Pictures of Holiness and Grace

A picture can be, as they say, worth a thousand words.  To make an impression, sometimes God uses pictures or images, and one example is how He lets us know just how holy He is.

When calling Isaiah to be a prophet, God gave him an image in Isaiah 6:1 “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.”  In this vision of a throne room, why bother to mention that “the train of his robe filled the temple”?  Because in this image of God’s presence, there is no room for anything that isn’t holy.  If anyone tries to walk into the temple, they will tread on the Lord’s robe with their dirty feet, and any lord would be immensely offended at that.  James Boice commented on the verse, that: “This suggests that there is room for no one else at the highest pinnacle of the universe.  It is not just that Jehovah reigns, therefore, but also that no one else reigns beside Him or in opposition to Him”[1]

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

A similar picture of holiness comes from Revelation 15:8, which says: “and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.”  Until God’s judgment was complete – both on the unrepentant and on the cross for His people – there would continue to be no room in the sanctuary for anyone but the Lord.

A third picture, which was not just a vision, but built in actual, physical form, is the “Holy of Holies.”  During most of the Old Testament period, priests implemented an elaborate sacrificial system to illustrate God’s requirements for meeting with sinners: an innocent creature had to die.  These animals symbolized the later sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  But the “Holy of Holies” was the ultimate statement of how serious approaching God is.

This innermost room of the temple was only entered once per year (on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur), and only by the high priest, who only can enter after hours of preparation.  Once there, the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull on and in front of God’s “mercy seat”, the cover of the ark of the covenant and a sign of His presence.  Later Jewish tradition (not found in the Bible) indicates that others would stand outside the room holding a rope that was tied to the high priest, who also had bells tied around his waist.  If those outside heard the bells jingling, followed by silence, they would assume the high priest did not atone properly for the sins of the people, died in God’s presence, and needed to be dragged out by the rope.  God’s holy presence was to be taken seriously.

So Isaiah, presented with God’s holiness, cried out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  Isaiah’s “Woe” comes down to current times in the expression “Oy!”  Isaiah knew instinctually that being in God’s temple was a bad idea.  However, God provides redemption for His people, which He pictured for Isaiah like this: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”[2]

Isaiah was not saved by a burning coal, but by what it represented: the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  In God’s steadfast love for His people, He offered Jesus once for all, and the only sacrifice necessary and sufficient for us to know God.  Therefore, there is no longer a barrier to His holy presence for God’s people, so the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”[3]

Yes, God is holy and must be honored as holy, but when we feel insufficient or feel like yelling “oy!” when things go wrong, we can come “with confidence” to Jesus in His temple and ask Him to reassure us of His provision for our sin.  That we may know, like Isaiah, that “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”


[1] From “May 9.” James Montgomery Boice and Marion Clark. Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment.  (2017).
[2] Isaiah 6:6-7
[3] Hebrews 4:16

A Psalm for Confessing God’s Strength and Power, Faithfulness and Justice

The Bible software I use (Accordance) has the ability to highlight text, but so far I’ve only used it once, for Psalm 21.  In just 13 verses, David wrote “you” or “your” 25 times, referring to God as the source of his success and blessings, past, present, and future.  In a recent post about 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” – I wrote how sometimes confession (in public or private) is hard because we focus the sins, and not on the God who died to forgive and cleanse us.  The short 13 verses of Psalm 21 provide a plethora of praises we can offer to confess that He is faithful and just.  Here is the entire Psalm, and I’ve bolded all the “you”s and “your”s, which I highlighted in Accordance:

“To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices,
            and in your salvation how greatly he exults!
You have given him his heart’s desire
            and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah
For you meet him with rich blessings;
            you set a crown of fine gold upon his head.
He asked life of you; you gave it to him,
            length of days forever and ever.
His glory is great through your salvation;
            splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
For you make him most blessed forever;
            you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD,
            and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.

Your hand will find out all your enemies;
            your right hand will find out those who hate you.
You will make them as a blazing oven
            when you appear.
The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath,
            and fire will consume them.
You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
            and their offspring from among the children of man.
Though they plan evil against you,
            though they devise mischief, they will not succeed.
For you will put them to flight;
            you will aim at their faces with your bows.

Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength!
            We will sing and praise your power.”

What statements did you focus on while reading this?  Did you take the time to think about all 25 “you” statements (and the rest of the Psalm)?  Read it again.

The first section in this Psalm describes how our God is “faithful” in some ways, and the second describes “just.”  The first may come easier, with David giving God credit for all of his strength and success, but the middle section on justice may come across as harsh and harder to swallow.  However, it reminds us that only He knows for sure who His (and our) enemies are.  “Your hand will find out all your enemies.”  Only He determines the fates of others, including some who look like enemies now, but will come to faith in Him later.  With any enemy we can “wait upon the Lord”, as David often urges us, knowing God will either save them, or their plans will come to ruin by His design.

Yet, for those in Christ, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Therefore, we echo David:

“Be exalted, O LORD, in your strength!
            We will sing and praise your power.”

Confession: The Blessing Nobody Expects

What comes to mind when you think of confession?  Think about it for a moment.

For some, the thought might be a simple private prayer, or for some a confessional booth.  For others, no specific images might come to mind, but just a feeling of someone “out to get you.”  I expect some of you thought of the Spanish Inquisition, or at least the Monty Python skit making fun of it[1].  Where do these ideas come from?

