HH Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:–Revelation 1:17
John was a prisoner in the Isle of Patmos when he had this revelation of Jesus Christ. He had been banished thither because he was a Christian; and if the early legends can be trusted, he was condemned to the hard slavery of the Patmos mines. But sweet are the uses of adversity. There are some things we cannot learn in Babylon that become plain to us in sea-girt Patmos. There are some sights we are blind to in the markets: our eyes are only opened in the mines. It was not at home that Jacob had his Bethel: it was in the hills, a wanderer and alone. It was not at Pharaoh’s court that Moses saw Jehovah in the burning bush: it was when fleeing from Pharaoh in the desert. It was not in peaceful days that Stephen saw heaven opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God: it was in the hour of martyrdom. And this vision of Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last, whose head and hairs were white as snow and whose eyes were as a flame of fire,–this vision came to John, an exile in the mines. “It is adversity,” says Bacon in his priceless essays, “which carrieth the greater benediction, and the clearer revelation of God’s favour.”
Now there are many lessons in this story. An old and fragrant commentary that I opened on the chapter rises into a height of eloquence, lost in this day and age, over these eyes that were like a flame of fire. But I want to centre on one point only. I want to take this falling-down of John as a true instance of a truly reverent spirit. John saw, John worshipped, John adored. And we are living in a world that’s full of God, and we have something better than a vision; we have the word of prophecy. And do we stand or fall upon our faces, and are we reverent or are we not? that is the question.
I do not think that the most cheerful optimist would dare to assert this was a reverent age. Of course we shall always have some reverent souls in every congregation, but reverence is not a note of modern life: still worse, it is not a desire. There was a time when to be thought reverent was an honourable thing. Now, to be thought reverent is to be old-fashioned. Men want to be smart and clever and successful, and somehow reverence does not agree well with these. We are all busy: few of us are reverent. Yet without reverence life is a shallow thing, and true nobility of character is impossible; and without reverence, we shall be strangers to the end to all that is best and worthiest in our faith.
The Lack of Reverence
Can we explain the comparative absence of this grace? I think we can. It springs from certain features of our modern life, and the first of these is the wear and hurry of it. It is no chance that the most reverent hour in Moses’ life was in the desert. It is no accident that John fell down as dead, not in the streets of Babylon, but in the isle of Patmos. It was no whim, though it seems whimsical to us, that a prophet of reverence whom we lost a week ago should have denounced our crowded city life. It is not easy for an overdriven man to keep a reverent heart. It is very hard to feel perpetual reverence when life for thousands is a perpetual rush. When you travel fast enough by train, mansions and towns and woods and battlefields flash for an instant and are gone, and the great things are but little for the speed. So in the rush of life, worrying, leisureless, the great things of the soul and of the universe are dwarfed, and it is hard to be a reverent man. There is a certain leisure needed for the cultivation of a truly reverent spirit, a certain inward quietness, a certain detachment from the present day. But do note that leisure is a thing of heart and not of hours. Some of our hardest workers, who never enter a church door, it may be, are far more reverent, and being more reverent are better men, than many a church-goer who never felt the awe of things and never fell down at His feet as dead.
The lack of reverence too, I cannot doubt, is partly due to the spirit of inquiry of today. God knows that if to be reverently meant to be ignorant, some of us, in the eagerness to know, would say farewell to reverence forever. But is not the keenest teacher sometimes as reverent and humble as a little child? We had great teachers in my day at Secondary School, men known in every Sphere of life in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in different languages–and only to hear them was to be reminded of Sir Isaac Newton who felt like a little child picking some pebbles from the shore and casting them into the infinite ocean of the truth. Still, for all that, it is the truth that an inquisitive age is rarely reverent. And of all inquisitive and critical times, I fancy we have fallen on the worst. We are all eager: few of us are reverent. We are never afraid to criticize, but we have almost forgotten to adore. We can discuss these seven golden candlesticks, and trace the sources of the vision in Daniel, and smile at the strange mixing of the metaphors; but “when I saw Him,” says John, “I fell at His feet as dead.”
But this present lack of reverence has another source: it is the dying-out from heart and conscience of the fear of God. “Ah, Rogers,” said Patriarch Dr. Granville Williams of Barbados to his congregation,–” ah, Rogers, no one fears God now.” And there can be little question that in the largest sense Patriarch Dr. Granville Williams was right. Man’s views of God have changed in the past century. It was the Sovereignty of God that was the watchword once. It is the Fatherhood of God that is the watchword now. And no man can quarrel with that change of emphasis when we remember how it has flashed the new light upon the love of God and kindled into meaning many a page and parable. But things are not right if we can only love God more by reverencing Him less. And who can doubt that something of the majesty, and something of the grandeur, and something of the awesome fear of God is gone in this reiterated insistence on His Fatherhood? I sometimes think God had a special purpose in giving us the Old Testament in our Bible. With all its difficulties, I feel it was preserved to counteract a natural tendency of man. For God in the Gospel comes so very near us, and the love of God shown in the love of Jesus is so brother like, that only to realize it is to run the danger of forgetting reverence and growing very familiar with God. And it takes all the Psalms and all the prophets, with their magnificent Gospel of a Sovereign God, to make us fall down at His feet as dead. O living Spirit, open our eyes and give us back again something of the fear of God! For we shall never love or serve Thee well till we have learned to reverence Thee more!
