For June 2008 issue of ‘The Messenger’
Do you honour and respect the prime minister? Well, honour and respect are probably the wrong words. If he puts one foot wrong we are quick to criticize him. At any opportunity it is fair game to draw irreverent cartoons about him. It is obvious to us that he is no better than us, and in fact may be worse. In a democracy we are all equal; he just has a different role to play.
Or ask any school teacher about the children they teach. Do they feel that the average high school student respects and honours them? Or is it hard work to earn a little bit of respect from the class?
Australians are not known for honouring and respecting those in positions of authority. No-one is really upheld as being “in charge” over us. We are generally proud of our ‘larrikin’ attitude and have a reputation of being anti-authority rebels who have little time for those who are set up in leadership positions. So when it comes to thinking about God we can all too easily fall into the same trap. We can think that God is really just like us in every way. God is our friend. He is the one who is there to help me when I need Him. Even many of the songs that we sing have the same themes: God is the one I love, who loves me, who gives me things, who I can talk to. Of course all of these things are true things if we are Christian. But are they the whole story? Does only thinking about God like this reflect what the Bible has to say about God?
The Bible has a phrase that, perhaps more than any other phrase, sums up what our attitude should be as a believer: “to fear God”. It sounds like an odd phrase to our modern ears. Fear God? Should we be scared of God? Should we see God as someone other than just a powerful friend? What implications might this have on how we respond to God? Let’s explore what the Bible had to say on this very important topic.
Who is God?
For us to understand how to relate to God at all we need to know something of who God is. And we don’t need to guess, for God has told us a great deal about Himself in the Bible.
God is the creator (Gen 1-2). He made everything that exists, and more than that he sustains it all. And out of all of his creation he chose the descendants of Abraham to be in a special covenant relationship with Him. He showed Himself to be a relational God who interacts with his people. One of the most important ways in which God revealed himself to his chosen people in the Old Testament was as a holy God. Being ‘holy’ means to be ‘set apart’. God was set apart from his people; he was all-powerful and majestic in a way that they were not. When God appeared to his people at Mount Sinai, His appearing is described like this:
“Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 19:18-19)
Can you imagine what it would have been like to be standing among the Israelites watching this? How would you react? They reacted in fear: “all the people of the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex 20:19). It was a terrifying experience when God chose to reveal to his people how powerful and awesome He was.
And this theme of God’s holiness and majesty continues throughout the Old Testament. The tabernacle, followed by the temple, was laid out in a way that made it clear that you needed to be careful in how you approached God. The tabernacle symbolized God dwelling among His people, but there was a separation between God and them. Once a year, the high priest alone could enter into the innermost part of the tabernacle (Lev 16). This separation was for the people’s own good. It is not safe for a sinful person to come into the presence of a holy God.
The word that often comes up in the Bible for how people should respond to a God such as this is ‘fear’. But what does this mean?
What does ‘the fear of God’ mean?
Fear is an emotional response. It is something you feel, an attitude towards something or someone.
There are two types of fear responses in the Bible. The first is fear in the sense of terror, being scared and petrified at what faces you. You might feel like that when you are confronted with a large spider, or when you stand on top of a cliff and look down, or when you walk down a dark street in an unfamiliar area.
A Biblical example of this type of fear is evident in the mariners who take Jonah on board their ship in Jonah chapter 1. They come across such a mighty storm that they are convinced that it must be the work of some kind of ‘god’ (Jonah 1:5-6). They eventually find out from Jonah that the storm has happened because he was fleeing from “the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land” (v9). When they understand that this storm is due to the creator God they are “exceedingly afraid” (v10). These seasoned sailors are no strangers to storms, but this divinely-appointed storm cannot be sailed through. When they are confronted with the power of the true God who made the sea and the dry land they are terrified, and rightly so. There is clearly something for them to be scared of!
But there is a second type of fear response too. The Jewish people, God’s chosen people, feared God but not in the sense of being terrified of Him. They knew He was the creator as well as their redeemer who saved them from Egypt. They (at least in theory) knew that they were the people of an amazingly powerful God. And knowing this meant that they honoured God, they worshipped God and they respected God. The fear of God for them was the honour of people who knew they were on God’s side but yet stood in awe of the power of their God.
How do things change with Jesus?
After reading the Bible references thus far you might argue that this refers only to how God revealed Himself in the Old Testament. Surely the New Testament God as revealed in Jesus is different, isn’t He? How does this whole idea of God’s holiness and our fear of God change with Jesus?
Christian people are freed from the fear of many things through Jesus. The disciples are told not to fear the power of nature (Matt 8:26), or those who can only kill the body (Matt 10:28), or that the kingdom of God might not be theirs (Luke 12:32). They are not to be scared of death as we know that if we have faith in Jesus nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39). The Christian life is a life where we need not fear many of the things that other people fear.
Jesus coming in the flesh to pay for our sins on the cross does away with the divide between unholy sinful people and the holy God. When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple split in two (Mark 15:38). There is now no great divide separating us from God, for Jesus has paid the price so that we can be right with Him. There is a difference between the terror of God at Mount Sinai and the way we approach God in confidence because of Jesus (Hebrews 12:18-24).
Does that change how we are to fear God? Remember that there are two types of fear: terror and honour. We are not to be terrified of God if we believe in Jesus, but Jesus coming to earth does not change who God is. God is the same now as He was then. God is a holy God who is still far more powerful than we can imagine.
