MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” from their album Almost There (2001), popped into my head this morning – unbidden and unwanted. I’ve hated this song since the moment I first heard it. Every time a DJ plays it, I switch stations or turn my radio off. “I Can Only Imagine” encapsulates everything wrong with contemporary Christian music (CCM), biblically and musically. I’ll never understand why this song is popular or has won awards. But that’s just the beginning.
Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you, Jesus, or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah or be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine, I can only imagine.
Contrary to what this song claims, we don’t have to wonder what will happen when we appear in the presence of Jesus Christ. We have the written Word of God, so we know. He has left us no room for the imagination!
When Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on Mount Hermon and heard God’s voice speaking from a bright cloud, “they fell on their faces … greatly afraid” (Matthew 17:6). Before that, Peter rambled about staying on the mountain and making tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (17:4). “He did not know what to say” because he and the others were “greatly afraid” (Mark 9:6).
When Jesus appeared to all the disciples, except Thomas, after his resurrection, “they were terrified and frightened” because they thought he was a ghost (Luke 24:37). Jesus had to reassure them by showing them his hands and feet and asking for food (24:38-41). In the ensuing conversation, Jesus did all the talking.
When Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he and those traveling with him “fell to the ground” just from seeing a bright light shining on them (Acts 9:3-4). The others didn’t hear Jesus’ voice as Paul did, but they were still afraid (22:9). Paul himself was “trembling and astonished” when Jesus explained who he was (9:5).
These men saw only a transfigured or resurrected Jesus on earth, not his glorified self in heaven as John did on Patmos. He saw hair “white like wool,” eyes “like a flame of fire,” feet “like fine brass,” a voice like “many waters,” a “two-edged sword” in his mouth, and a countenance “like the sun” (Revelation 1:14-16). All John could do in the presence of this glorified Christ was “fall at his feet as dead” (1:17). So Jesus reassured him and said, “Do not be afraid” (1:17).
Visions of the pre-incarnate Christ were no different. Jacob woke “afraid” from his dream of God’s voice and angels on a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:17). When Moses saw the burning bush, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:6). When Joshua saw the Captain of the Lord’s host, he “fell on his face to the earth” (Joshua 5:14). When Isaiah saw the Lord “high and lifted up,” he cried, “Woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:1, 5) When Ezekiel saw the pre-incarnate Christ on the throne, he “fell on his face” (Ezekiel 1:28). The Spirit set Ezekiel on his feet (2:2). When Daniel saw the pre-incarnate Christ on the banks of the Tigris River in Babylon, he fell on his face (Daniel 10:9). His strength evaporated as his “vigor was turned to frailty” (10:8). Daniel later said, “How can this servant of my lord talk with you, my lord? … No strength remains in me now, nor is any breath left in me” (10:17). And this was the pre-incarnate Christ!
In heaven, the four living creatures say “holy, holy, holy” all day and night (Revelation 4:4). The twenty-four elders “fall down and worship,” as they “cast their crowns before the throne” (4:10). So when we see Jesus, we won’t dance, stand, or sing – unless the Spirit makes us stand and puts a song in our mouths. We should also be afraid, since a lack of holy fear shows irreverence.
Many excellent Christian songs describe our meeting with Jesus in heaven, including “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy” (1977) and “I Stand in Awe” (1988). Listen to them, and worship.
Then I bowed on my knees and cried ‘holy, holy, holy.’
I clapped my hands and sang ‘glory, glory to the Son of God.’
I stand in awe of One so holy
I stand amazed before His majesty
Soon I find myself no longer standing
But bowing down in His glory
Knowing I’m unworthy
‘Til His hand of mercy
Raises me again to stand in awe
 New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted