When we give ourselves space to think about who God is, we can sometimes get caught up in a mental game of tug-of-war because we can’t quite discern if He is this or that. Is He full of wrath or slow to anger? Is He to be feared or trusted? Is He holy or loving?
In our discomfort, we too often avoid searching Scripture for answers to these lofty, yet necessary, questions. So by default many will believe that God had one nature before Jesus (ie: more holy) and a different one after (ie: more loving), leaving us in another kind of pickle – because we know that God is immutable, never changing (Malachi 3:6).
So. What if instead of dismissing the “Old Testament God” who’s a little harder to understand, we dig into those stories, histories, and poems of old and look for a fuller, truer picture of who God is? What if we acknowledge how hard it is to live in the tension that God can be BOTH holy AND loving? Then, what if with our new found understanding of God’s nature, we discover a growing hope within us because He embodies all the paradoxes and all the possibilities?
Buckle up, friends. We’re diving in.
The Holy and Loving God of the Old Testament
Consider God during the Exodus where we witness Him establishing laws that to our twenty-first century ears sound harsh and strange (Exodus 21-23). But, as so many wise teachers have told us, we must be careful not to impose our current sensibilities and realities onto those of the past.1 So, we zoom out, remembering the context: the Israelites at this time were a group of people who had only known slavery for over four hundred years. With some perspective, that’s 150 years longer than we’ve been a nation. That’s generations of Hebrew people who never had a single moment to do what they wanted, who only ever had someone else telling them what to do and where to go and who to worship. They had zero context of living together as a nation, zero experience worshiping the ONE and only true God.
It’s in this context that God, in His holiness, descended onto a mountain to meet with Moses and give all the boundaries this group of people would need to live well together and to engage with other nations without losing their identity. At the foot of that mountain, the Israelites shook with fear as fire elicited thick smoke and thunder rattled the people to their core (Exodus 19:16-19).
The reality of who God is stands as true to us today as it did for the Israelites: God. Is. Holy. God is uniquely holy, transcendent of everything else in creation. He’s above and beyond our comprehension. He’s so perfect and righteous that not one person could ever stand in His presence, see His face, and live (33:20). Not because He’s malicious but because our sin cannot withstand the power of His purity.
So, when God says, “Don’t let the people touch the mountain or they’ll die” (my paraphrase of v.21), He’s not trying to scare them so that He’ll have more power over them. He’s merely stating facts. They are too unclean, too impure to endure a single touch of such holy ground.
Yet, at the same time, God is loving. Out of love for His people, out of a true desire for them to love each other and live well together, laws were laid down. People who had never owned anything needed to understand appropriate consequences for theft of property, for instance. In other words, it was not okay to kill someone over a stolen ox or a broken wheel. These laws, for that day and time, were the most loving thing God could have given His people.1
The Holy and Loving God of the New Testament
On “this side of the cross,” God is still holy – so holy that we would not be able to enter His presence if it were not for the blood shed by His Son. But God so loves us that He sent His Son to live among us and to die like us in order to defeat death by His resurrection (John 3:16).
Perhaps, instead of shrugging off the holy “Old Testament God,” we can turn to those early books of the Bible to learn facets of God’s character that are difficult for our modern minds – such as His omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. And as we do, we’ll begin to see how all of God’s nature flows out of His love for His creation.
And, rather than dubbing Jesus as only a God of love, we can look more closely at His life, as documented in Scripture, to see that He lived on earth full of love and holiness. Just as Jesus entered homes of prostitutes and tax collectors, loving them where they were, He also called them to lives of holy righteousness: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). “Sell all your possessions” (Luke 18:22). “Carry your cross” (Luke 9:23). Just as Jesus cleansed the Temple courts from the money changers (Matthew 21:12), the Spirit works in us to cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9) – why? Because God is always holy, and to enter into His presence, we must be made right by His Son’s blood (Hebrews 9:14).
