Meeting God: The Basic Christian Relationship
by J. I. Packer
(as found in God's Plans for You)
A young lady asked a friend of mine, "Did you ever meet C. S. Lewis?"
"Yes," replied my friend. "As a matter of fact, I had quite a bit to do with him."
The young lady stood silent for a moment and then shyly said, "May I touch you?"
As Humpty-Dumpty said to Alice, "There's glory for you!" To have met C. S. Lewis -- wow! But, as Lewis would have been the first and my friend the second to point out, a far greater thing than meeting C. S. Lewis is meeting God.
Someday we shall all meet God. We shall find ourselves standing before him for judgment. Should we leave this world unforgiven, it will be a dire event. There is, however, a way of meeting God on earth that removes all terror from the prospect of that future meeting. It is possible for imperfect people like ourselves to live and die in the knowledge that our guilt has gone and that love -- both God's love for us and our love for him -- has already established a joyful togetherness that nothing can destroy. The mode of meeting that introduces us to this great grace, however, often has traumatic beginnings. It was so for Isaiah, as we shortly shall see.
Who may claim that they have met God? Certainly not those who resolutely deny his reality or his knowability, nor those who go no further than acknowledging that there is "Somebody up there." The simple answer is that we meet God as a loving heavenly Father through coming to recognize his Son, Jesus Christ, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We meet God through entering into a relationship both of dependence on Jesus as our Savior and Friend and of discipleship to him as our Lord and Master.
The exposition of this answer obliges us to say that no one meets God -- no one meets Christ -- until Isaiah's watershed experience begins to become reality in one's life. Isaiah 6 is thus not only of historic interest as a great man's account of what set the direction of his own ministry. The passage is significant for everyone. Its contents serve as a checklist of the conscious perceptions that indicate whether we have truly met God or not. We need to understand what Isaiah learned through his vision.
He saw the vision in the temple. What was he doing there? The answer is provided by the opening phrase of the first verse of chapter 6: "In the year that King Uzziah died" (Isa. 6:1). Uzziah had reigned fifty-two years, but now he had either just died or was about to die, and this was a traumatic event for Judah to face. Judah was under political pressure. Powerful enemies, namely the resurgent Assyrians, lived just over the border. There was anxiety about the future. Trauma of any kind drives people to prayer, and it is natural to suppose that Isaiah was in the temple to pray about the future of his people.
The fact that this is chapter 6 of the prophecy, not chapter 1 where Isaiah tells us that the word of the Lord came to him during Uzziah's reign as well as the reigns that followed (see Isa. 1:1), suggests that he was an active prophet already. Possibly it was his desire to know what his message to the people was now to be that had led him into the temple on this occasion. Though that cannot be proved, it seems likely and will be assumed in what follows.
Uzziah, as 2 Chronicles emphasizes (see 2 Chron. 26:8, 15–16), had been a strong king, under whom Judah had enjoyed safety and prosperity. Now the kingdom was to pass to his son Jotham, who was in his mid-twenties. No one knew what sort of a king Jotham would make. For this reason also all of Judah, Isaiah included, must have felt anxiety about national well-being. When Isaiah entered the temple, that was the big thing on his mind. But God showed himself to Isaiah in a manner that forced the prophet to think about himself and his own relationship to God in a way that he had never done before.
We too often think of God as simply there to help us. We seek gifts and strength from God to cope with external pressures when the real need is to have our distorted relationship with him set straight. It is mercy on God's part when he cracks through our attempts to harness him to our purposes and compels us to put first things first. But such mercy can have a fearsome aspect, as Isaiah discovered.
Isaiah was shown a vision of God's holiness. He saw the Lord on his throne, so he tells us, and the angels worshiping him as they hovered before the throne. They called to one another: "Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isa. 6:3 RSV). Like all repetition in the Bible, the threefold "holy" is for rising emphasis.
What was being conveyed to Isaiah by what he saw and heard? If you look up holy in a dictionary of theology, you find that in both Testaments it is a word that applies primarily to God and expresses everything that sets him apart from us, making him different; everything that sets him above us, making him worshipful and awesome; and everything that sets him against us, making him an object of actual terror. The basic thought that the word carries is of God's separateness from us and of the contrast between what he is and what we are. If you think of holiness as a circle embracing everything about God that is different from what we are, the center of the circle is God's moral and spiritual purity, which contrasts painfully with our twisted sinfulness. It was just this contrast that Isaiah perceived.
A bad hymn (by the Anglican, Bishop Mant) starts thus:
Bright the vision that delighted
As if Isaiah had been attending the Grand Ole Opry! The truth is that Isaiah found God's holiness terrible to contemplate. Facing it convinced him there was no hope for him with God because of his sin. But meantime the angels celebrated God's holiness in the widest sense of that word, bringing before Isaiah an awareness of God's "endless wisdom, boundless power" as well as his "awful purity" (I quote these words from Frederick W. Faber's hymn, "My God, How Wonderful Thou Art").
