Dwight A Pryor
An edited transcript of a message delivered to the Narkis Street Baptist Church in Jerusalem, on Saturday November 12th 1994. Transcribed by CFI Communications, UK.
Let us stand and pray: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who spoke and the worlds came to be. Blessed are you Father, for by your Word you created the cosmos and by your Word you are recreating us, to conform us to the image of your Son, Jesus. Father, in the moments ahead it is my earnest prayer that through this frail and imperfect vessel, you would flow pure and living waters and build up the Church by lifting up your Name. May we never take for granted the enormous privilege of assembling as the Church to worship you, the King of the Universe. For you Father, and you alone, are holy. So now in the power of your Holy Spirit anoint me to speak and these present to hear and, indeed, to heed the Word of the Lord. We pray this in the name of the risen one – the one who arose and ascended from this very place, the centre of the whole earth, Jerusalem. His name is Jesus, Yeshua. And everyone said … Amen.”
You may be seated. Would you turn in your Bibles, please, to two places, to Isaiah 6 and to Revelation 4. In the time I have this morning, I feel impressed to just encourage you to renew your appreciation, even your awe of the Holy One of Israel.
Visions of a Holy God
Isaiah, chapter 6, verse 1: “in the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were the seraphim.” Verse 3: “And they were calling to one another, ‘Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts -Adonai Tsavaot – The whole earth is full of His glory.’ And at the sound of their voices the doorposts and the thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, but my eyes have seen the King, Adonai Tsevaot“‘
And now to a New Testament prophet, John, who also had a vision of Heaven. Let’s begin reading at chapter 4 and verse 1: “I looked and there before me was a door standing open in Heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.”‘ In this heavenly place we notice that John also sees angelic beings who, day and night, never stop proclaiming (verse 8), “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy, holy, holy -is the Lord of Hosts, who was, who is and who is to come.”
What does it mean to say that God is “holy”? We use a lot of Biblical jargon without ever stopping to think what we are saying, don’t we? We often read through the Scriptures without ever pausing to reflect upon what the words actually mean. So it is here. What does the word “holy” really mean?
Return to Jewish Roots
Those of you who know a bit about our ministry, or who wish to learn more, will discover that I am involved in what some have called the return to the “Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith.” I believe it is important that the Church we are a part of, that we make up, be built today upon the same foundations as the book of Acts church – the apostolic assembly of James and Peter and Paul, centred upon the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. I believe God is restoring the Church to its Jewish foundations for one reason primarily, and that is, to summon us to a new level of maturity. God wants us to be productive for His sake. He wants us to be informed and transformed by His word.
In returning to the roots of my faith, to the Jewishness of Jesus and the Hebraic character of his teachings in the Gospels and of Paul’s teaching in his letters, and of James and Peter, one prevailing theme comes up again and again. If we are to be restored to the true foundations of our faith, we must begin with a recognition that the God of Israel – He, and He alone, is God. “Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohenu, Adonai ehad.” Hear 0 Israel, the Lord is God and He alone is God!
In the world today, there are tremendous forces, both within and without the Church, that are working to undermine God’s holiness. We have elevated the stature of man and diminished the pre-eminence of God to the point where there is little distinction between the two any more. When the Bible speaks of God’s holiness, however, it points to this very separation to the distinctiveness or uniqueness of God. To know what it really means to say “God is holy,” we must understand the Hebrew word, kadosh. This term has its source in the root word, kadash, meaning to mark off, to divide, or to separate; it speaks of being unique, different, distinct, or “other than”.
Nowhere else in Scripture do we see a three-fold repetition of God’s attributes or character as with the word kadosh. Nowhere is He described as “loving, loving, loving,” or “omniscient, omniscient, omniscient.” Repetition is a Hebraic way of emphasizing a matter. Therefore, there must be something extraordinarily important about this quality called holiness, because it is recited thrice – “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.”
