Exodus 20:18-20 – 18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.”
Fearing God is a concept that has fallen out of common use in many of our churches. We have worked so hard to present to the world the loving nature and gracious ways of our God that we have robbed the church herself of the idea of trembling at his holiness. Many of our more modern worship songs talk of us boldly declaring our desire to see God, to touch him, to climb up in his lap and call him daddy, or to embrace him. Several modern songs are sung in worship, but could easily be used as popular love ballads if only we would replace “God” or “Jesus” with “baby.”
In contrast to our present condition is the word of God which draws for us a very different picture of one group of the people of God in his presence. Immediately after God first spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses in the hearing of the people who stood at the bottom of the mountain, the people of God reacted fearfully. They saw the lightning and smoke and heard the thunder. They heard the voice of God and felt the earth quake. And when the people of God heard the voice of God and saw a manifestation of the presence of God, there was no thought of glibly sliding into God’s presence for a handshake. Instead, the people trembled and begged that they not hear the voice of God again. It is not that they disliked God or wanted to turn away from him; rather, they feared the Lord, knowing that to be in the presence of such holiness and power is incredibly dangerous.
Neither God nor Moses condemned the people’s fear. Moses did not respond to the people by telling them not to be afraid or that God may sound tough but he’s really just a big teddy bear. Moses did not give the people a false sense of their own righteousness or offer them a cheap form of grace without repentance. Instead, Moses simply told the people that God was testing them, showing them his holiness to cause them to fear him. That fear, Moses indicated, would be good for the people because they would avoid sin so long as they truly feared God.
Now we sit, reading this ancient text through our modern lenses, and it seems incredibly strange to us to think of anyone fearing God. Most certainly a look at our society would not indicate that we as a people have any fear of God whatsoever. We often live lives that are oblivious to the presence of God for all but a few hours of the week (and those lives are lived by the churchy folks).
The question must be raised: Is there anything to fear about God? Let’s just ponder that for a moment. God is holy, absolutely perfect in every way. God is just, and cannot ignore our sin. God is infinitely powerful, the Creator of all the universe and of all people. And when you combine all those things, God’s holiness, justice, and power, we all should tremble. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). All of us should be able to realize that we have earned for ourselves God’s wrath. So, yes, there is something to fear: the infinitely devastating wrath of an infinitely holy and just God.
Thanks be to God that what we should fear in him is exactly what he has provided for in his love. God sacrificed Jesus in our place, as our substitute, in order to justly satisfy his wrath toward our sin. All who come to God in repentance through faith in Jesus Christ have their sin completely forgiven.
So, let’s draw the final conclusions. If you stand before God and have not yet received his grace through faith in Jesus Christ, you have much to fear as you have God’s infinite wrath to fear. But if you have been forgiven by God, you need not fear his wrath because your sin has been forgiven. Yet, there is something to still be said for showing God the respect and awe due his name. Let us learn from the Israelites’ trembling before the mountain that our God is indeed a mighty and terrifying God even while remembering his great love and grace for all who come to know him through Jesus.