The Current Danger
While I was out praying last week concerning the spiritually impoverished state of the church in our nation, I believe that God started to speak with me about “holy things” and what must change if we are to see the revival inAustralia. The key text that the Spirit directed me to was Matthew 7:6, spoken by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and attack you.”
The one who says these offensive words is the same person who has just told us: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:1- 5). God has taught the church inPerthvalues of unity and Christian freedom. As such Jesus’ caution against judgementalism is easy to receive.
Nevertheless, another great danger exists, a danger of which Jesus and the early church was acutely aware but seems to have escaped most of us. This is the danger of spiritual dilution. The first Christians saw themselves as an island of purity surrounded by a sea of corruption and immorality (Rom1:18-32; Eph 5:3 -17; Phil2:15). They recognised that the intensity of their fellowship with God and one another could be contaminated by the entry of undiscipled “believers” into the church. We may not agree with all the measures that they took to guard “the holy mysteries” of communion and baptism, but the early church possessed a spiritual insight and discrimination that we urgently need to recover in our time.
No one could deny there is a rising tide of corruption and immorality in our society today, but there is little consciousness amongst gathered Christians of being an island of purity in a decaying culture. I am not suggesting a “holier than others” attitude or some brand of legalism, but a balanced approach that recognizes that the abandonment of self- righteousness needs to be accompanied by a deeper revelation of the holiness of God in our midst.
It is my observation that the virtues of “seeker sensitivity” have by and large been allowed to crowd out the intensity of the true awesomeness of our God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews12:28-29). (The word “awesome” is just about meaningless, especially in Christian youth circles.) I am not convicted of a holy presence when we come together as a church as local congregations or across the city e.g. at conferences and Church Together. The plausibility of the message makes me wonder whether at times human approval is more central than divine approval. (See also my article “The Division we need.”)
We seem to have forgotten that the gospel is by its very nature an offence to human reasoning and conscience (1 Cor1:21-25). Paul was extremely cautious not to water down the message of the cross to increase its palatability to the natural temperament (Gal5:11). I see little of this awareness today, especially amongst pastors.
Holiness: The Missing Dimension
To validate my claim that holiness is a missing dimension in our life together it is necessary to discuss the nature of holiness. Biblical scholars generally accept that there are three aspects of the holiness of God: majesty, purity and jealousy. (When did you last hear a message on any of these three?)
Majesty relates to God’s “otherness”. God is not like us, even if we are meant to be like him. When God appears to Isaiah in the temple he is “high and exalted” (Isa 6:3). He declares himself to be “the high and lofty One who lives forever, whose name is holy.” (Isa 57:15). The one God and Father is “above all” (Eph 4:6). In the presence of God we are seized with a sense of the infinite difference between us and him, a difference that is not primarily one of power but morality.
Therefore the second attribute of holiness is purity. “Your eyes are too pure to look upon evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” (Hab 1:13). God hates sin with a perfect hatred. Isaiah in the temple is seized by a consciousness that he deserves to die and instinctively cries out in fear as he anticipates the destruction of his uncleanness: “Woe to me!…I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isa 6:5). Job is overwhelmed by the nearness of God and intuitively responds: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes see you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5 -6).
Lest we think such reactions belong to the period of law and not grace we need to recall how Peter fell at the feet of Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish: “Depart from me Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Saul, confronted by the glory of the risen Christ, is blinded and stunned into a total fast for three days (Acts 9:1 – 9). The apostle John, Jesus’ old and beloved friend, is so overwhelmed by the vision of the glorious Lord that he falls at his feet “as though dead” (Rev 1:17).
However exciting or stimulating we may find our mass gatherings this sort of phenomenon is simply not happening. I am persuaded that God is hiding. But why? This brings us to the third aspect of holiness, jealousy.
The covenant – giving God defines himself as “a jealous God” who punishes the wicked down the generations (Exod 20:5). Paul warns us of compromise with the world: “Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor10:22). This warning passage is meant to remind us that Jesus is totally intolerant of rivals for his affection. Part of the true apostolic message is one of wholly pure devotion to Christ – no element of idolatry whatever can be tolerated (2 Cor 11: 1 -3). Real prophets and apostles burn up over issues of sin in the body (2 Cor 11:29). The apostolic position is a position of zero tolerance of evil.
This spirit is not prevalent in the church today. Perhaps it is because we do not feel how the Spirit is grieved by our indiscretions (Eph 4:30). Language about “deliver such a person over to Satan for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor 5:5 cf. 1 Tim 1:20) sounds to us like complete fantasy.
Where is the authority to unleash the power of the Spirit to destroy sin that the first apostles claimed (Acts 8: 20 -23; 1 Cor 4:19 -21; 2 Cor 13: 1 – 4)? Where, at a time when there is also much talk of the prophetic, is the word that lays bare the secrets of a person’s heart so that “he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor 14: 24 -25). Surely if we believe that the church is always apostolic and prophetic (Eph 2:20) we must expect these things to happen today. Why then do we not witness them amongst us?