God’s Essence and Existence
Really, this proclamation speaks not so much of some ethical category as it does of some ontological truth about God. It refers to more than just His character or His attributes; it speaks of His very essence and existence, of what makes God, God. What the seraphim are declaring is that God is radically “other than” all else, totally unique, and utterly uncommon. He is incomparable, transcendent, and different from all else. He is radically, wholly other than anyone or anything else in existence. In fact, nothing else can be compared with Him, nor must anything else be worshipped in lieu of Him. He is the creator of all that exists. He is distinct, different, and separate from all others – He is “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh!“
Look with me, please, at Ezekiel, chapter 22, to see the antonym of the Hebrew word, kadosh/holy. By looking at what a thing is not, we can sometimes better understand what it is. In verse 26, the prophet takes the priests or ministers of Israel to task. He says: “Her priests do violence to my law and they profane my holy things.” The opposite of “holy” is “profane.” But what does it mean, “to profane”? Here it means that the priests “do not distinguish (mark off, separate) between the holy and the common; they teach there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbath, so that I am profaned among them.” The opposite of treating God as holy is to treat Him as common or ordinary. When you do so, you profane His holy name.
Profaning the God of Israel
Turn please to chapter 19 of 2 Kings. In the later part of the 8th century and the first part of the 7th century, there was a mighty Assyrian ruler, Sennacherib, who conquered the known world, including many cities in this land of Israel. His was an awesome army. At last he came up against Jerusalem and lay siege to it He exhorted the King, Hezekiah, to capitulate to him. Sennacherib said, “I have conquered all the other cities, all the other nations, and I have conquered their gods, I will do so to you also.” He adds, “Your own God has spoken to me and told me that you should surrender.” But Hezekiah resists, “No, our God is not like other gods; He is different, He is unique.”
Notice in chapter 19, beginning with verse 14, how Hezekiah prays. He goes up to the Temple of the Lord, spreads out Sennacherib’s letter of demand and prays: “O Lord, O Yahweh, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the Kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O Lord and hear; open your eyes and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God. It is true, O Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste to these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by men’s hands. But now, O Yahweh our God, deliver us from his hand so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are truly God.” Note the prophet’s word to Hezekiah in verse 22: “It is Sennacherib who has insulted and blasphemed God. Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride, Sennacherib? You have done it against the Holy One of Israel“
Do you understand what is happening here? Sennacherib is treating the God of Israel like just another god, like a common, ordinary, local tribal deity. But the king and the prophet respond that the Lord, Yahweh, is not that kind of god. He is the King of the Universe! There is no God beside Him, there is none like Him.
In other words, He is “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.” And so Isaiah urges Hezekiah to stand firm in the knowledge and not to surrender to the Assyrian king. That very night the angel of the Lord “went out and put to death 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp” (verse 35). Sennacherib had to withdraw and return to Nineveh. One day while worshipping in the temple of his god, Nisroch, his sons cut him down with the sword (verse 37). Sennacherib may have conquered the world, but he was conquered by the Holy One of Israel.
Who is like unto Thee?
“Mi kamokha? Who is like unto thee?” Moses declares when seeing the mighty hand of God deliver the children of Israel from Pharaoh’s army. “Who is like unto thee among the gods?” It is a rhetorical question. There is none like the God of Israel, because He is “Holy, holy, holy.” He is utterly unique and radically other. Isaiah declares Him to be high and lifted up; His ways are not our ways, he stresses. God describes himself this way, “I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). To say, then that God is holy is to declare that He is fundamentally other than all else; He transcends and is different, distinct, unique, and set apart from all that is common, ordinary or profane.
When you come into the presence of the holy God, you shudder with fear, like Moses. You are undone, like Isaiah, “Oi li Woe is me!” I am ruined, shattered, coming apart at the seams – because I am in the presence of the holy God. Dear friends, you do not “walk tall” into the presence of the Holy One. You come to Him upon your knees or on your face. His radical otherness fills you with awe and amazement. Our God is indeed a consuming fire.
Job questioned the holy God, when He answered, responded, “Behold I am vile and Job and of small account I will lay my hand upon my mouth and I will speak no more, because I have spoken great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know.” Habakkuk challenged the holy God. He could not understand how the God of Israel would permit the scurrilous Babylonians to come and chastise His chosen people. It confounded Habakkuk’s theological preconceptions. God’s holiness does not always conform to our limited ways of thinking. He is radically other than any box we can put Him in. So Habakkuk awaits an answer to his complaint. God’s reply, however, causes Habakkuk to declare, “O Lord, I heard thy speech and I was filled with fear. My belly trembled, my lips quivered and rottenness entered into my bones; I trembled in myself.”
