Question: I’m not sure exactly what “Fearing the Lord” means. On your blog you speak a little on fearing the Lord but not in depth. What are your thoughts?
Many people in our generation believe that fear of the Lord simply means respect. The liberal, feel good theology of the last 50 years has been heavily focused on grace and mercy, and has widely espoused the “God is love” slogan. It is absolutely true that it is by God’s grace alone that we are saved, and it is also absolutely true that God is love. However, an over emphasis of the “God is love” maxim fails to acknowledge that God has many characteristics of which loving, merciful, and graceful are just a few. God is also, equally just – meaning He absolutely cannot allow sin to go unpunished, jealous – meaning He is angered by any desire of man to put other things ahead of Him, and is also wrathful (Nahum 1:2). The combination of all of God’s traits is what makes God what He ultimately is: above all, and in all things, God is Holy, Holy, Holy (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8). In the Hebrew language, a word repeated 3 times is the equivalent of 3 exclamation points in English. Read: God is HOLY!!! The Bible never says God is love, love, love…or merciful, merciful, merciful.
God IS love. I want to preface that this is absolutely true, and God’s love is by no means being debated. God is actually the creator of love and the origin of true agape (Greek for unconditional covenant love). Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:8). Just remember, God is not only love. God also has other characteristics that should be respected, and feared, in the literal sense of the word fear.
The word fear appears in the Bible 216 times from Genesis to Revelation. Many times the word fear appears alongside the word trembling. The first time fear and trembling appear is in Exodus, and the last time is in Philippians.
Phillipians 2:12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
If you believe fear means respect…I suppose if your respect takes you to the point of physical trembling…then that is the appropriate respect owed to God by the command of the verse above. But, trembling – defined as involuntary shaking as a result of anxiety and frailty – indicates to me that proper knowledge of the LORD provokes literal fear.
Look at the experience of any Biblical character who comes into the presence of God. Every one of them, upon first realization, falls straight down on their face and/or cries out that they are sinful and unworthy. Take for instance Isaiah, the holiest man in lsrael: (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah said: “Woe is me! For I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!.” He breaks down and comes completely unglued in the presence of God simply because he has a dirty mouth. Then in the New Testament when Christ asks Simon Peter to follow Him, Peter falls down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord (Luke 5:8).” Then, in revelation when the Spirit raises John (the one whom Jesus loved) to see the risen Christ, John says, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Revelation 1:17). These are just a few examples…there are dozens more. The holiest of men fall to pieces at the feet of the LORD.
I once started working on a fire and brimstone sermon by Jesus. That may sound like an oxymoron to some, and may perhaps even offend others. I went about the task of compiling Christ’s every reference to judgment, hell, and condemnation. My intent was to offer a demonstration that Jesus Christ did indeed preach fire and brimstone. I am acquainted with many people who have a strong aversion to hell, fire, and brimstone preaching, however I find it to be very important (in limited application), and believe there is a necessary balance between teaching grace, wrath, and every other personality trait of God. After spending several hours compiling many pages of condemning Jesus quotes I decided that what I was doing was a dangerous thing. After praying on it, and seeing how condemning the collection of verses was, I came to the conclusion that perhaps pulling Jesus’ verses out of their original context could misrepresent Him. That’s not a risk I want to take. The point of the matter is however, that Jesus did preach extensively on judgment and wrath. When you cut out the narrative and the softening analogies of the parables, and you merely examine the references and allusions to hell, death, and condemnation, it is exceedingly clear that, with absolute certainty, there will be harsh judgment (Matthew 25:41), the majority of people will burn in hell (Matthew 7:14), and there will be tremendous sorrow (weeping and gnashing of teeth – appears 7 times). We must present the LORD, unvarnished, for all the things His Word declares He is…not just the traits that work for us, that make us feel good, that make us like Him more, or that don’t scare us. It is terrible folly to attempt to fit God within parameters that we dictate. Excluding wrath from our doctrine does not eliminate the wrath of God (“wrath” appears 215 times in the Bible) – rather it merely eliminates it from our consciousness. Prayerfully ponder the implications and consequences of that.
Christ said, “Fear not man who has the ability to kill the body. I shall tell you whom you should fear. Fear Him who after the body has been killed has the authority to cast you into hell (Luke 12:5).” The context of fear being expressed here is fear in the sense of suffering a violent death at the hands of another man. I don’t know what earthly fear could be any more fearsome than the fear of a violent death (think of being stoned to death for preaching the gospel as Steven the martyr was – Acts 7:54). Jesus instructs here that the only fear greater than being brutally killed should be the fear of hell. This doesn’t sound like Jesus is talking about respect. I don’t think He’s saying we respect death so we should respect Him. I think our natural instinct is to be terrified of death, and Jesus is saying here: Fear Me more! I can cast you into a violent, torturous Hell, the likes of which you cannot even fathom.
It is also important that we not fall into depending solely on the New Testament to define who the LORD is. Jesus Christ and the Father God are united in one essence, and Christ himself says that He is subservient to the will of the Father (John 6:38). Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17). However, Christ does clearly exhort that all must follow His teaching, or condemnation is coming for those who do not submit their lives to His service. If you read the Old Testament, where the Father God is the main character, you witness dozens of instances where the immutable, unchanging, LORD, annihilates all who would rebel and put anything ahead of Him. We must remember Jesus Christ and God the Father are one and the same God in the Holy Trinity. God does not change. He was perfect from the beginning, and it is not possible to change or improve upon perfection. He is not a God who is growing, learning, becoming more progressive, inclusive, or open minded. He has not improved upon His perfection since His Old Testament days. No. God is unchanged. Therefore, we must understand God is still the same sovereign God who punishes treason and administers wrath to rebels. Non-believers, those not secure in salvation, unrepentant sinners, and those lukewarm in their subservience to Christ have much to fear.
Proverbs 9:10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Even believers would be wise to understand the Bible has drastic promises for those who believe in Christ, but fail to repent and turn to God, to ask forgiveness, and to strive to conquer sin within our lives…
Hebrews 10:27 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. 28Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”And again, “The LORD will judge His People.”
31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
We cannot varnish the truth of God’s character. A focus solely citing portions of the Bible that portray the Lord as “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” does not eliminate the mass of scripture that promises coming judgment and wrath for the non-believer, the self-righteous, and the unrepentant sinner. I implore everyone, get to know Jesus Christ as the lamb. He came to the world as a lamb to serve and suffer the punishment of His followers’ sin – offering forgiveness in His kindness and compassion. When we give the LORD control He is quick to forgive. When we reject the LORD we bring His wrath upon ourselves.
Now is the time to get right with the Lord. He has extended the invitations. A day will come when that invitation will no longer stand. Christ has promised that when He returns He is not coming back as a lamb, but he is coming as a lion (Revelation 5:5). When He returns He will not come to serve or suffer. He will come to judge the quick and the dead (2 Timothy 4:1).
Psalm 2:11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.