‘Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor’ (1 Peter 2:17). Most reading this will have some idea what it means to honour everyone, to love the brotherhood and to honour the emperor. But how many know what it means to ‘Fear God’? This is not an abstract or arcane question. We need to know what it is to fear God for at least two reasons: First, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). Second, the Lord delights in those who fear him (Psalm 147:11). If you don’t know, in some true measure, what it is to fear God, your knowledge, above all of God, is impoverished and God will not delight you.
It has not been common in the past forty or so years, to read books or to hear sermons devoted to the subject of the fear of God, not least within evangelical Christianity. This is both sad and surprising. It is surprising because the NT tells us that holiness is brought to completion in ‘the fear of God’ (2 Corinthians 7:1) and every Christian is called to be holy as God himself is holy (1 Peter 1:15; Hebrews 12:14). It is sad because the absence of the fear of God in the life of the church has led to a vast impoverishment in the quality of the church’s worship and in the moral character of professing evangelicals. If one of the hallmarks of new covenant worship is that we worship God with ‘reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28-29), we greatly need to see the fear of God recovered in the life, worship, witness and service of the church.
Throughout the Bible, believers are identified again and again as those who fear God. One of the promises of the new covenant was that God would put the fear of himself in the hearts of his people ‘that they may not turn from me’ (Jeremiah 32:40). I hardly need to say that this fear of God has nothing to do with a cringing, fearful, uncertain attitude to God. God is our Father in Christ. He loves his people with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3). He rejoices over his people with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17). He spared not his only Son but gave him up for us all (Romans 8:32). The last thing God wants is for his blood redeemed children to cringe in fearful uncertainty before him. Nor does the fear of God mean joyless, dull, even lugubrious worship. Christian worship should always be vibrant, joyful, heart expanding and mind enlarging. How can it not be when we are worshipping ‘God’, the all glorious Holy Trinity, ‘majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders’ (Exodus 15:11)?
What then does it mean to fear God? Very simply, to fear God is to honour him as God and to worship him with ‘reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28). What that means in daily living is to love what he loves and to hate what he hates and to prize his ‘Well done’ above all the accolades of this world, making his glory the chief business of your life.
This truth is worked out on the horizontal as well as on the vertical. In Nehemiah 5:15 we read, ‘The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took from them their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God.’ Because Nehemiah feared God he refused to use his privileged position for personal gain. He treated those under him with generosity and dignity (read the whole passage). Men and women are God’s image bearers and are to be treated as such. Fearing the Lord, treating him with due reverence and awe, will inevitably (and I do mean inevitably) deeply influence the way we live among our fellow image bearers.
The Bible is full of examples and illustrations of men and women who feared God. Abraham feared God when he obeyed God’s command to leave his family, friends and culture and go to a land he knew nothing about. Moses feared God when he obeyed God’s command to go to Egypt and say to the most powerful man on earth, ‘God says, “Let my people go”‘. Gideon feared God when at God’s command he confronted a huge army with only 300 men. David feared God when he challenged Goliath who was defying the living God. Daniel, Hannaniah, Mishael and Azariah feared God when they refused to conform to the pagan practices in Babylon, even though this could have led to their death. Jeremiah feared God when he confronted God’s people and their spiritual shepherds with their godless hypocrisy at the risk of his own life. Paul feared God when he stood before Felix and ‘reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment’ (Acts 24:25). Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ feared God by being ‘obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’ (Philippians 2:8). He above all others perfectly epitomised what it meant to fear God – he chose the will of his Father, lovingly, even though that obedience would cost him everything.
At the heart of the fear of God there is a driving, compelling pulsebeat. What makes men and women fear God is not first that he has absolute rights over their life, though he has. They fear God above all because he loves them and they love him. That God should love us is a wonder of all wonders. He is the thrice Holy One. He is of purer eyes than to look on sin. And yet he ‘so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son’. It is little wonder John wrote, ‘this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10). It is when God’s love is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), that we begin truly to fear God, to hold him in reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28).
The fear of God and love to God are inextricably joined. Love to God that does not honour him as God and does not live in happy obedience to his royal commandments, is not truly love to God (John 14:15). The fear of God that is not suffused with heart love to God is not the fear of God that the Bible tells us is a mark of a true believer.
Properly speaking, the fear of God is the fruit of the gospel. It is only when we come, or better are brought, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, that we begin to give to God the reverence and awe that is his due. How else would a forgiven sinner, an adopted child of God, respond to the God of saving, justifying, sanctifying grace?
‘Fear God’. He is worthy of your fear, your loving, thankful, worshipful, reverent obedience. ‘Fear him you saints and you will then have nothing else to fear. Make you his service your delight, your wants (lacks) shall be his care’.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in Queen Emma Primary School, Gunhild Way, Cambridge and in Resurrection Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.