Focus now on God's holiness in its full and inclusive sense. As the spectrum of colors constitute light, a spectrum of distinct qualities combine to constitute holiness. Isaiah's narrative sets before us five realities about God in a blend for which holiness is the proper name.
God's Holiness: Lordship
Lordship -- or to use a long word that theologians love, sovereignty -- is the first of these realities. The English Bible puts it in short words: "The Lord reigns; God is King!" Isaiah saw a visual symbol of Lordship: God seated on a throne. Other people in Scripture are on record as having been shown that same symbol. Ezekiel, for instance, saw God's throne coming at him out of a storm cloud, with living creatures acting as a kind of animated chariot for it and whirling wheels at all sorts of angles in relationship to each other below the seat, where you would have expected the legs of the throne to be. The living creatures and wheels were both emblems of endless energy; God on the throne is infinitely and eternally powerful. Ezekiel tells us that the throne was high above him, and huge, and his impression was that a figure like a man sat on it. (See Ezekiel 1.) So, too, the throne that Isaiah saw was high and huge; "the train of his [God's] robe filled the temple," he tells us, and the "holy place" of the temple was approximately sixty feet by thirty feet and forty-five feet high.
The vision of God as King, whether perceived visually or only with the mind's eye, recurs frequently in the Bible. Psalm after psalm proclaims that God reigns. John saw "a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it" (Rev. 4:2). And 1 Kings 22 tells us of Micaiah, the faithful prophet whom Ahab had imprisoned because he had threatened Ahab with God's judgment. At Jehoshaphat's urging Micaiah was brought from prison to answer the question that the two kings together were posing: Should Ahab, with Jehoshaphat's help, attempt to recapture Ramoth Gilead from the Syrians?
The scene into which Micaiah was led was an impressive one: "Dressed in their royal robes, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah were sitting on their thrones … with all the prophets [about 400] prophesying before them" (1 Kings 22:10). It was a grand official occasion. No doubt an admiring crowd stood around watching all that went on. Micaiah, however, was not overawed. First he mocked Ahab by imitating the court prophets (1 Kings 22:15) and then told him what really was true, that if he went to Ramoth Gilead he would die. The secret of Micaiah's boldness is in [1 Kings 22:19], where he declares: "I saw the LORD sitting on his throne." Therefore, Micaiah was not cowed when he saw Ahab and Jehoshaphat on their thrones in the gate of Samaria. The vision of God on the throne in heaven made plain who was in charge!
This realization of God's sovereign providence (for that is what it really is) is enormously strengthening. It strengthened Micaiah; it strengthened John; no doubt it strengthened Isaiah, too. To know that nothing happens in God's world apart from God's will may frighten the godless, but it stabilizes the saints. It assures them that God has everything worked out and that everything that happens has a meaning, whether or not we can see it at the time.
Peter reasoned about the cross this way in the first Christian evangelistic sermon, preached on Pentecost morning. "This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death …" (Acts 2:23, emphasis added). You did it of your own free will, says Peter. You are guilty of doing it and need to repent, but don't imagine that it happened apart from the will of God. Knowing that God is on the throne upholds one under pressure and in the face of bewilderment, pain, hostility, and events that appear not to make sense. It is a supportive truth for believers, and it is the first element or ingredient in the holiness of God.
God's Holiness: Greatness
Greatness is the second element. The vision was of God high and exalted, with the six-winged seraphs hovering before him in worship. Note their posture; the description has something to teach us. The two wings covering each angel's face is a gesture that expresses reverent restraint in God's presence. We should not pry into his secrets. We are to be content to live with what he has told us. Reverence excludes speculation about things that God has not mentioned in his Word. Augustine's reply to the man who asked him, "What was God doing before he made the world?" was, "Making hell for people who ask questions like that" -- a sharp use of shock tactics to make the questioner see the irreverence behind his curiosity.
One of the attractive things (to me anyway) about John Calvin is his sensitivity to the mystery of God -- that is, the reality of the unrevealed -- and his unwillingness to go a step beyond what Scripture says. He and Augustine combine to assure us that we must be content not to know what Scripture does not tell us. When we reach the outer limits of what Scripture says, it is time to stop arguing and start worshiping. This is what the angels' covered faces teach us.
Two wings also covered each angel's feet. That expresses the spirit of self-effacement in God's presence, another aspect of true worship. Genuine worshipers want to blot themselves out of the picture, calling no attention to themselves, so that all can concentrate without distraction on God alone. A Christian communicator has to learn that he cannot present himself as a great preacher and teacher if he also wants to present God as a great God and Christ as a great Savior. There is a pair-of-scales effect here. Only as one's assertion of self sinks will God be exalted and become great in one's estimate. Self-effacing humility before God is the only way to uplift him -- that is the lesson of the angels' covered feet.
