Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 16

Hearing a More Beautiful Song: Isaiah, Jesus, and Holiness

Robert Gelinas

God’s command, “Be holy as I am holy,”Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16, paraphrased is inspiring. Imagine God looking at you and saying, “you can actually be holy as I am holy.” but it’s also unsettling. Do we really want to have the effect on other people that the vision of God had on Isaiah and even the seraphs?

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings. With two wings, they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the lord almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I 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.”Isaiah 6:1-5. All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless stated otherwise

01.  Introduction

As soon as Isaiah came into the presence of the Holy One, he came undone. Do we want to be holy in such a way that others cower in our presence? Do we want people to point at us and praise us the way the angels covered their faces, peeked out from behind their wings, and called to one another as if to say, “Do you see who that is? God is holy, holy, holy; the whole earth is full of his glory!” Does being holy as God is holy mean that people will notice us and talk about us this way? What does it mean to “be holy as God is holy”?

Because we’re not sure what it means to be holy as God is holy, we sometimes come up with holiness substitutes—ways of trying to make it look as if we are moving toward holiness, but it’s not real holiness. In the church I grew up in, people frequently used these phrases: “A worn out Bible is not owned by somebody whose life is worn out”; “If somebody has a Bible that is falling apart, his life is rarely falling apart.” This meant that if you read your Bible a lot, it would naturally be tattered and torn. So when I received a brand new Bible at thirteen, I sat in the back seat on the way to church roughing up the cover and trying to curl the edges to make it look worn. Eventually I left it in the car because I preferred to go into church without a Bible than to go in with one that looked pristine and unused.

02.  Holiness: Life-Giving and Delightful

When God calls us to be holy, he calls us to be set free. It isn’t to incarcerate us or cause us to be afraid of what it might mean. Holiness is more of a delight than a duty.

In saying, “Be holy as I am holy,” God also calls us to let his own self (and his holiness) be a part of ourselves—not an add-on. God’s holiness is like breathing. You don’t think about it. It just happens because you need to have it happen.

Let’s try an experiment as you’re reading this article. Stand up. Take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you can. When you have to start breathing again, sit down. Now put down the magazine and try it.

When God is like oxygen, prayer is like breathing. When God is like that next breath that our body craves, then prayer becomes as natural as inhaling and exhaling.

This is the life God calls us to and offers us when he says, “Be holy as I am holy.” He doesn’t want us to come up with rituals that constrain and worry us. He wants holiness to be life-giving, freeing and delightful.

03.  Holiness in the Human Container

When we think of Isaiah’s vision of seeing God high and lifted up, holiness seems far removed from our lives. But as Eugene Peterson says, “When the ways and means of God interpenetrate the ways and means in which we live, we have a word for that—holy.” Holiness is not about mimicking the one high and lifted up and having people sing to us. Rather, it’s about allowing the One who is high and lifted up to enter the throne room inside of us—his new dwelling place.

Holiness also seems less distant as we figure out who Isaiah saw sitting on the throne. It was Jesus. We know this because as the apostle John quotes Isaiah’s words about Jesus, he closes by saying, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”

So that same holiness of God that sat in the throne room surrounded by angels also resided in skin and in flesh. The one who was high and lifted up and whose robe filled the temple with glory was also the one who walked this earth and died on the cross. That the Word became flesh means that Jesus had a nose that needed to be blown, breath that needed to be freshened up, and armpits that needed deodorant just as much as yours and mine. Jesus shows us that holiness can work itself out in everyday, waking and sleeping living. That means holiness is within reach. We need to grasp that holiness could be encased in a flesh-and-blood body in order to grasp how we can be holy. Jesus, as the picture of holiness to which we are called, is an accessible holiness in the flesh.

04.  Possibilities of Holiness Abound

Holiness is not always packaged as we expect it to be. At the hotel where I stayed recently, my friend and I met a gentleman named Frank who went for regular walks outside every morning. We learned Frank played the piano and decided it was worth walking two blocks to another hotel that had a piano so he could give us a concert. He played Beethoven and Bach in a 25-minute concert for us—two strangers just walking by. In between songs, he talked about the grace and love of God and told stories about how he had played the piano before four presidents and two popes. Here’s what makes it magnificent: Frank had only one hand. The music we heard sounded as if it were being played with two.

We experienced a holy moment with Frank as he played and reflected the love of Christ. He said to us, “People look at me and think I don’t have much to offer, but God is good, isn’t he?” And then he played another beautiful song. As my friend and I parted ways with Frank, my friend said, “Always remember, anybody can be a saint.” It’s true that anybody can be a holy one—and that we should keep our eyes open because holiness might not look the way we expect. For God, the holy one, has come, and he says, “Be holy as I am holy.”

