In a prayer meeting recently I sensed the Spirit drawing my attention to an older pastor quoting from Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The passage, like others, goes on to talk about the mutual subjection of wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 18-4:1; Titus 2:5, 9; 3:1). Similar passages on submission are found in relation to God (Heb 12:9), political authorities (Rom 13:1, 5; 1 Pet 2:13-14) and church leaders (1 Cor 16:16; Heb 13:17). That is, this theme encompasses the broad scope of social and cultural transformation characteristic of a genuine biblical revival. God was bringing to my attention that a crucial reason why there seems to be so little presence, power and healing in and through the church today is that many of these exhortations to subordination are not being treated seriously.
The increasingly characteristic mood of the people of God today is bubbly and triumphant, with little or no talk of the fear of the Lord. Sadly and reluctantly, this persuades me that much of what passes amongst us for vigorous faith is in truth a religious celebration of the length, breadth, heights and depths of human self-consciousness.
In speaking of subjection through the fear of God I am no advocating a return to discredited authoritarian or patriarchal patterns of relationships, but a re-examination of true order in the body of Christ that encompasses all the significant relationships of life with God, in the political sphere, marriage, family and church. I believe that a genuine re-ordering or realignment of the people of God is a prerequisite for a permanent visitation of the Holy Spirit which will transform our communities. Moreover, I believe that the ignition point for such a re-formation and revival is a rediscovery of the indispensability of the fear of God.
2. The Fear of the Lord in the Old Testament
a. Fear as healthy spirituality
Fearing God is a prominent Old Testament theme. Whilst there is a slavish fear that comes as a consequence of sin (Gen 3:10; Deut 28:28; Prov 28:1) the emphasis falls on a healthy fear of the divine majesty. This sort of fear correlates with God’s holiness (Ex 15:11; Lev 10:1- 3; Ps 99:3; 111:9 and see the article “Holy Things are Hidden Things”). It is to be encouraged.
b. Fear brings fruitfulness
Because the true fear of the Lord shakes natural life at its foundations (Ex 15:11; 1 Sam 6:20; Isa 6:3ff.) it is the beginning of a wisdom (Ps 111:10; Prov 1:7) that leads to a shunning of evil (Ex 20:20; Job 18; Prov 3:7; 8:13; 14:2; 16:6; Jer 32:40). This sort of fear is not incompatible with joy but creates it (1 Sam 6:13, 19 – 20; 2 Sam 6:9, 15) because God himself “delights in those who fear him” (Ps 147:11). Even if the prospect of “seeing God” fills the heart with apprehension over impending death (Ex 19:21; 33:20; Jud 6:22), to survive the vision of God brings the supreme blessing of knowing a promise and protection beyond all possible judgement (Gen 16:13; 28:17. 20 -22; Ex 24:11; 33:18). In one case, the identification between God and the emotion of fear is so strong that God is simply called, “the Fear of Isaac” (Gen 31:42,53). God is the God Isaac feared and worshipped to the exclusion of all other devotion. The Old Testament teaches that the way to experiencing God’s gracious deliverance is through this God – induced fear.
c. Fear leads to obedience
The end result of the true fear of God is not an emotion but the obedience of faith (Gen 22:12; Ex 1:17, 21; Ps 86:11). Through the fearful revelation of God at Sinai Israel is moved to turn from sin by obeying the law (Ex 20:20; Deut 10:12-13). False worship is incompatible with this fear (Deut 10:20). By means of the awesome revelation of holiness in the temple Isaiah is impelled to speak the confronting word of God (Isa 6:8-13).
Such a fear produces an adventurous attitude towards God, a trust despite all appearances. The extremity of the condition elicited in the human spirit by the manifestation of the true awesomeness of the LORD (Gen 28:17; Ex 34:10; Deut 4:34; Judges 13;6; Isa 64:13; Dan 9:4 etc.) induces a daring trust on the world stage. “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendour, doing wonders?” (Ex 15:11). If this dreadful God is the God of Israel, what fear of men remains (Ps 27:1)? In this fear is the relief of deliverance from the dread of human judgement (Num 14:9; Isa 8:12; Prov 29:25) that issues from a devious, unpredictable and implacable heart (Jer 17:9). This God – given fear drives out all human anxiety.
d. Messiah exemplifies the fear of God
That the fear of God is an indispensable element of godliness is most manifest in the prophecies concerning Messiah. “A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. For his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.” (Isa 11:1 -3). The possession of a holy fear for God is foundational to the identity of the Messiah.
