How would you react if you were suddenly face-to-face with God?
While many Christians today think of the Lord in friendly, passive terms, the truth is that none of us would be leaping into the arms of our Father. The testimony of Scripture is clear: All sinners—even strong believers with mature faith—are right to cower in the light of God’s holiness.
For example, in Genesis 18 Abraham confessed in the presence of God that he was dust and ashes. Similarly, Job said after his pilgrimage, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6). Ezra 9 records the high priest’s profound sense of shame as he came before the Lord to worship. Habakkuk had a vision of God’s power and majesty, and his knees began to knock: “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me” (Habakkuk 3:16 ESV).
Isaiah’s Encounter with God
In Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah describes how he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up. He heard the seraphim cry back and forth to one another in antiphonal response, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (v. 3). God’s holiness fills all—even when it is hidden from our view.
As Isaiah perceived the holiness of God, he cried out: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).
Some might think that Isaiah did not have a very good self–image. He was not thinking positively; he was not affirming his strengths. Surely, Isaiah knew that he had the best mouth in the land! He was a prophet of God! He was the foremost spiritual leader in the nation. And yet he cursed himself. Why?
The answer is very clear. We find it in the words “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah had seen a vision of God in His holiness, and he was absolutely shattered to the very core of his being by a sense of his own sinfulness. His heart longed for purging.
Perceiving God’s Holiness and Our Sin
When we see God as holy, our instant and only reaction is to see ourselves as unholy. Between God’s holiness and humanity’s unholiness is a gulf. And until a person understands the holiness of God, that person can never know the depth of his or her own sin. We ought to be shaken to our roots when we see ourselves against the backdrop of God’s holiness. If we are not deeply pained about our sin, we do not understand God’s holiness at all.
Without such a vision of God’s holiness, true worship is not possible. Real worship is not giddy. It does not rush into God’s presence unprepared and insensitive to His majesty. It is not shallow, superficial, or flippant. Worship is life lived in the presence of an infinitely righteous and omnipresent God by one utterly aware of His holiness and consequently overwhelmed with his own unholiness.
You and I may not have a vision of God like Isaiah’s, but nonetheless, the lesson is true that when we enter into the presence of God, we must see Him as holy. Our sense of sinfulness and fear is proportional to our experience of the presence of God. If you have never worshiped God with a broken and a contrite spirit, you’ve never fully worshiped God, because that is the only appropriate response to entering the presence of holy God.
My heartfelt concern is that there is too much shallowness today with regard to God’s holiness. Our relationship to God has become too casual. In the modern mind, God has become almost human, so affable and ordinary that we don’t understand His holy indignation against sin. If we burst into His presence with lives unattended by repentance, confession, and cleansing by the Spirit and the Word of God, we are vulnerable to His holy indignation. It is only by His grace that we breathe each breath, is it not? He has every reason to take our lives, because the wages of our sin is death. We have lost our sense of that fear, and too many people approach God with a casual familiarity that borders on blasphemy.
Much that is done in the name of worship today clearly does not genuinely regard God as holy, and thus it falls woefully short. A lot of catchy songs are being sung, poignant feelings are being felt, congenial thoughts are being thought, and pleasurable emotions are being cultivated. But too often these things are merely self-indulgent exercises masquerading as worship without any serious acknowledgment of the holiness of God. That kind of worship bears no relationship to the worship we see in the Bible. It may be more psychological than theological, more fleshly than spiritual.
The response of a true worshiper to a vision of God should resemble Isaiah’s. We should be overwhelmed with our own sinfulness and consequently consumed with a sense of holy terror. I am certain that if the people today who claim to have seen God really saw Him, they wouldn’t be lining up to get on the latest Christian talk show; they’d be lying prostrate on the ground, grieving over their sin.
Reverence and Godly Fear
A true worshiper comes into the presence of God with a healthy but soul-shattering fear. God does, after all, punish sin, even in those who are redeemed. Hebrews 12:6 reminds us, “Whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”
Hebrews 12:28 goes on to say, “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (KJV). The word translated “serve” is latreuo, a word for worship. The writer is talking about acceptable worship, and he lists two key elements: “reverence and godly fear.” Note the reason he gives for such worship: “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
“Reverence” carries a positive connotation. It describes a sense of awe as we perceive the majesty of God. “Godly fear,” on the other hand, is a sense of profound awe and intimidation as we see the power and holiness of God, who “is a consuming fire.” That refers to His power to destroy, His holy reaction against sin.
True worship, then, demands a clear awareness of God’s holiness, a deep sense of my sinfulness, and a sincere cry for purging. That’s the essence of the proper attitude of worship. Let me illustrate that principle from the life of Christ.
The Response to Jesus
It seems to be difficult for Christians today to get away from the idea that Jesus was a passive, amiable, meek–and–mild being who walked through the world making people feel good. Actually, when our Lord was here on earth people were quite often afraid of Him. It was overwhelming for people to come face to face with the living God incarnate. In fact, it might be fair to say that whenever someone stood face to face with Jesus and came to a true understanding of who He really was, the normal reaction (from believers and skeptics alike) was fear. He traumatized people.
Even the disciples were fearful when they faced squarely the reality that He was God. In Mark 4:37–41, we read that while the disciples were crossing the lake in a boat with Jesus, a storm struck, and their boat began to sink. The disciples panicked and awoke Jesus, who was sleeping through it all. He calmed the storm, and rebuked them for their unbelief. Verse 41 tells us that after Jesus stilled the storm, they were exceedingly terrified. There’s at least one thing more frightening than a fierce storm outside your boat: having to face the holiness of God inside your boat.
In the next chapter of Mark, Jesus encountered a man possessed by a legion of demons. When Jesus sent the demons into a herd of pigs and they went into the lake and drowned, the people of the town came out and pleaded with Him to leave their country (Mark 5:17). Their reaction to Jesus was not because they were resentful about the loss of the pigs. If that had been the case, they would have demanded compensation. Rather, they were terrified in Jesus’ holy presence. They clearly sensed that the One to whom all judgment has been committed had come into their midst, and they were terrified of Him. They did not want to face their own sin in His holy presence.
In Luke 5, Peter was fishing and couldn’t catch anything. The Lord came along and told him where to let his nets down. Peter obeyed, and his catch was so great that he couldn’t haul it in. When he finally got help from another boat to bring in the catch, there were so many fish that both boats began to sink. It was a demonstration to Peter of Jesus’ deity. Peter “fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’” (Luke 5:8). All he could see was his own sinfulness when confronted with the power and presence of our holy God.
We need to cultivate that same attitude, remembering that we not only live our lives before the eyes of a holy God, but that His Holy Spirit dwells within us. Being ever mindful of God’s presence is vital if we’re going to live worshipful lives that glorify Him.