I am reminded of that old black gospel song, with the refrain, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” When was the last time you or I trembled in the presence of a holy God? When was the last time the doorposts of our temples shook and the foundations shuddered because God’s glory came into the house? We must never take God for granted or treat Him as common or ordinary. We must ever give thanks and praise Him for His wonderful attributes, His virtuous character and His mighty deeds. But we must also worship Him in the beauty of His holiness.
How do we worship God in the beauty of His holiness? It begins with a radical understanding that the Lord, He is God – no matter what He does, no matter how we understand or fail to understand Him. He is God; we do not council Him, His word judges us.
Lessons from Prison
About a year and a half ago an extraordinary thing happened to me, by God’s sovereign design, I believe. I was speaking at a conference centre in Virginia Beach, when through an amazing set of circumstances, my wife and I had the enormous privilege of dining one evening with Rev. Richard Wurmbrand and his wife Sabina. They were staying at the same facility, in order to appear on CBN’s 700 Club. I read Pastor Wurmbrand’s book, In God’s Underground, shortly after entering the Kingdom of God in 1977, and it made an indelible impression upon my heart and mind.
Many of you know that Wurmbrand was a pastor in Rumania when the Communists came in on the heels of World War 2. They arrested him and many other pastors, and put them in prison. Their first form of torture was mental – they put all the different ministers together in the same cell! Later they tortured them physically in the most inhumane ways imaginable.
There were two leaders among that group, men who had written several books and were highly esteemed as great preachers. They were admired for their ability to effectively proclaim the many blessings we have in Christ. To Pastor Wurmbrand’s astonishment, these two were among the first to capitulate to the Communist torture and to disavow their lord. Then to prove the sincerity of their denial, they actually tortured the other ministers. Wurmbrand found this incomprehensible at first. Only much later, after years of imprisonment, did he begin to understand.
Because he witnessing to months on confinement refused to stop Christ, he spent end in solitary in fact he told me that he was in total isolation so long he literally forgot what colours looked like. His feet were broken and tortured so badly that even today he has to sit when he preaches. But the radiance of God is upon Him, because in his isolation he came to understand what the two famous pastors did not – that ultimately we must worship God for who He is, not because of what He does (or doesn’t do) for us.
If we relate to God only on the basis of all the good things He has done for us – because when we ask, He answers, because He meets every need according to our wishes, because He is a “good buddy” – what will we do when we come up against the impenetrable silence of a holy God? What will we do when He delivers His chosen people over to the judgments of Assyrians or Babylonians? What will we do when like Job or Habakkuk, we come up against circumstances that do not compute theologically? If we do not know and worship God in the beauty of His holiness, in times like these we will fall to the side.
Pastor Wurmbrand composed the most scandalous kind of poetry in his solitary confinement. A divine madness seized him. “God I don’t care if it is all a lie, if the Bible is a fabrication, if Jesus never died for me – it doesn’t matter. I am still going to worship you, because you are God and there is no other.” Wurmbrand came to understand what Isaiah knew, that the Lord God is “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.”
Please understand, it is wonderful what Jesus has done for us. Indeed, it is only when we see the holiness of God that we truly begin to glimpse the wonder of God’s provision for us through the Messiah. He has planted within us a spirit which enables us to cry out to the holy God, “Abba, Papa, Dad” – but don’t ever do it irreverently. Be intimate, yes, but never insolent. Don’t take God for granted. He is more than a “good buddy”, or “the man up in the sky”. Someone has said that Christians are like tea-bags; you see their true colours only when they get in hot water! So often we act as if God were just a fireman – we call up heaven only in emergencies! Dear friends, we must learn that God is “Holy, holy, holy.” He warrants our total respect and our keenest joy.
Let me quickly suggest two or three areas in our lives that will be different if we know and respond to God in His holiness. First, it will affect the way we worship; secondly, it will affect our sense of wonder; and thirdly, it will affect the way we walk.
