What does it mean to fear God? Using Bible examples, Gerald Weston explains what the fear of God is, how fearing God is fundamental to Christian identity, and why it’s a major key in how to build a relationship with God.
[The text below represents an edited transcript of this Tomorrow’s World program.]
Fear is an emotion experienced by both man and beast. It can be a powerful motivator to escape danger. We often see this in nature films, where impalas and other herd animals flee from becoming a hungry lion’s dinner. Caribou instinctively run from wolf packs, sensing that it’s not a good idea to stick around to see what these canines are up to.
Fear also motivates us. We fear volcanic eruptions. Those who aren’t moved by fear may learn the danger too late. Such was the case when Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 A.D., spilling hot ash into the city of Pompeii and turning those who failed to take warning into statues depicting first century life in the licentious Roman city.
Who or what do you fear? Heights? Water? Public Speaking? Death? Or are you one who claims to fear nothing? What about God? Do you fear Him? Should you fear Him? The answer may surprise you. Stay with me and I’ll give you the answer straight from the pages of the Bible!
A warm welcome to all of you from all of us here at Tomorrow’s World, where we look to the God of the Bible for answers to life’s most important questions: What is man? What is the purpose of life? Why death? And where is our world headed? On this program, I’ll be discussing the important subject of fear, and specifically: Should you fear God?
There are many references that speak of the fear of God in the Bible, but what exactly does this expression mean? Psalm 111:10 tells us:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever (Psalm 111:10).
Note that the Psalmist connects fearing God with understanding God’s commandments, which results in giving praise to God. In Proverbs 1:7 it explains that:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
Note here that fearing God is contrasted with the rejection of wisdom and instruction. Clearly, the fear of God is depicted as good. It’s the very foundation for true wisdom and knowledge. God calls those who reject Him, who hate His commandments, and who refuse to acknowledge his rule in their lives, as fools. Note Psalm 53:1:
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and have done abominable iniquity; there is none who does good (Psalm 53:1).
It should be obvious, even from these few verses, that fearing God has something to do with how we behave, how we conduct our lives. But what exactly does it mean to fear God? We often hear people soft-pedal the fear of God by saying it simply means to respect Him. Now while fear involves respect, we must not make the mistake of thinking that fearing God is limited to a nebulous “respect” for Him. The Bible, for very good reasons, makes the contrast between fearing God and fearing man. Notice Jesus’ warning found in Matthew 10:28:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
Yes, it is God who has the power of life and death, and while it is natural to fear men, it is God that we must fear the most. When called before the council and threatened, we read how the apostles reacted to the questioning they were given in Acts 5:29:
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Another example of having right priorities is found in the book of Daniel, where King Nebuchadnezzar had set up a giant statue and commanded all his subjects to bow down before it. The penalty for not doing so was to be burned alive. Now what rational person would not be fearful of such a threat? It is our nature to fear getting too close to a fire, and for good reason. Probably all of us have made that mistake at one time or another and learned a painful lesson.
Three associates of Daniel refused to bow before the idol. Anyone who thinks that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego did not have a natural fear of the king would be naïve. After all, Nebuchadnezzar held the power of life and death over them, and he gave them this choice that we read of in Daniel 3:15:
Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands? (Daniel 3:15).
What would you have done if you had been in their shoes? Remember, you know the end of the story. They did not! While they feared the king, they had a greater fear, and that was of God. Here is their bold response to Nebuchadnezzar’s challenge, beginning in verse 16:
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:16–18).
As I’m sure you can imagine, this reply was not what the dictatorial king expected. He was not used to anyone defying a direct command from him. We read of his rage in verse 19:
Then Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. He spoke and commanded that they heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated (Daniel 3:19).
As any Bible student knows, Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t bluffing. The three young men were thrown into the furnace, but God supernaturally spared them. Do you believe this, my friends? Do you realize that many of today’s clergy reject Biblical miracles such as this, and even reject the resurrection of the One they claim to worship? No wonder many mainstream churches are teaching doctrines contrary to the Bible. One doctrine some reject is the law of God, claiming it no longer needs to be kept. Yet, as we have seen, Daniel and his three friends kept the law against idolatry.
