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Does Fearing the Lord Mean Being Afraid of Him?

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

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Introduction: A God's Who Demands Respect

C.S Lewis was a great communicator and a good story teller.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, an allegory written by Lewis, the author has two girls, Susan and Lucy, getting ready to meet Aslan the lion, who represents Christ. Two talking animals, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, prepare the children for the encounter. "Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion." "That you will, dearie." said Mrs. Beaver. "And make no mistake, if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knee's knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."

"Then isn't he safe?" said Lucy. "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you!"

That, I believe sums up what it means to fear the Lord more than most of the attempts that I've read over the years. God is not some white-bearded grandfather in the sky whom you have to wake up in order to talk with Him. He is the Eternal One who created all that exists just by speaking it into existence. And by one word out of His mouth it can just as easily cease to exist. He is the all-powerful, all knowing and all-present Creator and Sustainer of this entire universe. And who knows how many more universes He has made.

Further, if He wanted to do so, God has the power to crush us just as easily as we are able to crush a bug that is in our house. He is the type of being that, if He were not holy and good, He'd be one that would be the most frightening personality in the universe and one that is worse than our most horrible nightmares. For He would be literally capable of destroying us and all that is around us with a single command. And we would have no place to hide from Him or His destructive power. Further by His sheer might alone, He can demand respect and can bring terror to any heart. Even the most powerful created being that exists is no match for He who is the creator of all things.

So, our God is anything but safe. Yet thankfully, He is the King who is good, and holy. And God is the very definition of love.

But He is also a just being who, by the nature of His character must punish sin, which is rebellion against His authority and that which is good. Or else He'd cease to be just.

And the Bible tells us that God should be feared. However, what does it mean to 'fear the Lord?' Should we be terrified of Him as we would have been of the nightmare God whom we just proposed. Or, does this term mean something else? Let us examine the biblical idea of the 'fear of the Lord' and see if we can unpack what the Scriptures are telling us when they give this command.

I. Defining the Word Fear

Let us begin by defining the word 'fear' in the Scriptures. The phrase 'fear of the Lord' appears 25 times in the New American Standard version of the Bible. It occurs 23 times in the Old Testament and 2 times in the New Testament.

The word “fear” in the phrase “fear of the Lord” comes from two Hebrew words pahad and yirah. Pahad means “dread” and yirah means “frighten” And so the “fear of the Lord” is the reverence one would pay to a king because he is the majesty. But if one has offended the king, punishment could be expected.

Yirah often directly translates into fear or even terror, but it can also mean respect, reverence, and worship. However, make no mistake about it, yirah is strongly connected to ‘trembling’.

Another word often used in the phrase 'fear the Lord' is the Hebrew term 'yare' which is the verb form of the noun yirah.

The verb Yare is used 31 times in the Old Testament. One of these if found in Deuteronomy 10:20 which says:

"You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name."

Finally, in the New Testament, the word used most often to express fear is phobos which means “fear,” “dread,” “terror”.

Put all of this together and we find that fearing the Lord can range from an actual sense of being afraid to reverence or respect.

For the believer, we aren't to fear God as we would a tyrant or a dictator. Because God is not out to zap us as soon as He sees us doing something wrong. In fact the Bible says that God is for us and He loves us. And nothing can separate us from that love. (Romans 8:31-38). Rather to fear God is to see Him for what He is. He is the Almighty God and the Creator of all things. The “fear of the Lord,” means having a deep respect, reverence and awe for God’s power and authority. Rather than causing someone to be afraid of God, a proper “fear of the Lord” leads one to love Him and to keep His commandments.

But what of those who don't keep the Lord's commandments? What of the unbeliever or atheist who claims that there is no God? Is there a sense in which one should be afraid of God as well if they are not following His Word or recognizing His authority? The answer to that is 'Yes!'

III. Unbelievers Need to Fear God's Judgment and Punishment

We first look at the unbeliever. They are those who refuse to acknowledge God or His Son Jesus Christ. In the book of Hebrews we see those who have heard about Jesus' sacrifice for sin and rejected it (Hebrews 10:26-31). He is not just talking with mere backsliders here who have just fallen into sin. The writer of Hebrews here is discussing those Hebrew Christians who may have claimed the name of Christ at one time but now are rejecting it and returning to their Jewish faith, which these readers once embraced. These are the type of people whom the Apostle John spoke of in his epistle and said that they never knew Christ in the first place, or they would have remained with Him (I John 2:19). Here is what the Hebrews' writer has to say to them:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot 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? For we know Him who said, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Hebrews 10:26-31).

He is not talking about mere respect here. The writer is talking about sheer terror of the righteous judgment of a holy God and His wrath upon sin.

In the book of Romans, the first chapter, the Apostle Paul talks about the wrath of God against the ungodly of the world. Here is what He says:

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them ; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." (Romans 1:18-20).

Paul goes on to say that they knew God but didn't glorify Him as God but instead became foolish by making idols to worship rather than the Creator. God then gave sinful mankind over to the lusts of their hearts to allow them to degrade themselves and receive the consequences of their rebellion. (1:21-32).

