Human encounters with God are frequently detailed in scripture. They all assume the holiness of God, often with dramatic emphasis, and occasionally with fire and fury to demonstrate God’s zeal for holiness and his fierce hatred of sin. When Adam and Eve first sinned, they hid themselves from God’s fierce anger as they heard him approaching in a storm (this is the meaning of the traditional translation “cool of the day”). When Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he was told to remove his sandals from his feet, for the ground is holy; Joshua had a similar experience just before the battle of Jericho (Josh 5:15). When the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai on their journey from Egypt to Canaan, they encounter God on a mountain blazing with fire, in darkness, gloom and storm, to a site so fearful that Moses himself exclaimed, “I am trembling with fear (Heb 12:18-21). When Isaiah saw his vision of God high and exalted, seated on a throne and surrounded by seraphim, he despaired of life itself, crying, “Woe to me! 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).
The ferocity of God’s holiness is often downplayed in our world and even in our churches today. We tolerate sin within the church too easily, often in the name of not hurting someone’s feelings. Of course, one should be circumspect and respectful in our interpersonal relationships, but our first concern should be God’s holiness and the holiness of his people, the Church. Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
Because of the world’s concerted effort to ignore sin and to redefine it to make holiness irrelevant, many Christians have lost the sense of urgency in pursuing holiness. Not only do we fail to search our hearts for unconfessed sin, but we often embrace sin, as if we think there are no consequences to living in sin.
The story of Achan lurches us back to reality. God is holy, and his holiness is a consuming fire that does not tolerate sin. True, the plunder of Jericho that was to be dedicated to God was vast, and in the grand scheme of things, the few items that Achan stole may have seemed inconsequential. Yet God calls for his people to be serious about keeping his commands without compromise. He calls us to wash our hands and purify our hearts, and to share his holy hatred for sin. Let us then be earnest and “touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor 6:17).