Another aspect of the angels' posture was that each was hovering on two wings, as hummingbirds hover, ready to dart away -- to go for God, to run his errands just as soon as the command was given. Such readiness also belongs to the spirit of true worship, worship that acknowledges the Lordship and greatness of God.
Our worship, like the angels' worship, must include the elements of reverent restraint, self-effacement, and readiness to serve, or we shall really be diminishing God, losing sight of his greatness and bringing him down to our level. We must examine ourselves: Irreverence, self-assertion, and spiritual paralysis frequently disfigure our so-called worship. We must recover the sense of God's greatness that the angels expressed. We need to learn afresh that greatness is number two in the spectrum of qualities that make up the holiness of God.
God's Holiness: Nearness
Nearness, or in long words, omnipresence in manifestation, is the third element in God's holiness. "The whole earth is full of his glory" (Isa. 55:3). Glory means God's presence shown forth so that his nature and power are made evident. Nowhere can you escape the presence of God, and we, like Isaiah, must reckon with that fact. For those who love to be in God's presence, this is good news. It is bad news, however, for those who wish God could not see what they do.
Psalm 139 celebrates God's nearness and his exhaustive knowledge of who and what each believer is. It ends with a plea that God, the searcher of hearts, would show the psalmist any sin that was in him so that he might eliminate it. "Search me, O God … see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (vv. 23–24). Nothing goes unnoticed so far as God is concerned; all our "offensive ways" are evident to him however much we may try to hide them, shrug them off, or forget about them. This third aspect of God's holiness will be an uncomfortable truth to anyone who is not willing to pray the psalmist's prayer.
God's Holiness: Purity
Purity is the fourth quality that contributes to God's holiness. "Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong," says Habakkuk to God (Hab. 1:13). Most people think of purity first when they hear of the holiness of God. What was said earlier about purity as the center of the circle shows that they are right to do so. Isaiah perceived this purity without a word being spoken. The sense of being defiled and unfit for God's fellowship overwhelmed him. "Woe to me!" Isaiah cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (Isa. 6:5). Just as sin is rebellion against God's authority and brings guilt in relation to God as lawgiver and judge, so sin also is uncleanness in relation to God's purity. Isaiah felt unclean before God when he recognized his sin, as every God-centered person will. A sense of defilement before God is not morbid, neurotic, or unhealthy in any way. It is natural, realistic, healthy, and a true perception of our condition. We are sinners in fact. It is our wisdom to admit it.
"I am a man of unclean lips," says Isaiah. He is thinking of particular sins of speech. The Bible has much to say about such sins, for they reflect what is in a person's heart. "Out of the overflow of [a person's] heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). We can use God's gift of speech to express malice and cut others down. Some people gossip (a practice that has been defined as the art of confessing other people's sins). Others deceive, exploit, and betray people by sweet-talking and lying. We cheapen life by disgraceful, obscene, demeaning talk; we ruin relationships by thoughtless and irresponsible chatter. When Isaiah speaks of unclean lips, he says something that touches us all.
(Perhaps there is also a reference in these words to Isaiah's prophetic ministry. In delivering God's messages he may have been more concerned about his reputation as a preacher than about glorifying God. Unfortunately, this attitude -- and the defilement it engenders -- still exists. Christian communicators with murky motives have unclean lips.)
"And I live among a people of unclean lips," Isaiah continues. Presumably he is acknowledging that he has gone with the crowd, taken his cue from them, talked as they talked, been foulmouthed with others who were foulmouthed, and so been led astray by bad examples. He does not offer this as an excuse, however. To do what others do when, deep down, one knows it is wrong is moral cowardice, which does not lessen guilt but increases it. Isaiah's conformity to the unclean ways of the society around him made his guilt greater. Perhaps as a prophet and preacher he had up to this point thought of himself in a different category from his fellow Jews, as if the very act of denouncing their sins excluded him from guilt when he himself behaved the same way. Now he knew better. For the first time, perhaps, he saw himself as the hypocritical conformist he really was, and he expressed his shame. God's purity had made a moral realist out of him.
God's Holiness: Mercy
The fifth element in God's holiness is mercy -- the purifying, purging mercy that Isaiah experienced when he confessed his sin. A seraph flew to him, sent by God to touch his lips with a live coal from the altar and to bring him God's message: "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for" (Isa. 6:7). The altar was the place of sacrifice. The coal pictures the application of sacrifice -- in new covenant terms, the application to the guilty conscience of the shed blood of Jesus Christ. The initial application is to the place of conscious guilt. Isaiah felt most keenly his sins of speech; therefore, his lips were touched. But, just as true conviction of sin is conviction of sinfulness everywhere as well as of particular wrongdoing, so the angel's words meant that all Isaiah's sin -- known and unknown -- was atoned for (literally, taken out of God's sight). The initiative here was God's, as it always is when people come to know his grace. P. T. Forsyth used to insist that the simplest, truest, profoundest notion of God's nature is holy love, the mercy that saves us from our sin, not by ignoring it but by judging it in the person of Jesus Christ and so justifying us justly. Isaiah would undoubtedly have agreed.
