in a brief series on corporate worship
Our God is a God of many and different attributes.
One the one hand, he is a God
of great love and mercy. He
shows deep compassion and is long suffering.
He is the Suffering Servant who
became a willing sacrifice for our sins. We can know him personally.
He is approachable and instantly accessible to us through prayer. He lives within all
genuine believers by the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, God is also
all-knowing, omnipresent and all powerful. He is infinite in power and glory.
He is holy—sinless angels do not dare to look upon him.
He is the Judge of all and Absolute
Lord over of all creation. He
is the Creator God—who spoke the
Word and the universe materialized out of nothing.
He is not like us. These different sets of attributes of God often elicit
different responses from his worshippers. Yet, both in our daily, moment by moment worship of God and when we come together
corporately, we are called to worship this God in response to all
of his manifold splendor and glory—his power and holiness as well as
his compassion and mercy. As
we continue our brief series on what the Bible has to say about corporate
worship, the question we seek to address this morning is—“How can our corporate worship of God reflect his manifold
This is not an abstract theological
very different ways that believers answer this question has been the
source of much conflict over corporate worship in many churches.
This question highlights part of what separates two polar extremes in the
church on this issue. Tim Keller calls one of these imbalanced extremes,
“historic worshippers” –those who believe that all contemporary worship is “incorrigibly
corrupt.” The other extreme he labels “contemporary
worshippers” who make statements like “pipe
organs and choirs never reach people today.” This question of how
to worship a God who has these many different attributes is not the
only issue separating these two camps—there
are others--but it does explain part of the
dividing line separating the two.
On the extreme end of the
historic worship continuum are people who believe that God’s holiness and power and other
similar attributes require that corporate worship should be marked only by reverential fear and awe. The people at this
end of the spectrum tend to look with suspicion on any sort of joy
or celebration in corporate worship.
On the extreme end of the
contemporary worship continuum are those who believe that their great
personal intimacy with God who is their Father
and best friend dictates that corporate worship should be an explosion of joy filled with emotional, individualized
and sentimental expressions of their closeness to God.
These people have only a vague idea of what reverence is and they
rarely express that in worship. As worshippers, all of us fall somewhere between those two extremes on that continuum
and where we sit on that spectrum influences the kind of worship services
in which we feel most comfortable. Ideally, where we sit on that continuum is the
result of a careful study of the Scripture and deep personal theological
reflection, but more often, where we are owes more to our church background.
If a person grew up Lutheran or
Presbyterian in the 60’s (and feels ok with that) they
are probably closer to the historic worshippers.
If someone was saved within the
Pentecostalism of the 70’s, (and they
remain in that group) they are probably more comfortable nearer the
contemporary end of things.
This morning, we want to search the
Scriptures to find a Biblical balance between these two extremes. We must first however
examine the Bible’s testimony of God’s attributes, specifically two
of his broad attributes that, according to the stereotype, coincide
with these two differing approached to worship.
That is--we must give a very brief overview of some Biblical texts that display
first, God’s transcendence—the “otherness”
of God and second, God’s immanence—the “nearness” of God.
Generally speaking, those who stress the
importance of reverence in worship of God tend to do so in response to his transcendence, while those who most
often stress the importance of expressing intimacy with God tend to
do that in response to his immanence. We are defining these two attributes very broadly
to keep things as simple as possible.
God’s transcendence and his immanence both speak to how he relates to his
is transcendent over his creation in that “he
made it and rules over it.” God is far above his
is an “otherness” to God---he is not like us—he is unique and stands
in the solitude of himself.
David says in Second Samuel 7:22, “22 Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you…” God’s holiness
and majesty and splendor and greatness and infinitude would be grouped under this broad understanding of his transcendence. God is immanent in
that he “remains in”
creation. God is with us—he
has spoken to us through his word. God became a man and lived among us.
If we are in Christ, we are his friend.
The Bible teaches both God’s transcendence and his immanence. We see his transcendent
holiness displayed in countless Biblical texts.
Some of the more bracing examples
of his holiness are seen in places like Exodus
20:18-19. Immediately after the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandment, we read, “18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled,
and they stood far off 19 and said to
Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
The Jews had seen only a dim reflection of God’s holiness in the
smoldering mountain, the lightning and thunder and the
sound of the trumpet, but that was enough for them. They feared for their
lives and so they authorized Moses to speak to God on their
is a display of reverence for God. They showed their reverence by physically backing
even further away from him and by requesting that they
not to relate to God on a personal level at
They would relate to God through Moses.
