What does it mean to fear God? This article shows how the fear of God is characterized by love and respect for God, and the pursuit of holiness and reverential worship for God. It also shows that fearing God should not result in slavish fear.

Source: Witness, 2016. 3 pages.

The Fear of God

One of the qualities which characterised the early New Testament church was the fear of God. Luke writes:

Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.Acts 9:31

Of few churches today could it be said that the Christians walked in the fear of God or that this fear distinguished their worship. It is rare to find books or to hear sermons on this subject, yet, when we search the Scriptures, it is a very important concept and to be found throughout the Old and New Testament. Here is something we should strive to have individually and also as a characteristic of our Church.

But what is the fear of God? It is not easily defined. The fear of God is different from the fear one might have when confronted by a poisonous snake or an intruder in the middle of the night. It is quite different from the fear of the wicked on the judgment day. We will look at various passages of Scripture which will help us to build up a definition.

First Reference🔗

We first come across the fear of God in Genesis 22:12. Abraham had been commanded to offer up his beloved son Isaac, the one for whom he had waited so long and the one through whom the promises were to be fulfilled. He tied his son to the altar and took the knife and was only stopped at the last second by the angel of the Lord who declared, ‘now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me’.

A man of God could rightly be described as one who feared God (Job 1:1).

Respect to a Father🔗

Properly, we respect our parents. ‘A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name’ (Mal. 1:6). A father is to be respected. This is often missing today. Many fathers are absent. Following their lusts, they have moved on to a new partner. Because of their sinful pleasure-loving lives, they command little respect. Their failure to discipline lovingly and consistently their children means that their children treat them with contempt. The manager at work should also be ‘feared’. Our egalitarian society rejects the idea of honouring anyone but ourselves. But God’s commandment states, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’ and that includes all who are placed in authority over us. Loving respect should characterise our relationship to God.

No fear of God🔗

Romans 3 gives a graphic picture of the wickedness of unconverted man:

They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known.vv 12-17

This is followed by the greatest condemnation of all and that which sums up all the rest: ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (v 18). The unregenerate, dead in trespasses and sins, wallowing in wickedness, have no respect for God, neither do they bother to keep His commandments. No fear of God is the opposite of walking in His ways.

An Element of Fear🔗

There is a certain element of fear in the fear of God. Jesus said:

Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him. Lk. 12:4-5

Governments have from time to time persecuted Christians even to death. Naturally we fear pain, torture and death, but Jesus warns against undue concern with regard to the fear of physical death; however we should be greatly concerned about eternal death. Don’t fear persecutors but fear God.

The Beginning of Wisdom🔗

The best-known verse with regard to the fear of God is Proverbs 9:10 (the same words are also in Psalm 111:10). It states, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. Proverbs 1:7 is similar, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’. True knowledge and understanding begins when we give God His rightful place. Wisdom is knowledge in practice. It is wise living. ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’ (Ps. 14:1). The atheist is a real fool. Giving God His proper place as Creator, Ruler and Judge is where wisdom begins. ‘The fear of man bringeth a snare’ (Prov. 29:25). Seek not the praise of man. Do not worry what people think or threaten to do, but be concerned to have the approval of God.

None like God🔗

God is so great, there is none like Him. He is much to be feared. ‘Forasmuch as there is none like unto thee, O Lord; thou art great, and thy name is great in might. Who would not fear thee, O King of nations?’ (Jer. 10:6-7). He is infinitely glorious: ‘Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance’ (Is. 40:15). He is the one who sits on the circle of the earth and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers before him (v 22). The fear of the Lord involves great views of God.


God came down on Mount Sinai in a cloud in the presence of all Israel. There were thunderings, lightnings and an earthquake. He spoke forth the Ten Commandments in the ears of the people, so that every Israelite heard the voice of God from the top of the mountain. They were so frightened that they pleaded with Moses to be their mediator, to receive the word from God and to announce it to them, rather than hearing directly from God. So terrifying was the sight that Moses himself said, ‘I exceedingly fear and quake’ (Heb. 12:21). When Isaiah received his call to be a prophet he had a vision of God which shook him so much that he cried out, ‘Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’ (Is. 6:5). God is truly awesome.

Response to pardon🔗

One of the most fascinating verses of Scripture on this theme is to be found in Psalm 130: ‘If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared’ (vv 3-4). Every man and woman is a sinner deserving hell but God forgives some so that they will fear Him. So fearing Him is the loving, joyful, thankful, relationship with Him which is the result of forgiveness. There is no true fear of God without love for Him.

Different from slavish fear🔗

This fear is different from slavish fear. John writes, ‘There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love’ (1 John 4:18). The devils have great fear but not the fear of the Lord. They believe in God and tremble, thinking of their future torment (Jas. 2:19). The wicked on the day of judgment will call on the mountains to fall on them and the hills to cover them from the face of Him who sits on the throne (Rev. 6:16). That is the fear of those who do not have the fear of God in their hearts. But the true Christian can say, ‘to depart, and to be with Christ ... is far better’ (Phil. 1:23).

Blessed Fear🔗

Those who fear God are blessed and happy and will be so eternally: ‘Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways’ (Ps. 128:1). God loves those who fear Him and this fear is explained as walking in His ways. To be blessed by God is to receive all that is good and also to experience all things working together for one’s good (Rom. 8:28). Nothing can compare with the blessing of God.

Pursuit of Holiness🔗

Those who fear God pursue holiness. We are to ‘cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Cor. 7:1). Writing to the Philippians, Paul encourages them to strive to be holy, ‘Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12).

Reverential Worship🔗

Worship has become much more informal these days. Anything seems to go. All that seems to matter is what will make people feel relaxed and what will they enjoy, rather than focussing on God and what He requires. The element of fear is missing. Hebrews explains the kind of worship God is looking for: ‘Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:28-29). The pictures of heaven in the books of Daniel and Revelation describe the reverence and awe which characterise the perfect worship of God.

Two Kinds of Fear🔗

It is important to grasp the difference between the fear of the Lord that the true Christian has and being frightened of God as the sinner sometimes is and as he will be forever in hell. Adam hid in the Garden but Moses said ‘Show me thy glory’ (Exod. 33:18). He wanted to see God and God to be with him. The wicked fear the consequences of sin but the righteous fear sin itself. The sinner fears the shame of being found out, but the godly fear bringing shame on God. The ungodly in their fear wish God did not exist, but true God-fearers could imagine nothing worse than a universe without God. Gathering these thoughts together, in the words of Professor Robert B Strimple, there is in the fear of God ‘the convergence of awe, reverence, adoration, honour, worship, confidence, thankfulness, love, and, yes, fear’. Solomon, in his wisdom declares,

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

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