God is holy in His being and awesome in His essence. What a marvel that we have come to know this God; what a responsibility to honor this God in our lives. We are reminded that “holy and reverend is His Name” (Psa 111:9). While a responsibility, it is also a privilege to be able to bestow honor and to display reverence to Him from a heart filled with worship for Him.

The Problem

But what is reverence? The very mention of the word, to some, conjures up images of people with somber faces, tip-toeing into assembly gatherings, speaking in muted tones, and looking as humble as possible. Dress is rigorously prescribed: white shirts only for men and three piece suits, no open toed shoes for the sisters, and only black or similar drab colors for both the suits of the brethren and the dresses of the sisters. Total silence prior to the meeting’s commencement and somberness bordering on melancholy are the order of the day. A uniformity which borders on cult-like adherence is stamped on the minds of many in association with the word “reverence.” As a result, the concept of reverence is almost mocked in our contemporary society as something linked with a previous generation who were not as enlightened as we.

The Old Testament is replete with occasions when men in all their frailty got a vision of God. John tells us that when they saw the glory of God, they were actually seeing the Lord Jesus (John 12:41; Heb 1:3). Whether we consider Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, Gideon, Manoah and his wife, or Daniel, every sight of the throne and of the Throne-Sitter had the same response: a deep sense of unworthiness and a reverential posture before the Lord. Reverence was the result of these polar opposites – who we are as mortal men, and Who God is in His self-existent majesty.

An argument can be made that in this day of grace we have been made “sons” and enjoy the intimacy of knowing the majestic and awesome God as our Father. Point well taken! But keep in mind that when John had a vision of the risen Christ in Revelation 1, he, the sole disciple who knew what it was to actually recline on Jesus’ breast, fell at His feet as dead. So great was the majesty, so overwhelming the sight that the only suitable place was at His feet.

Reverence as a theme is not absent in the New Testament. As a word, it is actually mentioned seven times in the Old Testament, and an equal number in the New Testament. In the parable of the husbandman, he sent his son, expecting reverence (respect) for him. The parable needs no interpretation as it was used by the Lord Jesus and the application was to the people of His day and their unwillingness to recognize Him.

Hebrews 12 reminds us that while we are no longer under law, God has not changed in the holiness of His being and in His demand for righteousness in those who serve and follow Him. As a result, we are to serve Him with “reverence and godly fear” (v 28). God is immutable. He does not change in His character or essence. He may change in how He deals with humanity in different dispensations, but He is the Same. The intimacy into which He has brought us, as seen in Hebrews 12:12-24, is balanced by an awareness that He is still “a consuming fire” Who must be served reverently.

A Principle

It is critical to our Christian lives, and to harmony amongst believers, that we differentiate between a precept and a principle of Scripture. A precept is a clear, non-negotiable statement or rule of life. It affords little or no “wiggle room” for exemption. For example, the exhortations of Ephesians 4 and 5 concerning stealing, lying, evil speech, and fornication are clear and unmistakable precepts or rules of behavior. They do not require prayer for discernment or guidance about their meaning or how you are to implement them in your life. They are precepts or “laws” of righteous living. Those who wish to please God obey them implicitly and with exactness. This is not legalism but loyalty; it is not bondage but joy.

But what about “be ye kind one to another, tender hearted?” How do you apply this to your Christian life? The showing of kindness may be done in different ways, at different times, by different believers. It is a principle in which I need divine guidance and wisdom to implement in my life and to know what kindness is. The kindest act may not always be the most obvious or that which springs to mind first. The Psalmist believed that if the righteous needed to smite him to reprove him, it was a kindness (Psa 141:5). Our first reaction to being “smitten” by another believer would hardly be to consider it a kindness. Yet, spiritual discernment may apply this principle of kindness in this manner at a critical time. Thus, kindness can be displayed in different ways at different times.

Reverence is also a principle; it is not a precept. It is an area in which personal exercise and wisdom is needed to know how to implement it in our individual lives. There is an inherent danger in prescribing what reverence must mean to another believer. On the other hand, the personal nature of principle-application must never be used as an excuse for lack of convictions concerning reverence. It is feared that many who belittle the value of the outward and stress the inward, forget one great principle of Scripture: it is possible to have the outward right and the inward be rotten (i. e., the Pharisees as whited sepulchers). But it is impossible to have the inward right without it affecting and controlling the outward! As soon as Jacob got right with God inwardly, he instructed his family about their outward appearance and associations (Gen 35:1-3). He did not even need a command from God for this.

I am not left to my imagination or personal preference to form my convictions. They are based upon the Word of God. I need to know God in His Word to know how He deserves to be honored.

