In Jackie Hill Perry’s wonderful book Holier Than Thou, she asks readers to imagine they are Hebrews in the wilderness at the base of Mount Horeb, waiting to meet and hear from a holy, almighty God. As she describes, this is the God you feared as you laid still in your home in Egypt, holding your firstborn against your chest, hoping against hope that the blood on your door was working as you heard the screams and cries of a nation mourning. Now, at the base of the holy mountain, you hear a trumpet so loud you know it is not of human origin. You see a massive cloud shot through with thunderbolts, moving ever closer. As Yahweh descends from on high, Perry brings this awesome sight to a shattering crescendo:
- Like your hands, the mountain shakes. Like your heart, it can’t get still because now, finally, in the midst of the thunder smack, the fire-lit sky, and the trumpet blast, descending on the mountain in fire is God. If you didn’t know it then, you know it now, that this God, this King, is holy. “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Heb. 12:28-29
Our God is So Holy
Our God is so holy, so awesome, so distinctively, terrifyingly other, that for His creation to look upon Him invites ruin and destruction. He does not simply request our obedience, He requires it. It is not optional, and everyone will give it, whether now or in a future that remains totally within His control and which He transcends. He is a God merciful and slow to anger, but one who is infinitely just, and whose justice requires blood atonement for transgressions against Him.
God is Above All Things
God is above all things, sovereign ruler over all things, actively engaged in the operation of all things. Your heart is beating right now because God actively commands it to “beat, beat, beat,” and when He ceases commanding, you will be in this state no more. Colossians 1:17 tells us that “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” which means that your body is holding together at the sub-atomic level because He wills it to be so, at this moment, by His constant, active hand. At the same time, He is holding you, everyone else, and every other being on earth together. The mighty Jehovah is keeping every planet of every solar system of every galaxy in the universe spinning on its particular axis, at that perfect speed necessary to continuously and collaboratively generate gravitational forces to hold it all together.
A God Unfathomable
This is a God beyond our reckoning or comprehension, a God unfathomable. This is the God of the Old Testament. If you were to ask a Hebrew in the wilderness whether he believed in God, your question would be so self-evident as to be practically incomprehensible. A pillar of cloud by day and fire by night bore testimony to God’s continuous presence among them. God’s existence and His place as their God was without question.
And yet, if you asked this same Israelite whether he knew God in the same way he knew a parent, a friend, or a loved one, this question would have been equally confounding. “What do you mean, know God? I know of Him, I know His nature, I know what He commands of me. But, know Him? How is that possible?
Only a precious few in the Old Testament ever knew God with anything resembling intimacy. Before he rebelled against God, Adam walked with God in the cool of the day. Moses was known as a friend of God, speaking with Him as one speaks with a friend. David, a man after God’s heart. Our sin reaped cataclysmic consequences, and one of those rendered God a relational enigma, a very present, all-powerful, yet mostly unknowable being.
Contrast the experience of the Hebrew at the base of Mt. Horeb to a shepherd at the base of the manger, from the awesome and terrifying to a scene shockingly base. For the Creator of all things, the One who spoke all of existence into being, the One who sits at the right hand of God Almighty Himself, and who owns all that is in universes known and unknown, to have been born in Caesar’s palace, the most spectacular place imaginable, would have been an unimaginable stoop from the almighty heights of Heaven.
It Just Doesn’t Compute
But a stable? Amid animal excrement and stink? To a girl who was nothing, scarcely a child herself? A scared, unwed kid, one gentle man’s kindness away from execution, herself a scandal? Surrounded by the lowest caste, the ultimate dregs of society? In the absolute worst corner of the Roman world, where no self-respecting official wanted to be transferred, the Scranton office of the empire? It’s really quite impossible to imagine any lowlier beginning than the ancient equivalent of being born to a poor, unwed 13-year-old tribal farm girl in some rural corner of Africa. It just doesn’t compute.
And, as the child of these shatteringly normal, humble beginnings grew to manhood, Jesus spoke of and to His Father, this same Creator, in ways that were untold and unknown since time immemorial. For Jesus, God was Abba, an informal term of intimacy, similar to “Daddy.” For the Jews to think of the holy God, the Yahweh whose name they refrained from even pronouncing out of reverence and fear, in such deeply personal terms seemed almost blasphemy to them. Yet here it was: Jesus, sneaking off to spend time simply being with His Abba; God’s love shining down on Christ at His baptism as His Father’s beloved, in whom He was well-pleased, before He had done anything, before His ministry began; the intimacy of fellowship with Abba demonstrated in His upper room prayer to God in John 17, or weeping before Him in the garden, the night before Jesus’ death.
And this wasn’t some exclusive relationship, unique only to those within the Godhead. John 1 tells us that “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (v. 16-18, emphasis added).
Revealing God’s Nature
In Jesus, God became man. He revealed to us God’s nature, His character, His truth, through His humanity. But, in Christ’s relationship with God, we were introduced to a new way to know God that was never before possible. “You have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’” (Romans 8:15). He is now our Daddy, too.
If anything in our culture, we have become irreverent in our perspectives of God, perhaps treating Him too casually. He is still the God of Mount Horeb, and we forget that at our peril. But the fact that “too familiar” is even possible stems from the Incarnation, from Christmas, from a God who has made himself not untouchable, but knowable. The parts of ourselves and our stories we most wish weren’t true and that we could erase are those through which He most deeply loves us. Christmas broke down the barrier erected at Eden and made it possible to truly know the mighty Jehovah as Abba, our Daddy, a prodigal-lavishly-loving Father who created everything as an outpouring of love, and who created us to know and be known by Him completely.
Perry, Jackie H. (2021) Holier Than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him. B&H Publishing, p. 13.
About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, JaysBlog. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.