Holiness is Like a Bowl of M&Ms?

Rock stars get a bad reputation for big egos and decadent lifestyles, and often for good reason.  But sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding.  Over the years, rock band Van Halen has been criticized over the infamous “brown M&M” clause in their contract with concert promoters.  Listed among many requirements, including how they want the stage set up and safety concerns, was buried a requirement that there should be a bowl of M&Ms backstage.  But not just any bowl: it had to have absolutely no brown-colored M&Ms.  This clause gained the band a bad reputation, because what kind of egomaniac would make someone go through the work of picking out every brown M&M?  Don’t all the colors taste the same anyway?

However, the clause had nothing to do with the band’s taste in M&M flavors or colors.  In addition to all the contract terms needed to cover many “important things,” they also needed a quick and easy way to know that the workers at the arena had thoroughly read the contract.  The M&Ms were that way.  Because of the “brown M&M” clause, as soon as the band walked backstage, seeing the bowl of M&Ms would immediately let them know the “important things” would be covered as well.

What’s this story doing on a Christian blog?  In the Bible, God describes His relationship with His people as a covenant, a form of contract, in this case between a King and His subjects.  Some parts of this agreement – consider the long descriptions of the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament – may seem dull and insignificant.  Much of Exodus 25-27, and most of Exodus 35-40, detail the design of the tabernacle as given by God to Moses.  The collection of the materials, the work of the craftsmen in building the various parts, and finally Moses setting up the completed tabernacle are listed in seemingly repetitive and pointless detail.

However, in addition to God wanting His tabernacle set up correctly, the mere accumulation of detail also makes a point – that God cares about every single detail of His covenant with His people.  Nothing is to be ignored, just like the bowl of M&Ms.  But this concern for detail does not mean that He is holds every violation we commit over our head to make us feel guilty.  Instead, it makes two points:

First, anything less than holiness is not good enough for God.  If He accepted less, He would not be just.  As one brown M&M was too much for Van Halen, or one drop of cyanide would be too much to put in our glass of water, one instance of sin is too much for God.  Therefore, only Jesus, by living the perfect life, could be acceptable to God the Father.  Fortunately for all of us, Jesus’ righteousness is offered to us freely.  He met the standard of perfection for us.

Second, the level of detail lets us know that He cares about every detail of our lives.  We can talk to Him about anything because there is nothing He is not concerned about or is not interested in hearing from us, or able to lovingly walk alongside us through.  David wrote in Psalm 23:4 that:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
            I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
            your rod and your staff,
            they comfort me.”

The rod and staff of our Good Shepherd are not there to punish us, but to guide and lead us through every experience we have in this world, good or bad, and into the next world, where all is holy and good.  His covenant with us – His contractual promise – is to be our God, and we are to be His people.

Our Father in heaven cares about every little thing.  Even brown M&Ms.

The Heavenly Holy of Holies

The temple King Solomon built in Jerusalem was not just as a place of worship and sacrifice, but also an image, or a model, of the cost of sin and of redemption.  The many courts, chambers, and walls were an object lesson in man’s separation from God because of his sin, and the required cost of restoring that relationship.  The most interior part of the temple, and hardest to get to, was the Holy of Holies, a room shaped like a perfect cube: 20 cubits by 20 cubits by 20 cubits.[1]  This cubed space was so sacred, and so holy, that only the high priest could enter it, and only once per year, and only after elaborate sacrifice.

However, by Christ’s sacrifice, we have hope: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19-20a).  In Mark’s gospel, we learn that when Christ died on the cross, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”[2]  This curtain was the barrier covering the entrance to the Holy of Holies, and with Jesus’ death, entrance isn’t limited to just the high priest, but open to all who would believe in Him.  He entered “on our behalf” and anchors us to this most holy destination.

The Bible was not finished drawing this picture, though.  In Revelation 21, a new city – a new Jerusalem – is seen by the apostle John in a vision, coming down from heaven, and verse 16 says: “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal.”  This vision was not meant to tell us that in Paradise we will all live inside a big cube.  As pastor Glenn Parkinson wrote: “Certainly all physical beings must exist somewhere, but this is not a vision of where God’s people will live, but how they will live when the former things have passed away.”[3]

Don’t put Earth in a box. Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Earlier, Revelation 21:1 referred to a whole new heaven and earth, so the new Jerusalem probably represents something about life everywhere in this new creation, and in this image, God would have used things familiar to John, the author of Revelation, otherwise the visions wouldn’t make sense.  The only other architectural cube John would probably recall from Scripture would be the Holy of Holies, but what does that mean?

