outflow of a very intense revelatory experience I had in prayer a short time ago, at the time I felt like I was being taken inside the relationship between Jesus and his Father. I will describe this event much later in this article. As is my habit however, I first want to establish a biblical framework from which the experience can be understood.
In the midst of my usual routine of dealing with apathy, spiritual confusion and immorality in the church, God has been speaking with sharp clarity about holiness. I believe he wants to address a widespread confusion that is peculiar to our time which is a deep root of many of the spiritual crises.
Whilst there is much talk about “intimacy with Jesus”, this seems to have become interpreted primarily in terms of emotional closeness and is increasingly detached from the biblical language of holiness. There is plenty of passion for “spiritual intimacy” but little for “that holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). Holiness brings security, stability and endurance to the Christian, the very opposite of the common condition. It is as if a many children of God were suffering from a psychological state called “separation anxiety”. This is a condition of fear and stress that infants enter into when they are separated from their parents at an early age. Apparently, many Christians have no sense that they are “holy children” or “children of the cross”.
The crisis in holiness in the church is so severe that God is working to raise up a new generation of manifestly holy believers generated in the Spirit by holy fathers and mothers. It will be a generation that in practice will walk in the way of the cross and embrace as normal the possibility of dying for Christ.
Holy Seed in the Old Testament
A key text God has been drawing me to is Isaiah 6:13. This verse comes at the climax of Isaiah’s famous vision of God in the temple. The manifest holiness of the LORD is so real that the prophet fears for his life, for “no one can see God and live” (Gen 32:30; Ex 3:6; 24:9 -10; 33:18- 20; Judges 6:22 -23;13:22). This is an intimacy, for Isaiah feels the holiness of God penetrating to the very core of his being, of the most intense kind. Nevertheless, the result of the vision is not destruction but healing from guilt, “Now that this has touched your lips your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (Isa 6:7). What has been removed from this man’s experience is the sense of remoteness from God that sin brings (Isaiah 59:2).
Isaiah is in fact a newly created person, the old Isaiah is first destroyed by the fiery presence of God (Isa 6:1- 5) and a new person emerges to serve in the prophetic ministry (Is 6:6 – 8). The story does not however end there, what happens to Isaiah must be repeated in the history of Israel.
The passage goes on to describe a terrible judgement, both spiritual and natural, that is about to fall on the Jewish people (Isa 6: 9-13a). Old Israel will be annihilated by the Babylonian captivity so that a new Israel may be created (Isa 6:13b).
“Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.” (Isa 6:13b)
This “holy seed” is a remnant that survives the judgement and is to become a seed out of which the new Israel would spring after the old had been destroyed (cf. Isa 4:2; 11:1).
This process of judgement is absolutely necessary – there must be a destruction of confidence in the old ways (like Jesus’ wineskins, Matt 9:17) if the new is to come. God so desires holy children that he will even expose his chosen people to destruction in order to fulfill this purpose. This principle of holy seed is deeply embedded in scripture.
The most important descendant (Hebrew: “seed”) in the Old Testament is Isaac, he is the most wanted child of Sarah and Abraham. God repeatedly told Abraham, the father of all those who have faith (Isa 51:2; Rom 4:12-18), that the promises of covenant would be realised through his “seed” (Gen 12:7;13:15;22:18). The greatest trial of Abraham’s faith comes when he is asked to offer Isaac on the altar of sacrifice (Gen 22). The willingness of Abraham to obey God reveals that his child was not treated as a personal possession, whether for self – gratification or some higher purpose, but existed for God’s sake. By the act of sacrificing Isaac, Abraham shows himself to be a holy father because he will not hold back for himself even the child of promise – therefore this sacrificed child is truly a holy child. That is, the precious gift of Isaac is utterly dedicated to God. The purity of this act of selfless faith makes Abraham worthy to be the father of a multitude of descendants, all of which are reckoned to be in a special relationship of set – apartness (holy) to the LORD (Ex 19:6; Rom 11:16) because of the status of their holy father.