3. The Fear of the Lord in the New Testament
a. The theme of fear in the New Testament
Contrary to popular expectations the fear of God as part of the spirituality of the people of God is a prominent theme in the New Testament. This fact exposes all natural perceptions of fear as being self- centred, directed towards personal relief rather than the glory of God and bearing no relation to Christ. Jesus is the final definition of the fear of God.
b. Jesus and the fear of God
- Fear Surrounds the Person of Jesus
The prophetic song of Mary states the connection between the fear of the Lord and mercy that is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” (Luke 1:50). This is an important theme for Luke.
There is a holy fear that surrounds the person of Jesus. Peter is overcome at the miraculous catch of fish and falls at Jesus’ feet exclaiming, “Depart from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:10). The response of the disciples to the stilling of the storm is “fear and amazement” at the power of God exhibited in Christ (Luke 8:25). The Gerasenes, witnessing the deliverance of the demoniac Legion, cannot bear the holy presence of Jesus in their region, so “overcome with fear” ask him to depart (Luke 8:37).
Jesus is not passive in this matter but positively commends and commands a fear of God. “I tell you my friends, do not fear those who kill the body but after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:5). Coming from the Son of God, this convincingly demonstrates that the true fear of the Lord is not a sinful and slavish response to unavoidable judgement (Rom 8:15; 1 John 4:18) but something that is compatible with the condition of sonship.
It is the unrighteous, like the corrupt judge, who do not fear God (Luke 18:2,4). Conversely, the salvation of the penitent thief on the cross hinges on the fact that he fears God’s judgement. His godly fear enables him to draw near to Jesus and receive the words of eternal life (Luke 23:40-43).
2. The cross as the Fear of God
If the Messianic description of Isaiah 11:1- 3 is to find fulfillment in Jesus, it must do so in terms of his own fear of the Lord. According to the writer of Hebrews, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission (K.J.V. “godly fear”).” (Heb 5:7). The context is definitely the passion of Jesus: the Garden of Gethsemane and the cross. The answer to the prayer of Jesus mentioned in Hebrews was not deliverance from suffering as such, for Jesus died a painful death, but the power of the resurrection which translated him beyond all possibility of dying.
In his agony in the Garden and in his experience of the cross Jesus commits himself to a place of subjection not only to the Father, but under the Father (Eph 4:6) to the religious rulers of the day, the secular governing authorities and the people of Israel who crow for his death. In saying, “‘Abba, Father,’ …not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36), Jesus entrusts himself to God in the context of falling into the hands of corrupt and Satanically inspired powers in church and state. By the extent of his submission, the innocent Son of God excludes the option of rebellion against imperfect authorities wherever theses may be found.
The content of the fear of God endured by Jesus is something so intense that as he approaches the cross it causes him, “if possible” (Mark 14:35), to pull back from the moment of death. At the height of his agony it moves him to utter the mysterious cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Since the life of Jesus is the indwelling Father (John 6:57), then the content of his fear is separation from the life of God. The Father is present at the cross, but present in a way that would normally not lead to a holy fear.
When the psalmists say, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness that you may be feared.” (Ps 130:3 – 4), and, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father is compassionate on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he remembers how we were formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Ps 103:11 – 13) they reveal an indissoluble connection between the fear of God and the experience of compassionate forgiveness. Only by the provision of full forgiveness, may a human being hope for reconciliation and union with God. If there is no provision of forgiveness, there is no prospect of fellowship with a holy God and fear can only correspond to the prospect of a wrath believed to destroy the sinner and their best interests. That is, God is “feared” solely for the sake of personal preservation and not for the sake of the relationship. This sort of fear is the inverse of faith and makes union with God impossible.
