May 24, 1992

AWESTRUCK

“His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.  When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” (Revelation 1:16)

The Bible is full of fascinating things, but none are more fascinating than the visions in which God revealed himself to various people.  The God who makes himself known in these visions is splendid and majestic–so magnificent, in fact, that the people who had these encounters with him were nearly scared out of their wits.  They were completely awestruck.

The apostle John tells about a vision he had in the first chapter of the Bible book of Revelation.  Before I tell you about the vision, let me quickly tell you about John’s situation.  John had been Jesus’ best friend during the time the Lord lived on earth.  The Bible calls him “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  Years earlier, John had seen Jesus ascending into the clouds, and he hadn’t seen him since.  Meanwhile, Christians had fallen on hard times.  Many had been killed for their faith, and John, who was now very old, had been exiled to the island of Patmos.  It was there that John saw his friend Jesus once again.  John writes:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.  And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.  His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.  His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.  His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.  Then he placed his right hand on me and said:  “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One;  I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”  (Revelation 1:12-18)

What an overwhelming experience!  John had been very close to Jesus;  he had been Jesus’ closest friend;  he knew him better than anyone else.  And yet when John saw the ascended and glorified Christ, it was too much for him.  He was awestruck.  The presence of this magnificent person literally floored him.

How many of us who use the name “Jesus Christ” know who we’re talking about?  Those who are brazen enough to use his name as a swear word obviously don’t.  And how many who act very familiar with Jesus, who talk about Jesus casually as their pal and good buddy without any trace of awe and reverence–how many of these people really know Jesus at all?  Are they more familiar with the Lord than John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”?  John was Jesus’ best friend, and yet even he was completely overpowered when he encountered the blazing majesty of Jesus.

The Bible tells us that forty days after his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven.  It’s important for us to remember that Jesus’ ascension isn’t just something that happened once upon a time.  Jesus is very real right now, and the fact that he ascended means that he has taken his rightful position on the throne of heaven.  At this very moment, Jesus is surrounded with the same unimaginable power and overwhelming splendor that John encountered.

The glory of the ascended Christ is identical to the glory of God himself, and that glory is overwhelming.  In the Old Testament part of the Bible, we read how the Lord came to certain people in a very vivid, powerful, almost tangible way.  We see again and again that when these people really encountered the Lord God Almighty, they were completely awestruck.

Genesis 17 describes an encounter Abraham had with God.  “When Abram later named Abraham was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am El Shaddai, God Almighty;  walk before me and be blameless.'”  How did Abraham react to this?  He fell on his face, overwhelmed.  Now, remember, this is the same Abraham whom God refers to as “my friend” (Isaiah 41:8), and yet when he encountered the eternal and awesome God, the one who called himself “El Shaddai,” Abraham’s first reaction was to fall face down in awe and adoration.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob (later renamed Israel) also encountered the Lord.  Genesis 28 says that one night Jacob

had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on in.  There above it stood Yahweh Jehovah, the Lord and he said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.’

The Lord then gave Jacob some wonderful promises, but the thing I want you to notice right now is Jacob’s reaction.  The Bible says, “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’  He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place!'” (Genesis 28:12-13, 16-17).

In Exodus 3 the Bible tells how the Lord first revealed himself to Moses.  Moses saw a bush that was on fire, and yet the bush didn’t burn up.

So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses!  Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said.  “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  Then he said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  At this Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.  (Exodus 3:3-6)

There you have it again.  Abraham, Jacob, Moses–they all felt an overwhelming dread and awe in God’s presence.

When we turn to the Old Testament prophets, we discover that they reacted in much the same way to visions of God’s splendor.  Isaiah chapter 6 tells about an astounding vision of divine glory.  Isaiah writes,

I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him were seraphs, each with six wings:  With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they were flying.  And they were calling to one another:  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;  the whole earth is full of his glory.”  At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried.  “I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Isaiah’s initial reaction to his encounter with God was that he was filled with a holy terror.  He felt utterly ruined and unworthy to be in God’s presence.  Isaiah was then graciously assured that his sins had been taken away, and the Lord commissioned him to be a great prophet who would speak the word of God.  But Isaiah never lost his sense of the majesty and mystery of the Lord Almighty.  And not only was the Lord too much for Isaiah, but he is also too much for angelic beings.  In Isaiah’s vision, even the seraphs had to cover their eyes in the presence of the holiness of the Lord Almighty.

