I love playing practical jokes, but one day I took things too far. At the Seventh-day Adventist university I attended many years ago, there was a secluded prayer garden near the religion department. Many of my fellow theology students and I would often retreat there to ask God to deliver us from another Hebrew exam or to help us find a wife.
One day I saw a fellow student, David, praying alone in the garden. I sneaked up on him, hid behind a tree, and in my deepest voice said, “David, take off your shoes! You are on holy ground!” I then peeked around the tree to catch his response.
I expected him to say something like “Ha! Ha! Gary, I know it’s you!” But he didn’t. Instead, I watched him reverently take off his shoes! I was suddenly flooded with guilt and quickly apologized to my friend and exited the garden. I’ve never forgotten that experience. The joke was on me that day, because unlike me, David demonstrated true reverence for God.
WHAT IS REVERENCE?
According to the KJV Bible Dictionary, “reverence” means “fear mingled with respect and esteem.”¹ In Scripture this taking off of one’s shoes was practiced by the priests so as not to bring dust or dirt into God’s presence. They also showed reverence by bathing, combing their hair, and putting on their special clothes before serving in His temple (see Lev. 10:6; 16:4; 21:10, NLT).²
You see, reverence is how one treats a king or dignitary. Many cultures and religions today embrace this same outward show of respect for those they hold in high esteem. Walking casually or carelessly into the presence of the King of kings would be out of the question for millions today.
But reverence extends beyond outward behavior and into every aspect of our lives. When we respect and fear God, we obey His laws. The first angel’s message of Revelation 14:7 says, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water” (RSV).³ This passage is a clear reference to the Sabbath, and therefore the expectation is that all who reverence God will obey all His commandments (Ex. 20:8-11).
This kind of deep respect for God may be one of our greatest deficiencies in the church today. This could be because we hear so little about His holiness. But our God is “set apart” (holy) from humanity in love, purity, righteousness, justice, and goodness. In fact, God is so holy He is described as being a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Heb. 12:29).
God is good, and He is the source and sustainer of all life, but it is not safe to approach Him irreverently. In Leviticus 10, two young priests, Nadab and Abihu, disregarded God’s directions. They went into the presence of the Lord and burned “unholy fire” before Him and were instantly consumed (verses 1, 2, RSV).
Why? Ellen White explains, “God designed to teach the people that they must approach Him with reverence and awe, and in His own appointed manner. He cannot accept partial obedience.”⁴
These two sons of Aaron knew better—they knew God had commanded them to use in their censers only fire He had kindled. But these two priests, intoxicated not only by liquor but by their privileged positions, demonstrated a foolhardy irreverence for God (verse 9).
So the Israelites were not led to falsely believe God was volatile or petty in His actions, Aaron was forbidden to publicly mourn the death of his sons. It is a dangerous thing to publicly sympathize with irreverent living and therefore cast reproach on the judgments of God.
God did not consume Nadab and Abihu in a fit of rage. The Bible says they were consumed by His holy presence—“So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them ” (verse 2, NRSV).
Why were they consumed? God Himself explains: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (verse 3). God expects reverence from His people.
Reverence or respect for God is demonstrated not in partial but in complete obedience to His commands. In Revelation 14:12 the Bible predicts that just before the coming of the Lord there will be a God-revering people waiting for Him: “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”
You might wonder where the gospel is in all of this. How can we approach God with confidence when we often fall short of the reverence due Him? One of the most famous Bible passages is John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” When we read this, we tend to interpret it solely as a promise, but it is much more than a promise—it is also a warning. Jesus is saying it’s dangerous to go into the presence of God unless we go through Him.
Interestingly, Nadab and Abihu not only offered “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1, KJV), an act of flagrant irreverence toward God; they also brought fire before God that was not from the altar sanctified by the blood of the lamb (Lev. 16:12; Ex. 30:10). In other words, they dared to come before the Father without the atoning blood of Jesus. They came with fire of their own making. In essence, they came before our awesome and holy God on the merits of their own righteousness and not on the merits of Jesus and His blood-bought righteousness by faith (Rom. 1:16, 17). Perhaps things would have been different if they had done this. In 1 John 1:7 we read, “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
What we need now more than ever is a deeper understanding of the holiness of God and the importance of “walking in the light” (reverence) of His presence. Then we would see more clearly our great need of Jesus, His grace and free gift of forgiveness, righteousness, and repentance from sin. Perhaps then, like my friend David, we would be quicker to take off our shoes in His presence.
Incidentally, several years after my prank backfired in the prayer garden, I met David, who went on to be a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He told me he never forgot that experience in the garden, because it was a direct answer to prayer. Apparently David was praying that God would give him a sermon illustration for his preaching class examination. His sermon title was “Moses and the Burning Bush”! When he suddenly heard a voice telling him to take off his shoes, it helped him connect with the message in a real way and gave him a great opening illustration! He told me he got an “A” on the sermon. Thank you, David, for having a great sense of humor and for reminding us to be reverent in the presence of our majestic, holy, and grace-filled King.