“Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29)
Children have an amazing capacity of memory. I’m glad that as a child I was encouraged and taught a good number of verses from the Bible, as well as a fair chunk of the hymn book. What you learn when you are young stays with you all your life. If you are learning verses of the Bible in AWANA or at home, you will never regret that you did.
I memorized verses that many of you will have learned also: “God so loved the world that He gave his own and only Son” (John 3:16), and “God demonstrates His love towards us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). But there were others that have also been of great value in my life: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), and “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
I wonder what you think about planting that in the memory of a child? Why would you plant in the mind of a young boy that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God? Why would you want him to associate the God you want him to love with a consuming fire? Why would you teach him to remember this and carry it with him in his soul all the days of his life?
Some people today would say that teaching these words to a child is a form of abuse. What do you think? Now you may say, “That’s going too far, but I wouldn’t want to teach my children that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and that our God is a consuming fire.”
Well, I’m glad that my parents did. I’m glad that my Sunday school teachers did. I’m glad that they taught me these great truths, as well as the great Scriptures on the love of God. I want us to see from the Bible today, the place of godly fear in the Christian life.
Two Kinds of Fear
Let’s begin with an important distinction. There is a fear that love removes and a fear that love brings.
The fear that love removes
We know that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But what kind of fear does love cast out?
1. Love casts out the fear that keeps you hiding from God
“I heard you in the garden and I was afraid… so I hid.” Genesis 3:10
When Adam sinned, he hid from God. There is something to be said for this. The fear that kept Adam from God was better than not fearing God at all. Far better that he hides from God, than that he walks about in the garden as if nothing was wrong. At least he knows his sin is a problem!
It is better to have a sense of fear that keeps you from God, than to have no fear of God at all. Only the wicked have no fear of God. It is better to have a sense of shame over an evil you have done, than to be shameless about it.
But when God comes into the Garden, His love overwhelms this fear. He reaches out to Adam and to Eve and embraces them with His promise and His love.
2. Love casts out the fear that keeps you from serving God
“I knew you are a hard man, and I was afraid so I dug a hole and hid the money. Here is what belongs to you.” Matthew 24:25
When the master returned, in the parable of the lazy servant, he found that his servant had dug a hole and hid his money in the ground. It was better to bury the money than spend it on riotous living, like the prodigal son. At least he was able to give it back! But a man who knew his master’s love would have done better than bury the talent in the ground.
There is a fear that love removes—perfect love casts out fear. We usually think of fear and love as alternatives: Where there is fear there is no love. Where there is love there is no fear. But love and the right kind of fear are inseparable companions.
Think of it like cholesterol. Is cholesterol good or bad? Actually, there are two kinds of cholesterol. There is a bad cholesterol. If it goes up, your health is getting worse. You need to do something about it. But there is also a good kind of cholesterol. And if the good cholesterol goes up, your health is getting better. So, think of fear in the same way: We want less of the bad kind. We want more of the good kind.
Some of us think that there is only one kind of fear, and it is bad. We have never understood the fear of the Lord, that there is a kind of fear that is a sign of health.
The fear that love brings
“With you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” Psalm 130:4
If the only kind of fear was a bad kind, this verse would say, “With you there is forgiveness; therefore you are not feared.” Since you are a God who forgives, we don’t need to fear you any more. We can forget about fear and focus on love.
But that’s not what he says. He says precisely the opposite—with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared! There is a kind of fear to which you are introduced when you are forgiven!
Forgiveness is a massive gift of love that brings you into the right kind of fear! This is what the Bible means by “the fear of the Lord.” So, there is a fear that love removes and a fear that love brings. Love and the right kind of fear are inseparable friends.
John Newton said rightly in his famous hymn:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved. [i]
Someone may say, “Isn’t the fear of the Lord an Old Testament idea? Isn’t it the case that people feared God in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament they grew out of that and learned to love God instead?
In the New Testament: A Fear We Grow Into
The words of Mary, the mother of our Lord, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” Luke 1:50
The words of Jesus to his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
A description of the church at its best, “Then the church… enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” Acts 9:31
Our mandate for the Christian life, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12
A direct command, “Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” 1 Peter 2:17
The experience of John the apostle, the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who sat next to him at the last supper, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17). Do you think it would be different with you? So, the Savior comes to him and says, “John, do not be afraid,” and He picks him up.
