If God is love, and love drives out fear, how can fear be an appropriate response to God?
That’s where we left off yesterday. We looked at 1 John 4:18 and what it says about the relationship between love and fear, and then wondered how this can be true, in light of the many Bible verses that emphasize the importance of fearing God. I highlighted three verses, all from the Old Testament, to illustrate the Biblical notion that fear (of God) is a virtue.
Now, if this was merely an Old Testament phenomenon, it would make sense. The Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the completely freaky episode in Leviticus 10:1-2 where He wipes out two of Aaron’s sons for an act of spontaneous worship (of Yahweh, not of Baal or Asherah or Zeus or Apollo) … God was scary in the Old Testament.
No wonder Isaiah reacted the way he did in Isaiah 6:5 when he found himself in Heaven’s throne room, and Ezekiel fell facedown at the end of Ezekiel 1 when he came face-to-face with a mind-addling vision of God.
But the New Testament God is another matter, isn’t He? Little Baby Jesus. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The patient teacher. The merciful healer. The clever debater. The spotless martyr whose willingness to die at our hands saved us from ourselves. He calls God ‘Daddy‘ and invites us to do the same. He invites us to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” in Matthew 11:28.
That’s the opposite of scary. It’s downright comforting.
But while you’re thinking about that, think about this: the New Testament tells us to fear God, too:
- ‘He (Jesus) said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.’ – Luke 18:2
- ‘Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.’ – 1 Peter 2:17
- ‘He (an angel) said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”’ – Revelation 14:7
Now, if you search through enough different versions of the Bible, you’ll find some translations of those verses that use words like ‘respect’ or ‘revere’ instead of ‘fear’. But I don’t think we should rush down that road. Jesus is indeed The Lamb, but that doesn’t make him any less The Lion, does it?
God didn’t lower His perfect standards of justice and righteousness sometime between Malachi and Matthew. The terrifying wrath of God so well documented in the Old Testament is not mellowed one iota in the New. Quite the opposite, in fact: If God had suddenly become more tolerant of humanity’s frailty and failures, then the life, ministry and death of Jesus (and therefore the entire New Testament) wouldn’t have been necessary. Being a just God, He couldn’t set aside His wrath. But being a loving God, He didn’t want to pour it out on His children for their inability to measure up to his heavenly (and therefore impossibly high) standards. So He came as one of us, and poured out His wrath on Christ, dealing with our sin once and for all and giving us a back door into relationship with Him. All we have to do is choose to knock on it!
God isn’t any less scary in the New Testament than He was in the Old. He just aims His scariness at Himself, instead of us.
But as we learn from the Apostle John’s experience in the Book of Revelation, coming face-to-face with God in His Heavenly glory is still scary as hell.
‘When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.’ – Revelation 1:17a
He reacted in much the same way as Ezekiel and Isaiah did, centuries earlier – not with mere respect or reverence, but with fear.
And let’s not forget that John knew Jesus personally. He was one of the GodMan’s best friends (some commentators go so far as to use the initials BFF for JC and JtA)! He was also one of Jesus’ most faithful followers – he didn’t desert Him during the trial and crucifixion, and he was in exile for preaching the Gospel, decades after Pentecost, at the time of the Revelation. If anyone had cause to be confident in Jesus’ presence, it was John. And even he was scared spitless of Jesus in His glory.
But what was Jesus’ response to John’s fear?
‘Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”‘ – Revelation 1:17b-18
So on one hand, we’re commanded to fear God because He is powerful, righteous, demanding and wrathful. And on the other hand, we’re invited to not be afraid, because He is merciful and forgiving, and His wrath has been fully dealt with by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Well, put your hands together, folks. The invitation doesn’t cancel out the command, and vice-versa. It’s not either-or, friends. It’s both-and.
‘How can those two seemingly contradictory directives coexist in our hearts? How can I cower in fear of the most powerful Being in the universe, while also snuggling up the lap of my doting and patient Heavenly Father?’, you ask?
Only with God’s help.
Peace be with you.
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