To fear or not to fear? (Matthew 10:28-31)
For the unbeliever, death is the ultimate disaster, and something therefore to be avoided at all costs. But Jesus speaks of a fate far worse than death: the judgement of God. (Hebrews 10:31) “Jesus is speaking to disciples, some of whom will eventually be tortured, flayed and burned alive. Yet, He says, that is a picnic compared to hell.” (T Keller) The powers of men are limited: they can persecute us, imprison us, and mutilate or destroy our bodies (which will die anyway, sooner or later). But our God is far more terrible and powerful than anyone or anything in this world! “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.” (Matthew 10:28) His authority extends beyond death into eternity – and it is better to suffer briefly at the hands of men than to experience eternal judgement at the hands of God.
One minute Jesus tells us to be afraid of God; but almost in the next breath He tells us not to be afraid of Him! How come? Because the God who will destroy those who oppose Him looks after those who depend on Him. A sparrow was worth next to nothing; yet God cares about every single one. They are God’s creatures – but we are His children, and He cares about us (Psalm 116:15). He knows us so well (even things that we do not know ourselves!) and is concerned about even the smallest details of our lives. We can surely trust Him to watch over us and protect us! (Luke 21:18) Nothing in the world is insignificant to God or beneath His notice, so we can be assured that we are safe in His hands.
God is not to be trifled with (Acts 5:1-11)
There is a very fine line between confidence in God and complacency. Christians rejoice that their sins are forgiven, and know that their relationship with God depends not on what they do but on the fact that Christ has died for them. But this does not mean that sin becomes a trivial matter.
The new church in Jerusalem was remarkable for its generosity. When one member set an outstanding example of extravagant giving (Acts 4:36,37), others were tempted to acquire a similar reputation by deceit. (All the giving was entirely voluntary – their wrongdoing was not that they kept some money for themselves, but that they claimed to be giving it all) It is always much easier to pretend holiness than to actually be holy.
The act of Ananias and Sapphira was amazingly presumptuous – as if they thought that the Spirit of God would either not know the truth, or not care (Proverbs 14:2). But they had made a serious miscalculation: God cannot be deceived, and He regards hypocrisy as one of the greatest threats to the integrity of His Church (Luke 12:1,2). Their sudden death is shocking for us – and it was no less shocking at the time (Acts 5:11).
Fear and obedience (Exodus 20:18-21)
Before God spoke at Mount Sinai, the Israelites had been eager to get close to Him; after He had spoken, they were so terrified of His majesty and holiness that they feared being destroyed by Him (Psalm 119:120). They dared not go near or speak to God themselves, so they begged Moses to act as their mediator. Moses was as sinful as they were; but because he knew God, he approached Him without fear of death.
There are two kinds of fear; and they have different effects. Some years ago my husband drove through a red traffic light. A few minutes later, he found himself being ‘flashed’ by a police car – so he pulled over and stopped. But every night on some TV channels you can watch recordings of drivers whose response to the blue lights is completely different: they try to escape by driving faster! God does not want us to cower or run away from Him in terror – but He does want our reverence and obedience. A proper ‘fear’ of God is the healthy respect that motivates us to avoid sin.
Shunning evil (Job 28:28)
The ‘fear of God’ is thus a guard against presumption and a stimulus to right living (Proverbs 3:7). There was no better example of this attitude than Job himself (Job 1:8): he ordered his life according to God’s standards (Job 31), but was humble enough to know that he and his family were not perfect and needed to seek forgiveness regularly (Job 1:5).
To fear God in the right way, then, is not unhealthy; it does not ‘cramp our style’ or spoil our lives in any way. It is upheld throughout the Bible (and especially in the Wisdom books, such as Proverbs) as the best way to live (e.g. Proverbs 1:7).
Fear or love? (I John 4:17,18)
When John wrote, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear,” (verse 18), he did not mean that if we loved God perfectly we would no longer need to fear Him. For our love for God can never be perfect; but we can trust in His perfect love for us. He is not an autocratic tyrant, ruling His family with a rod of iron and watching to punish us every time we fail. He is our loving heavenly Father (Romans 8:15) – strict, but also kind. Any Christian who lives in perpetual fear of what God may do to him has not understood the true nature of the God who is love.
Fear and love (Deuteronomy 10:12)
We can see that fear of God (in the proper sense) and love for God are not incompatible. Christians respect and obey God out of love for Him (which is itself a response to His love for us – I John 4:19), not out of fear of damnation. Fear of God without love leads to legalism and even to superstition; love of God without fear leads to moral laxity. Both fear and love are necessary for a healthy relationship with God.
Fearless (Isaiah 8:12-14)
We live in a society that often seems dominated by fear – fear of nuclear war, meteor strikes, terrorism, environmental disaster or economic meltdown. Why else do conspiracy theories proliferate? They feed on our underlying fears, and they also fuel them. But the fear of God puts all these other fears into perspective. That awesome, terrifying Judge is for us a safe and secure refuge (Proverbs 29:25). We can therefore place our confidence firmly in God, and not worry about the future.
The more you fear God, the less you fear men. When Moses fled from Egypt under threat of death (Exodus 2:15), he nevertheless believed that ultimately it was God, not Pharaoh, who was in control (Hebrews 11:27).And so, forty years later, he was able to return to face Pharaoh and lead his people to freedom. The same attitude has enabled Christians to face persecution cheerfully, and martyrs to die with serenity (I Peter 3:14,15).