What we see in Jesus is a way of holiness that is possible for us. Maybe you laugh at the idea that you could be holy. The family you came from just doesn’t produce saints. Even when you look back through several generations, the possibilities don’t look good. You wonder how you might have a fighting chance to live a holy life with your background. But if you read the genealogy of Jesus, you find Tamar (who slept with her father-in-law), Rahab the prostitute, and Uzziah, the leprous king. Quite a family tree. Their blood ran through the veins of holy Jesus, who walked on earth showing us that we can be holy as he is holy.

05.  Holiness by Way of the Cross

Jesus, as holiness in the flesh, gives us a clue about what holiness looks like in our flesh. Much of his holiness was about his choice to go to the cross; our holiness is about following him there. Peter tied holiness and the cross together by quoting, “Be holy as I am holy,” and then explaining that Jesus showed us how to live by his suffering.

So when we think about being holy, we think about what Jesus did on the cross. Some theologians tell us he was substituting himself for us. As he hung on that cross, he paid the penalty for our sin instead of making us pay it. Before dying on the cross, he had a chance to escape but chose not to. He took our place. That’s why the cross is a symbol of love and forgiveness given by God, who pursues us. On the cross, Jesus absorbed the pain that was due us and told us, “Be holy as I am holy.”

Perhaps you know some people who have sinned and now face the consequences of their sin. Their consequences look so awful that you think, I can’t imagine what would happen to them if they had to experience that. How might you walk in the way of Jesus and substitute yourself? Maybe you can’t block all the pain, but can you alleviate some of their pain or absorb some of it? How might you be holy as Jesus is holy?

For example, a foster parent does this. Foster children have parents who have done wrong things or gotten caught up in troubles so that they lose their children to the foster care system. Sometimes those children become angry and don’t know how to respond to their foster parents, so they punch holes in the wall and break windows. They bite their foster parents and curse at them, and these parents feel battered and bruised at times. These parents are being holy as Jesus was holy, taking the pain that was reserved for someone else. Jesus says to us, “You can do this; be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is a life that is being made available to you: the way of the cross.”

06.  Holiness: A Beautiful Way of Life

In the well-known story of Odysseus from Greek mythology, the hero has been off at war for a long time and wants to go home. He has to sail by an island of sirens, who sing a beautiful song that causes sailors to turn their ship toward the island and crash on the rocks. Then these cannibalistic sirens eat the sailors. So someone warned Odysseus to avoid the sirens by putting wax in the sailors’ ears so they could sail right by and not listen to the sirens’ songs. Odysseus takes this advice and has the sailors put wax in their ears. But he has a different plan for himself. He wants to hear the songs of the sirens for himself, so he has his crew tie him to the mast of the ship without putting wax in his ears. They were not to set him free, no matter what he did or said. When he heard the song, he begged them to untie him so he can visit the sirens. But they tied him up more tightly because they couldn’t hear what he was saying.

This picture of being tied up and yet wanting something else represents what holiness is for many people: trying to get it right and trying to be holy. The result, however, is just an outward façade. Our bodies are doing the right thing, but our hearts want something else.

Another adventurer from Greek mythology, Jason, makes it by the island of the sirens without putting wax in the sailors’s ears by using a different method. He brings along his friend Orpheus, a musician, and as they get close to the island of the sirens, he gathers the whole crew together and asks Orpheus to play them a song. As the story goes, the song of his friend Orpheus was more beautiful than the song of the sirens, and they sail right by the island without temptation.

That’s the kind of holiness Jesus calls us to. It’s a kind of holiness that asks, Can you see in the cross a more beautiful way of life? Can you see in the Kingdom a more beautiful way of living? Can you hear a more beautiful song?

07.  Exercise for Holiness

Think about the difficult people in your life. How might a small willingness to help them with their pain make a difference to them? To you?

08.  Ponder These Questions

  1. What color do you usually think of when you think of holiness?
  2. Now, what color(s) do you think of when you think of holiness as life giving, delightful, and a beautiful way of life?
  3. How does this change your view of holiness?
  4. If you were to say something to God about this, what would you say?

09.  Books Robert suggests to help you take the next step

  1. Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God (many editions)
  2. Kent, Carol. When I Lay My Isaac Down: Unshakable Faith in Unthinkable Circumstances. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004.

10.  Holiness in the Human Container

“There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man [or woman] to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

–C. S. Lewis


The lead pastor of Colorado Community Church (Denver) and a graduate of Denver Seminary, Robert Gelinas is the founder of Project 1:27, which encourages adoptions for children in Colorado’s foster care system, and is the author of Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz Shaped Faith.