The wages of this sin is ultimately death, both physical and spiritual (Romans 6:23). Physical death is separation of the body from the spirit. Spiritual death is the separation of the spirit from God. And if that isn't taken care of in this life, spiritual death becomes an eternal separation from God in Hell, and finally the Lake of Fire. Revelation 20:1-15 speaks of the Great White Throne judgment for unbelievers.

Some of the most horrifying words in all of Scripture are found in verse 15 of chapter 20 where it says:

"If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the Lake of Fire."

So for those who have never accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and refuse the offer of eternal life that He brings, it should be a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God!

IV. The Believer Should Fear God's Fatherly Discipline

The fear of the Lord also includes the idea that God is a caring Father who disciplines the Sons whom He loves. The book of Hebrews talks about this rather directly when it says:

"For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastises every son He receives.” Endure suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you do not experience discipline like everyone else, then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.…" (Hebrews 12:6-8).

All of us, who have had a good dad, know the fear of anticipating seeing him after we we did wrong. We had a legitimate fear of his discipline. Though we may have known that he loved us, we also were aware that this wouldn't stop him from doing something to us that may be painful in some way. It was not done out of hatred or to be mean. It was done in order to correct us and show us how to do what is right.

It has been said that God loves us just as we are, but He also loves us too much to leave us that way. In 1st Thessalonians 4:3, Scripture tells us:

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.”

Sanctified means to set apart from the profane and dedicated to the holy or sacred. It literally means that God desires we live a holy life. And discipline is good even though it may hurt because it leads us to the holy life that the Lord plans for us.

So the anticipation of God's Fatherly correction, if we live outside of His boundaries for our lives, should be something that will make us want to judge or correct ourselves and to begin again to live a life of obedience.

This is the sense that Paul the Apostle is talking about when he states:

"If we judge ourselves we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord that we should not be condemned with the world." (I Corinthians 11:31,32).

Of course this fear of the Lord's discipline should also be coupled with a sincere desire to please our Father just as a child often does.

V. The Believer should Fear God's Total Awareness of Us and the Coming Judgment

Added to all of this, the fear of the Lord also includes knowing of God's awareness of our actions and His coming evaluation and judgment of those actions in the future. It is amazing what people will do when they think that no one is looking which they would never do if they thought that someone was observing them. We have a concern for what others think of us.

Well the truth is that there is always someone Who is looking at what we do. That someone is God. Fear of the Lord is being concerned about God’s evaluation of our thoughts, words, actions, attitudes, and motives? For He is the only one whose opinion carries the weight of eternal reward or loss of reward as a Christian. Here is what the the Institute of Basic Life Principles says about this subject:

"Each of us will give an account of our lives to God, and He is fully aware of everything we think, desire, speak, and do. The fear of the Lord is an awareness of these truths. It can be defined as a continual awareness that you are in the presence of a holy, just, and almighty God, and that every motive, thought, word, and action is open before Him and will be judged by Him."

Paul says this very well in II Corinthians 5:9-11 when he tells us:

"So we aspire to please Him, whether we are here in this body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Therefore, since we know what it means to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is clear to God, and I hope it is clear to your conscience as well.…"

Of course there are several verses in the Bible that tell us of God's knowledge of our every thought and action. Psalm 139, for instance, tells us:

"You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you." (139:1-12).

Having all of this knowledge of God's presence should make us live in a different way then one who thinks that no one will ever find out, or care what we do in secret. A proper fear of the Lord will cause us to be better individuals.

Conclusion

When it comes right down to it the fear of the Lord is for our benefit. So rather than being a negative thing, in the end it is quite positive. God is our creator and He alone knows what is best for us. Further, the only way to find true success in life is to live according to His principles. That is why we find that the Bible tells us:

"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10)

And one of the main characteristics of those who are lost is that there is no fear of God before their eyes (Romans 3:18).

In looking at the Scriptures, when the Bible talks about fearing God, it is usually referring to an attitude of reverence and respect, not outright terror. It is a reverence for and acknowledgement of God's sovereignty and power over us.

And yet a healthy fear of the Lord must also include a fear of the consequences of disobedience. At times when we go through trials and temptations, we may forget the benefits of total obedience. Knowing that sin and disobedience have negative consequences should make us think twice before doing them. Or if we have already gone off the narrow path, it should bring us back to repentance and acknowledgement that God's ways are best.

And it isn't a just a fear of what God will do in judgment at the end of the world either. Disobedience to spiritual laws have their own inevitable consequences just as failing to follow natural laws do. For instance, jumping off a tall building will get you killed or hurt severely whether you believe in gravity or not. And lying, cheating, stealing and running around on your spouse can bring both physical and spiritual consequences.

The truth is that a healthy fear of the Lord, by design, causes us to grow to be like God- we grow to love like He loves. And that growth removes any need to be terrified of His judgement. As the Apostle John says:

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (I John 4:18).

In the end a true fear of the Lord, combined with a love for Him causes us to hate sin altogether. This is what it tells us in Proverbs 8:13. It says:

"The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverted mouth, I hate."

So may we all become wise as we learn to honor and fear the Lord, follow His precepts and give Him the glory for all that He's done for us. For by doing these things we will reap benefits that will help us in this life and for all eternity.

© 2021 Jeff Shirley

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