How can this ancient vision of God on his throne enlighten us regarding our own salvation? Well, for one thing, there is within the vision a pattern for restoration to God we still experience today.
The purpose of the first part of the text is clear: God is to be seen as holy. While God’s holiness comes through clearly in this and other Bible stories, the importance of God’s holiness seems to have faded somewhat in contemporary thinking. The secular world wants to make God malleable, squeezing him to fit popular trends in thought. No one who truly believes in God thinks this is possible, of course.
When we say God is holy, we mean God is ideal, perfect, the only definition of what is right. God’s holiness is central to his character, his being. This is why the seraphim, the highest form of angels, cry out, “Holy, holy, holy” to one another. Logically, the one who made all things gets to define goodness according to his will and rightly expects his creation to conform.
God’s explicit holiness leads to the second part of the text, the prophet’s acknowledgment that he cannot measure up to the God he sees. “Woe is me, for I am lost!” he cries. He realizes he cannot determine good or do good consistently on his own, a fallen state leading to sin and separation from God.
Isaiah knows that when holy God and fallen creation meet, that which is profane should be doomed.
Even in this Old Testament story, however, we see the holiness of God includes tremendous love. Even though creation has turned away, God continues to love and long for what he has made. (We use the word “grace” for such a love.) One of the angels takes a burning coal from the altar before God and touches it to the lips of Isaiah. Rather than blistering the prophet, the coal cleanses him, freeing him from the constraints of his sin.
And there is the pattern: Despair over sin leads to repentance—a desire to be better—and God responds with restoration. Christians see this pattern play out in a new way through Christ.
Our burning coal is the cross, symbol of our belief in the work God did there through Jesus Christ to cleanse us of sin. Just as it was a mystery to Isaiah how a burning coal could cleanse him, the cross is a great mystery to us. God comes among us in flesh and dies, and we are forgiven; we simply trust this is so, and the cleansing fire of God’s Holy Spirit goes to work in us. This cleansing happens in a moment, but it also is a process, as we sink deeper into the mystery and give more and more of our sinfulness up to God.
With this process comes our own vision. The basic vision for all Christians is simple, one given to us in the Bible. We see ahead of us a world fully conformed to God’s holy will. Out of that vision comes our mission, the one explicitly stated by Christ—make people disciples of this loving God!
Whether we’re talking individually or corporately, as a local church, that mission needs refining. We will pursue the same goal in different ways, adjusting our strategies based on our audiences. But we head toward the same place, eternity in the presence of the holy, loving God who reigns on his throne.