The late Dr. Roderick C. Meredith wrote the following in a 2004 Tomorrow’s World article titled, “The Fear of God”:
All professing-Christian churches and ministers know Jesus’ foundational teaching of living by every word of God…. Why do they directly contradict this inspired command [to live by every word of God]? … Why do they persist in calling themselves “Christian,” yet directly contradict dozens of the clear teachings of the very Founder of Christianity?
Frankly, they do this because God seems “far off” to most of them. He is an unreal or vague intellectual concept to many—including some who are highly educated in the colleges and seminaries of this world. Put simply, they do not have what the Bible calls “the fear of God” (Meredith, “The Fear of God,” November/December 2004, Tomorrow’s World).
Now, I must ask: Could that be you, my friend? Note this passage from the prophet Isaiah in the 66th chapter and in verse 2, and ask yourself: Is this the way I study the word of God?
But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word (Isaiah 66:2).
In other words we fear to distort or take lightly what it says. Instead of trembling at the word of God, the vast majority of so-called Christians reason around clear and unambiguous statements. When Jesus said he was “Lord of the Sabbath,” they reason that He really meant that it is okay to choose whichever day we want to. When He said in Matthew 5:17,
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17).
They reason that He kept the law for us so that we don’t have to—the Law and the Prophets were nailed to the cross, they reason, and they effectively do the exact opposite of what He said. Anyone who reads the verses that follow should understand that, rather than doing away with the law, Jesus raised it to a higher standard, saying:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment (Matthew 5:21–22).
Not only did He say it was wrong to harbor hatred toward another (the 6th of the Ten Commandments), but He went on to explain how His servants would strive to keep the 7th commandment, the one about adultery, to a higher standard:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY.” But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:27–28).
How is it that many mainstream professing Christians, including ministers, certainly not all, but many, believe that the Ten Commandments no longer need to be kept? What is it about these commandments that people find offensive?
Dennis Prager makes this insightful observation in the context of the midwives who chose to go against Egypt’s Pharaoh by not drowning the Hebrew babies in the Nile River:
People fear those who are more powerful than they are. Therefore, the only way not to fear powerful people is to fear God…. Fear of God is a liberating emotion, freeing one from a disabling fear of evil, powerful people. This needs to be emphasized because many people see fear of God as onerous rather than liberating (Prager, The Rational Bible, Exodus, p. 11).
He went on to say:
Those who feared God saved Hebrew babies. Those who feared Pharaoh helped drown Hebrew babies (Prager, The Rational Bible, Exodus, p. 12).
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ showed us the importance of putting Him first in our lives above all others. I have often said Luke 14:26 is the most frightening scripture in the Bible. It separates the pretenders from the true followers of Christ:
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple (Luke 14:26).
We understand from many passages that we are not to “hate,” as is commonly understood today by that word. We can show that from scripture, but it should be obvious to anyone with an open mind and common sense that what Jesus was saying was that we are to put Him first above all others. He gives as examples, those who are closest to us—such as family and even our own life. Yet, how many put family, friends, business associates, neighbors, this world in general, and yes, even the fear of death, before Christ? Let me give you a simple example.
It is an easy task to show from the Bible that Jesus, His apostles, and first century Christians all set aside the seventh day Sabbath as the day of rest and worship, but for the sake of time, I’ll only mention two [examples]. The first is found in Luke 4:16:
So He [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read (Luke 4:16).
The second is found in Acts 13, where the Apostles Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch in Pisidia and went into the Synagogue on the Sabbath day. Both Jews and Gentiles were present—verse 42:
So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath (Acts 13:42).
This would have been a perfect time for Paul to explain that the Sabbath was replaced by Sunday and they could simply meet the next day, but neither Paul nor Barnabas did so. Now let’s continue with verses 43 and 44:
Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God (Acts 13:43–44).