Jesus is holy as God is holy. God is love as Jesus is love. The holiness and love of our God span all space and time.
When I read the opening of our Lenten passage (Isaiah 40:28-31), I hear Isaiah’s voice ratchet up a notch, incredulous of the disbelieving, disobedient Israelites who face exile for their worship of pagan gods:
Do you not know?Isaiah 40:28a,b
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
The Creator of the ends of the earth.
Isaiah’s call is to holy reverence of our eternal God! To remember who He is!
From the pages of history, Isaiah also calls out to us in our disbelief and doubt: Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? God has been around since the beginning. He actually, with only His spoken word, created every single thing in this universe – from the distant stars to the molecules in your body. Where’s the awe, people?2 (my version of that verse). I join Isaiah in saying: OUR GOD – He is holy, and He loves us soooooo much that He’s made a way for us to draw near to Him.
Seriously, as I type these words, my own awe-factor skyrockets. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in all my to do’s, all my worries, and all my longings that I start doubting all of it. God. Myself. The purpose of life…
But then I recount all these truths about WHO GOD IS, and my faith and hope ramp up. It’s like my brain and heart finally line up, and the connection is electrified. My brain shimmers with “oh yeah! That’s who God is. And this is who I am because of Him.” And my heart speeds up with the thrum of humility, gratitude, and sheer awe.
This holy God of ours, He loves us!
Don’t Miss the Blood
I wouldn’t dare miss one of the most significant parts of this holy and loving choice that Jesus made on the night He collapsed in Gethsemane, asking His Father to “take this cup” from Him (Luke 22:42). In His divinity, Jesus knew what was coming. In His humanity, He dreaded facing it.
But instead of doing the selfish thing and calling down twelve legions of angels to save Him (Matthew 26:53), He stepped into His role and purpose, giving us His holy gift of love – that of laying down His life for His friends (John 15:13).
We don’t have the time today, but if we were to go back to the book of Exodus and read all the directions for building the Tent of Meeting (aka: Tabernacle), we would start connecting dots all the way to the cross:
First dot – heaven’s throne room, the holiest space ever. It needs no atoning sacrifice because all who enter are holy. But, there’s the problem – because of humanity’s tainted state, we cannot enter God’s presence.
Second dot – the Most Holy Place, the most set-apart space in the Tabernacle because that’s where the manifest presence of God would descend and dwell. But animal blood had to be shed as an atoning sacrifice for one priest to enter on behalf of the people.
Third dot – Jesus, the One who tabernacled among us, died as our final sacrifice, making us clean and holy so that He can intercede for us and we can enter God’s presence anywhere, anytime.
Fourth dot – the future coming of the New Heaven to the New Earth, where God’s throne room lands in the midst of His creation, where we dwell WITH HIM in person, for all time.
(NOTE: Hebrews 9 beautifully paints this whole story.)
These dots connect the plans of our holy, loving God to restore His relationship with us. When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), it is as literal as it is spiritual. God has gone before us and made a way – throughout history – for us to dwell with Him. He continues to do so. And He will till it is finished.
So, just as Moses sprinkled the blood of an animal sacrifice on the altar and ark, the priests and the people to make them pure and holy (if only for the moment), Jesus had to shed His blood – a life for a life, poured out for us and on us – so that we can become holy vessels of God’s love in a world that needs BOTH holiness AND love.
Friend, our God is big and loving enough to handle all our doubts, questions, and fears. He’s strong and holy enough to help us move from our places of despair to stances of hope. Lean in, dear one. Listen for the God of hope. His heart beats for you – a holy rhythm, from the beginning of time, beating a cadence that rings out as true love.