The blame belongs in many places: secular culture, bad experiences with church, an emphasis on external over internal religion, and even Monty Python comedy skits.  My fantasy baseball league even has a team named “Spanish Inquisition” because the manager of that team thinks no one expects him to win – not even himself.

The mocking of secular culture aside, confession is an uncomfortable topic even for sincere Christians.  In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, he shares the tension over confession between Tolkien and his then-fiancée Edith.  Tolkien was a practicing Catholic, while Edith was a member of the Church of England.  They had agreed as a couple to be Catholic, but Edith “began to dislike making her confession.  It was therefore all too easy when she was worried about her health (which was often) to postpone going to mass. She reported to Ronald [Tolkien] that getting up to go to church early in the morning and fasting until she had made her communion did not agree with her.”  She insisted “my health won’t stand it.”[2]  In my own Protestant church, we have a weekly prayer of confession, which the pastor regularly defends the importance of.  Few of us probably look forward to confession, whatever form we practice it in.

Photo by Shalone Cason on Unsplash

This discomfort with confession seems to be a shared part of mankind’s fallen nature, but if we look at well-known Bible verses on confession, we find that it is really about restoration, a rebirth of man’s relationship with God and a renewal of man to his ideal nature.  It is as different from God being “out to get you” as it could be.  1 John 1:9 encourages confession, because: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  God wants to give us forgiveness and cleansing, not condemnation and guilt.  Isaiah 1:18 explains this cleansing more poetically:

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
            they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
            they shall become like wool.

Confession doesn’t need to be a dirty word.  The word “confess” means loosely to say the same thing about something, so confession means we agree with God (say the same thing he does) about sin – that it is bad.  But confession also applies to the rest of 1 John 1:9, that God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Full confession includes agreeing about the steadfast and dependable character of God, His faithfulness and justice, as well as His desire to forgive and cleanse.  If we doubt this desire, consider what He voluntarily suffered on the cross to provide for this forgiveness, and to demonstrate His enduring love.

By adding confession about the good things of God to our confession of our sin, our confession does not make us miserable about our own condition but shows us how different we are from what God wants for us, how deeply our sin needs to be corrected, and how wonderfully God has provided for the removal of sin.

But this does not come easily.  Referencing Hebrews 4:16, which says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” Puritan preacher Thomas Watson wrote that “Christ went more willingly to the cross than we do to the throne of grace.”

Why is this?  Could it be that we have trouble whole-heartedly confessing that “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”?  Monty Python joke that “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” but do we fully expect God’s throne to be one of grace when we come to confess?

[1] If you’re not familiar with the skit, here’s a 4-minute example:
[2] Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography.  (1977).  P. 68-69.

The Zealot and the Tax Collector

Mark 3:18 lists among Jesus’ 12 disciples “Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot.”

Matthew was a former tax collector for the Roman Empire, while Warren Wiersbe notes that “The Zealots were a group of Jewish extremists organized to overthrow Rome, and they used every means available to advance their cause. The historian Josephus called them ‘daggermen.’ It would be interesting to know how Simon the Zealot responded when he first met Matthew, a former employee of Rome.” They learned to prioritize following Jesus, but I suspect it took some time and patience on Jesus’ part.

No enemy of God is beyond His grace, and no enemy of yours is beyond His grace either!

This post was originally shared in December 2021, and referenced another recently re-posted blog about Zacchaeus, another tax collector Jesus loved: Found! A Man in Need of an Ally

Photo I took at the entrance to Westminster Abbey in July 2022.

Don’t Kick Against the Goads

The Apostle Paul, author of much of the New Testament, was first called Saul and was a very different person before meeting Christ.  As Saul, he saw no contradiction between persecuting his religious enemies (the new Christian church) and being righteous under the law.  He also may also have seen Christianity as a political threat, a new religion that would upset the balance of power between the Jews of the first century and the occupying Romans by demanding loyalty to a higher power above Rome.  From this perspective, he may have thought his religion required persecution of those who disagreed.

Luke, author of Acts, describes Saul’s pre-Christian life like this:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” – Acts 9:1-2

Paul himself does not deny this past, writing to the church in Galatia:

“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” – Galatians 1:13

But when confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus as referred to in Acts 9 above, the Lord asked him to his face: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14).  This is a strange expression for us, but to “kick against the goads” meant that by fighting against God’s will (including His grace for His people in any nation or tribe), Saul was only hurting himself.  Goads were sticks that were pointed on one end and used to prod oxen to move where a farmer wanted them to go.  A stubborn ox who decided to resist would “kick against the goads,” only leading to more pain.  Persecuting the absolute Lord of the universe is not a good idea.

Saul learned his lesson and after that confrontation, changed his name to Paul, a man transformed in how he treated those he might consider enemies.  He went from “breathing threats and murder” against Christians, to wishing for the salvation of the Jews, and anyone who would listen:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for [the Jews] is that they may be saved.” – Romans 10:1

In Christ, His hate for the “other” became compassion.  Saul wanted to put his enemies to death; Paul wanted to put his own sin to death.  He never shied away from his brutal past, but he also began nearly all of his letters to the early churches with a greeting like this one at the beginning of Galatians:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – Galatians 1:3

Dear fellow travelers, as I mentioned in an earlier post about why I use that particular greeting, “Let’s strive to bring grace and peace to every encounter we have as we travel through this world.”  Even with those we might consider enemies.

Sola Gratia