‘And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles’ (Acts 2:43 ESV)
Many years ago, I remember climbing Snowdon. It was one of those days that we frequently get in Wales when the weather suddenly turns; wind appeared out of nowhere. A beautiful summer stroll turned into an arctic expedition; so drastically did things change that one ill-prepared woman was quite literally climbing on her hands and knees across a precarious arête, fearful for her very life.
Something similar happens after Pentecost: ‘awe [or fear] came upon every soul’ (Acts 2:43). Remember these believers are Jews. Many are A-grade Bible students, they have prayed and broken bread at the Passover since they were knee-high, but now there is a true substance to their religion. Now they have Christ and because of Pentecost, God is in their midst and a kind of bold fear breaks out. The sometimes comfortable routine of Bible teaching and prayer meetings is interrupted by the dawning realisation of the imminence of the Holy God.
The awesome Christ
There is some disagreement over the cause of this outbreak of fear and awe. The NIV alone suggests that everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs. Perhaps more helpful are the many other translations that identify both the awe and the wonders to be parallel effects of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, hence why I am only drawing attention to the awe here.
The order in which Luke describes this is particularly helpful: as the church gazes on the glory of Christ in the gospel, in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayer, it is then that the Spirit brings this sense of awe into the souls of those present. A true encounter with Christ occurs by faith in Christ and a true encounter with Christ is no small thing. I cannot help but wonder if we have lost our ‘awe’ of the gospel.
Too often preaching is exchanged for shallow entertaining, prayer meetings are full of requests but no awe, fellowship is superficial, communion becomes ritualistic. Yet, Luke awakens us to the reality of what happens when a person truly encounters the risen Christ through the Word of God: awe came upon them.
Fearful yet joyful
This awe is the soul awakening to the truth that the incomparable God of Heaven is here and at the same time it is the wonder that one such as I may stand boldly in his awesome presence. The disciples knew the same fear as Jesus turned hurricane force winds into a gentle summer’s day (Mark 4:35-41). Mark uses the same word as Luke to describe their reaction as Jesus calms the storm. They were in awe not simply because of what Jesus did, but because of who was in the boat with them, asking, ‘Who is this?’ (Mark 4:41).
This is the glorious truth of the Christian church: Christ is the Lord and Christ is present by the Spirit. Deep, happy trembling is the normal reaction when saints stand (or fall) before their Saviour. One need only think of John’s response to the glorified Christ in Revelation 1 and that was merely a vision!
Comfortable with Christ?
As well as growing comfortable, perhaps even religious in our practice of Christianity, there is a grave danger that we grow comfortable with Christ. That the one who is by nature awesome, who commands the violent storm, whom angels cannot look upon, shrinks to be malleable and small; a pocket-sized deity. The Christ whom the Spirit reveals to the early church is anything but small, he invokes trembling, joy-filled fear in the hearts of those that gaze upon him and love him.
However, no matter how awesome the church’s apprehension of the risen Christ may be now, it is just a pale shadow of what is to come. John Owen calls this awe-struck beholding of the glory of Christ but ‘the dawning of Heaven’ and ‘the first fruits of glory’. The best is truly yet to come. Surely, the day is coming when we, with the elders in glory, will fall face down before the dawning of the awesome presence of the King of Glory as the host cry out ‘Holy, holy, holy.’ What a glorious day that will be!
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