In the book of Habakkuk, we meet someone else who was overwhelmed by the transcendent holiness and irresistible judgment of God.  Habakkuk says,

“His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth.  His splendor was like the sunrise;  rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden…  I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound;  decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled” (Habakkuk 3:3-4,16).

Still another person who encountered the radiance of God’s majesty was the prophet, Ezekiel.  He saw “what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man.”  Ezekiel writes,

I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire;  and brilliant light surrounded him.  Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was that radiance around him.

How awesome that experience must have been!  But Ezekiel doesn’t claim that even a vision as overwhelming as this was a direct view of God.  That would be more than any human being could take.  He says only, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”  It was only a glimpse of a reflection of God’s glory, but even that was enough to floor Ezekiel.  He writes,  “When I saw it, I fell facedown…” (Ezekiel 1:26-28).

Let me give just one more example from the Old Testament, which we find in the book of Daniel, chapter 10.  Daniel says:

I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist.  His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.

I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision;  the men with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves.  So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision;  I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless.  (Daniel 10:5-8).

Now, remember, this man Daniel was the top member of the cabinet for at least two different kings.  He was accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the most powerful and impressive people in the world.  He wasn’t the kind of man who was easy to impress or intimidate.  But when Daniel found himself in the presence of the divine majesty, he was rendered utterly helpless.

Now, what these Old Testament encounters with the divine majesty show us is the glory that belonged to God the Son before he came to earth in the person of Jesus.  Notice the similarities between Daniel’s vision and what John describes in Revelation 1.  Like Daniel, John describes eyes that blaze like fire;  both Daniel and John mention a golden sash around the Lord’s waist;  both of them see feet that glow like bronze in a furnace.  When they describe his face, Daniel says it was “like lightning,” while John says it “was like the sun shining in all its brilliance,” but they are just using different figures of speech to describe the same dazzling radiance.  It’s clear that Daniel and John are both describing an encounter with the same divine person, and they both reacted in the same awestruck way.

Likewise, it’s clear that what Isaiah saw in his vision was the glory of Jesus.  The Bible says as much in John 12:41.  What the Old Testament writers described were visions of the divine glory before Jesus ever came to earth, and what John describes in Revelation 1 is a vision of the divine glory after Jesus returned to heaven.  If you have any doubts about whether the Bible teaches that Jesus is God, these visions alone should be enough to convince you.  The glory of Jesus is identical with the glory of God.

In Hebrews 1 the Bible puts it this way:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

Jesus’ humble work of sacrificing himself to take away the sins of his people was completed through his death and resurrection, and now he is again clothed with the glory that was rightfully his from before the dawn of time.

How shall we respond to this?  First of all, with humble worship.  The Psalms, perhaps, put it best:  “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).  “Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness;  tremble before him, all the earth.  Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns” (Psalm 96:9-10).  When you know Jesus as he is, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt.  It produces awe.

An encounter with the ascended Christ not only renews your sense of awe, but it also renews your courage.  When Jesus came to John, he did more than overwhelm him with splendor;  the Lord also touched his old friend on the shoulder and told him not to be afraid.  Jesus then showed John that in those troubled times, despite appearances to the contrary, he was still in charge of the world and watching over his church.  This knowledge gave fresh courage and a fresh determination to John and to the churches.  The fear of the Lord isn’t just the beginning of wisdom;  it’s also the beginning of true courage.

Your troubles don’t seem so big when you really know the triumphant Christ.  I remember being in the hospital at the bedside of a man just a few days before he died of cancer.  Even lying there in his hospital bed, Bill’s tired face was shining with joy.  He lifted one bony arm, from which an intravenous tube was dangling.  With his face glowing and his arm uplifted, he said, “Praise the Lord!  He is king!  He is king!”  Bill had a radiant faith in the ascended Christ.  He saw beyond his cancer to his king.