This is not a fear that we grow out of, as if religion has somehow evolved away from it. This is a fear we grow into. We are to fear God as we love Him and we are to love Him as we fear Him. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament make this plain.
John Bunyan, the great puritan preacher and the writer of the Pilgrim’s Progress wrote a marvelous book on the fear of God:
“Godly fear… flows from a sense of the love and kindness of God to the soul.” [ii]
The fear of the Lord is better described than defined. It is better experienced than analyzed. It is, as they say in Scotland, “better felt than telt.” Can you follow that?
I was talking in my office with a couple who were preparing to be married. I said to the guy, “When she says that she will have you to be her husband, and when she makes this pledge to be yours… for better for worse, for richer for poorer, to forsake all others, to embrace only you, and to do this all of her life… she is giving you a more priceless gift than any other gift you will ever receive in all of your experience. And you should be in awe of it! And I said the same to her.
There is an awe that flows out of the experience of the love and the kindness of God in Jesus Christ. There is a fear that is removed by love, but there is a fear that love brings you into.
In the Church: The Weightlessness of God
David Wells has described the plight of Christianity in our times by saying that God has become “weightless.” [iii] That is, He is less compelling to many people than football or fashion. He is less attractive to many than money or sex.
Taking up this theme, Philip Ryken says,
“It is the weightlessness of God, more than anything else that explains the failings of the evangelical church. It is because God is so unimportant to us that our worship is so irreverent, our fellowship so loveless and our witness so timid. We have become children of a lightweight God.” [iv]
Here is the burden of my heart: The church today desperately needs to rediscover the fear of the Lord. I don’t know a better place to begin than Deuteronomy 5. This chapter is designed to teach us the fear of the Lord.
Notice that it begins with the Ten Commandments. Remember, the commandments had been given 40 years earlier. So, most of the people listening to Moses here, like us who are hearing the Word today, were not even born when God gave the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Then Moses gives the commandments to this new generation. This is the reason the book is called “Deuteronomy,” or “second law.”
This is important for every parent to notice: Moses does more than tell them the commandments. He wants them to learn about and fear the awesome God who gave them. Moses brings them into what their parents had experienced 40 years earlier.
Moses describes the scene. The whole event was terrifying, apocalyptic. Try to imagine it: Darkness and the blast of trumpets. The sound of a voice amplified so intensely that you could hardly bear to hear it. But overwhelming all of that was this massive ball of fire that came down and rested on the mountain of Sinai.
Notice how the fire dominates what Moses says. The sheer terror of the fire on the mountain was etched on his mind. It’s in every verse:
“The Lord spoke out of the fire…” (v22)
“The mountain was ablaze with fire.” (v23)
“Today we have heard His voice out of the fire.” (v24)
“They said the great fire will consume us and we will die if we hear the voice of the Lord any longer.” (v25)
“What mortal man has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire as we have and survived?” (v26)
The fear of the Lord was pressed in on Moses that day and now he describes the scene because he wants these people (who had not yet been born when God first gave the commandments at Sinai) to see and feel the holy fire of the presence of God, “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear’” (Hebrews 12:21).
Do you know what was happening when the fire of God came down on Sinai? God’s people caught a glimpse of the Day of Judgment. The Judge of all the earth came down and they saw His holy fire. They felt His power—the earth was shaking. They were in awe and they said, “This is our God! Look at who saved us and what we have been saved from.”
But God knows that impressions wear off quickly. Moses went up the mountain and within a few weeks, they were dancing round the golden calf. So, He says, “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me so that it might go well with them and their children forever!”
I want you to see that the fear of the Lord is not a side issue in the Bible—it goes everywhere! It’s more than hearing a sermon on fearing God. It’s more than memorizing a verse from Hebrews. It’s more than learning the Ten Commandments. It is life-transforming.
Seven Reasons to Cultivate the Fear of the Lord
1. Fearing the Lord will give you wisdom
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” Psalm 111:10
When God carries weight in your life, you with be on the path of wise decisions. How does God see what I am doing? How does He view what I am saying? How does what I am thinking play in the light of eternity when I will stand in His presence?
Without this fear you will make the wrong decisions, you will choose the wrong path, you will mess up your life. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
2. Fearing the Lord will keep you from sin
“Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” Exodus 20:20
If you are in a car and the traffic in front of you suddenly pulls up, you want to be sure your brakes are in good order. Good brakes keep you from disaster.