My Practice

How can I apply this principle in my life? How can I demonstrate reverence to God in every sphere? The most important area is my attitude to God. A sense of God’s greatness, majesty, holiness, and infinity should bow my soul in awe and wonder. Like Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28), I will say that the presence of God is “awe-full.” This attitude of reverence within is not something then that I adopt for meeting times, but it is an attitude which should mark me all through the week. Reverence for God should control how I read His Word, how I pray, how I treat others, and how I manage many other aspects of my life. The inward must be right before anything else can be adjusted.

Is it enough, however, for me to claim that God sees the reverence of my heart and it does not matter what I do, how I look, what I wear, or how I act? While this may seem to stress inward reality and sincerity, it encounters one insurmountable problem. Every Biblical reference, Old and New Testament, to reverence, was marked by a visible display of that inward attitude. Whether bowing in respect or worship, receiving and acknowledging someone’s worth and claims, dress and appearance, or actions, the inward attitude of reverence had a corresponding outward display.

It is the intention of God that the behavior of His people would be a testimony to the character of the God to Whom they gathered. In the case of Israel, God intended that the behavior of the nation would be a testimony to the surrounding nations (Deut 4:6-8), and create in them an awareness of the greatness and the wisdom of God. For local assemblies, the same truth is seen in the case of the unlearned believer and the unsaved visitor of 1 Corinthians 14. The character and conduct of the gathering of the believers is intended to impress onlookers with the character of the God to Whom they gather.

So yes, the stress should be on an inward attitude of true appreciation and worship for the awesomeness of God. But it should also have some visible manifestation in my life.

It is, however, a principle and not a precept. This means you need to work out the implementing of this in your own life. “White shirts only” for Lord’s Day may have been the conviction of a former generation, but it need not be your conviction. Tip-toeing into the meeting may have been important 50 years ago; but to you this is not a means of displaying reverence. This is not a plea for you to adopt the convictions of a previous generation. It is, however, a plea for you to develop convictions from the Word of God about what reverence means. It is feared that the rejection of the outward “symbols and signs” of reverence of a previous generation has resulted in not only the absence of any similar outward display, but a casual familiarity with spiritual things.

Practical Applications

What areas of a believer’s life should be marked by reverence?

An attitude is not as invisible as some would like to claim. It does reveal itself in our mannerisms, dress, language, and general deportment. When Paul wrote to Timothy about “House of God” conditions, he mentioned how “one ought to behave” in the House of God.

Does it affect the language I use? While you would never use the Lord’s name in vain, do you say things which are really minced oaths? Do I address the Lord in prayer with “reverence and godly fear?” Do I serve Him conscious that He is unchanged in His holiness and righteousness? Reverence for God also influences how I treat those who belong to Him. Do I dismiss older believers as irrelevant to my life? Do I fail to honor all the believers with respect?

Does my dress at assembly gatherings suggest that His presence is not really that significant? No, you don’t need a three piece suit to convey His significance, but I would want my clothes to clearly reflect my honor and respect for Him. The frequency of assembly gatherings does not lessen their significance. Each gathering is an occasion when His presence is professed by us; each, thus, is an opportunity to show the honor His presence dictates. Being a principle, reverence prohibits any demand that a particular color of clothing denotes reverence. But it does mean there should be an expression of reverence displayed in the attire worn. The instruction concerning modesty (1Tim 2:9) should be a guiding principle for us in this regard, as well.

What about my behavior when the Word of God is read in the public gatherings of the believers? The Psalmist was in awe of the Word of God (Psa 119:161). Do I show reverence and awe for His Word? I may not always appreciate the gift of the man delivering it, but it is still the Word of God. What about praying and singing hymns? Some would, for example, legislate a “no-hands-in-your-pocket-while-praying” sign of reverence. But for some this is the result of the anxiety of taking part. We cannot label these and other creature weaknesses as a lack of reverence. But there should be no intentional displays of carelessness and disrespect when addressing God, or even in singing praise to the Lord Jesus.

How do I respond then to the need for reverence since Hebrews 12:28 makes it clear that God must be served with reverence and godly fear? First and foremost, as all would agree, I need to cultivate an attitude of reverence and awe for God in my own soul. The more I learn of His greatness and His grace, the more I will bow and utter the words of Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou art!” But then there should be, as well, a corresponding exercise to display an appreciation for that greatness in both my personal life and in the gatherings of the believers. The convictions at which I arrive need to be applied to my personal life and not become laws which I lay down for others. I do not take pride in the outward and assiduously guard against the tendency in all of our hearts to gradually allow the outward to be the only aspect of reverence, forgetting the inward condition. And rather than any drift toward condemning others who do not share my convictions, I instead offer to God my reverential attitude as part of my worship to Him.

So do not take refuge in the excuse that only the inward matters. You do not need my convictions. But, please immerse yourself in the Scriptures and form your own convictions. Do not, robot-like, adopt the outward signs of reverence; but rather, form your own convictions and view them as part of your worship of God.