The consciousness of being a people distinctly set apart from the rest of humanity has persisted as an essential part of Jewish identity to this day.
Israel, however, did not always live like a holy nation. The clearest example of this comes at the time of the reforms under the priest Ezra. A crisis presents itself because the people were intermarrying, in direct disobedience to the commands of God (Ex 34:16), with nationalities who worshipped false gods. “The holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the land.” (Ezra 9:2). This threatened the entire future of God’s plan. His people could never be a “light to the nations” (Isa 42:6) if they were morally indistinguishable from them.
Such moral pollution stimulated Ezra to confession and prayer, so that the people repented forcefully before God. Of vital interest is the fact that the proportion of priestly families involved in this sin (Ezra 10:18–43) is higher than that in the general population (Ezra 2). Prophetically, this warns us that impurity in the mass of the people of God can usually be traced back to a failure of their leadership to remain holy.
Holy Seed in the New Testament
From the very beginning of his life Jesus is defined by holiness: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child that will be born will be holy, he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35). Holiness, especially when confronted with demonic powers, marks Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:24).
The fullness of Jesus identity as a holy child of God is revealed in the cross. It is the cross that shows that he does not hold back his relationship with the Father for himself, but gives it up for our sake. A holy child is willing to suffer for a holy father, just as a holy father is willing to lose what is most precious to himself, his holy child (Rom 8:32). It is no accident that the only use of “Holy Father” appears on the lips of Jesus as he contemplates his death on the eve of the cross (John 17:11). Pre-eminently, Jesus is a “holy child” because he is a “child of the cross”.
The depth of the cost of the cross, and so its absolute purity and absence of self interest, is revealed in the terrible cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). This is a real and valid experience of separation anxiety for Jesus. If the true condition of a “holy seed” is to be a most wanted child, Jesus’ experience of becoming our sin (2 Cor 5:21) means he must enter into the condition of absolute unwantedness in dying under the judgement of God upon the sin of the world that is now in him (1 Pet 2:24).
In preaching about the sacrifice of Jesus, Peter can refer to him as God’s “holy pais” (Acts 4:27, 30), a word translatable as either “child” or “servant”. Paul makes it clear that it is Jesus, not Isaac, who is the true holy “seed” of Abraham through whom all of God’s promises will be realised (Gal 3:16, 19). The pattern of destruction and re – creation that we first saw in Isaiah and Israel, then symbolised in the sacrifice of Isaac, is actualised in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection passages in scripture abound in the language of a holy family re – union “And we bring you good news, that what God promised to our fathers he has fulfilled for us their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm; You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’ …. ‘I will give to you the holy promises made to David’…. ‘I will not let your Holy One experience corruption’.” (Acts 13:32 -35). “The gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1: 3 – 4). These passages tell us that through his resurrection Jesus entered into a new depth of sonship with the Father.
This was because he was willing to lose everything for the Father’s sake at the cross, in order to “bring many sons to glory ….here am I and the children whom God has given me.” (Heb 2:10, 13). The status of these children is made plain in the same passage: “For the one who makes holy (Jesus) and those who are made holy (Christians) all have one Father.” (Heb 2:11). In this sense it is clear that everyone who is born of the resurrection seed of Jesus (1 Pet 1:23) is a holy child of the cross.
These children take their character from Jesus himself, they will be willing to lose their own lives for the sake of the kingdom of God(Rev 12:11). This much is indisputable from the clear teaching of the New Testament: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8: 34- 35). Crucially, we must ask at this stage, “Why are here so many converts and so few disciples in the church today?
Holy Fathers in Our Time
As I was out praying in the bush about the “holy seed” about a week ago I sat down on what appeared to be pile of dead branches, only then did I realize that sprouting from the stumps from which they were cut was a clump of luxuriant foliage. I believe that God was not only reinforcing my attention to Isaiah 6:13b : “Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.” but communicating to me that the remnant represented by the figure of the cut back tree will surely give birth to new life in the church in our time.