We see this dynamic again when God calls Isaiah to be his prophet. As Isaiah beholds
God in his exalted and regal splendor as the King who sits on his throne,
high and lifted up, his initial response is recorded in 6:5
“5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in
the midst of a people of unclean
lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah sees this One
whom angels with veiled faces worship by singing, “Holy, holy, holy is
the Lord God Almighty, the whole earth full of his glory” and he is emotionally and psychologically overwhelmed by him.
Two chapters later he says in 8:13, “13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and
let him be your dread.”
The word translated “dread” means to “cause to tremble.”
God is holy and we are sinful.
Therefore, an encounter with him might very well “cause us to tremble.” Falling prostrate
on the ground is the perhaps
most common response to people who are confronted with God’s holiness.
In Revelation chapter one, we read that the
Apostle John beheld the glorified Christ and he “fell
at his feet as though dead” [Rev 1:17] when he encountered the
holiness of the exalted Christ.
The primary Hebrew word for worship in the
Old Testament and the word for worship used most often in the
Greek New Testament are both literally translated, “to
bow down.” Reverence
for God is implied even in the main Biblical words used for worship. Because God is holy,
his people must be reverent in worship. Not only is God transcendent in his holiness, he is also transcendent in his “otherness.” He is other. God
is not simply a much larger version of ourselves.
He is essentially different from us and when people in the
Bible encounter God in his otherness, reverence is the
most common response. In
Mark four, the disciples are in a fishing boat when a terrifying storm
pummels their boat to the
point of sinking. Jesus
is asleep on a cushion as the storm batters their
terror, they call on Jesus who wakes up and rather
matter-of-factly stands up and says to the storm, “Peace,
be still” and the waves immediately
and dramatically calm. In
verse 41, we read the disciples’ response. “41 And they were filled with great
fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
When Jesus displays his divine authority over the
elements, the disciples show great reverence toward him. This is the
LION of the tribe of Judah. People revere and
fear lions—and this Lion is in a class by himself. We see this again in Hebrews 12:28-29.
In response to our salvation and the
unshakable nature of God’s kingdom, the writer responds by saying,
“28 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, 29
for our God is a consuming fire.”
Reverence and awe are acceptable in our worship to this consuming fire of
a God. He
is other—not like us—a consuming fire.
If God’s transcendence were the
only divine attribute taught in the Scripture, one of the
implications for us would be that our worship would be exclusively characterized by awe and reverence—holy fear
before this transcendent, holy God. But the Scriptures also speak of God as being
immanent—near to us—accessible to us. We see this most clearly in the incarnation
of Christ. God has come near to us and has dwelt among us in the Person
of Jesus Christ. His
disciples did not exclusively relate to him in reverence.
They were not in a constant state of awe and fear when they
were with him. In
the gospels, his immanence brings out other
forms of worship from those who loved him. In John 12, we see a very sincere form of worship, but it could not be called exclusively
verse three we read that while Martha was serving dinner and Lazarus was reclining at the
table with Jesus, “3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive
ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his
feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
This is most certainly a form of worship, but Mary is not trembling here,
she is wiping expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus with her hair. This is an example
of great intimacy shown
by a worshipper in response to the immanence of Christ. Intimacy with God
in response to his immanence is also seen clearly in the Old Testament. The Psalmist writes,
in Psalm 42, “1
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you,
O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come
and appear before God? 3 My tears have
been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” 4
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would
go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts
and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.” David here is panting, thirsting, yearning after God and pouring out his soul to him. He is no trembling
here—he is yearning for him—“When shall I come and appear before God?” This
is profound intimacy with God as he recalls going with the throng to
God’s house with glad shouts and songs of praise. In Isaiah 54:5 God tells Israel,
your Maker is your husband…”
“Husband” speaks of the most intimate
relationship one person can have with another.
Jesus tells us to address God in prayer as “Our
Father.” This is why J.I Packer
and so many others have said, “The
Christian name for God is “Father.”
There is intimacy here—God is our Abba, our Father. Jesus is not only
the Lion; he is also the
“Lamb of God.” People
don’t typically tremble in the presence of a lamb.
We see another form of intimacy
with God in David’s worship in Second Samuel chapter six when he and the
priests are bringing back to Jerusalem the
Ark of the Covenant—the throne
of God. In
verse 14 it says, “And David danced before the LORD with all his might…” The word translated
“dance” here describes a particular kind of Ancient Near Eastern dance where the
dancer whirls and whirls around. Instead of trembling, David is here displaying a “whirling worship,” if you will. There is intense joy,
extreme exultation. As
we saw last week from the Psalms, the
Bible is filled with expressions of joyous exultation, many of which convey an intimacy with God.
In light of our call to worship this transcendent and immanent God, how do
we worship in a way that reflects or does justice to both these sets
of divine attributes? And
in light of the Scriptural examples of both reverence and intimacy, how do we balance a reverence for God with an intimacy
to God within corporate worship?