Jesus was not just a pacifist who wandered around Palestine telling people to be nice to each other. Revelation 1 shows us a vision of Jesus which emphasizes His holiness and scariness:
“The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” (Rev 1:14-16)
We can get so focused on the gentleness of Jesus and the fact that He is the Saviour that we can forget that He is God himself and He is also our Lord and King. Our God is not to be taken lightly, nor does He exist only for our benefit. God was, is, and will be the mighty God who created the world, who sustains the world, and redeems His people. Such a God deserves honour and fear in all ages, including our own.
Often we hear people say things like “I like to think of God like …”. What follows is often a picture of a loving God who affirms everything you do and would never punish anyone. As comforting as this image might be for some people, it is only a figment of their imagination. We need to only look to the Bible to see what God is like. Otherwise we will dream up a god who is there to make us feel good about ourselves but has no authority over us.
In C.S. Lewis’ book ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’, the central character of the lion Aslan represents Jesus. When the young girl Lucy asks if it is safe to be around Aslan, Mr Beaver replied: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”  Our God is not someone we control. He is the one who controls us. C.S. Lewis has it right when he notes that Aslan is not safe, he is not a tame lion; he is one who should be feared.
In fact, the ‘fear of God’ is used as a kind of alternative way of saying ‘faith’ in the New Testament in various places (such as Luke 12:5, Acts 9:31 and Acts 10:35).
What does fear lead us to do?
As we noted earlier, fear is an attitude. But is does not remain as an attitude; it always leads us to action. When you are afraid of heights or spiders, you can physically freeze up when confronted with them. You can’t help but physically react to the fear you feel. And we see that often in the Bible as well. When people are confronted with God, or with a messenger from God, they are so aware of their own insignificance that they fall on their faces. That was John’s response to the vision of Jesus he saw in the passage we read from Revelation 1: “when I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev 1:17).
Fear led the pagan mariners in Jonah 1 to eventually throw Jonah into the sea as he instructed them. And when the sea calmed upon their throwing him in, they were even more convinced that this was a mighty God they were dealing with. Their fear led them to act. “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (Jonah 1:16).
If you are not on God’s side, it is perfectly right to be terrified of God. The apostle John tells us that when people see the final judgement of God they will be so scared that they will call for the mountains and hills to fall on them to hide them from his wrath (Rev 6:15-17). For “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).
But for those who do believe in Jesus, we need not be so terrified of the coming wrath. We do, however, need to remember the kind of God we worship. We need to honour and fear God, and that will lead us to action in different ways.
The right response to recognizing the holiness of God is to be concerned for our own holiness. Leviticus repeatedly calls for God’s people to “be holy as I am holy” (for example, see Lev 11:45, 19:2). When they recognize God’s holiness they are to be concerned for their own conduct in his sight. Fear should lead to obedience. This is not just an Old Testament response, it is exactly the same in principle in the New Testament (2 Cor 7:1). Although our obedience might not include ceremonial washing and avoiding certain foods, we strive to maintain God’s moral standards in order to honour and fear Him.
In fact, the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). Living wisely in the world God has made starts with recognizing something of who God is. When we know we serve a holy God, we will take care to live in His world as people who love to honour God with our lives.
So what about you?
If we worship a mighty God, the same God who shakes mountains, the one who is in control of nature because He made it, that should influence how we act as Christians. Notice that our motivation for Christian living is not because we are scared of God in the sense of being terrified. God chose us and we are in a relationship with God if we believe in Jesus. We need to act wisely in response to God’s love to glorify Him. We need to live in a way that is pleasing to God as we are overwhelmed with the love a holy God has shown to an unholy sinful people.
There are many ways that God’s character as a holy God who is to be feared should change how we act. Let me present you with a few possibilities.
Firstly, fearing God rightly will impact how we go about doing church together. Yes, God is our friend because of Jesus, and we can freely approach him without being scared. But our friend is also the King of all the earth! So we need to make sure that we come to church with the right attitude. We come to church to worship our mighty holy God with our brothers and sisters in Christ. That will mean that we will include some confession in the service where we recognize our sin in the face of God’s holiness. That will mean we will choose songs that recognize God’s authority over us, not only songs that celebrate his saving us. Our God is our Lord as well as our Saviour, and we need to reflect that balance in our church services.
Secondly, fearing God will impact how you pray. We Australians tend to be pretty informal people when it comes to conversations. We would like to think we could talk with the Prime Minister the same way we would talk over the back fence to our neighbour. And this can flow into our prayer life as well. So often I find myself talking to God just as I would talk to a friend. And of course there is something right about being able to approach God with confidence. But it is so easy to lose the sense of God’s holiness and authority over us. If we recognize that we are talking to the mighty holy God when we pray, we will not simply be asking for more things for ourselves. We will take the time to express our wonder at His might and his great acts. We will take the time to confess our sins and recognize our sin. We will want to thank Him for saving unholy sinners like you and me. Yes, it is true when we sing “What a Friend we have in Jesus”, but remember who your Friend is.
Thirdly, fearing God will influence the way we make ethical decisions. As Christians, we honour and fear God who is our King and has authority over us. So therefore we want to live in a way that pleases our King and reflects our respect. When we are faced with an ethical decision that involves a choice between pleasing other people or pleasing our Holy God we need to remember who our God is. If God is merely someone who gives good advice on how to live, we are then free to choose whatever seems the best choice for us. But if God is the holy God who is to be feared, then his word to us has authority and we need to take it seriously. Our decisions need to reflect our fear of God. We will want to please Him and know His will, and we can only find out about Him by reading His word and following what it says.
Our God is a mighty God and a holy God. As a saved, sinful people, the right response to this God is to fear Him, not in the sense of terror, but in the sense of honouring Him with all our attitudes and all our actions. Let’s remind each other that our God is a mighty God and encourage each other in how we respond to the love this mighty God has shown to us.
All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV), © 2001 Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.