Church and society today play games. We do not acknowledge God's true nature. We do not meet and deal with him as he is. Even Christian workers can fail to grasp, or can lose touch with, the holiness of God, just as it seems Isaiah did long ago. When this happens, we, too, have to undergo the traumatic adjustment that Isaiah's temple experience brought him. Reading the story from Isaiah's standpoint, we see him making no less than four mistakes. Note them; they could be yours, too.
Mistake 1. Thinking of God as tame
Mistake number one, made when he entered the temple, was to think of God as tame -- there to be managed and controlled and called into action at Isaiah's request, like the genie of Aladdin's wonderful lamp. It is fair to suppose that God gave Isaiah the vision of angelic worship because he needed to learn to worship. Anyone for whom God is like Father Christmas, there simply to give presents; or like P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves, there simply to help the young master out of trouble; or like an insurance policy or safety net, there simply to prevent one from being hurt too much, still needs to learn to worship. Isaiah, one supposes, had gone to the temple to pray in the way many today seem to do: "God, we need you to do your safety net thing for us again. All right?" To a tame deity who makes no claim on people it might make sense to say, in this fashion, "My will be done"; but Isaiah had to learn that it makes no sense to talk that way to Israel's mighty Lord.
Mistake 2. Thinking he was accepted
Mistake number two was to think he was accepted -- that as a prophet there could be no problem in his own personal relationship to God. He was, after all, a distinguished young man, highborn and very gifted, in a nation that was officially in covenant with God. Also he was religiously inclined, a regular worshiper at the temple, and involved in ministry. Was he not doing God a favor by thus pursuing his religious interests? What problem could God have with him? Many in our society think in similar terms. They believe they do God a favor by being interested in him in a world where so few care about him. They expect thereby to become a spiritual elite who can count on God's favor. Isaiah had to learn that something needed to happen to him before he could be accepted into God's fellowship and favor. We today have to learn the same lesson.
Mistake 3. Thinking he was eternally lost
Mistake number three was for Isaiah to think, when he realized something of God's holiness, that not only was he outside the realm of God's friendship because of his sin (that was true), but that he was eternally lost. "Woe to me. I am ruined!" Finding that his supposed righteousness was as filthy rags, he despaired. But again he was wrong; there was mercy for him. Great as his sin was (there are no small sins against a great God), God's grace was greater. God cleansed his sin, both that of which he was aware at the time and that which he would spend the rest of his life discovering. In the same way, for the Christian all sin, known and unknown, all acts and habits of sin, and all the ramifications of sinfulness in our spiritual system, is atoned for by the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Holy love overcomes the power of sin to condemn and ruin our souls.
Isaiah appreciated what had happened to him. His attitude changed as his conscience was cleansed. In gratitude and joy he volunteered to go for God as the angels do, as indeed the angel who brought the word of pardon to him had done. All who know themselves to be forgiven sinners, people whom grace has found when they thought themselves lost, feel the same gratitude. Isaiah's "Here am I. Send me!" will strike an echo in their hearts.
Mistake 4. Counting on success in God's service
Isaiah's fourth error was to count on success in God's service. He knew, I suppose, the greatness of his natural gift of eloquence. He knew something of the power of his position as a coming young man in Israel's high society. No doubt he took it for granted that when he resumed his influential position -- a new man with a new joy walking in the power of a new experience of God -- he would be noticed and admired, and his ministry would bear much fruit.
I infer that Isaiah was thinking in these terms because the first divine words to him after his volunteering were a warning that his mission was not going to be conspicuously successful at all. God said, "Go and tell this people: 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding.…' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes …" (Isa. 6:9–10). There is divine grief and irony here. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and the task to which he was appointing Isaiah was to recall Israelites to himself. But now God was warning Isaiah that his message was going to be rejected, so that the effect of his ministry would be to leave people less sensitive to spiritual things than before (for hearts are always calloused by saying no to God).
In the same way we who speak for Christ today must be prepared to find that what we say is disregarded, and we are laboring with little or no visible success. Like Isaiah, we are called to be faithful, not necessarily fruitful. Faithfulness is our business; fruitfulness is an issue that we must be content to leave with God. God's Word will not return to him completely void, we know, but we must be willing not to see the fruits of it ourselves, or at least not immediately. Visible success in the form of instant results is not guaranteed in Christian ministry, neither for you nor for me.
What is the conclusion of the matter?