“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…’”
The terrifying presence of God (Leviticus 9:23,24)
The Israelites had made and set up the Tabernacle; the first priests had been consecrated, and the very first sacrifices had been offered. Then the glory of God was manifested visibly to the people, to signify His approval and acceptance of all that had been done. And their instinctive reaction was to prostrate themselves on the ground – in fear, and in worship.
Their fear was not misplaced. Within a few hours, two of the priests were dead, having violated God’s strict instructions for worship (Leviticus 10:1-3). Yahweh cannot possibly be described as a ‘tame’ or ‘safe’ God; He must be treated with great respect!
Holy ground (Joshua 5:13-15)
This was a critical time for Joshua and the Israelites. They had entered Canaan and the Jordan was now behind them, cutting off their retreat. Directly ahead lay the powerful walled town of Jericho. It was as Joshua was reconnoitring Jericho (alone, or with only a few companions) that he was alarmed by the sudden appearance of an armed stranger. Showing considerable courage, Joshua went to meet him, not knowing if he was friend or foe. But when the ‘man’ identified himself as “Commander of Yahweh’s army” (verse 14), Joshua recognised who he was and immediately “fell face down to the ground in reverence.”
To be in the presence of an angel is terrifying enough (e.g. Luke 1:12), but the Commander of Yahweh’s army is no mere angel (Revelation 19:11-14). In His presence, Joshua was in the presence of God Himself – and he reacted as the prophet Ezekiel reacted when he first encountered God (Ezekiel 1:26-28). We are not God’s equals; we are infinitely below Him, and in His presence we have no choice but to bow down.
In the presence of the Lord (Luke 5:1-10)
Through following Jesus’ instructions, Simon and his friends had made a once-in-a lifetime catch of fish. Simon knew that this was something totally out of the ordinary; then suddenly he realised what the implications were, and he reacted as one in the presence of God. Like the prophet Isaiah in the Temple (Isaiah 6:5), he became keenly aware of his personal incompatibility with divine holiness. But Jesus immediately said to him, “Don’t be afraid…” (verse 10) He called the four fishermen to follow Him – and over the next two to three years they got to know Him intimately, as a teacher and as a friend. In the person of Jesus, God made himself approachable and knowable, on (almost) equal terms.
But when, some sixty years later, one of the four fishermen saw the same Jesus once again, there was none of the easy familiarity that one might expect of two long-lost friends. Oh no! “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…’” (Revelation 1:17) Did John remember those words out of the distant past? It was the same Jesus, whose glorious presence may now be as terrifying as that of Yahweh to the Israelites in the wilderness, but who still reaches out to us in love and mercy.
Bow down and worship! (Hebrews 12:28,29)
As Christians, we can call the Creator of the universe ‘Father’. Isn’t that amazing? Because of what Christ has done, we can come into His presence without fear, knowing that we shall be both welcome and safe. And yet… we need to be regularly reminded of God’s awesomeness, lest our assurance develop into a casual ‘God is my mate’ attitude (Ecclesiastes 5:1). We can approach Him confidently, but not recklessly; our worship should be joyful, but we should beware of excessive frivolity.
This is a difficult balance to maintain, and all churches seem to drift towards either one extreme or the other. These days, because of our modern tendency to reject traditional authority and exaggerate the worth of the individual, we are probably more likely to err in the direction of over-familiarity. Yet, paradoxically, to downplay God’s terrifying holiness is to diminish our appreciation of His love; for it is only in that context that His love for unworthy human beings can be fully understood.