I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: A Misunderstood Word
From a 1989 article in the magazine entitled 'Today in the Word' comes this illustration:
"In 1715 King Louis XIV of France died after a reign of 72 years. He had called himself "the Great," and was the monarch who made the famous statement, "I am the state!" His court was the most magnificent in Europe, and his funeral was equally spectacular. As his body lay in state in a golden coffin, orders were given that the cathedral should be very dimly lit with only a special candle set above his coffin to dramatize his greatness. At the memorial, thousands waited in hushed silence. Then Bishop Massilon began to speak; slowly reaching down, he snuffed out the candle and said, "Only God is great."
The good bishop is correct. Ultimately, there is only one who is great and that is the God of the universe. The Scriptures have a word that describes our Lord's greatness and that is the word awesome. It was the author Madeline L'engel who once wrote this about Him. She said:
"I share Einstein's affirmation that anyone who is not lost on the rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt-out candle."
Our God is truly an awesome God. However, the word awesome has been robbed of meaning today. We now use it so flippantly that anything can be awesome, from the latest movie that we saw at the theatre to the most recent version of the iPhone. But the word originally meant something deeper. We truly need to get back the earliest sense of this word in order to have a biblical idea of who our Lord really is and how we should respond to Him in our lives. Let us take a deeper look at this word awesome and then see how we can better understand our awesome God.
I. Definition and Biblical Understanding of Awesome
First of all, awesome is an adjective with the idea of 1) Inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe, or 2) Showing or characterized by reverence, admiration, or fear; exhibiting or marked by awe.
This leads naturally to the definition of "awe." According to Webster's Dictionary: " It is an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime."
In this sense, as we've said, God is the only person or thing of which we should truly be in awe. He alone is awesome. He is awe-inspiring.
In the English Bible the words awe or awesome are used almost exclusively of God's person and His works.
According to Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology:
While the word "awe" appears only rarely in the KJV, modern English versions such as the NASB and NIV translate as many as six different Hebrew words and three different Greek words as "awe" or "awesome." The most common Hebrew word is yare (fear)."
The dictionary goes on to talk about a common word in Greek that is similar to yare. That is the word phobos, which also can be rendered 'fear' but is sometimes translated as awe. An example of this is Acts 2:43, which says in the NIV version of the Bible:
"Everyone was filled with awe (phobos) at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles."
The truth is that any time a person confronts the presence of God in the Bible they inevitably will cower with fear. He is not a being that can be taken lightly or flippantly when met face to face. In fact, we can go so far as to say that there is absolutely no place in Scripture that a person confronts the living God in which he is not visibly shaken by the experience. Whether Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), or the prophet Isaiah who recorded his meeting with the Lord in Isaiah 6 where he says in verse 5 after seeing Him:
“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.”
Even the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road prostrated himself in fear and trembling (Acts 9:5).
But more than a mere emotion of fear, being in awe of God should cause someone to be disposed to act in a certain way. If we properly understand God's person, His works of creation and providence, His redemption and judgment, then these things should be seen as astounding to us. Indeed, they should be awe-inspiring. They rightly should cause us to humbly contemplate His being. This, in turn, should lead us to want to submit to his authority over the entire universe that He has created, and continues to sustain. This authority over creation includes all of us whom He has fashioned in His own image. We are beings that owe our very existence and purpose in life to Him. How does that not make us fall to our knees in utter reverence and submission?
Once again, Baker's Dictionary tells us that:
God's people are commanded to show proper regard for his power and dominion—his absolute authority to rule, and His power to perform what He will."
II. Biblical Examples of the Words Awe and Awesome
Before giving some further reasons that our God is awesome, let us just give a quick sampling of places where Scripture calls Him by that very term. To start with, there are three places in the King James Version of the God's Word that talk of standing in awe of the Lord. They are:
1. Psalm 4:4
"Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah."
2. Psalm 33:8
"Let all the earth fear the Lord: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him."