Father God, You are holy. You reign from your Holy, Holy, Holy throne room in heaven with a might that we cannot fully fathom. You are sinless3 and faultless – without a smidge of evil in your being. Out of love, You have done a holy work in this fallen world to give us hope – His name is Jesus. Lord Jesus, You are love embodied. From your holy conception to your sacrificial death, everything You did and continue to do comes from your desire to love us well. In the midst of such grace, we confess our doubts without any fear of retribution. We confess our fears with the hope of perfect love. We confess our sins before our holy God who forgives them as far as the east is from the west. “We renounce our hope of ever being able to save ourselves. Instead, may it be all our hope to be washed in your blood and purified in your Spirit – all because of You, the One who bore all our sins in your own body upon a tree.”4 Lord, we step into your sacrifice with awe and gratitude, allowing ourselves to be washed in your holiness and filled with your love. Holy Spirit, how we rely on You to be the thread within us, tying together this beautiful tapestry of holiness and love. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
(inspired by Revelation 4; Hebrews 4:14-16; Romans 5:8; Romans 15:13; 1 John 4:10,18; Romans 8:1; Psalm 103:12)
Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations. (The first four are resources noted in the post.)
- 1-Two teachers: Jen Wilkin (especially in her Exodus^ studies) and Sandra Richter, of Epic and Eden^ renown, have both helped me learn to read Scripture with cultural context – through a lens of the Israelites’ reality, in their day and time – to see that everything God did for them back then derived from His holy personhood AND His perfect love.
- 2-Lisa Harper inspired all this awe-speak when she said, “In essence–we miss miracles and even fail to hope for them because we are awe-deprived” (Instagram, August 19, 2022). She went on to explain that our awe-deprivation leads us to say things like, “I’m just afraid to hope,” or “How could He do it?” or “There’s no way He can breathe a miracle out of these circumstances.” We need awe, people!
- Friends, studying Exodus is a GAME CHANGER. So. If you would like to engage in a study of Exodus, I want to invite you to join The Devoted Collective in our brand new study on Exodus (I’m so honored to be a writing contributor). The rhythm of these eight weeks is to read five chapters of Exodus a week (one every weekday) then journal your observations, obstacles, and outcomes (in other words, respond to the text yourself), then read the corresponding devotion, which helps unpack a truth from that chapter. We get started March 20th if you want to follow along on Instagram. But, you can get the book^ and/or journal^ on Amazon anytime! I can’t wait!
- 3-Craig Groeschel quoted Jackie Hill Perry in a sermon (Instagram Oct 19, 2022), helping us understand that God’s being holy means He has no sin. Therefore, “if He can’t sin, then He can’t sin against you. And if He can’t sin against you, then He’s the most trustworthy being there is. You can trust in Him. Put your faith in Him…and cry out to Him.”
- 4 -my adaptation of a quote from John Wesley’s Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount,^ p.411. I’m completely blown away at his bringing together hope and Christ’s blood: “may it be all our hope to be washed in your blood.”
- Of course we have a playlist! One song that seems to have been written for THIS POST in THIS SERIES is “Holy” by Bristol House. Soooo many paradoxes of our faith woven into its lyrics: “light of the world, shining through the dark;” “Son of Man and Son of God;” “Lion and Lamb;” “beginning and end.” You get the idea. The chorus is “You are holy. We love You, love You, love You!” Amen!
Rhythms we can incorporate into our daily lives to aid us in our dwelling with God, living for Him, and putting our hope in Him:
- The anchoring passage for this series is Isaiah 40:28-31. This week we add the next two lines of verse 28 — let’s be memorizing these heralding words so that each time we feel doubt or disbelief creeping in, we can call on Isaiah’s words to center us on the truth of who God is!
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Isaiah 40:28a-b, NIV
- Finally, as a community, let us not neglect sharing God’s hope with others — especially as Easter approaches! Share your God-stories with people around you. Share this site. Share God’s Word. Shine His light into the world!
Featured Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash (Basilique Notre Dame de Montréal, Montréal, Canada). Bits and Pieces photo by Aleksandra Sapozhnikova on Unsplash.
^ Affiliate link, with which I may earn a bit.