REVERENCE BEGINS IN THE PLACE OF WORSHIP
Dr. Peter Masters has been the minister of the Metropolitan Tabernacle (Spurgeon’s) in Central London since 1970. Some of the author's other books are, Psalms and Hymns of Reformed Worship, Do We Have a Policy? For Church Health and Growth, Only One Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Steps for Guidance, The Charismatic Phenomenon, The Healing Epidemic, Biblical Strategies for Witness. All of these titles are published by The Wakeman Trust, London, UK.
NO ONE would deny that reverence is due to Almighty God by right. But how can He be properly acknowledged and worshipped if the worshipper has replaced Him with a god of his own making — a much smaller god? Today many evangelical Christians have remodelled God, turning Him into a being only a bit higher than themselves. He is no longer the infinite, almighty, holy God, Who sees and searches every heart. He is merely a chum or pal sharing our smallness and triviality, and enjoying our entertainment-based culture. He is no longer to be feared; no longer to be given reverence.
With this new god, Moses would not need to remove the shoes from His feet, nor the apostle John fall at His feet as dead. This revised god does not mind how we worship him, and so we need have no inhibitions or qualms about anything we do in his presence. But to change God is to deny Him and to insult Him. So where is reverence today?
Where is the God of Elijah? Where is Old Testament Jehovah? Where is the mighty God so respectfully addressed in the recorded prayers of the New Testament? Amazingly, this glorious God is not wanted, even by many who believe His Word and seek His salvation. Reverence has become distasteful. It has been relegated to the debris of a cast-off former culture. ‘Give us a God,’ we now cry, ‘on our level.’
This chapter is about the necessity of reverence for God and how it brings great benefits and blessings to worshippers. Hebrews 12.28-29 provides a specially challenging verse for the present day: ‘Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire.’
‘Reverence’ here literally means — with downcast eyes or great humility. ‘Fear’ means caution, or the reverence of holy fear.
The Lord Jesus Himself, when living out for us a life of perfect righteousness, maintained the deepest reverence toward the Father, the Bible telling us that His prayers were heard because He ‘feared,’ using the same Greek term for caution or reverence (Hebrews 5.7). The term ‘fear,’ indicating reverential fear, appears often in the New Testament. Cornelius of Caesarea, visited by Peter, was acknowledged by all to be one who ‘feared’ God. His reverence for God was conspicuous. When preaching at Antioch in Pisidia, Paul appealed twice to those that ‘feared’ God, using the same reverential fear term. They would be the people who truly received the Word. ‘Fear God!’ wrote Peter, using the same term (1 Peter 2.17). ‘Fear God!’ said the angel of the preaching of the everlasting Gospel in Revelation, using the same term, indicating that the ultimate objective of the Gospel is to bring men and women not just to salvation, but to reverence (Revelation 14.7).
The victorious people of God sang, ‘Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name?’ using the same reverential fear term (Revelation 15.4). And the voice from the throne of God commanded, ‘Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him, both small and great’ (Revelation 19.5).
In the parable of the wicked husbandmen, the Lord spoke of a householder who let out his property. But when he sent servants to receive the produce, they were beaten and killed and stoned. Finally the householder sent his son saying, ‘They will reverence my son.’ Reverence, respect and deference is exactly what is due to the eternal Son of God, the Lord of glory. Its expression is to be seen first and foremost in worship, and if it is not there, it will not be seen in other areas of the Christian life either. Reverence-deficient worship soon leads to Christians who are shallow in commitment, seriousness, depth and even holiness. Reverence in worship is paramount for believers, and must be firmly maintained.
Another very valuable passage about reverence is 1 Timothy 4.7-9, where Paul says to Timothy: ‘Exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things.’
To show the pivotal importance of these words Paul attaches the comment — ‘This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.’ He is talking about the necessity of reverence toward God. We may think that the key word in these verses — godliness — refers in a general way to righteous character. Paul’s exhortation then would mean — exercise yourself in sanctified living. This, of course, would be a correct thing to do, but the word godliness does not mean that. It is a highly special word with a very distinctive meaning. The Greek is eusebeia, meaning ‘well-devout’. It refers to our entire attitude toward God. It is far more specific than righteousness, and as this is so important we shall briefly prove the point by glancing at other passages where the word is used.
In 1 Timothy 6.11 we see a very interesting construction: ‘But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, GODLINESS, faith, love, patience, meekness.’ Here godliness sits among other specific qualities. Like them, it is distinctive. It is obviously not a general term for Christian living as it takes its place in a list of very particular virtues. The term is used in the same way in the famous ‘list’ of 2 Peter 1.5-7 — ‘And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience GODLINESS; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.’ Godliness again sits as a specific virtue alongside others.
The Greek word in question appears in classical literature where philosophers used it to mean an appropriate attitude toward the gods. This is the sense in the epistles, where the word means — right demeanour before God, that is, reverence and respect. It is all about the fear of God, humility before God, and deference toward God.
The root of all our problems today as evangelical Christians is the collapse of such reverence. With the new style of worship, all carefulness in God’s presence and all deep respect for Him has gone, and yet this is the ultimate purpose of salvation — to revere and obey Him. Paul therefore says, ‘Exercise yourself unto reverence.’ Other spiritual graces cannot flourish without this foundation.