Here are two answers that I believe represent the
Bible’s teaching in response to those questions.
reverence for God and intimacy toward God in worship are not mutually exclusive to each other. One
reason many believers today don’t honor God in their corporate worship
is because they make the
unbiblical assumption that a person shows either reverence toward God or intimacy or joy toward God, but not at the
same time. Let
me sight a few verses that show us that it’s not either reverent trembling or intimate joy and yearning, it’s both.
First, in Psalm 2:11
David says, “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice
That command is ridiculous if fear and trembling and rejoicing are mutually
you have reverence—fear and trembling--mixed with the intimacy of rejoicing. We are called to rejoice
with trembling. The reason why reverence
and intimacy should not be separated is because God’s transcendence—his holiness and otherness
is never separated from his immanence—his nearness to us.
We mustn’t treat those attributes of God as if they
are mutually exclusive to one another. The Bible doesn’t separate them
and we’ll see more about why we must not in a moment.
Earlier we quoted the first part of Isaiah
54:5 as an illustration of God’s immanence—God is a husband to his people.
But that verse also teaches God’s transcendence—his holiness. It says in full, “5 For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel
is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” It’s true that
God is referred to as a husband and that surely conveys his immanence, but he is also called “your Maker,” “the
Lord of hosts,” “the holy one of Israel”
and “the God of the whole
earth” all of which trumpet his transcendence.
God clearly feels no need to separate his transcendence from his immanence.
earlier quoted Hebrews 12:28 where God is revealed as a consuming fire to whom we must show reverence and awe.
But don’t miss the first part
of the verse that tells us how else we are to respond to this God. “28 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, 29 for
our God is a consuming fire.” There is obviously no contradiction in God’s eyes between, on the
one hand, responding to him as our consuming fire with reverence and awe, and also with gratitude—“…let us be grateful…”
Celebration is implied here right alongside reverence.
Finally, let’s look at Isaiah 57:15.
“15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted
up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and
also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
God is high and lifted up, he inhabits eternity, he dwells in the
high and holy place--his name is Holy. But in the next breath he says that he also
dwells with sinful people and not with the powerful and famous, but
with the contrite and lowly spirit—to revive the
spirit of the lowly and the
heart of the contrite.
This is poignant tenderness from God.
Again, the transcendence and immanence
of God are on display side by side.
Because God does not separate his transcendence from his immanence, we must
not separate our reverence for him from our intimacy with him as if they
were like two Pyrex beakers filled with different chemicals.
No. Reverence and intimacy are like two chemicals that have been brought together
to form a chemical compound—sodium chloride--salt, or H2O--water.
Our reverence and intimacy for God must be kept together. The catalyst that
brings together these two
seemingly incompatible responses and binds them together
is the Person of God in his transcendence and his immanence. We must express both of these
affections in our worship to God. Sometimes we may experience more joy and tenderness and yearning toward God, while at
others--more awe and wonder and amazement, but we should never think
that one response mutually exclude the other. As we have seen, the
Bible teaches that we should express reverent
joy in response to his manifold Person. We are called to express reverent
intimacy to God.
Frankly, one of the big problems
with many who worship within the sphere of contemporary evangelical
corporate worship is that they throw out all reverence in the
name of joy and intimacy. That’s
very shallow and unbiblical.
That’s not recognizing God as immanent and transcendent. Frankly, that’s not acceptable worship—that’s a party--and if taken to
extremes, it can be blasphemous. God becomes our “bud” who doesn’t care how we worship as long as it is filled with passion. Likewise, the
stereotypic imbalance within historic worship is showing reverence toward God, but with no joy or a sense of intimacy
with him. In
this extreme, God becomes so “other”—that we cannot reach him at all and there
is no passion because this God is so distant that you really can’t know him on a very personal level. That’s not Biblical
And that takes us to our second answer more directed toward the
question—what is the balance between worshipping God in his transcendence
and worshipping him in his immanence? When we understand the relationship between
God’s transcendence and his immanence as he relates to us, we will be able to see the
relationship between worshipping God with reverence and with intimacy.
Here’s one way to explain that relationship and help us discover the
balance between reverence and intimacy with God in worship.
we worship God, we must do so understanding that his immanence with us is meaningless apart from his transcendence. To
put it another way—there
can be no true joy—no wonder in genuine intimacy with God unless he is transcendent.
The fact that God is transcendent in his holiness and his otherness
is what makes his immanence with us so infinitely precious.