When you know King Jesus, you have the courage to triumph over difficult circumstances, and you also have the courage and love to deal with other people.  If you’ve been awestruck by the ascended Christ, you won’t find anybody else to be all that frightening.

In Acts 7 the Bible tells how a Christian named Stephen was confronted by a mob that was hostile to Christ.  But rather than playing it safe, Stephen told them the truth about Jesus and commanded them to repent.  They became insanely furious when he did this, but was Stephen afraid?  According to Acts 7, “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”  When Stephen saw this overpowering sight, somehow the mob’s murderous anger didn’t seem to matter.  Stephen wasn’t afraid of them;  he was afraid for them.  These poor fools were not prepared to face the blazing holiness of this awesome Lord.  So even as they killed him, Stephen asked the Lord to forgive them.

One of the ringleaders of the murderous mob that Stephen prayed for was a young man named Saul.  Jesus later appeared to Saul in a blinding light, a light brighter than the sun.  Saul fell to the ground, awestruck, and his rebellion against Jesus was crushed.  His encounter with Christ transformed him from a murderous persecutor into the apostle Paul, probably the greatest and most courageous missionary who ever lived.

So let’s not forget who Jesus is right now.  He isn’t a baby in a manger anymore;  he’s no longer a humble Judean carpenter;  he’s not the forlorn image you might see on a crucifix.  Jesus Christ is the person Stephen saw enthroned in heaven;  he’s the one who met Saul in a blinding blaze of light and stopped him in his tracks.  Jesus is the Lord who appeared in overwhelming visions to the Old Testament prophets;  he’s the one whose face shone like the sun in John’s vision.  He is nothing less than the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and he lays claim to you and to me and to every dimension of our lives.

Not only that, but this same exalted Jesus promises that he will one day return to earth with power and great glory to judge the living and the dead.  Revelation 1:7 says, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him;  and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.  So shall it be!  Amen.”

Are you ready for that day?  Are you ready for a face-to-face meeting with the divine Lord of the universe?  I don’t suppose any of us will ever be completely ready.  I’m not afraid of hell;  but I must admit that I’m a little afraid of heaven.  I trust that Jesus has died for my sins and risen again for my salvation.  I know I belong to him, and I’m eager for him to come again.  But I still tremble when I think about the moment I will first see the Lord in all his glory.  I will undoubtedly be awestruck and fall before him.  When I finally see the Lord I talked about so much as a preacher, I’ll probably be ashamed of how poorly my words reflected the stunning reality of his majesty.

We’ve seen that even those who have loved and trusted the Lord find him to be completely overwhelming.  If this is so, then what if you don’t acknowledge Jesus as your Lord?  If even the followers of Christ tremble at his greatness, how will you escape if you neglect such a great salvation and such a great Savior?  As the Bible says, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”  At the end of Revelation 6, the Bible says,

The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.  They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:14-17)

My friend, Jesus Christ is not just a story tucked away in the Bible;  he is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling;  he’s not safe or tame;  he’s not whoever you or I might imagine him to be.  Jesus is a very real person;  his dazzling glory is both wonderful and frightening beyond our wildest imagination.

If you have not been following him, you must turn to him now, before he comes again.  Otherwise, you will someday find yourself crying out in terror for the mountains to fall on you and hide you from his face.  That day hasn’t yet arrived.  Now is still the day of salvation.  So cry out to Jesus today.  Trust him as your Savior;  confess him as your Lord;  live your life in awe before his face. “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.”

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, our minds cannot begin to comprehend your glory.  When we should be awestruck, we often find ourselves bored or even unbelieving.  Forgive us, O Lord, for the sake of your sacrifice on the cross.  Open our blind eyes to the reality of your splendor and holiness.  Overwhelm us by your Spirit and direct us by your Word, that we may more and more know you as you are and worship you as you deserve.  Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.