When we reach the summit of Hebrews, the author’s proof of the New Covenant’s superiority dismisses all potential debate with his moving conclusion, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22). In this soaring language, we see the magnificent position to which Christians have been raised where we, “sit together in the heavenly places in Christ” (Colossians 3:1). Immediately preceding this glorious depiction is the terrifying account of Exodus 19-20 when Israel could not help but fear, tremble, and stand in awe as they witnessed a raw display of divine power. In drawing this distinct contrast, the author infers that the magnificence Israel observed at Mt. Sinai pales in comparison with what God has prepared for the Christian. The enduring glory of the New far exceeds the fading, obsolete, and inferior glory of the Old. Though it was inferior, we must acknowledge that the arrival of this heavenly presence gave Israel reason to tremble and awe. Admittedly, Christians are challenged to imitate the reverence produced by the Old’s shadow in the reality of the New. We are “receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken,” but are we serving “God acceptably with reverence and godly fear?” (12:28). Yes, John declares, “God is love,” yet that same God remains the consuming fire which Israel witnessed engulfing a mountaintop (12:29). As the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, are we offering our Lord the reverence His stature and covenant demand?
Many must create reverence through a stimulation of the senses. Religions construct magnificent edifices, contrive intricate rituals, burn incense, paint or sculpt meaningful images, orchestrate rousing music, and clothe clergy with beautiful attire. All of these sensual means are intended to arouse feelings of inferiority, reverence, and piety in the worshiper. Using human reasoning, we would expect such marvelous wonders to inspire an enduring reverence. Yet, as Israel’s history illustrates, such means produce a godly fear that quickly passes. The same Israelites who trembled at the foot of Mount Sinai trembled a few months later at the spies’ reports of the seemingly invincible Canaanite armies. Gone were Mount Sinai’s fearful cries, replaced by complaints of bitter regret:
“If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims?” (Numbers 14:2-3).
How could this nation, chosen to witness wonders unrevealed to the rest of the world, lose their fear of God so quickly? Not even the voice of God thundering the Ten Commandments could produce a sense of fear or awe that lasted longer than a full term pregnancy.
Reverence is not motivated by external stimulation, but by the heart’s internal condition. God has always been concerned with the heart regardless of the era or individual. True, what Israel witnessed at Mt. Sinai was magnificent, not the least of which was hearing the voice of God. Yet as they were poised to enter Canaan, their hearts were, “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin,” making the word which they heard unprofitable since it was, “not…mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Hebrews 4:2). Why was the fear of God so quickly replaced by the fear of man? The bitter winds of iniquity and unbelief froze the hearts thawed by the fire of God’s magnificence. As with most other Christian qualities, proper godly fear (reverence) depends on our walking by faith, not by sight. Being, “divinely warned of things not yet seen,” Noah moved with godly fear by faith (Hebrews 11:7). If our faith is weak, how can we truly revere a God we cannot see? Reverence is very much a matter of the heart.
As the body of Christ, we are a family and many congregations actively foster a warm, inviting, encouraging, loving atmosphere. Familiarity, however, can breed irreverence. While fostering goodwill and fellowship is an honorable intention, our familiarity with one another can negatively influence how we revere God. Certainly, we should take care that our desire for a reverent atmosphere is not pursued to an extreme where any heartfelt expressions of love and joy are suppressed. Rigidity is not the same as reverence. But by the same token, we must realize that with Christian joy comes sobriety as well. Worshipping God as a corporate, assembled body is serious business. He is the Creator of the universe, the Savior of our souls. He deserves our heartfelt, faithful reverence. Let us take great care that in pursuing one good end we do not sacrifice another.
True, enduring reverence is a matter of the heart. Reverence is the heart’s realization that we are truly inferior and that God is worthy of our soul’s adoration. Sin and unbelief neutralize our heart’s capacity to revere God, sapping the very life out of godly fear. Let us all heed the words of the Hebrew author as he concludes his comparison of the Old and New Covenants, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).