This is very important because it has many implications that go well beyond
corporate worship. Here’s
what this means. If
God isn’t so holy that he is rightly to be held in fear and trembling, if God isn’t high and lifted up in the
dazzling splendor of his transcendent majesty, if God isn’t a consuming fire, if God isn’t able to speak to the
wind and wave and make the storms cease, if Jesus isn’t so glorious
that his glorified face causes his best human friend to a fall into a dead faint—if all that transcendent holiness
and otherness are not part of his character, then
the fact that he is our husband and father
is drained of all significance. What gives meaning to God’s mercy and grace and patience and kindness and generosity to
us—his immanence--is the fact that the
One who stoops to love us in Christ is the infinite, holy, Almighty,
Creator God who rules over the entire universe.
If God isn’t magnificent in his splendor, there
would be no good reason for David’s soul to pant and thirst for him. The reason he was whirling around in the
streets, dancing with all his might before the Lord as the
ark was brought into Jerusalem, is because of the
extreme joy that entered his soul at the prospect of having the
Lord of the
universe dwell among his people in Jerusalem. When Mary anoints
Jesus’ feet with perfume, her deep intimacy with Jesus was motivated by her profound reverence for him. Although she couldn’t
know the full extent of how different he was from her, she certainly
expressed sincere reverence for Jesus by doing the work of a slave
and wiping Jesus’ feet, using her hair as a rag.
This was an intensely humbling thing to do—like what someone would do for
a beloved and mighty King. Also,
the oil she used was “a pound
of expensive ointment made from pure nard.”
One scholar estimates that it would have taken 300 days wages to buy this
wasn’t expressing only intimacy with Jesus here—her response to Jesus was riddled with deep reverence and wonder. Her reverence for
Christ is what drove her to this level of intimacy with him. God is our Father—intimacy. But he is our Heavenly Father--transcendent
is the Lamb of God, but he never stopped being the
Lion of the Tribe of Judah—not for an instant!
The best illustration of the
relationship between God’s transcendence and his immanence is in the
gospel itself. In
Christ’s incarnation, the transcendent, enthroned King of the
universe comes to earth to live among us sinners.
What gives the immanence of Christ’s
incarnation meaning is that the babe in Bethlehem
was the Almighty, infinite GOD of all creation.
What causes us to worship God for the
profound immanence he showed in the death of Jesus is that the
One who hung up there as are our bloody sacrifice was God. “Amazing
love, how can it be, that THOU, MY GOD, shouldst die for me?”
If the immanent Lamb of God isn’t
also the transcendent Lion of Judah, then
we are not only lost in our sins—but the cross is utterly drained of
its wonder. What
gives weight and glory to the immanence of God’s loving compassion for
his children is his transcendent holiness that tells us we could never have earned his love—only his wrath apart
from Christ and the cross.
His holy, transcendent wrath is what makes his immanent love for us so amazing—we
don’t deserve it. Because
he is holy and must punish sin, only through the infinite cost of his
Son could his love be purchased for us. We must see that as we relate to God in worship—we must never divorce our
reverence for God from our intimacy with God.
Our intimacy toward God must never be in a vacuum—but must remain in the
context of God’s transcendence. The fact that an infinite and holy God--who created the
universe and rules over every centimeter of it--would want to be with me and call me—a fallen, sinful creature
his “friend”—is what ignites Biblical, God-honoring worship.
When we separate out reverence for God from our intimacy with him, our worship
ultimately becomes self-centered instead of God-centered.
Instead of being amazed by the
fact that God in his great condescension would call us his friend, Jesus becomes “my friend”--as if it were a special honor for Jesus to be numbered among my friends. In that sense, Jesus
is not MY friend—I have by grace been made a friend of Jesus.
Although there are an increasing
number of good, God-centered praise choruses being published, there
are far too many that don’t have the smell of reverence about them
and they feel more like, as someone has said, “Jesus
is my boyfriend” love songs.
Songs and hymns that have only this sentimental or emotional appeal are not
reflective of a Biblically balanced view of God.
Likewise, if we sing of God’s transcendence, his otherness,
his holiness without an understanding that this God has come to us in mercy and grace in Jesus Christ and died
for us to make us his treasured possession, then our worship will be
sterile and lifeless. C.H.
Spurgeon said, “I can admire the
solemn and stately language of worship that recognizes the greatness of God, but it will not warm my heart or express
my soul until it has blended …with the joyful nearness of that perfect love that casts out
fear and ventures to speak with our Father in heaven
as a child speaks with its father
on earth. My brother, no veil remains.” The veil that separated
a holy God from sinful humanity has been ripped away and we can come into his holy presence and know his love for
us because of Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s immanence. May God give us the
grace to worship God in reverence and intimacy in response to the gospel
that reflects God’s transcendence and his immanence for his glory and our joy.