Scripture after scripture demonstrates that it was the seventh day Sabbath that was kept by Jesus and the first century Church. It’s equally easy to prove from history that the change to Sunday came, not from the Bible, but from Emperor Constantine in the 4th century A.D. The record is abundantly clear to anyone with an open mind. So why are there so relatively few willing to follow Christ’s example, and instead follow pagan tradition by choosing the day set aside by a heathen Roman Emperor? Note this quote from Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity:
It is important to understand Constantine’s previous religion, the worship of the Unconquered Sun…. When in 321 Constantine made the first day of the week a holiday, he called it “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday)…. The Christian church took over many pagan ideas and images. From sun-worship, for example came the celebration of Christ’s birth on the twenty-fifth of December, the birthday of the Sun (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 131).
Sadly, many would rather follow Constantine than Christ. Why? Is it not because they reason around the Scriptures, thereby not going against family, friends, and society in general? Who is it that they fear? God or man? What about you dear friend?
Our free resource—The Ten Commandments—explains the spiritual intent of all ten of the commandments, not just eight or nine. As Dr. Roderick C. Meredith wrote in his introduction to this resource:
Even secular scholars recognize that the very first Christians based their lives on following the great spiritual law of God—the Ten Commandments. When they said, “The Lord Jesus Christ,” they recognized that the word “Lord” means “Boss”—the One you should obey! Jesus reminded them again and again of this vital relationship, as in Luke 6:46: “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Meredith, The Ten Commandments, p. 1)
I’ll show you two ways to fear God. The first way is to voluntarily and humbly submit our will humbly and voluntarily to our Creator by putting Him first in our lives—not only with our words, but also with our actions. That’s the best way, but you will not like the second way.
God spoke to Israel through His prophet Amos and showed how He tried to get their attention through weather upsets, plagues, war, and more; but they were stubborn. They refused to accept the message. Amos 4 explains, And let’s begin in verse 11:
“I overthrew some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a firebrand plucked from the burning; yet you have not returned to Me,” says the LORD. “Therefore thus will I do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” For behold, He who forms mountains, and creates the wind, who declares to man what his thought is, and makes the morning darkness, who treads the high places of the earth—the LORD God of hosts is His name (Amos 4:11–13).
God WILL get mankind’s attention. Jesus is very different from the way many see Him. Yes, He is loving, patient, and caring, and He gave His life for us, but He will not put up with rebellion and disrespect forever. Have we not read what is ahead for unrepentant humanity? Students of the Bible are familiar with what are called the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, but notice what follows. The next event is a future martyrdom of some of God’s people, followed by terrifying signs in the heavens and on the earth. Here will be the effect of those signs on rebellious mankind, as we read in Revelation 6:15:
And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15–17).
Now, that’s a side of the Son of God that most fail to recognize! Yes, the Day of the Lord, the day of Christ’s wrath is coming. This day is also spoken of in the book of Isaiah. Notice how arrogant mankind will learn to fear God the hard way. Turn to Isaiah 2 and we’ll begin in verse 10:
Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust, From the terror of the LORD And the glory of His majesty. The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, The haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, And the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the LORD of hosts Shall come upon everything proud and lofty, Upon everything lifted up—And it shall be brought low…. The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, And the haughtiness of men shall be brought low…. They shall go into the holes of the rocks, And into the caves of the earth, From the terror of the LORD And the glory of His majesty, When He arises to shake the earth mightily (Isaiah 2:10–12, 17, 19).
Maybe the best way to understand the fear of God is to understand the relationship of a father and his son. Respect and fear go together. When a son respects his father, he obeys the rules of the house, he feels safe and comfortable, he understands his father’s love, he communicates freely with his father, and even asks favors from him from time to time. But, if he flagrantly breaks his father’s rules, becomes arrogant and forgets whose house it is, he may very well have reason for a different kind of fear. This is good, as children don’t always know what is best for them. It’s important for children to both respect, and at times, fear their parents. That can keep them out of a whole lot of trouble.
God has given us the rules of the house—ten easy to understand, but not always easy to keep—commandments.
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