3. Psalm 119:161
"Princes have persecuted me without a cause: but my heart standeth in awe of thy word."
Further, the Bible uses the word “awesome” in the New King James Version 38 times. About 35 of those refer to God. All but once the word is used in the Old Testament.
In the New American Standard Bible and other newer versions, in Exodus 15:11,12 there is an instance of the word awesome used in the song which Moses and the Israelites sang. They are singing about Yahweh. The King James uses the word fearful here rather than awesome. The NASB says this:
"Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? “You stretched out Your right hand, The earth swallowed them."
We could name many other examples from the English Bible that God is called awesome or that we should be in awe of Him. However, I will give just one more here for the sake of brevity. In the book of Job chapters 36 and 37 Elihu highlights God's greatness. As part of these highlights, he says in verse 37:22 that:
"From the North comes golden splendor. Around God is awesome majesty."
Just looking at these Scriptures and all the others in the Bible, we can't miss the fact that our God is special and worthy of all the praise and honor that we can ever ascribe to Him.
III. God the Great 'I Am'
Now let us look at another reason that we should be in awe of God. It is the fact that He is the Great 'I Am.'
It was William Shakespeare who wrote: "What's in a name?" Well in biblical times names meant a lot more. In some way they represented a person's character or something prominent about him or her. When God told Moses to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land, this brought on a dialogue between the two of them in which God revealed a very important covenant name by which He became known. Here is the dialogue from Exodus 3:11-15 as seen in Scripture:
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain. "Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them? "God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you. ’God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ "This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation."
God is the Great "I Am." This is the name that the Lord gives to Himself, denoting His self-existence and eternality. All other creatures in this and any other universe are derived from the hand of God, and therefore had a beginning. God is the only self-existent person. He needs no other person from which He derives His existence. And He will always be this way. He was and is and ever will be. He is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. Before the first atom was formed, God was. His thoughts and words brought everything into being. And yet there was nothing before Him to bring Him into being. He just is.
This reason alone should be all that is needed to demand our respect and our awe. However, there is more.
IV. God the Unique Person
Another reason that He is awesome is that God is one of a kind. We can never compare Him to anyone or anything, because there is no other person, or anything like Him.
Further, when we talk about God being a Trinity, or one God eternally existing in three persons, there is no analogy that quite explains it. For God is the only true Trinity that there is in the universe.
We often say that it isn't good for people to be jealous. Yet, because of His uniqueness, God is said to be a jealous God (Exodus 20:4,5). We must be careful here to understand that God is not jealous in the same way we are. Our jealousy is more like being envious of something that someone has that we want or has qualities that we wish we had. God is not jealous in that sense. He doesn't have a need or a want for anything. He is completely self-sufficient. Rather these verses are used in the context of someone giving to something else what rightfully belongs to God. For, if the Lord is one of a kind, who else is worthy of our worship.
Exodus 20 is talking about God's people not having other gods or bowing down to them. The truth is, there is no god but the Lord. All others are idols. The only person who deserves our worship, indeed our awe, is the one and only God of the universe. In that sense God has a right to be jealous.
An example here might be a husband who sees another man flirting and making a pass at his wife. The other man is way out of line here, for there is only one husband and only he, the husband, has a right to flirt with his spouse. In God's case, it is His loved one flirting with something that isn't a real god.
So, we see that the uniqueness of our God leads us to be more awed by Him. A true awe and reverence for our one-of-a-kind God will keep us loyal and not attempt to seek a "substitute". For, truly, anything other than Him is a cheap imitation.
V. God, the Judge of All the Universe
The final reason that we'll look at that God is awesome, and we should reverence Him is the fact that He alone is the Judge of the universe. The Bible says in Isaiah 45:23,24 that every knee will bow before Yahweh, the Lord, and every tongue will confess allegiance to Him. Interestingly these verses are quoted and applied to God the Father in Romans 14:9-12 and applied to God the Son in Philippians 2:9-11.