What Is Reverence?
Now, what is reverence? It has been variously defined, but perhaps the old definition is the best. It is the practical recognition of true greatness. It is my attitude of heart and mind when I am confronted by the truly worthy and the truly great. It does not matter of what kind the greatness is: it may be the greatness of my brother’s character, it may be the greatness of this mysterious world, or it may be the greatness of Almighty God; but the moment I see it, feel it and recognize my place, I am a reverent man.
And that is the condemnation of the irreverent man. He may be clever, but he is always shallow. He may be smart, but he is blind. To live in a universe like this and to find nothing to reverence is to condemn, not the world, but myself. Irreverent men are often amusing and are always selfish. For not to see and feel what is sublime, and not to be touched by what is truly great, is a true token of a selfish heart. The other side of reverence is humility. The other side of irreverence is pride. It is the curse of the irreverent heart that underneath all lightness and all jest it is a stranger to the humility of Jesus.
Now, where does individual irreverence begin? I think that generally, it begins at home. When I have ceased to reverence myself, it is the hardest thing in the whole world to reverence my brother and to reverence God. If I am mean, I shall read meanness in my neighbour’s heart. If I am selfish, I shall find selfishness in the most Christlike thing my neighbour ever did. We all get as we give. If there is nothing great in you, no hope, no ideal, you pay the penalty by finding the world mean. If there is any glimmering of greatness in you and any passion for righteousness and God, it is wonderful what a grand world this becomes, and what new worth we find in other men, and what a majesty we see in God.
The Reverence of Jesus
Now there are two things in the life of Jesus that arrest me. And the first of these is His reverence for God. Jesus knew God as God was never known on earth before. God was His Father in far deeper senses than He is yours or mine. His intimacy with His Father was complete. He was at home with God. Yet nothing can match the perfect reverence of Christ towards this Father He knew and loved so well. I can always speak of Jesus’ fellowship with God. It is a misuse of language to speak of Jesus’ familiarity with God. There are an awe and reverence in all the recorded communication of Jesus with His Father that is as wonderful as His perfect trust.
But still more arresting than the reverence of Jesus for His God is the reverence that Jesus had for man. Sometimes you reverence a man because you do not know him well; you get to know him better, and your reverence dies. Christ knew men thoroughly. Christ knew men through and through,–their thoughts, their hopes, their fears, their weaknesses, their struggles, and their passions. Christ saw each sin more deadly and each vice more horrible than the most tender conscience in its most tender hour had ever dreamed of. If you had seen what Christ had seen, you would have spumed your brother. If you had known what Jesus knew, you would have spat on him. The wonder is Christ reverenced him still, still thought it worth His while to teach him, still though man great enough to live for, still though man great enough to die for. There never was a reverence so loving, there never was a love so sweetly reverent, as the love of Jesus Christ for you and me, fallen men, yet still in our ruin not without tokens of a heavenly greatness and of the God who made us in His image!
Lessons to a More Reverent Life
So as I think on reverence, and link it with the supreme reverence of Jesus, I learn three lessons that may guide us to a more reverent life.
And first, if we are ever to grow reverent again, we must know more. The reverence of ignorance is gone. Half-knowledge is irreverent: a fuller knowledge will make us reverent again. Jesus was reverent because His knowledge was perfect: we are irreverent because our knowledge is shallow. When we know man, far off, as Jesus knew him, we shall find something to reverence in our most ordinary brother. When we know God as Jesus knew Him, we shall adore. And is that knowledge possible to me? Thank God, through daily fellowship with Christ, I may follow on to know the Lord.
And then, if we are ever to grow reverent again, we must trust more. If John had never trusted Christ, he never would have seen the vision and never would have fallen at Jesus’ feet as dead. I cannot reverence a man whom I distrust, I cannot reverence a God. It wants deep faith to make me reverent. It wants a perfect faith like Jesus had to make me perfectly reverent like Him. I never can be noble without reverence. I never can be reverent without faith.
And if we are ever to grow reverent again, we must love more. There never was a time when so much was spoken and written about Christian love. If we loved more and said less about it, we might revive our dying reverence. Oh, how much of our so-called love to Jesus is spurned by an infinite God because the feeling of reverence is not in it. It is so easy to talk of leaning on Jesus’ bosom. It is so easy to forget that he who leaned on Jesus’ bosom fell down at Jesus’ feet as dead. I plead for more love, not to increase, but to remove that light familiarity that blots our Christian service. For love reveals, love sees, love breaks the bars, love reads the secrets both of man and God. And when I have seen my brother’s secret story, and when I have seen into the deep things of God, I never can be irreverent again.