I believe it means that all of the new heaven and earth will be inhabitable by both God and His people.  All of Paradise will be holier than even the Holy of Holies, but because the church will be fully sanctified, God’s people can enter His presence without the many temple courts and chambers and walls symbolizing man’s separation from God.  Relationship between Creator and created will be fully restored.  Everywhere will be holy, and everyone will be holy.

No, the New Jerusalem isn’t literally a cube, but it symbolizes that in the new world, the temple is not even needed, because all is as it should be between God and man:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” – Revelation 21:22

Praise God Almighty and the Lamb!

[1] 1 Kings 6:20 (a cubit was roughly 18 inches)
[2] Mark 15:38
[3] Parkinson, Glenn.  Tapestry: The Book of Revelation (2015).

What’s in Your Temple?

When describing His holiness, God provided pictures like the one 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.”  Because “the train of his robe filled the temple,” there is no room in the temple for anything that isn’t holy.  Or in 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.

How do these pictures apply to us?  Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 – “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”  Therefore, we ask ourselves: does the train of the Lord’s robe fill our temples?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A transformative moment came in my Christian life when I understood sin in contrast to holiness, rather than as a list of “don’ts.”  It’s possible (perhaps even easy) to convince ourselves we are not sinners in need of grace by defining sin as things we don’t do.  However, much of the time, the word “sin” in the New Testament is a translation of the Greek word hamartia, which means “to miss the mark.”[1]  The word has athletic connotations, such as if an archer couldn’t hit the bullseye, they wouldn’t win the competition and the prize.  As we all know, archers are supposed to be accurate, and if they aren’t, they’ve “missed the mark.”

Therefore, when Paul writes in Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he is not saying everybody failed to follow a list of dos and don’ts, but that we have not fully lived the life God intended us to live.  Romans 3:23 declares that while we wouldn’t set up idols in our church building, all of us tolerate some idols in our soul, which is where the Holy Spirit of God chooses to dwell.  The train of His robe does not fill our inner temple, and we too often trod on it with dirty feet.  We’ve “missed the mark” any time there’s other stuff in our temple, directing our thoughts and actions.  However, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we have both a hope of living with God and a future where His metaphorical robe does fill us.

In Paradise, God’s people will – individually and collectively – “hit the mark” perfectly for eternity.  His perfect temple will be completed in Paradise, with the living stones of all His people.

Paul returns to holiness again in 2 Corinthians 6:16 to 7:1, quoting several Old Testament passages, since holiness of His people has been the plan from the beginning –

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
             ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
                        and I will be their God,
                        and they shall be my people.
            Therefore go out from their midst,
                        and be separate from them, says the Lord,
            and touch no unclean thing;
                        then I will welcome you,
            and I will be a father to you,
                        and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
            says the Lord Almighty.’

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.


[1] Greek Strong’s Dictionary

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

What are We Willing to Leave on the Cutting Room Floor?

From earliest times, debate has raged over whether God’s word can be taken literally.  Since the serpent asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?[1] people have debated if the world was created in 6 days.  If Moses really parted the Red Sea.  If Jonah really spent 3 days inside a great fish.  And so on.  Talk about whether the Bible means what it says often focuses on the miraculous events within.

But what about verses like Ephesians 4:29?  “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  When Paul wrote that, did he literally mean “no corrupting talk,” or just to aim for less crude language than the average person?  Did Paul mean each word needs to “fit the occasion,” or to repeat whatever catchphrase seems to work in most situations?  Did Paul mean everything we say should “give grace” to others, or is it ok if sometimes we want to look good or appear gracious?  Do we need to always build up those who hear us?  Did Paul “actually say” what he wrote in Ephesians 4:29?

Failure to meet our ideals
does not mean that
we should change them.

We might reply that this is an impossible standard, but Jesus in Luke 18:19 said “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  In that one statement, Jesus testifies that no one is good (everyone misses the mark), and also that He is God in the flesh, come to save us from failing to meet the standard.

So yes, Ephesians 4:29 should be taken literally, but we should also take literally that only Jesus can meet the standard, and that He did meet the standard.  Failure to meet our ideals does not mean they are the wrong ideals and that we should change them.  Holiness is holiness.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy that “it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless.”[2]

In film editing, “the cutting room floor” refers to pieces of physical film that (in pre-digital times) were cut out of the movie and left lying on the floor.  When writing this blog, one of the hardest things to do is to cut out parts or phrases I care deeply about, but sometimes it’s necessary, because my words aren’t always Ephesians 4:29 words.  Finding these failures can be fruitful if I learn from them and move closer to the ideal.  In real-time, daily conversation it’s even harder, but to take Ephesians 4:29 literally, we all have to figuratively ask:

What are we willing to leave on the cutting room floor today?

[1] Genesis 3:1
[2] Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy (1908).  P. 163.