Indeed, there will come a day when those who refuse to bow before Him now and acknowledge His awesomeness will wail before His vengeful presence and righteous judgment (Jeremiah 2:19; Zephaniah 2:11).
We see early in Scripture that Abraham first called God the judge of all the earth. It was in Genesis 18 when he was negotiating with the Lord over the fate of the wicked city Sodom which Yahweh wanted to destroy. Abraham said to God:
"Would you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Genesis 18:23-25)."
By saying this Abraham pinpointed a central feature of God's character. His fairness, impartiality and justice. God always does what is right and good. And He will judge every being, not only in the earth but, as we've said, in the entire universe in this manner. And fairness, impartiality and especially His justice, means that He won't let any person get away with sin and rebellion. This is why Jesus had to die to pay the penalty for sin, so God could be both the righteous judge and the loving Savior of all who accept Jesus' sacrifice on the cross by faith.
However, even the believer must stand before the judgment seat of Christ according to II Corinthians 5:10. This will be a judgment of reward for serving Him, or a loss of reward for doing things which are done for selfish reasons. I Corinthians 3:12-15 talks about this kind of works and compares them to wood, hay and stubble that will burn up before our eyes and for which we won't receive a reward.
Those who have a proper understanding of the awesomeness of Almighty God will not take this warning lightly but will want to please Him. A servant with a proper awe of God will want Him to say: "Well done, good and faithful servant!" This should be because of our respect and reverence for Him even more than our desire for reward.
As we summarize our findings about our God and now that we have a better understanding of what the biblical term awesome means, we must give the term back to the One for whom it was intended. Our God is truly an awesome Lord, and He alone deserves our allegiance, love, reverence and worship.
In an effort to show God's love and with a desire to save the lost, we have this tendency of making the Lord of the universe into some kind of cosmic 'buddy' whom we treat like anyone else with whom we come in contact. However, He is not like everyone else and never will be.
We have to remember that He is still holy, just and righteous. He is still our Creator, Sustainer, Savior and our Sovereign Lord. And God is the only one who deserves our reverence, respect and yes, our awe. Our God is truly a great and mighty Lord. Let us never forget to treat Him with the dignity that our Sovereign One rightly deserves. And may He help us to see Him for the truly awesome God that He is! Praise His holy and His awesome name!
© 2015 Jeff Shirley
Jeff Shirley (author) from Hesperia, Michigan on January 12, 2015:
Thank you MsDora for your comments. Yes, it does bother me a bit that the word awesome has been watered down so that it is almost meaningless in today's society. Thanks for the encouragement. And thanks also lambservant for stopping by.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 12, 2015:
Jeff, I sense you baring your heart and soul on the dilemma of people using the word on trivial matters, when Christians use it to describe God. Yes, He inspires awe unlike anyone or anything else, and only those who believe that will understand your concern. Please do not be discouraged by those who do not take your warning seriously.
Lori Colbo from United States on January 11, 2015:
This was wonderful. I particularly appreciate your comments on God being a Jealous God. This is what tripped up Oprah Winfrey. She was raised in the church but one time she heard that preacher say God is a jealous God and she looked at it from a human standpoint - like envy I suppose. It makes me very sad. Her comments reflect that she based her change of beliefs based on a misunderstanding of this comment by God. I hope Oprah will one day realize that God is jealous for her, not of her. She is a beautiful person, but my heart is sad she has been led to the Eckert Tolle's of the world to find her answers. But that's what are knees are for. We must pray for ourselves as well. I think it's so easy to see God wrong. Satan is alive and well, but he is not all powerful. The more we are in His word and seeking Him with all our hearts for truth, we will know Him and the truth will set us free.
If anyone is interested, here are Oprah's comments. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oxao4LmTMfU
This is a beautiful piece and full of truth and grace. May the Lord use it for His glory.