In an emotionally powerful and penetrating way, what many would call a holy moment of intimacy, he began to share with me by an inner experience the death and resurrection of Jesus in terms of the inwardness of the Father and Son. These things are not easy to describe, for they are as “sensational” as rational. What appears below was first felt inwardly and pre-conceptually before it could be put into words.
The embrace of the first and second persons of the trinity in love at the cross is the union of agonies of mutual emptiness epitomized in the terrible cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). As the Father reaches out to the fallenness of humanity as it is taken into his Son (Rom 8:3) he is met with a shell rather than a heart, for there is now will in the sinful children of Adam to unite themselves with a holy God. For the Father, this is the experience of utter barrenness. It is as if he has no offspring in the world. On the side of Jesus, he must endure the wrath of God, unholy humanity’s distorted experience of the Father – he must “know” God (2 Cor 5:21) as he is not rather than God as he is – Father. At the cross, the embrace of Father and Son is as it were, “shell” to “shell”, a true descent into hell.
If this is the cross, then the resurrection experience of the persons of the Godhead is altogether different. The embrace remains as total as ever, but the content is absolutely reversed. Father to Son and Son to Father are face to face, eye to eye, mouth to mouth, heart to heart…..intestine to intestine…arm to arm…finger to finger. (All of these bold metaphors for God, and not just for the humanity of Christ, can be supported in scripture e.g. Gen 6:6; Deut 11:12; Num 12:10; Isa 30:27; Jer 3:19; Hos 11:8; Matt 18:10; Heb 4:13; Js 5:4.)
The total embrace of Jesus by the Father is the Father’s life in him. As Jesus himself is taken within the life of the Father, intimacy if you like, the Spirit is able to flow from within the Father into the Son and out to us. Only after Jesus is glorified, returning to the inner depths of the Trinitarian communion (John 17:5), can he pour out the Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:33, 17). It is a communication of innermost being to innermost being: Father to Son to Christian (John 7:37- 39.) To bring about this union between the Father and all of his holy children (“saints”) is the life of the Spirit. In this way the eternal plan of God to be united with “one mature man” (a literal translation of Eph 4:13) is realised.
We are only able to know (in the biblical sense of “enjoy communion with”) this sort of holy intimacy with God in the same manner as it has been realized in Jesus. The pattern of death and resurrection is invariable (2 Cor 4:8- 12; Phil 3:10 etc.). Only a real death – resurrection experience can bring about a real penetration of the life of the human person with the life of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:4).
It must now have become clear why these holy realities are so rarely conveyed in the contemporary church. (We know that are rarely conveyed because of the rampant sin among the people of God.) There is so little preaching of these deep matters in the churches because the church is lacking in holy fathers and mothers who have been led along the journey of the cross.
As I was meditating upon these things (still at prayer) the Father brought the name of an old teacher to my mind, a man who has ceaselessly and faithfully proclaimed Christ crucified. It was very clear to me that my passion for the cross (Gal 6:24) had first been ignited by this man and has never, despite various meanderings, been put out. To me he is a holy father and I have been begotten through his word as a child of the cross. I too, by the same grace, have children of the cross.
In the days to come God is going to raise up many more holy fathers in this nation. They will beget numerous children of the cross. As these children will knowingly be the fruit of a death, the death of Christ, they will have a faith to follow him to their deaths if so called – and I believe God has told me that some will actually die for the faith. Their witness and suffering is the fruit of a “holy trust”, the sort of faith that can only grow out of a deep knowing of the crucified Lord (Gal 2:19– 20).
The bulk of the church as we know it has taken the easy way; as such it does not know or understand the compelling moral beauty of the cross. Men and women today rarely seem to want to “own” the cross. I choose, under the impress of the Spirit, to own the cross. Do you embrace the action of the cross as your deepest life?
Perhaps we can pray together that Jesus would pour out his Spirit to unite us with the Father’s love in the way that he for us was united with this love – by death and resurrection.