Reverence in the Local Assembly - An Important and Increasing Need
David Dunlap, Tampa, Florida, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory . . . for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’, Isa. 6. 3, 5.
Isaiah unfolds to us the holiness of God unlike any other prophet before him. The holiness of God had gripped his heart with unusual power and conviction. Isaiah was humbled by the presence of Him who is exalted with infinite greatness, high above all His creatures. He saw, like never before, that there was a great chasm between the holiness of God and the ungodliness of men. The spiritual condition demanded for Israel a fresh and powerful manifestation of God’s holiness.
Israel’s Spiritual Condition
King Uzziah had reigned in Judah for fifty-two years. Although this king had protected his people from their enemies, and brought a measure of economic prosperity, and a sense of security, inwardly the nation was morally corrupt, spiritually empty, and superficial in its worship of God. As a result, in Isaiah 5, Isaiah pronounces six judgements of woe upon Judah. Many in Judah believed that they were in a proper spiritual condition because of its economic prosperity. But in 740BC king Uzziah died of leprosy when God struck him down because of his pride. When Uzziah died, the nation’s sense of security was shattered, and Isaiah sensed the need to enter into the presence of God. It was here that God gripped Isaiah with an awesome sense of His presence and holiness. He saw the Lord high and lifted up. He heard the seraphim cry back and forth, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is filled with his glory’, v. 3. He is broken by his own unworthiness. Why was Isaiah so visibly shaken by all that he had seen and heard? He tells us the reason, ‘mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’, Isa. 6. 5.
Likewise, when we are gripped by the holiness of God our instant and only reaction must be worship and reverence. A. P. Gibbs once wrote, ‘Spiritual tone is difficult to describe, but is nevertheless very real. There is a sense of the presence of God, of the reality of unseen but eternal verities, and the hush of reverent awe that quiets the spirit and prepares the soul for worship’.1 Without such a revelation or conviction we cannot truly worship God. Holiness and reverence are the life-blood of worship. Worship that is marked by a fresh vision of God’s holiness is never casual, flippant, and superficial. True worshippers do not rush into His holy presence unprepared to bow in reverence. Sincere worshippers of God possess deep convictions about the holiness and glory of God.
However, just as in Isaiah’s day there was great spiritual apathy so also is there much spiritual indifference and casualness in the church today.
The Need for Reverent Worship
Many are concerned that today there is too much shallowness in our worship of God. Irreverence in worship is now becoming all too common in modern churches. Unfortunately, New Testament assemblies are not immune to this affliction. Increasingly, believers are slipping into worship meetings ten to fifteen minutes late without the slightest hint of embarrassment. Much that is now included to keep the people happy is far removed from the holy and reverent worship there used to be. Psalm 111. 9 reminds us that, ‘Holy and reverend is his name’. Hearts full of Christ have now given way to hearts full of competing interests. Many still attend times of worship, but have lost their first love.
The stirring hymns of the faith are still sung, but rarely with passion and conviction. Gripping passages of scripture about Christ and the cross are still read, but with little apparent devotion or heart-felt affection. Eloquent prayers of praise and worship ring hollow.