Hiddenness of God
The answer is that God is hiding himself: “Truly you are a God who hides himself. O God and Saviour of Israel.” (Isa 45:15). God is hiding himself because the holy is not common. By “common”, I mean that which is not the special preserve of God, not set aside for his purposes alone. In various places in scripture “common” is the opposite of “holy” (Ezek 22: 26; 42: 20; 44: 23; Acts 10: 14 -15), for being holy involves a separation out from the world and a separation to God (Gen 2:3; Ex 19:14; John 10:36; 1 Pet 1:16; 2 Tim 2:21 etc.). It is this element of belonging exclusively to God in devotion and affection that makes holiness so intense and passionate. It is unmistakeable when holiness is revealed because it is so overwhelming.
Someone has said that holiness is glory concealed and glory is holiness revealed. When God comes forth to reveal his holiness his presence is unmistakeable. One way that this is signified in the Bible is the manifestation of a cloud of smoke. Those who experienced God in this way were overawed by his utter moral difference to themselves and could not stand before him (2 Chron 5:13 -14; 7:1 -2; Isa 6:4 -5). This smoke imparts an indelible realisation of “the glory of God and his power.” (Rev 15:8). This is truly “holy smoke” and we desperately need what it signifies in our congregations today.
This however will never happen as long as we rely on common things. Smoke machines, lighting effects, power point displays and so on have become exciting emotion stimulating substitutes in our meetings for what we urgently need – insight into God.
Insight into God
Insight into God is appreciating and participating in his holiness, for holiness is God on the inside. Since God does not trivialise his own essence he will only share his inner being with those who long to be like him. As in everything deep about God this involves the way of the cross.
As Jesus approaches his death he prays to the Father:” They are not of the world any more than I am of the world…protect them from the evil one…Sanctify them by the truth, your word is truth. As you sent me into the world I have sent them into the world. For their sake I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” (John 17:16 – 19).
The climax of Jesus’ sanctification is his taking our humanity with all its sinfulness into the heart of God. As the obedient sin – offering (2 Cor 5:21) he is immersed by the Spirit (Heb 9:14) in the glory of God’s total opposition to evil (John 12:27 -29; 17:1). This means that as he carries the totality of human evil into the innermost being of God he and the Father have nothing in common. In the paradox of the cross, being inside God means the experience of being completely outside of God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). This hellish experience for Jesus has opened up for us the gate of heaven.
Christ living in us is now the deepest truth of who we are (Col 1:27), and we are inside of God (Col 3:1- 4). Therefore we have no basis to fear the terrors of the final judgement (1 John 4:17- 18). We have “already been made clean” by the word that has been spoken to us (John 13:10; 15:3). Nevertheless, we are not living as a holy people; so many Christians today are practically speaking indistinguishable from their unbelieving neighbours in terms of family dysfunction, divorce, addictions, immorality, anxiety, depression, idolatry and so on.
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot continue on with our church parties and expect God to “show up”. He simply will not do this because he is holy.
Holiness and Unity
Along with this we are deeply deceived about the true nature of Christian unity. Biblical unity is much more than agreeing to forget our differences and come together for a huge celebration. I cannot see how this can make a statement to the principalities and powers in the absence of manifest holiness.
We have forgotten that the prayer of Jesus for Christian unity in John 17:20 -23 is prefaced by his prayer that the church be holy, “sanctified in the truth” (John 17:19). True unity, which is indestructible, flows out of the holiness of God. “A spirit of unity is not a warm glow engendered by a shared worship experience. Nor is it merely the friendship we discover in working alongside former strangers. It is the result of God’s word exposing our sins of pride, selfishness and self –sufficiency until we repent and seek his grace to become more like Jesus Christ.” (Alan Gibson) Our unity can never rise above our practical holiness. Much of what passes as Christian unity is not more than good feeling that will fall apart in difficult circumstances.
Holiness and Mission
Many of us believe that the church in Perth has a call to be a world church sending out missionaries to the ends of the earth. The connection between mission and holiness however seems to have escaped our attention.
It is not by accident that Isaiah’s terrifying experience of God’s holiness and his own cleansing is followed by the spontaneous cry “Here I am, send me” (Isa 6:8). Though Peter is traumatised by the manifest majesty of Christ he immediately receives an apostolic commission: “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10). Saul’s stunning conversion under the light of Christ is connected to the charge: “I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:17 – 18).
There is something about an experience of God’s holiness that impels the communication of divine truth. The things of God have become so gripping and compelling that silence is no longer an option (Acts 4:20; 2 Cor 5:14). The, naturally speaking, incommunicable nature of God – his majesty, purity and jealousy, must be communicated.
To live in the holy is to fear God and not fellow humans. Without such a revolution the missionary nature of the church will never be realised.
“You shall be holy for I am holy” (1 Pet1:16; Lev11:44). This is a command, not a request. If God is indeed hiding himself from us then it is urgent that we begin to seek his holiness rather than our happiness. The challenge is to seek out the deep things of God. My fear and my sense is that Matthew 7:6 is largely true of us. Our Holy Father (John17:11) is neither willing nor able to share his holy things or the pearls of his kingdom with us in our present state. Hard to say, but Christians, despite their true identity, can live common lives as if we are “pigs” and “dogs”.