The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge
12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
We have all heard the expression, “That’ll put the fear of God into him!” But what exactly is the Biblical meaning of “the fear of God”?
- Is is an aversion of a “proverbial old, angry, bearded, white-robed man in the sky with his finger expectantly hovering above a smite button, waiting for the least opportunity to press it”?
- Is it an anticipatory dread of the eternal forthcoming sentence as punishment for sins?
- Or is it something else?
The Case of Character
In order to answer that question, we must first look at the character of God the Father:
- Jonah, angry that He was sent to preach repentance to the Ninevites, had this to say about God:
He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
- In Lamentations 3:22-23, it is very likely that the prophet Jeremiah wrote the following:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness
- John the Apostle wrote the following:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
It is clear, just from the three accounts above, that God is not waiting in heaven with His finger over the smite button just waiting for us to make a mistake – that is the devil’s lie, looking for any reason to try to deceive us and bring condemnation upon us. And while there is a coming judgement where all whose names are not found in the Book of Life will judged and sent to the lake of fire, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. The Apostle John also says there is no fear in love. So this “fear” must be something else.
There is a big difference between abject fear (terror – Greek phobon – we get our word “phobia” from it) and reverential fear. Abject fear is an emotional response to a life-threatenting or pain-anticipatory situation. However, when referring to “the fear of the Lord”, it is a different type of emotional response. The “fear of the Lord” is a reverential trust and understanding that not only is God a Just Judge and will punish all evil, for He is Holy; but God is also Love, full of compassion, mercy and grace for those He created. It is this synergy of both aspects of God’s character that permit us to see that He is not some towering ogre waiting to destroy us but rather a loving Father who righteously disciplines us so that we will not have to face His punishment (the white throne seat of judgement). The love component of His character allows us to reverentially fear Him in love, where there is no emotional phobon of punishment.
The Qualifying Question
So let’s ask the question: Are we motivated by God’s love to reverentially trust God, or are we motivated by the perceived threat of punishment for doing evil?
A short prayer of preparation:
Father in Heaven, You reveal Your love to us through your mercy and compassion in that You sent Your One and Only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins. Remove any fear in my heart, Lord God, of punishment, and help me to reverentially trust You in Your steadfast love, mercy and grace. Strengthen me when I am weak. Guard my heart against all unrighteousness, and help me to come to You as a child in wonder and awe. Forgive me of my sins, and give me clean hands and a pure heart, that I may worship you in exceeding joy. Help me to recognize the warped viewpoint of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that I would not be deceived. Blessed be Your name in all the universe! May all creation rejoice in Your character! Amen.