Many believers exclaim — ‘Oh, but I want to have joy and happiness and the filling of the Spirit. I want a thrilling sense of God and of glory.’ Such a desire is fine, but it can only come with reverence. God must always be to us a great God, to Whom we come with reverence and submission. It is only when we truly hold God in respect that the Holy Spirit gives genuine Christian joy. If we dislike reverence, seeing it as a gloomy alternative to Christian joy, we will only achieve a sham, worked-up, shallow, emotional substitute. All the charismatic meetings in the world, with their noise, rhythm and sensationalism, cannot work up real Christian joy, because they do not have a foundation of reverence, fear and awe.
The prime movers of new-style worship, with its love of entertainment-style music and its utter shallowness, show the same indifference to reverence in their style of teaching. Paul, in giving Timothy his exhortation about godliness, says — ‘Refuse profane and old wives’ fables.’ These fables had much in common with the way-out teaching approach of modern charismatic worship. They were myths based on Scripture. The teachers of fables would take Old Testament characters and embellish them, fabricating events and messages wildly beyond anything alluded to in the text. They appealed cleverly to popular taste, their stories gripping the minds of the people. The storyteller is always easy to listen to.
No doubt many of these fable-teachers possessed immense charm, and no doubt their stories were memorable. It was a fascinating, entertaining way of teaching. However, in commanding Timothy to refuse them, Paul uses an interesting word. He calls these fables profane — a word which indicates the opposite of reverence and respect. The Greek word for profane literally refers to a ‘threshold walker’, or someone who is free and easy and does whatever he likes. He has no reserve, no sense of caution, no fear or respect for the premises. The fable-teachers had no reverence and respect for the sacred text. They just made things up and passed them off as Bible teaching. The largest charismatic denomination in the world today invents a new spiritual duty almost every few months. New anointings (all at a price) tumble out as the preachers concoct and invent gimmick after gimmick, always, of course, finding a text to pin them on. Like the fable-teachers of old they have no reverence or respect for either God or the sacred text. They do not seem to realise that there is a God in Heaven Who will hold them responsible for all their wrestings and distortions of His Word. There is no fear in them. ‘Refuse their profane, freewheeling fables,’ Paul would say, ‘because such people are not governed by reverence, respect, carefulness or conscientiousness with regard to Scripture.’
It was teachers of just this character in recent times who were the first to launch away from traditional worship, substituting entertainment, lightness, showmanship, gimmicks and games. The showbiz style of worship has been the product of profane teaching. Reverence was jettisoned, and inane superficiality and emotional abandonment brought in.
How can some of these modern worship leaders behave as they do, when they run jauntily on to the platform like television celebrities showing off their personalities, and behaving in an entirely flippant and irreverent manner in the presence of the holy, all powerful, wonderful God? Reverence knows how to honour divine dignity, but for them it is burdensome and restrictive.
As it happens, reverence is a door to much blessing in this present life, as well as in eternity, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 4.7-8. So, he exhorts, ‘exercise thyself . . . unto godliness.’ The word godliness, as we have shown, refers to reverence and respect for God. The Greek word translated ‘exercise’ is literally gymnasticise. So Paul says — gymnasticise yourself to practise reverence.
There is no doubt that reverence is instinctual for new-born Christians. When we are converted, our new nature is impregnated with great reverence for God. But we can allow this to run down, and even lose it. Therefore, says Paul, it must be exercised. We know that exercise in the physical realm does not make muscles. It will certainly develop them, and it should preserve them, but it does not make them in the first place. Similarly, reverence comes with the new nature, but exercise is necessary to strengthen and maintain it.
Some years ago a medical practitioner friend was telling me about his church, and how it was adopting new charismatic songs, choruses, hand clapping, swaying, tongues, and producing considerable noise in services. This doctor had a good grasp of reformed truth, and I asked him what his feelings were. He replied that he was quite ambivalent, and did not mind what went on. Whether worship was conducted the old way or the new he felt it was all worship. It did not upset or offend him that reverence had fallen. His instinct for reverence had virtually disappeared.
The apostle Paul, incidentally, does not scorn bodily exercise when he says, ‘For bodily exercise profiteth little.’ Some believe he means — for a little time. However, the statement may equally be translated — ‘For bodily exercise profits to a little.’ Paul’s statement acknowledges that exercise achieves something. The apostle experienced considerable bodily exercise himself, walking great distances. Even in later years he would have walked us off our feet, as the saying goes. Also, when he found himself in a place where there was no support, he laboured as a tentmaker. In those days there were no industrial sewing machines, and workers had to put thongs and threads through heavy textiles and canvases by hand. We should never think of Paul as a present-day academic.
Paul was well aware of the athletic activities of his day. It was clear to him that the benefit of training was, first, effective only for a time, and secondly, was limited to preparing an athlete for his special event. The heavily trained wrestler did not necessarily make a fast runner. Moving into the moral realm, an athlete’s physical training would not help him control his temper, or any other sintendency. Physical exercise worked only in a limited area.
The apostle’s argument is that the exercise of reverence has a much broader benefit, because it deepens and strengthens every aspect of Christian life and service, and prepares for eternity. ‘For bodily exercise profiteth [to a] little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.’
Reverence is stated to be immensely significant and beneficial in the Christian life, but it must begin with worship. If worship is stripped of reverence, then reverence will be stunted in all other aspects of Christian living. What begins in worship, spreads into the whole Christian life. If worship is more like a performance, with showing off, imitation of the world, sensation-seeking, much noise, and everything for my pleasure, then reverence will not be found in any other department of life. How cruel it is, then, for churches to abandon reverent worship! The members will be seriously hurt and disadvantaged for their personal spiritual lives.
© Peter Masters 2002. Used by permission.