It was not always this way. In earlier days the assemblies were known for men of God whose passion to worship the Son of God was unrivalled. The believers in the Lord Jesus Christ might have gathered in a hall or a refurbished building, but the gathering place was not as important as the gathering Centre, the Lord Jesus Christ. The hymns were sung heartily. Men of God offered worship with tenderness and devotion. They knew the word of God and the God of the word. There was a beauty of holiness that attracted all true saints of God. The holiness and reverence that characterized the meetings were evident to all. Concerning the character of those meetings, one writes, ‘I sometimes smile when I hear ministers state the assumption that a new type of building will create a worship atmosphere. In my late adolescence I occasionally worshipped with those known as ‘’Plymouth Brethren’’. Meeting in the barest halls, adorned only with signs carrying scripture verses, they had the most worshipful services that I have ever attended. No organist in whispering conferences, pushing or pulling stops. Greeting, giggling, whispering and coughing were all hushed by the miracle drug, reverence. Children were quieted. People tiptoed to their places in the circle to sit with bowed heads or read their Bibles. The keen anticipation of the movement of the Spirit of God in leading one of the assembled men to announce a hymn, read the scriptures, or to offer prayer was sensed in these moments of deep reverence that sharply contrasts with the hubbub of many Protestant services’.2
Reverence is not something we can bring to God or create in ourselves, but rather it is a spiritual grace we receive when we begin to see God as He truly is. Reverence acknowledges in our hearts the glory of God as presented in the scriptures, and then yields to God His rightful place in our lives. Reverent worshippers acknowledge their unworthiness and in godly fear bow before an awesome and holy God. Concerning this source of holy reverence the Swiss reformer John Calvin writes, ‘Reverence is that dread and amazement with which holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God. Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God’.3
Just a sudden glimpse of the holiness of God will change us for ever. As Isaiah is thrust into the presence of God and the seraphim cry out, ‘Holy, holy, holy’, the prophet confesses, ‘Woe is me! For I am undone’. Isaiah, the righteous prophet, in one brief moment, is exposed and broken under the gaze of the Almighty. In an instant he is measured by the ultimate standard of holiness; he is weighed in the balance and is found wanting. The holiness of God has seized his heart, soul, and mind. He cannot forget what he has seen. Boredom, casualness, and lukewarmness about the things of God are gone for ever. ‘Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’, Isa. 6. 5.
The Biblical Standard for Reverent Worship
All too frequently churchgoers gather to worship God who have never had a fresh vision of God’s holiness. Nice songs are sung, religious thoughts are offered to God, and well-crafted words are uttered but all this falls far short of true worship. This worship may be more psychological and fleshly than spiritual. This kind of worship bears no resemblance to the worship that we find in scripture. The psalmist writes, ‘He is to be feared above all gods . . . splendour and majesty are before Him, strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Fear before Him all the earth’, Ps. 96. 4, 6, 9.
Godly fear, God’s majesty, the beauty of His holiness and His splendour, were ready themes in the worshippers of old. There are many who study theology but where are those who are studying to be worshippers of God? Where are the churches today whose primary focus is to ‘worship God in spirit and truth’? A. W. Tozer exhorted the church prior to his death in 1963, ‘Many of our popular songs and choruses in praise of Christ are hollow and unconvincing. Some are even shocking in their amorous endearments, and strike a reverent soul as being a kind of flattery offered to One with whom neither composer nor singer is acquainted. The whole thing is in the mood of a love ditty, the only difference being the substitution of the name of Christ for that of the earthly lover. How different and how utterly wonderful are the emotions aroused by true and Spirit-incited love for Christ. Such love may rise to a degree of adoration almost beyond the power of the heart to endure, yet at the same time it will be serious, elevated, chaste and reverent. Christ can never be known without a sense of awe and fear accompanying the knowledge. He is the fairest among ten thousand, but also the Lord high and mighty. He is the friend of sinners, but also the terror of devils. He is meek and lowly in heart, but He is also the Lord and Christ who will surely come to be the judge of all men. No one who knows Him intimately can ever be flippant in His presence. If Bible Christianity is to survive the present world upheaval, we shall need to recapture the spirit of worship’.4
A Call to Reverent Worship
Sadly, reverence seems to be strangely absent within the evangelical church. Worship, the Lord’s Supper, and the great doctrines concerning Christ no longer seem to grip us. These do not seem to be popular. We are a spiritually carefree generation. Sadly, the broad road has always been more appealing than the narrow way. Nevertheless, let us draw near unto Him, who in mercy, first drew near to us and humbly bow our hearts as worshippers in the presence of the sovereign Head of the church, the Lord of glory. May our reverent worship to Christ once again shine bright as the hallmark of our devotion to Christ.
1. A. P. Gibbs, Worship, (Kansas City, KS., Walterick Publishers, 1980), p. 216.
2. John W. Drakeford, The Awesome Power of a Listening Heart, (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan Publishers, 1985).
3. R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, (Wheaton, IL. Tyndale House, 1985).
4. A. W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian, The Art of True Worship, (Harrisburg, PA. Christian Publications, 1964), p. 125.
AUTHOR PROFILE: David Dunlap has served the Lord for over twenty years first as a missionary, and now is engaged in a writing and Bible teaching ministry in North America. He and his wife Faith live in Tampa, Florida and have three children.