One of the biggest struggles I had in understanding God’s love was the concept of fearing God.
God reminds us so many times in His Word to “Fear not” or “Be not afraid”. And His Word also clearly says there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love (1 John 4:18).
But the Bible is also full of references of “fearing God”.
The Lord told the Israelites through Moses to fear Him and serve Him (Deuteronomy 6:13). Proverbs and Psalms tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, Psalms 111:10). Jesus’s own words include “…be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). And the Apostle Paul, too, exhorts believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”(Philippians 2:12).
Many explanations translate the fear of God as a reverence or deep honour and respect for His awesomeness. Others go further to say that the fear is actually real fear and a dread of offending God for fear of consequences, and that it’s a “healthy fear” because it keeps us from sinning against Him.
The latter explanation just doesn’t make sense to me, because it simply contradicts 1 John 4:18 and all the other references of God telling us not to fear.
Furthermore, it is impossible for us to fully love or trust someone we are inherently afraid of, whether it is God or man.
How can we draw near to God with boldness and freedom if we’re checking ourselves to see if we did right by Him all the time? And how can Jesus be contradicting Himself in encouraging His disciples not to be afraid because their Father in heaven cares for them, yet reminding them to be afraid of Him who can destroy both body and soul?
And while I don’t doubt that we should reverence God with awe and respect, I wanted to see if I could find out what “fearing God” really meant, and how and why we should do it.
So I decided to dig a little deeper, using 2 keys that I’ve learnt helps best in understanding the Bible accurately: studying the Word in context, and allowing the Bible – not man – to interpret the Bible.
And I found that not only did the seeming contradictions fall away, but the meaning of the Word and the heart of God became clear and consistent.
Fear was never present nor meant to be so in the beginning when God created man to dwell in the Garden of Eden (literally a place of delight or pleasures). Fear entered when man used his free choice to eat from the wrong tree, that God had warned him not to. Because of Adam’s wrong choice, sin, fear, and death entered the world.
From then on, a natural fear of God and judgement came upon man. No longer freely walking with God in the Garden, now man fell prostrate before God in reverence, dread, and fear whenever God appeared to him. Abraham did (Genesis 17:1-3); Moses did (Exodus 3:4-6); Peter did, when he first realised who the Man Jesus was (Luke 5:3-10).
In fact, if God or even one of His angels suddenly appeared before any one of us right now, we’d probably find ourselves doing the same – on the ground instantly, cowering in His glory, rattling apologies for our sins. It doesn’t matter how much we boast or rail against Him at other times. None of us needs to be taught to fear or reverence God, because all of us are inherently afraid of God and His holiness.
There was much to fear about God before the cross of Jesus, particularly under the law given through Moses. The law dictated that God would bless man if he obeyed, but curses and punishments would come upon him if he disobeyed. Essentially: Do good get good, do bad get bad. This is pretty much the system that most people subscribe to today, regardless of whether they relate it to a religion or not.
Reading through the history of the Israelites in books like Judges, Kings and Chronicles reveals that God did punish them for their sins, and they invariably rebelled and never lived up to God’s standards. But hey, none of us are any different from the Israelites.
So while God still loved them and wanted to walk with them, there is good reason to fear God under the system of the law, because of judgement.
But then Jesus appeared on the scene. And soon after He appeared, He said this to Satan in the wilderness: “For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, but He had swapped the word “fear” with “worship”.
So Jesus had essentially defined the “fear” of the Lord as “worship”, or in effect indicated that the old fear of God was now to be replaced by worship of God.
Why was this so? Because Jesus had come. Jesus said this, knowing that at the cross, He would take every punishment and curse that we deserved for every sin we have done or would ever do, so that all who believe on Him would never again need to suffer for their sins, but instead continuously be able to enjoy God’s every blessing due to His perfect righteousness.
How would we then worship? No longer slavishly for fear of punishment if we do wrong, but freely and with awesome wonder and gratefulness for all the goodness we get to enjoy though not deserving of any of it.
When understood in this context, the rest of the questionable verses get unlocked and line up in this vein as well.
What Jesus says to His disciples in Matthew 10 can then be read more clearly in context as such: in verses 26-27, Jesus encourages them not to be afraid as they go out to preach, and tells them to proclaim boldly what He tells them; the ensuing verses from verse 28 are then what the disciples are to proclaim to unbelievers – that their soul is at stake and only God can save them, that God cares for them dearly, but if they choose to reject Jesus, they will not be accepted by God into heaven.
As believers, we have no more reason to fear God the same way because Jesus has fulfilled all requirements and taken all judgement away at the cross.
As for fearing and trembling, it would only be for all the goodness that we’ve received as a result of Jesus’s finished work at the cross. The other 2 places where these words appear as a phrase bear this up.
In the prophecy of Jeremiah, as he foretold a time where God would cleanse His people from all their iniquity and sins (Jeremiah 33:8), and the banner by which His people would be identified would be the Lord as their Righteousness (Jeremiah 33:16), the phrase appears in the midst of a promise of joy and praise:
“Then it shall be to Me a name of joy, a praise, and an honour before all nations of the earth, who shall hear all the good that I do to them; they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and all the prosperity that I provide for it.” (Jeremiah 33:9)
The other place this phrase appears is when the woman with the issue of blood got healed upon touching Jesus’s garment, and “fearing and trembling” for what had happened to her (her instantaneous healing), she fell at His feet (Mark 5:33).
Therefore under the covenant of grace, we can “work out” the joy of our salvation with fear and trembling for all the goodness He has done for us, because it is He who “works in” (to) us all desire and ability to perform for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
Because of what Jesus has done at the cross for us, the old servile fear of God has given way to a life of freedom and worship, to praise Him for all the goodness and blessings He has given us access to without us having to merit any of it. His love has most definitely cast out all fear.
Because when we encounter Jesus, we encounter grace.