The fear of the Lord is a brake against sin. It holds you back. To fear the Lord means you learn to act as if you could see the fire on the mountain. You feel an impulse to sin but you say, “How can I do this when God is watching?” The more you know of the fear of the Lord, the stronger your defense against sin will be.
Some of you have come to a place in your life that felt so dark, you thought about taking your own life. The fear of God held you back. Thank God for that.
You knew that death takes you into the presence of God. You have to give an account to Him. The fear of the Lord restrained you. It was the means by which God guarded your life.
I’m glad I learned that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and that “Our God is a consuming fire.” I need that truth as a brake in my life.
3. Fearing the Lord will motivate you in evangelism
“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” 2 Corinthians 5:11
You see what Paul is saying: We have seen the holy fire. We have felt the weight of the judgment that is to come—that is why we have turned to Jesus Christ—and since we know what it is to fear God we try to persuade men. Now fear and love are inseparable companions, so later he says that the love of Christ compels us, but he starts with the fear.
A church that ceases to believe in hell may do a great deal of good in humanitarian and social action. But it will not evangelize for long. Men and women who have seen the fire on the mountain, and have learned the fear of the Lord will be compelled to declare the unique glory of His one and only Son.
4. Fearing the Lord will elevate your worship
“Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” Hebrews 12: 28
Where the fear of the Lord is lost, worship is trivialized and adoration becomes entertainment. But when a congregation becomes gripped with a massive vision of the glory of God, when God’s people say, “We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” worship is lifted and God’s people come before Him with reverence and awe.
5. Fearing the Lord will make you more like Jesus
Did Jesus live in the Fear of the Lord? Listen to these words about Him:
“The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him… the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD–and he will delight in the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2-3). To be filled with the Spirit is to delight in the fear of the Lord.
Professor John Murray says,
“The fear of God is the soul of godliness.” [v]
Do you want to grow in a godly life? There has never been a generation that has been told more that God loves them, and there has never been a generation that feels that God loves them less than this generation.
6. Fearing the Lord will deliver you from other fears
“Blessed is the man who fears the Lord… His heart is secure, he will have no fear.” Psalm 112:1, 8
He will not live in the fear of receiving bad news. Knowing this God and seeing that He is for you puts strength into you to face all other fears. Why? Because if he lives in the fear of the Lord, he will have strength for whatever comes this week.
“Fear Him you saints and you shall than have nothing else to fear.” [vi]
7. Fearing the Lord will lead you to seek the Mediator
“This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer.” Deuteronomy 5:25
After the people said this, they say to Moses, “Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (5:27). Moses had already been acting as their mediator when God gave them the commands, “At that time, I stood between the LORD and you” (5:5).
They want Moses to continue to be their mediator. And Moses says, “The LORD heard you when you spoke to me and the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good’” (5:28). It is good thing that they see the need of a mediator.
When you see the fire on the mountain, when you see the awesome holiness of God, and when you see that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, you will ask, “How can I live in the presence of a holy God who is a consuming fire?” Then you will see that you need a mediator.
The fear of the Lord drives us to Jesus Christ, and the love of Christ leads us further into the fear of the Lord. God has provided a better mediator than Moses. Moses went up into the presence of God. Jesus Christ has come down to us.
We have a better place than Sinai to learn the fear that love brings. That place is called Calvary. When Jesus went to the cross, the fire of God’s judgment on human sin was poured out on Him. He went into the fire for us. He entered our hell on the cross. He rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and then something amazing happened:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. (Acts 2:1-3)
Almighty God is with them. And He does not consume them. They are in Christ. And the presence of the Holy One is with them in love. What do you know of this fear of the Lord in your life? The fear the love brings?
In the book of Psalms, David framed this powerful prayer, “Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). That prayer is answered by this great promise, “They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:38-39).
“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” (Psalm 147:11)
[i] John Newton from the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” 1773
[ii] John Bunyan, “A Treatise on the Fear of God,” from “The Whole Works of John Bunyan,” p. 460, W.G. Blackie & Co. Printers, London, 1862
[iii] David F. Wells, “God in the Wasteland,” p. 91, Wm. B. Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids, 1994
[iv] Philip G. Ryken, “Discovering God in Stories From the Bible,” p. 15-16, P & R Publishing, 2010
[v] John Murray, “Principles of Conduct,” p. 229, Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1991
[vi] Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, from the hymn “Through All the Changing Scenes of Life,” 1698
© Colin S. Smith
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