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.

An Example of Fearing God Rightly

In Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the nation of Israel of her history and the covenant between the Lord and the people. Of course, early in that reminder is the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments. And right along with the story of the commandments being given is the reminder of how the people responded to the whole event.

If you recall, God spoke in the hearing of the people. He made the mountain smoke and quake. And the people of God who saw it were utterly terrified. They were rightly afraid of the holiness and power of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 5:23-27 – 23 And as soon as you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes, and your elders. 24 And you said, ‘Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say, and speak to us all that the Lord our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’

The people came to Moses and acknowledged they had heard the voice of God and seen a glimpse of his power. They then asked Moses to serve as a go-between to tell them what God had to say. Why? They were afraid of that might and that purity. They could not imagine that any nation could really see the glory of God and his holiness and his power and still live to tell the tale.

Now, here is the point that makes me write. These people saw the spectacular and heard the voice of God. They rightly assessed the situation by being amazed that they could catch a glimpse of the one true God and live. They understood that God’s holiness is deadly. So they trembled. And in a respectful awe, they asked Moses to represent them to the Lord and to communicate to them for the Lord.

Today, I wonder how many who claim to know the Lord have any concept of this fear. I wonder how many who attend church on a weekly basis can even begin to grasp the holy fear that made the people of God ask Moses to listen in their stead. I wonder how many believe that any person should even think twice before approaching the Lord.

I believe wholeheartedly that Christians have been given the right to approach God in freedom and confidence (Eph. 3:12). I believe that God has adopted believers as his own children (John 1:12-13). I understand that we are made righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). And yet I also know that there is something very right about thinking about how one approaches the Lord. Our God is holy, holy, holy (Rev. 4:8). From his throne come flashes of lightning and rumblings and thunders (Rev. 4:5).

It would be a good thing, I think, if we remembered the holiness of God that caused such trembling in the nation of Israel. It would be good if we were in awe of the concept of a people being allowed in the presence of God. It would be good to shake our heads in wonder at the concept of hearing the words of God and yet living. And then it would be good to enter that presence of God, humbly, under the grace of Jesus, with proper gratitude. I think relearning a little of the fear of God in this way would honor him well even as it helps us to be truly grateful for grace.

Meeting God Is Terrifying

One of the effects of poor proclamation of the gospel is that people no longer fear the presence of God. Of course the gospel does much to soothe our fears as we find ourselves under the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians have been given the freedom to approach the Lord as his children.

The problem is that, as many present what they would call the gospel, there is no element of fear in it at all. Many preachers and many who follow those preachers have bought into something far less than the gospel. These folks are genuinely concerned for the eternity of their hearers. They deeply want to see people saved, as do all faithful Christians. But their desire for the salvation of the lost has led them to a place where they focus more on the lost person than they focus on the glory and holiness of the God to whom they are supposed to be calling the lost. They paint a picture of God as a sad, desperate, weepy character who so wants those people just to give him a try. They present a God who will compromise any standard so long as the lost will give him a nod so he can save them.

But, such a picture is not a picture of the true God of the Bible. Yes, God is gloriously gracious. God is loving beyond our wildest dreams. God’s grace is overwhelming. But he is not willing to compromise his character even an ounce to bend to our will.

Consider the ending of Amos 4. In that chapter, God had been pointing out that the people of the nation of Israel were cruel, nasty to the needy, selfish, idolatrous, and faithless. Those people had been refusing to repent of their sin even though they were experiencing God’s chastening.

Amos 4:11-13

11 “I overthrew some of you,

as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,

and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;

yet you did not return to me,”

declares the Lord.

12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;

because I will do this to you,

prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”

13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,

and declares to man what is his thought,

who makes the morning darkness,

and treads on the heights of the earth—

the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

Stop, go back, read that slowly, and tell me if it makes you tremble. “Prepare to meet your god, O Israel!“ God tells these people that he has pointed out their sin. He has shown them what is required for their repentance. He has commanded. They have disobeyed. And now his judgment is coming. And the most frightening thing of all that the Lord could say to a rebellious people is “Prepare to meet your God!”

This is not, by the way, God saying he is going to kill them. It is far scarier than that. God is telling them that, in times past, he has been sending judgments to call them to repentance. Now, he is coming. Now he, the Holy One, will do the work himself. Now the Lord will come, and there is no one in creation who has the power to stay his hand.

Such a scene should be a part of a faithful gospel presentation and understanding. A presentation of the gospel that only has softness and pleading is less than biblical. A true gospel presentation includes the love and grace of the Lord, but it must also include the fact that, should any person turn his or her back on the Lord and his ways, they are in danger at a level they do not understand. They are called to repent. They are called to get under the love of Jesus. They are called to mercy. But if they will not come to that call, the only remaining element is, “Prepare to meet your God!” And they must understand, a faithful presentation must help them see, that meeting their God while unprepared is utterly terrifying.

Please do not hear me deemphasizing the love of God or his mercy here. ON the contrary, we only grasp the greatness of grace when we see the infinite judgment we deserve. Salvation means something when you have something to be saved from.