The Out-Pouring Heart of Holiness
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
– Luke 5:8
How The Boat Was The Throne Room
In this passage, Jesus instructs Peter to throw his net into a specific area of water and, to the surprise of all but Jesus, a huge, net-breaking amount of fish is caught. You would think that this would be a fisherman’s dream come true, but Peter’s response is both unexpected and significant:
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
Rather than thanks or joy or surprise or wonder (though I imagine all of those would have been present to some degree), Peter falls to his feet and begs Christ to depart from him because he recognizes how deeply sinful he is compared to this man. Here is the pattern we see in this story: Christ reveals His glory, Peter is struck by his sin, Jesus extends mercy, and then Peter responds with total abandon and obedience. Interestingly enough, we’ve seen this before – in Isaiah 6.
Isaiah 6 recounts an encounter Isaiah had with YHWH (which John’s gospel teaches us to understand as an encounter with God the Son, John 12:41). In this encounter, we first see a revelation of YHWH’s holiness, and then Isaiah recognizes his own sinfulness in light of that supreme holiness, and then the Lord extends mercy to Isaiah, and lastly, Isaiah responds with total abandon and obedience to the Lord’s will. What Isaiah experience in the heavenly throne room, surrounded by fiery seraphim, Peter experiences in a boat, surrounded by freshly caught fish.
Encountering The Holy One
However, whether it is in a boat, in a bush, on a mountain or on a throne (or cross) – An encounter with God is an encounter with the Holy (Ex.3:5, Is.6:3) (Calling God “holy,” I would argue, is to call Him the One who is infinite, eternal, perfect and pure in love to Himself. Once creation exists, God’s holiness means that He is also infinite, eternal, perfect and pure in love to all that consents with Him, and equally infinite, eternal, perfect and pure in righteous anger toward all that opposes Him), and Peter’s words make it clear that he recognizes Jesus as uniquely holy. Peter’s confession of sinfulness (not a particular sin, but just being a “sinful man” in general), his confession of sinfulness and his plea that the Miracle Worker depart because of it make it clear that Peter saw something transcendent in Christ. This miracle somehow made him realize that Jesus was holy … and, I believe, realize that holiness in some sense resided in Him.
Christ’s holiness was not contingent, it was not a robe that He’d put on, rather it was HIS, HE was holy. Though Peter certainly had not grasped a fully formed doctrine of the Incarnation, I believe that he understood that the holiness filling his boat that afternoon was radiating from this man, as light radiates from a flame. He was pierced through with the reality of his own deep sinfulness, and was painfully aware that his state (sinful) and Christ’s essence (holy), were incompatible.
How Fish Manifest Holiness
But what was it about this miracle – about Christ giving an overflowing bounty of fish – that caused Peter to see and respond to Jesus as the Holy One? Why not just thanksgiving? Why the piercing? Why the trembling fear? Why the confession and request? The first thing we can and must say is that it was grace. Peter recognized Christ as holy because God opened his eyes to see this reality (2 Cor.4:6).
But I think we can cautiously notice something else beautiful here. Christ reveals His majesty, His holiness – indeed, His divinity – through a miraculous catch of fish………or, to say it in another way, through the lavish outpouring of unlooked for good. THIS is how He makes Himself known to Peter, by flooding him with undeserved blessing, by pouring out net-bursting levels of bounty. How does God in the flesh introduce Himself to Peter? As the Lavish, Generous, Out-Pouring, yes, even Gratuitous Giver.
A Philosophical Interlude
Here I need to pause and explain something that I alluded to above, namely that, for theologian Jonathan Edwards, “Holiness” is ultimately God’s intertrinitarian love for God, which is to say that holiness is love (rightly defined). In addition to this, Edwards defines “Beauty” as love (that is, as something that consents or agrees with the deepest nature of reality, which is God Himself. For more on that, see my previous posts on it). So, I am working from an understanding that, ultimately, Beauty, Holiness, and Love are deeply interconnected and – in many ways – synonymous terms. Now, with that in mind it is interesting to note that Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart (who has what I understand to be unbiblical beliefs at a number of points, but who is – I believe – in line with scripture here) argues that:
“rather than commanding by necessity, or offering utility, the beautiful presents itself to us as an unnecessary and yet fitting GIFT” (capitalization added)
For Hart, beauty is essentially gift, something given in “simple gratuity.” Out-pouring super abundance is a defining mark of beauty and – as we see in scripture, especially at the Cross (1 John 4:10) – of love. Now, if Edwards is correct that Holiness is, ultimately, both Beauty and Love (again, I believe scripture leads us to understand this as well), then it begins to make sense that the abundant gift of Christ to Peter in this miracle might be viscerally understood by Peter as a display of holiness.
Jesus shows Himself to Peter as the Holy One (that is, the Beautiful One, that is, Love), by lavishly, unnecessarily, super-aboundingly pouring out un-looked for blessing over his head. God in Christ makes Himself known to Peter as the Holy One through the lavish provision of un-sought good. This is, indeed, the very nature of God, to pour out, to Give, to lavish….it has eternally been His joy within the Trinity, and now that joy is being shared with His people through Christ. Of course….the outpouring of fish is only a miniscule glimpse of the Beauty, Holiness, and Love of God….we see all three of these realities blazing in the noon of their brightness on Calvary, where God declares Himself as Love most explicitly in the outpouring of His Son for our sins.
So….what to take away from this? A few things. First – like Peter, may our encounters with God in Christ move us to repentance! There is no joy for us in God until we have collapsed at His feet (His pierced feet!) like Peter and received forgiveness through Christ. Secondly – may we have increased joy and satisfaction in the glory of God in Christ expressed in the gratuity of love. And thirdly – may we, like our Lord, be out-pourers rather than in-gatherers. To pour out – even to the point of death – is the trajectory of beauty, of holiness, and of love.