This is the sort of fear possessed by Adam and Eve in Eden leading them to hide from the presence of the Lord (Gen 3:10). It is a terror that induces avoidance of God (2 Sam 6:9; 2 Chron 17:10; Ps 2:5; Isa 2:19-21; 13:6 -8; Jon 1:16). It is behind the universal fear of death as anxiety over self – destruction (Heb 2:14-15). The book of Revelation illustrates this most graphically: “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the 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 their wrath has come, and who can stand’?” (6:15-17). Such an apprehension does not perceive God as holy love utterly opposed to all that destroys true human life as the image and glory of God. The consciences of those who dread God sense his intentions as totally selfish and as more malicious than any temporal human tyrant. For humanity outside of Christ, “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Ps 36:1; Rom 3:18); only a fear of what God might do.
It is into the cauldron of the condition of those who do not know God as the Father of compassion and the God of comfort (2 Cor 1:3) that Jesus is plunged on the cross. His infinite anxiety in Gethsemane, where his sorrow crushes him to the point of death (Isa 53:4, 10; Mark 14:34) is not over a suffering to be endured as such, it is not about “personal pain”, but over the sundering of the holy communion between him and his Father. It is pain for a relationship.
He does not fear what God “might do to him”, but experiences a dread at being left alone with our evil. This fear is holy, because it is not centred on self –preservation but on the honour of God. The horror of the cross for Jesus is that he must take the place of the unrepentant sinner, the one for whom God keeps a record of all sin for all time. This is an entering into the condition of those who cannot “stand in the judgement” (Ps 1:5). As Jesus’ soul is cast into the outer darkness (Matt 8:12), God, the light and life of his soul, is experienced as unbearably distant. This is true cause for measureless fear (Ps 27:1).
3. The Resurrection is the Fruit of the Fear of the Lord
That Jesus’ fear of God on the cross is righteous and the perfection of wisdom (1 Cor 1:23- 24) is manifested in the resurrection. Jesus is indeed “saved from death” (Heb 5:7), not in the sense that he did not die and was not judged in the body like all people (1 pet 4:6), but that this soul was not destroyed in hell.
The triumph of his spirit totally submitted to the Father (Luke 23:46; John 19:30), is his resurrection as a complete person. The whole Jesus, body, soul and spirit, is now so animated by the life giving Spirit of God (Rom 8:2, 11; 1 Pet 3:18) that he has become “a life – giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45).As a glorified human being in complete union with the Father, Jesus is exalted beyond all the possible fear – inducing elements of this current cosmos indwelt by mortal flesh. His immortality means the abolition of all that induces fear (Acts 2:24; 1 Cor 15:52; 2 Tim 1:10). Death as the penalty of sin and the agency of the devil has been destroyed in Jesus (Gen 2:17; Rom 3:23; 1 Cor 15:54-57; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 2:14- 15); its power to alienate humanity from God through fear of punishment is over (John 5:24; 1 John 4:17-18). This makes it completely clear that under the new covenant in Jesus no record of sin remains to terrorise our consciences so that we avoid the presence living God (Heb 8:12; 10:17). No room remains for an unhealthy fear of the Lord.
c. Set free to Fear
The writings of the New Testament therefore unhesitatingly promote the fear of the Lord. The Christian attitude to this fear can be appropriately summed up in this statement: “Holding oneself in weakness toward the will of God according to the pattern of Jesus Christ.” (Pedersen). A few of the applications of the fear of God are summarised below.
1. The fear of the Lord Produces Humility
In Romans 11 Paul reminds the Gentiles that election by sovereign grace is an awesome reality that should lead to humility and not pride. Israel as a whole lost its place in the purposes of God through self – confidence. Gentiles must fear lest they repeat the same error. “Do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” (11:20-21).
Paul appeals in Philippians 2:12 for Christians to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling”. This is grounded in the way of Christ’s self-humiliation and exaltation that he has just described (Phil 2:5-11). The God who was at work in the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus, is “at work” (2:13) in the Christian community. Only as we are overwhelmed by what God has done in Christ can we humbly abide in a fear that will induce in us a share in the Lord’s attitude of self – sacrifice for the good of others (2:1-4).
