The word holy has two primary definitions. First, holiness refers to absolute moral purity and an uncompromised, unsurpassed standard of righteousness. God, who is incapable of error, untainted by sin, unrestrained by the laws of nature, and pure in all His ways, is holy. Second, holiness refers to the state of being set apart from the common for God’s purpose. As an example, the psalmist referred to God’s “holy” temple in Jerusalem (Psalm 79:1). The temple was not just another structure of wood and stone; this was the place where God’s people assembled in reverential worship. Our Lord Jesus was justly angered by greedy mercenaries who were making the holy temple a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:12–13).
In discussing the holiness of Christ, we must hold an accurate understanding of His personage and nature. To some, Jesus is little more than a historic figure—an ancient prophet, a moral teacher, the founder of a major world religion, a martyr, a philosopher, and perhaps, even a miracle worker. Islam esteems Jesus as a prophet inferior in status to Muhammad. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society teaches that Jesus is Michael the Archangel. Mormonism holds that Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer. The New Age Movement considers Jesus an avatar or messenger from a long line of messengers. Liberal theology teaches Jesus is one of many ways to God. Obviously, there is much misunderstanding surrounding the person and nature of Christ Jesus; to properly know Him, we must diligently search the Scriptures that speak of Him (see Luke 24:27).
The holiness of Christ is related to His deity. Jesus is fully God and fully man. Jesus claimed to be God (John 8:58; Revelation 1:8, 17). Jesus accepted worship (Matthew 2:11; John 12:13). Jesus declared He and His Heavenly Father are of the same divine essence and nature (John 10:30). The prophet Isaiah called Him “Mighty God and Everlasting Father” (Isaiah 9:6). Upon seeing the resurrected Jesus, the disciple Thomas honored Him with the dual title, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). The apostle John opens his gospel account by attesting to the deity of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1–3, ESV). Christ Jesus is worthy of our highest adoration and praise, for He is God who clothed Himself in human flesh (John 1:14). To deny His deity, and thus to deny His holiness, is to deny Him altogether.
In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Macmillan, 1952, pp. 55–56).
Man’s Attraction to and Fear of the Holy
Those who obey Jesus’ commandments may call Him friend (John 15:14), but we must never treat Him as an equal. His holiness demands awe and respect. To approach Him in an overly familiar manner or to use His name flippantly or carelessly is shameful. Jesus draws us to Himself, and we find Him altogether lovely, for He is of the same divine essence and nature as God the Father (Philippians 2:6). Yet His unparalleled goodness and radiant glory stand in stark contrast to fallen mankind’s depravity. Even the best among us are as lowly worms in His divine presence. The Lord Jesus is deserving of our worship, and the day is approaching when even those who mocked and scorned Him will bow in submission and say, “Jesus is Lord” (Philippians 2:10–11).
Suppose that, overcoming his fear, a young boy musters the courage to approach the prettiest girl in his class for a date. With nervousness and inelegance, the youth stumbles over his words and behaves in an almost comical manner. What we are witnessing in this encounter are the contradictory feelings of attraction and dread. The young man is drawn to the girl’s beauty, but that is also the source of his anxiety. In a rather homey way, this illustrates the concept of numinous awe. Sinful man is drawn to God because of His holiness, yet the divine presence of the Holy One fills us with fear and dread.
We see this mixture of attraction and fear in Peter on the Lake of Galilee:
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him (Luke 5:1–11, ESV).Simon Peter was a seasoned fisherman. He knew what he was doing when it came to tackle and nets and harvesting fish. Peter may have marveled at the teachings of Jesus, but in the matter of catching fish, Peter bowed to no one. When Jesus asked to use his boat as a floating speaker’s platform, Peter agreed, but when the itinerant rabbi suggested that he drop his fishing nets into the deep, Peter reluctantly obliged: “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5).
Peter was unprepared for what followed. Never before had he hauled in such a catch. The nets, bursting with fish, filled not one, but two boats well beyond their normal capacities. This was the catch of a hundred lifetimes—an unexplainable, supernatural event that defied human understanding. Peter understood this was more than good fortune, and he reacted with unsettled fear. Rather than thanking Jesus for the abundant catch, Peter fell at the Lord’s feet and begged Him to leave: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Peter’s fear stemmed from the contrast between his sinfulness and the holiness of Christ. It is frightful indeed when the common and profane encounter the One who is holy.
Unfathomable, yet Approachable
By all rights, sinful creatures should recoil in abject fear in the presence of Christ Jesus, for He is holy. And, by all rights, Christ Jesus should recoil from the wickedness that marks our fallen race. Yet He opens His arms and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30, ESV).
In our natural state, we are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, but Jesus did not turn His back on us. He says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20, ESV). Is it possible the Holy One of God, Christ Jesus, genuinely desires fellowship with us? As improbable as this sounds, the answer is a resounding “yes.” When we place our faith in Christ Jesus as Savior, we, formerly the “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), are supernaturally transformed into His beloved sons and daughters (Romans 8:15).
The Lord Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, is meritoriously holy because of His divine nature. He is sinless, impeccably pure, and unequivocally righteous (Matthew 26:59–61). Even Pontius Pilate, the politician who refused to act on behalf of the world’s first and only truly innocent man, three times pronounced Jesus to be without fault (see Luke 23:13–15). Christ Jesus is the only One worthy to offer Himself for our sin, and His sacrifice was like that of “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19). We now join in the exultation of heaven: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12).