Holiness in our Worship
When we worship, we must worship God in spirit and in truth. We always must remember before whom we stand – the Holy One of Israel. There is much we can learn about worship from our Jewish friends and our rich Hebrew heritage, if we would humble ourselves and forsake the Christian arrogance that Paul cautioned us against in Romans 11.
Consider, for instance, the devout Jew’s sense of God’s holiness when he prays the Shema and the Amidah (the 18 benedictions) daily. He pulls up a tallit (prayer shawl) over his head to block out any distractions; takes three small steps forward, bows before the Sovereign of Heaven, and plants his feet like a tree by the water; then he begins to pray in earnest to the God of Israel. When finished, he backs up three steps, bows and then turns and exits the presence of the King. He will not be distracted by anyone or anything while he is conversing with the Creator of heaven and earth. He interrupts his prayers only for a life-threatening emergency. It does not matter who walks by, who speaks to him, or what else might be going on. He is praying with great kavnanah with great intention and focus, because he is worshipping the One who is “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.”
We too must worship in sincerity and intensity; we must bow before the Lord and worship at the footstool of His holiness. We must avoid the tendency on the one hand, especially among some Charismatics and Pentecostals, to “patty-cake” for Jesus when we worship; and on the other hand, we must guard against the tendency in some Evangelical churches toward a stale, intellectual worship of God that does not move the heart. We must find a middle way, in which we worship God in both spirit and truth. Let us always worship with focus and with intensity, never forgetting that He is “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.” Let us remove any idols from our lives. The whole earth is to be filled with God’s glory – there’s no room for yours or mine. Let us worship Him, in other words, in the beauty and fullness of His holiness.
Holiness in our Wonder
When we do so, secondly, we will be filled with a new sense of wonder. The Bible and Biblical Judaism give us a great heritage of wonder. One Jewish theologian has noted that most of us suffer, not for lack of information, but for lack of appreciation. We have lost our sense of wonder about Creation and our sense of awe for the Creator. Exodus 15:11: “Who is like unto thee 0 Lord, too awesome for praise, doing wonders.” I suspect it is true that we suffer far more from indifference than from ignorance. Many of us have grown up in church, we have heard all the songs and all the sermons, so that it is very hard not to treat God as common and ordinary. Could that be why our “houses” are so seldom moved anymore by His glory? The high and holy One keeps His distance from those who profane His holy name.
As Professor David Wells has recently documented, so many of our sermons today, as well as articles in Christian magazines and ministerial journals in the United States, deal primarily with self-help issues rather than with substantive theological matters. How to “get your act together,” seems to be the overriding concern. How to succeed in ministry, in business, in marriage. Please do not misunderstand me. It is wonderful, for example, that we have marriage seminars in our churches. I teach them myself, because Christians need to learn these things. But there is a fundamental principle that we must understand: If you really want to get your act together with God, you have to first be undone! His is an upside-down Kingdom. What you grasp after, you are going to lose; what you let go of, for His sake, you gain. His ways are not our ways, for He is “Holy, holy, holy.”
I was involved in the so-called New Age movement for many years. Much of its appeal is found in the offer of knowledge or techniques that will help you to grow spiritually, to “be all that you can be.” You will achieve even the realization that your true self is God! This philosophy profanes the holiness of Yahweh. To get your act together with the true king of Kings and Lord of Lords, you have to come into His presence and be undone. Only then, do you understand who you really are; and only then, when He touches your lips with searing coals from the heavenly altar, are you ready to go out or to speak in His name. Dear saints, we need to be filled with wonder and transformed by a holy sense of radical amazement. Three times a day an observant Jew prays, “We thank thee 0 Lord for thy miracles which are daily with us, for thy continual marvels.” This world is the Lord’s doing and it should be marvelous in our eyes. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. What great and unsearchable things, what wonders without number He has made. Surely, He is “Holy, holy, holy.” To understand God’s holiness is to know wonder, to be filled with awe and amazement, and to take nothing for granted.
