Picture two men. The first stands in a soaring cathedral. His eyes and mouth are closed. His hands never leave the back of the pew in front of him. Around him, words are read or sung that speak the beauty of God’s transcendent holiness. He registers each truth with a small nod of his head and meaningful assent in his heart.
A second man paces back and forth along the side of a low-ceilinged room. Tears flow down his face and his hands punctate his prayers as he pleads with God to save his wife. Occasionally he groans and sinks to his knees as he reaches a place where words fail him but the burden remains.
Question: which posture embodies your definition of “reverence”?
“Reverence” usually calls to mind images of hushed tones, majestic stillness, and an inward sense of awe. And this is for good biblical reason. Hebrews 12:28 uses “reverence” with “awe” as parallel expressions of acceptable worship: “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Habakkuk 2:20 accompanies the Lord’s arrival in His temple with the command, “Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” The very word the New Testament uses for “reverence” carries the idea of caution. To reverence the Lord is to see Him as He truly is, to be sobered by the weight of His glory, such that we are stripped of all presumption and flippancy in His presence. Uzzah, in the Old Testament, and Ananias in the New, stand as vivid reminders to take the fear of the Lord with utmost seriousness.
To reverence the Lord, then, is to respond to Him on His terms, in the light of His perfection. That is why reverence is often pictured by prostrating ourselves before the Lord. Bowing before Him aligns the posture of our body with the posture of our spirit; He is our Creator, we are His creature.
But caution and silence are not the only notes Scripture sounds regarding our reverence. They are not the only way to make God look as awesome as He is. In a striking passage in Hebrews 5, the author invites us to key our own intercession off of Christ’s example. (The work that Christ does for us is the main emphasis in Hebrews, as it is in the Christology of the New Testament more generally. But the book is also peppered with reminders both that He is able to relate to us, and we are able to imitate Him). In verse 7, the example of Christ is described in this way: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” This is a remarkable piece of the Bible’s definition of reverence. Hebrews 5:7 considers the kind of loud cries and tears that emerge in a life or death struggle to be “reverence.”
The phrase “to Him who was able to save him from death” is key in helping us understand how such strenuous prayer can be counted reverent. This is a reference to Gethsemane, where Jesus not only faced his own physical death, but recognized that to draw back in disobedience to His Father’s will would condemn each of us to bear our own condemnation. So He sweat drops of blood praying, “not my will, but your will be done.” In this context, loud cries and tears are reverent because they tell the truth about who God is as our only hope for rescue. The volume and emotion of Christ’s intercession, in other words, is proportionate to the gravity of His situation and the unique power of God to effect deliverance.
Maybe an example will help. For a child lost in the woods not to cry out for their father would strike us as strange. It would most likely mean either that they did not recognize they were lost, or that they had no reason to hope their father would search until he found them. On the other hand, if they recognize their danger and trust the heart of their father, they will cry out.
In a similar way, for Jesus (and him as our example) to be facing death but not to pray – and pray with a kind of intensity that fits the moment of our salvation – would dishonor His Father. To choose silence in this situation would be out of line with what biblical reverence requires. Hebrews 5:7 means that our understanding of reverence must be wide enough to include loud cries and tears, when they are proportionate with the seriousness of our situation and the unique goodness of God as our Savior.
Thus reverence is both a broader and wider term than we might have imagined. It is broader because it can include both awe–filled silence and loud weeping. And it is deeper because it is not our closed eyes or our loud cries that determines the degree of our reverence. What reverence demands in any situation is determined by what God wants. And what He wants is to be made to look as uniquely glorious as He truly is. Sometimes that calls for a prostrated, mouth–covering, heart–trembling silence. And other times it will call for a tear–stained, sore–throated crying out.
If we only know one of these ways, there are times and places in our life when we are dishonoring God by being boisterous when silence is called for, or by being reserved when a Jesus-like volume is important. May God grant us wisdom in our worship, and so receive from His church the reverence He deserves.