Revisiting the Fear of God

Exodus 1:21 – And because the midwives feared God…

Peeking at a commentary on Exodus 1, I ran across a brief description of the topic of fearing God. The midwives feared God. Since trying to explain that topic has been a part of my preaching of Malachi, I thought to share this helpful tidbit.

But what does it mean to fear God? We have already suggested that fearing God is “to be honest, faithful, trustworthy, upright, and, above all, religious.” In short, “fearing God” is commonly in Scripture a virtual abbreviation for “believing in God, and therefore fearing the consequence of not pleasing him, thus being a person of moral conviction and righteous actions”—although in Hebrew it is surely not per se an abbreviation but an idiom.*

Thinking about this explanation, I find myself adding to how I would define the fear of God. Previously, I have described the fear of God as containing two main elements. Of course fear includes genuinely what we call fear, being frightened, the emotion that makes you want to run from someone or something. Fear also includes reverence and awe, the trembling and bowing rightly associated with God when you are amazed at his glory.

In general, we would say that the first kind of fear is not applicable to the believer, as we are now in a state of peace with God and should not wish to run from or hide from him. For the one in rebellion against God, the one never under his grace, the first fear is wholly reasonable, though to run from God only earns more judgment. The enemy of God should repent, believe, and come to Jesus to be saved.

The second kind of fear, the fear of God that is tied to reverence, respect, and awe, that fear is wholly proper for the Christian. The elders in Revelation 4 falling down before God’s throne in worship express proper and holy fear. Thomas bowing before Jesus and declaring, “My Lord and my God,” properly expresses fear.

But the commentary explanation above adds another simple dimension to my explanation of the idiom to fear God. Fearing God is wrapped up in what it means to genuinely believe in him. Often times we will discuss with people the difference in having a head knowledge of God and having a knowledge of God that goes to the heart, that changes your life, that is transformative. Fear of God is that deeper belief.

See if this illustration helps. Consider the diet of an unhealthy man. He may know, in his head, that what he is eating could lead to heart disease. But that knowledge does not lead him to change. He likes his food too much. But after the first heart attack, after death stares him in the face, all the sudden his aversion to healthy eating may melt away. One might say that this man believed in heart disease before, but only fearing heart disease changes his diet.

While that is admittedly a sloppy illustration, I think it adds to the picture that we need to have when discussing the fear of God. A God-fearer is different than one who claims, in general, to believe in a god.

So, I think I want to add to my explanation of what it means to fear God that genuine fear of God is belief in God that is transformative, that leads to worship, that leads to obedience.

* Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Vol. 2, The New American Commentary ( Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), Exodus 1:21.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Fear of God”

  1. If the first of your definitions of the fear of God (being frightened, etc.) is not applicable to the believer, then how do you explain John’s reaction upon being confronted with the living and resurrection Christ in Revelation 1? That was clearly something more than just reverence or awe.

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  2. That is a good point. John was clearly responding as one overwhelmed. My point is that he was not responding as one who wanted to run from and hide from the Lord. I do not believe that Scripture is calling the believer to the kind of fear that would bring us to desire to run. The fear of God brings us to our knees or puts us on our faces as acts of worship. It reminds us of how much we have needed his grace. It reminds us that we could never stand in his presence apart from his grace.

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