Holiness in our Walk
And finally, to recognize the Lord’s holiness is to change the way we walk before Him. He says, “You be holy for I am holy. I am the Lord.” To return to the foundations of our faith to be truly conformed to the image of the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua – is to be very diligent about reflecting God’s holiness in our lives. Unfortunately the concept of holiness has a negative image for many of us because of our typical western ways of getting into legalism. The Scriptures abundantly teach, however, that we are called to grow in our salvation, in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are challenged to grow up in Christ and imitate Him in all things – to put on the virtues He embodied, the obedience He demonstrated, and the humility with which He served God.
The way we walk in holiness is very simple – we walk in obedience. In obedience, we sanctify God’s name; we disclose the sacred in our deeds. Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.” But if we put these words back into Hebrew, Yitkadesh Shimkha, they connote more than just a confession that God is holy. They represent a commitment – to honour His holiness and to sanctify His Name in our conduct. We are the guardians of God’s reputation in this world. By our conduct we either hallow or we profane His holy name.
The writer of Ecclesiastes (Koheleth) warns us: “Beware when you come to the house of the Lord that you do not engage in the sacrifice of fools” (5:1). In other words, you come to church and you worship; you say, “O God, I love you, I really love you;” you sing, you praise, you even preach – but you do not obey. Then the sacrifices of your lips are a stench in the nostrils of the holy God. For Him, obedience is better than sacrifice. The “fool” in the Bible is not someone who does not believe in God. When the Psalmist declares, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God,” the issue is not theological atheism. It is a matter of practical atheism. A better translation might be: The fool says, “No, God! I will do it my way, thank you, not your way.” I did It My Way” is the theme song of fools.
If we truly want to come into an understanding of God’s holiness, we must put a very high priority on obedience. When we perform obedient actions, the light of God shines into our darkened world. When we obey the commands of Jesus, people see our good deeds and give honour to our Father in heaven – the One who is “Holy, holy, holy.”
One hundred times a day, according to Jewish tradition, we should find occasions to bless or give thanks to God. To recite a berachah (a blessing or benediction) is to acknowledge the Kingship of God over every dimension of our lives. “Thank you Lord for this day, we will rejoice and be glad in it. Thank you Lord for your Word, which is pure and living and which transforms us. Thank you Lord for the beautiful music we have heard today. Thank you Lord for the opportunity to fellowship as believers in Yeshua. Thank you Lord for life itself. Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, you are the King of the Universe!”
In our radical amazement and holy wonder, we submit to God as King and He permeates every dimension of our lives. That is what it means to be in the “Kingdom of God” – to give Jesus kingship in all things. “Seek ye first the Kingdom,” he says. In other words, “Make me King of your life, let me supernaturally reign in you, and all else will fall into its proper place. Then you will sanctify the name of my Father in heaven.”
I say to you in closing that there is no higher calling, no greater duty or more profound delight in this world for you or me, than to live our lives with a holy difference. We must once again, as of old, establish those borders or points of separation between the holy and the profane. Acknowledging God’s holiness will make us a different kind of people. The high and Holy One of Israel – Yahweh is His name – calls us to greater maturity as priests in His kingdom. He urgently needs us to be a holy nation, a distinctive people, a royal priesthood … for His Name’s sake. May our lives, dear friends, be marked by a holy difference.
Let us pray: “Father, if we had ears to hear, at this very moment in the heavenly courts, the seraphim are proclaiming, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.” O Lord, may we never forget that you are indeed “Holy, holy, holy.” Forgive us, Lord, for taking you for granted and treating you in any common or ordinary way. We have put other things in our lives ahead of the priorities of serving you with all of our heart, soul and’ strength, and loving our neighbour even as Christ loved us. Forgive us for that Father, forgive us. We thank you that in your holiness you are gracious. You abound in grace, in mercy, in kindness, in steadfast love. What a wondrous thing, Lord – that we can have intimate fellowship with you because of the cross that Jesus bore for us in this very city, Jerusalem. Be blessed, O Lord, by our praises and be honoured by our actions. In all ways and at all times, may we ever sanctify your Name and show forth your Glory. Amen.
(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 4 No 1, Humanism, Winter 1995)