2. Fear Centres the Believer on Grace
In 1 Corinthians 2:3- 5 Paul speaks of how he came to Corinth“in weakness and in fear and in much trembling…but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,”. Paul is in fear lest he minister in his own unaided human strength. This dependent attitude reveals the weakness of his own person apart from God and his grace, just as the fear of Jesus revealed the weakness and mortality of his own humanity. Through the fear of the Lord the Christian turns away from all security in self and is wholly oriented to Christ and his example of godly fear. Only in this way may the Spirit present the cross in its true power.
3. The Fear of the Lord Motivates Holiness
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.” (2 Cor 7:1). The promises in question have to do with the indwelling presence of God as Father in the Christian community (2 Cor 6:16-18). These promises are conditional for their fulfilment upon abandoning idolatry and uncleanness. It is fear of missing out on the glories of God’s presence that motivates the church to live in such a way as to separate itself from all that is incompatible with holiness.
4. The Fear of the Lord Produces Confidence in Life and Ministry
Confidence before people and God is a theme for Paul’s apostleship (2 Cor3:12; 5:6, 8). The ultimate ground of this boldness in ministry is the prospect of meeting Jesus at his judgement seat and giving an account for actions (5:10). Because Paul fears Christ, with the fear that respects the judge (5:11), he is confident that he will be well received by Jesus at the time of his death. His confidence is in the Lord and not in any assessment by human beings. As such he is free from the fear of what people may do to him and released for uncompromising ministry.
5. The Church Advances in the Fear of the Lord
In Acts 9:31 we see that the church as a whole lived in the fear of God, was comforted by the Spirit, built up and grew in numbers. This would seem to form a complex. A church that fears God is open to the holiness of the Spirit and fears the consequences of sin (Acts 5:1- 11). As Jesus’ fear of the divine wrath led to the comfort of the resurrection, so those who fear the imminence of the divine judgement are preserved from experiencing it through the grace of the Spirit. The favour of God is visibly apparent in such a community and it naturally grows.
In concluding, it is necessary to return to our original text, Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Our fear of God and our mutual subjection is a participation in Jesus’ fear of the Holy Father. Only to the degree that we share in the life experience of Jesus’ holy fear of God can we anticipate in sharing in his experience of resurrection. The appeal of the first to God opens up the way for the second by God. Only to the degree that we submit to one another in fear and love, as Jesus submitted to the Father, will we share in the Father’s answer to the prayer of Jesus to be free from the state of death (Heb 5:7). This is true for all our relationships. Resurrection power will flow in our lives, marriages, families, churches and into the structures of society only when we subject ourselves in the way he has commanded.
Fear is the cry of a conscience that knows the fragility of its own position before the judgement seat of God. It dare not boast in anything except the cross (1 Cor 1:31; Gal 6:14; Eph 2:9). Yet, paradoxically, such a Christ-centred conscience is full of confidence before God and people (2 Cor 1:12; 4:2; 5:11; 1 Tim 1:19) because its appeal is not to itself but to the boundless mercies of God revealed in the gospel (1 Pet 3:21-22; Rom 11:22). In sensing that I really do fear God-as-a-person I sense that God is willing in my willing (Phil 2:13) to conform me to the image of his Son by humiliation and exaltation and to present me to himself at the judgement without blame (Col 1:22; Jude 24). (Indeed, my conscience tells me that to know God in this way is not a property of my own self but a share in Jesus own knowledge of the Father and so a share in his guiltlessness as a S/son before the tribunal of God.)
If all the above is biblically true, as I am persuaded that it is, then the present absence of the fear of God in our churches is deeply alarming. Indeed, it brings to the soul a sense of fear for the state of church and nation. One thing is for sure, the sorry state of the people of God today cannot be remedied without a revelation of the importance of fearing God. I am not sure how one asks for the fear of the Lord, but it would seem to be a great priority in our prayers.